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Critical Reflection on the Sociological Imagination by C. W. Mill

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This essay briefly explains the first chapter of C. W. Mills’ book, The Sociological Imagination – The Promise. Different perspectives and opinions I have on this chapter and certain topics in this chapter are also included.

In basic terms, “Sociology is the study of human social relationships and institutions “ as stated by The University of North Carolina (UNC), or it is “the study of society, a social science involving the study of the social lives of people, groups and societies or the study of our behavior as social beings, covering everything from the analysis of short contacts between anonymous individuals on the street to the study of global social processes” as said by the American Sociological Association.

The sociological imagination however is different. It is a concept used by the American sociologist and the author of this book, Charles Wright Mills, to describe the ability to “think yourself away from the familiar routines of everyday life and look at them from an entirely new perspective”. Mills also defined the sociological imagination as “the vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society” in 1959.

“Men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps; limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in another milieu, they move vicariously and remain spectators.” Throughout this entire chapter, Mills focuses on ordinary men and how their lives are emotional and difficult in different situations and different times. “Ordinary men do not usually know what this connection means for the kinds of men they are becoming and for the kinds of history-making in which they might take part; they do not process the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world”.

In our society, men are often portrayed as strong, brave, sorted, stable and intelligent as opposed to what Mills would portray men as. In earlier times, men were thought to be the foundation of a family, the one who brings the income to the house and the one who provides everything to survive; not clueless, emotional, hopeless or inadequate like how Mills believed they were.

‘Herbert Spencer, E. A. Ross, August Comte, Emile Durkheim, Karl Manheim, Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, W. E. H. Lecky and Max Weber’ are prominent social analysts whom Mills have mentioned in his book on page 6. ‘People who have been aware of the promise of their work have consistently asked three sorts of questions: 1) What is the structure of this particular society as a whole? 2) Where does this society stand in human history, and 3) What varieties of man and women now prevail in this society and in this period?’ , as stated extensively in pages 6 through to 7.

These are questions that are said to be unavoidable by any mind possessing the sociological imagination. Like how Mills would frame it; “imagination is the capacity to shift from one perspective to another -from the political to the psychological; it is the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self -and to see the relations between the two”.

“The personal troubles of milieu and the public issues of social structure”. As Mills would define it, “troubles occur within the character of the individual and within the range of his immediate relations with others; issues have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the range of his inner life”. In my opinion, troubles are basically personal and comes from within oneself. It is based on characteristics and experience of one whereas issues on the other hand are to do with the public and the environment around us which somehow involves us too in one way or another. As said by Mills in page 9, “an issue often involves a crisis in institutional arrangements, and it involves what Marxists call ‘contradictions’ or antagonisms’.

Consider unemployment. Like mentioned in the book written by Mills, when out of a million people, one person is unemployed, it is his own personal trouble. It may be of different reasons like his personality issues or troubles like drug/alcohol abuse, anger management, health problems, and work inadequacy or even handicap in some situations, but “when out of 50 billion employees, 15 million men are unemployed it becomes an issue”. This kind of unemployment becomes a social issue and effects people individually as well as a society in whole. Examples of this type of unemployment could be recession; when the economy of a certain country is very low, and employees are let go; when a certain company or a chain of companies are shut down due to poor performance in the market or when the market does not respond positively/ lack of business.

Consider war. During war, the personal problems of an individual would be ‘how to survive it’ or ‘how to die in it with honor’ or for others it could be ‘how to make money out of it’. The social issues during war would be ‘effects upon economic and political or family and religious institutions’ as discussed in page 9 by Mills.

During the times of 1959; when this book was published; it was an unsaid notion that in families the women were considered more like slaves who took care of the men and the children and the men were the real heroes who would bring money to the household for their survival. It was forbidden or illicit for women to work in any other manner except for what was to be done in the house and for the men. It was during the times of war when this custom started to change in certain places. When it was mandatory that and all men were obliged to go to fight in the war, women had to take their place at work and learn their jobs for the well-being and welfare of their families.

Mills explicitly declares in page 18 of his book, that it his aim in this book is to define the meaning of social sciences for the cultural tasks of our time. He wants to specify the kinds of effort that lie behind the development of sociological imagination; to indicate its implications for political as well as for cultural life; and perhaps to suggest something of what is required to posses it. In these ways, he wants to make clear the nature and the uses of the social sciences today, and to give a limited account of their contemporary condition in the United States.

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