Sociological Imagination

What you’ll learn to do: define the sociological imagination and apply it in a variety of contexts

A woman stands in the foreground holding a black and orange protest sign that reads "Jobs, Education, Healthcare".

Figure 1. Sociological imagination is making the connection between personal challenges and larger social issues. Occupy Wall Street protestors viewed the difficulty in finding jobs as connected to the larger U.S. social issue of increasing economic inequality. (Photo courtesy of David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)

The sociological imagination allows us to grasp the interconnectedness of history and biography. This section will introduce you to C. Wright Mills and his concept of the sociological imagination. The readings and videos will also provide a number of examples for us to explore how the sociological imagination can help us make sense of issues like obesity or the rising cost of college textbooks.

Learning Outcomes

  • Define the sociological imagination
  • Apply the sociological imagination
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.

Figure 2. The sociological imagination enables you to look at your life and your own personal issues and relate them to other people, history, or societal structures.

Many people believe they understand the world and the events taking place within it, even though they have not actually engaged in a systematic attempt to understanding the social world, as sociologists do. In this section, you’ll learn to think like a sociologist.

The sociological imagination, a concept established by C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) provides a framework for understanding our social world that far surpasses any common sense notion we might derive from our limited social experiences. Mills 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”[1]. 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’ 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 their personal experiences and the larger society in which they live their lives.

Personal troubles are private problems experienced within the character of the individual and the range of their immediate relation to others. Mills identified 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 on the outcome of matters within this 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 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 broader matters of organization and process, which are rooted in society rather than in the individual. Nationwide, students come to college as freshmen who are often 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 in college. Nationwide, the average teenager text messages, surfs the Net, plays video games, watches TV, 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?

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. This includes economic challenges. For example, many students do not purchase required textbooks for college classes at both 2-year colleges and 4-year colleges and universities. Many students simply do not have the money to purchase textbooks, and while this can seem like a “choice,” some of the related social issues include rising tuition rates, decreasing financial aid, increasing costs of living and decreasing wages. The Open Educational Resource (OER) movement has sought to address this personal trouble as a public issue by partnering with institutional consortia and encouraging large city and state institutions to adopt OER materials. A student who does not purchase the assigned textbook might see this as a private problem, but this student is part of a growing number of college students who are forced to make financial decisions based on structural circumstances.

Try It

A majority of personal problems are not experienced as exclusively personal issues, but are influenced and affected by social norms, habits, and expectations. Consider issues like homelessness, crime, divorce, and access to healthcare. Are these all caused by personal choices, or by societal problems? Using the sociological imagination, we can view these issues as interconnected personal and public concerns.

For example, homelessness may be blamed on the individuals who are living on the streets. Perhaps their personal choices influenced their position; some would say they are lazy, unmotivated, or uneducated. This approach of blaming the victim fails to account for the societal factors that also lead to homelessness—what types of social obstacles and social failings might push someone towards homelessness? Bad schools, high unemployment, high housing costs, and little family support are all social issues that could contribute to homelessness. C. Wright Mills, who originated the concept of the sociological imagination, explained it this way: “the very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.”

WAtch It

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

Try It

Glossary

personal troubles:
private problems experienced by one individual and the range of their immediate relation to others
public issues:
issues that lie beyond one’s personal control and the range of one’s inner life, rooted in society instead of at the individual level
sociological imagination:
the use of imaginative thought to understand the relationship between the individual (personal troubles) and the broader workings of society (public issues)

 


  1. Mills, C. W.: 1959, The Sociological Imagination, Oxford University Press, London.