C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination

C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination

Contemporary Perspectives

Edited by John Scott and Ann Nilsen

C. Wright Mills is one of the towering figures in contemporary sociology and his writings continue to be of great relevance to the social science community. Generations of sociology students have enjoyed learning about the discipline from reading his best known book The Sociological Imagination. Over the years the title has become a term in itself with a variety of interpretations, many far removed from the original. The chapters in Part One of this book begins with general issues around the nature and significance of the sociological imagination, continue through discussions of modes of theorising and historical explanation, the relationship between history and biography, and the intellectual and political relationship of Mills to Marxism. They conclude with considerations on issues of class, power, and warfare. Part Two of the book includes a series of reflections from scholars who were invited to give personal thoughts on the impact of Mills’s writings in their sociological work, with particular attention to their own ‘biography and history’.

Chapter 1: The Sociological Imagination, ‘On intellectual craftsmanship’ and Mills’s influence on research methods

Jennifer Platt

Subjects: social policy and sociology, sociology and sociological theory


This chapter is concerned with Mills’s thought on research methods and its influence. Although it is clear that Mills’s central interests were not in method as such, he had strong views on some methodological topics, most clearly and systematically expressed in The Sociological Imagination (SI), so this chapter focuses on that. As we all know, Mills was already famous – and in the eyes of some notorious – when in 1959 The Sociological Imagination reached publication, and some of its themes had already been introduced in earlier works. What was the audience that Mills targeted in this book? That does not seem altogether clear. His earlier books had aimed at a general audience wider than that of professional sociologists, and had sales which indicated his success in reaching their targets. But a book specifically about sociology, rather than the wider society, must surely be aimed mainly at fellow social scientists? He does not say so in his first chapter, but there and later he implicitly takes for granted the consider- able general background knowledge of current sociology that is needed to understand his references, as he develops a strong critique of key contemporary theoretical and methodological styles. In the appendix ‘On intellectual craftsmanship’ he made detailed suggestions on procedure in sociological work, particularly aimed at graduate students. However, the emphasis in the book on going beyond personal troubles is put as if this were a novel idea, while surely the emphasis on looking for larger causal structures was hardly original for a sociological audience.

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