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 2: C. Wright Mills and the necessity of history

Krishan Kumar

Subjects: social policy and sociology, sociology and sociological theory

Extract

‘Sociology is history with the hard work left out; history is sociology with the brains left out’ (Macrae 1975, p. 10). This bon mot of the LSE sociologist Donald MacRae may seem a little harsh on both parties. But like all such extreme statements it contains a nugget of truth. For many sociologists with an interest in history, and a conviction of its necessity, sociology has seemed a way of doing history by other – less painful or laborious – means. One relies on the historians as the honest day- labourers toiling in the archives, bringing to light hard-won facts and findings which the sociologist can then, with a brilliant flourish, airily spin into interesting theories and generalizations. On the other side, historians have often been content to leave ‘theory’ to the social scientists, insisting on the primacy of narrative, if not story-telling. They are suspicious of historians who call upon theory, seeing it as a short-handed abridgement of what is necessarily a long and tortuous process of telling, in which chance and contingency play a major role. Marxist historians have often been the objects of this charge, but so too have liberal ‘Whig historians’, as castigated by Herbert Butterfield 1951). Most venomous have been the attacks on ‘philosophers of history’, such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, who are seen as having betrayed the very profession of history by their reaching after impossibly large-scale theories of civilizational cycles of rise, decline, and fall (see, for example, Geyl 1955, pp. 91–178; Manuel 1965, pp. 136–62; Mazlish 1966).

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