Sociological Imagination


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Sociological Imagination

  1. 1. Wright Mills Sociological ImaginationWorks Cited Not IncludedIn 1959, C. Wright Mills released a book entitled „The sociologicalImagination‟.It was in this book that he laid out a set of guidelines of how tocarry out social analysis.But for a layman, what does the term „sociological imagination‟actually mean?In his own words, Mills claimed “it is the capacity to shift from oneperspective to another…the capacity to range from the most impersonaland remote transformations to the most intimate features of the humanself – and to see the relations between the two of them.”. Mills believed that being able to see the relationship between theordinary lives of people and the wider social forces was the key tothe sociological imagination.Fundamental to Mills‟ theory is the idea of „public issues‟ and„private troubles‟.An individual‟s troubles are personal when they occur because of theperson‟s character.Public issues, however, are a direct result of the problems withinsociety, they affect people hugely but often the individual willassign the problem as their own personal downfall rather than as asocietal problem.An ordinary man may get depressed about being unemployed andautomatically accept it as his own personal trouble. He will becondemned as being „lazy‟ or „work-shy‟ and labelled simply as a„scrounger‟. However, if there are thousands of other individuals alsounemployed, Mills argues it should then be treated as a „publicissue‟.Another good example of this is divorce. If only a few divorces occurwithin a society than it can be seen as person troubles of the peopleinvolved. If, however, masses of people are getting divorced everyyear than it can be seen as a public issue where institutions likemarriage, law and media need to be looked at.Mills suggested was that these sorts of problems are interwoven withthe large-scale problems of society where government policy may beinvolved and therefore are a „public issue‟.
  2. 2. It is clear from this that what sociology focuses on is the influenceof social forces on behaviour and how individuals and groups respondto these forces.In order to analyse the effects it is important to see the world witha sociological state of mind and “ see it whole.” (Mills.1959.170).It is using this ability to see the bigger picture that sociologicalexplanations can be developed.Some explanations are that of Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist whocame up with a theory for suicide.Durkheim suggested that social forces are responsible for suicides,underlying 4 main causes of suicide to do with social integration andmoral regulation.390The first is Egoistic suicide in which the individual experiences lowlevels of social integration and becomes detached from social groups.Durkheim‟s example of this was of unmarried people, especially males,who had little social support or guidance.The second is Altruistic suicide, which is a result of too much socialintegration. This involved the individual becoming so immersed intheir social group that they lost sight of their individuality,resulting in sacrifice of their own lives. Durkheim‟s example of thiswas members of the military. A modern example would be suicide bomberswho surround terrorism today.The third is Anomic suicide associated with moral regulation. Durkheimsuggested this type was due to a sudden breakdown of social order or adisruption in norms, for example the French revolution and theemergence of a new industrial society.The final type of suicide put forward by Durkheim is fatalisticsuicide. This would occur when the individual was forced to live inunbearable circumstances or lived a very unrewarding life such as aslave.559Durkheim‟s work on suicide demonstrates sociological imagination.In the first chapter of his book, Mills writes that “The sociologicalimagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historicalscene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external
  3. 3. career of a variety of individuals” (Mills. 1959. 12)Many people would argue with Durkheim that suicide is purely apsychological act, but if that is the case then why, as Durkheimquestioned, does the rate of suicide vary between societies? Why dothe rates of suicide vary significantly between different groups insocieties? And why do the rates within groups and societies remainfairly constant over time?Durkheim sought to show that social behaviour and social developmentwas a result of social processes and therefore exercised asociological imagination.673.Sociology is regularly “dismissed as „an endless quest for knowledgeabout trivia‟ and is often criticised as being nothing more than„common sense‟.”(Marsh. 2000. p.9)Common sense is described simply as common knowledge which most peopleassume to be true but has not actually been proven or disproved.„Zigmunt Bauman suggests that in order to think sociologically, wemust move beyond our common sense‟. ( base their ideas on evidence rather than on simpleassumption, and to do this their theories must be analysed and tested.Therefore, although common sense may be at the root of sociology, itis not in fact the same thing.In direct contrast to sociological theories are two main explanations,the „naturalistic‟ and the „individualistic‟.These oppose theories put forward by famous sociologists such asDurkheim and Karl Marx, and contradict Mills‟ ideas surrounding thesociological imagination.These alternative explanations see social behaviour as a result ofinherent and psychological rather than a product of interaction.The naturalistic explanation identifies natural reasons for humanbehaviour such as biological inherent traits and genes. It proposesthat we are like animals, in that we are biologically programmed bynature and governed by instinct (Jones.The naturalistic explanation, for example, would assign war to man‟snatural aggressiveness. It explains marriage by saying that it isnatural for a man and woman to fall in love, settle down, get marriedand have children.
  4. 4. For the man to go out to work, the woman to stay home and care for thechildren, and for the children to want to live at home until roughlythe age of 18. (Jones)The naturalistic explanation claims it is unnatural for any individualnot to have these instincts.The fact that people within a society learn to accept these norms,values and roles (Mills. 29) without ever questioning it is called insociological terms „socialization‟.“Deeply immersed in our daily routines, though, we hardly ever pauseto think about the meaning of what we have gone through: even lessoften have we the opportunity to compare our private experiences withthe fate of others, to see the social in the individual, the generalin the particular, this is precisely what sociologists can do for us.We would them to show us how our individual biographies intertwinewith the history we share with human beings.” (Bauman 1990, quoted inGiddens 1997a: 14)Theorists in the naturalistic explanation such as Edward O. Wilson,Desmond Morris, Konrad Lorenz and Richard Dawkins have used it todevise what is called „sociobiology‟.This explains human social behaviour in terms of biology and evolutionand has explained rape as simple an underlying bio-logic within males.This method of approach directly opposes the concept of sociologicalimagination, the ability “ grasp history and biography and therelations between the two within society.” (Mills. 1959. 12)The other „non-social‟ approach, the individualistic explanation,relies on the idea that behaviour is a product of individualcharacters or abilities suggesting that for instance educationalachievement is the result of higher intelligence.Sociologists would ask why then do children from working class homesdo so badly compared with children from middle class homes? (jones)They argue that it is unrealistic to suggest that having a particularoccupation rather than another will determine the intelligence of yourchild and that educational achievement must therefore be influenced bya child‟s background and social environment.The individualistic approach explains crime in a similar way, thatcriminals are „mad or bad‟, born rather than made.Sociologists point out that the rate of crime convicts is highest
  5. 5. among young working class males, especially blacks.They question as to whether it is really believable that criminalpersonalities are likely to be concentrated within this socialcategory.Sociologists use their sociological imagination to question widelyaccepted facts such as these and therefore perceive „public issues‟and „private troubles‟ as two aspects of a single issue.It is clear that Mills believed that society shaped individuals, buthe also believed that individuals help to shape society.“By the fact of this living, he contributes, however minutely, to theshaping of this society and to the course of its history, even as heis made by society and by its historical push and shove.” (Mills.1959. 12).From this study it has been learned that sociology involvesquestioning the norm.Questioning the norm involves realising that behaviour is primarilysocial rather than biological, and that every day routines arelearned, familiar processes which brainwash people in contributing tothe everyday hamster wheel of life.Functionalism, which was born in the 19th century as a response to a„crisis of order‟, promotes this idea that a functioning and orderlysociety relies on central value system from which individuals derivetheir common values. ()No matter what theory it may be, whether it is a academicallyrecognised study or a moment of realisation by one insignificantindividual, it is generally accepted that a sociological imaginationis required in order to do this, as written in his book Mills statesthat “in order to think sociologically, we need to develop thesociological imagination”, that is, to look beyond the norm and seethe world as an outside observer.An excellent description of sociology is this written by ZygmuntBauman in 1990.“When repeated often enough, things tend to become familiar, andfamiliar things tend are self explanatory, they present no problemsand arouse no curiosity… In an encounter with that familiar worldruled by habits and reciprocally reasserting beliefs, sociology actsas a meddlesome and often irritating stranger. It disturbs thecomfortably quiet way of life by asking questions noone among the„locals‟ remember being asked, let alone answered. Such questions make
  6. 6. evident things into puzzles: they defamiliarize the familiar. Suddenlythe daily way of life must come under scrutiny. It now appears to bejust one of the possible ways of life, not the only, not the „natural‟way of life.” (Bauman 1990, quoted in Giddens 1997).As a personal addition and final thought to this study of thesociological imagination, this quote (above) taken from Bauman will becompared to the modern day, well known film „the matrix‟.The film surrounds the idea that the life we lead as individuals isjust an illusion created to blind people from what is real. Noone everquestions this pretend reality because it is so familiar, normal andtherefore accepted.The true reality of these humans is that they are in actual fact just„human batteries‟, all contributing unknowingly to the so called„machine world‟ of the future, which feeds off their human energy tosustain their existence.This of course in an extremely dramatic, science fiction based, madeup concept quite different from the ideas put forward by sociologistslike Durkheim and Marx.But by reading the above quote, and watching the film, there can beseen an underlying common theme.That the life we are given and expected to accept is not the only oflifeThat it is appropriate to question „why are we here?‟ and „what is ourpurpose?‟It is the latter part of Bauman‟s quote which illustrates this themost.“Suddenly the daily way of life must come under scrutiny…”It is this idea that this hamster wheel way of life is not the onlyway, and not the natural way.The main character of the film „Neo‟ questions the meaning of hisentire existence quoting “I don‟t like the idea that I‟m not incontrol of my life‟ and eventually becomes literally detached from theillusion which is the so called „world‟ in which they live.Although this may be seen as a far fetched connection, it would beinteresting to see if the producers of this film meant it as areference to the sociological idea of norms and deviance.
  7. 7. It can be concluded that the sociological imagination is essentially asociological state of mind. It is a method which sociologists use todeal with the analysis of information.“The quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man andsociety, of biography and history, of self and worth” (Mills. 1959)