Reading: Defining the Sociological Imagination

Psychology gave us the understanding of self-esteem; economics gave us the understanding of supply and demand; political science gave us the understanding of polling; and physics gave us Einstein’s theory of E = MC2. The sociological imagination by Mills provides a framework for understanding our social world that far surpasses any common sense notion we might derive from our limited social experiences.Graphic showing the form of a person, standing on a dot in the center of a wheel, with lines connecting him to nine other people, each standing on their own colored dots. C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) was a contemporary sociologist who brought tremendous insight into the daily lives of society’s members. Mills stated: “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” The sociological imagination is making the connection between personal challenges and larger social issues. Mills identified “troubles” (personal challenges) and “issues” (larger social challenges), also known as biography, and history, respectively. Mills’ conceptualization of the sociological imagination allows individuals to see the relationships between events in their personal lives, biography, and events in their society, history. In other words, this mindset provides the ability for individuals to realize the relationship between personal experiences and the larger society.

Personal troubles are private problems experienced within the character of the individual and the range of their immediate relation to others. Mills identified the fact that we function in our personal lives as actors and actresses who make choices about our friends, family, groups, work, school, and other issues within our control. We have a degree of influence in the outcome of matters within the personal level. A college student who parties 4 nights out of 7, who rarely attends class, and who never does his homework has a personal trouble that interferes with his odds of success in college. However, when 50% of all college students in the United States never graduate, we label it as being a larger social issue.

Larger social or public issues are those that lie beyond one’s personal control and the range of one’s inner life. These pertain to society’s organizations and processes; further, these are rooted in society rather than in the individual. Nationwide, students come to college as freshmen ill-prepared to understand the rigors of college life. They haven’t often been challenged enough in high school to make the necessary adjustments required to succeed as college students. Nationwide, the average teenager text messages, surfs the Net, plays video or online games, hangs out at the mall, watches TV and movies, spends hours each day with friends, and works at least part-time. Where and when would he or she get experience focusing attention on college studies and the rigorous self-discipline required to transition into college credits, a quarter or a semester, study, papers, projects, field trips, group work, or test taking?

The real power of the sociological imagination is found in how we learn to distinguish between the personal and social levels in our own lives. Once we do, we can make personal choices that serve us best, given the larger social forces that we face. In 1991, Ron graduated with his Ph.D. and found himself in a very competitive job market for University professor/researcher positions. With hundreds of job applications out there, he kept finishing second or third and was losing out to 10-year veteran professors who applied for entry-level jobs. Ron looked carefully at the job market, his deep interest in teaching, the struggling economy, and his sense of urgency in obtaining a salary and benefits. He came to the decision to switch his job search focus from university research to college teaching positions. Again the competition was intense. On his 301st job application (that’s not an exaggeration) he beat out 47 other candidates for his current position. In this case, knowing and seeing the larger social troubles impacted his success or failure in finding a position. Because he used his sociological imagination, Ron was empowered by an understanding of the job market, so was able to best situate himself within it.


Video: Applying the Sociological Imagination

Watch the following video to see an example of how the sociological imagination is used to understand the issue of obesity.


Self-Check: The Sociological Imagination