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 4: Contextualizing lives: the history–biography dynamic revisited

Ann Nilsen and Julia Brannen

Subjects: social policy and sociology, sociology and sociological theory


Starting from Mills’s ideas about a sociology that takes both biography and history into consideration, this chapter will examine some of the popular approaches and debates in contemporary sociology. Our main concern is to consider some of these theories and their associated conceptual apparatus in historical context in order to understand how they have come to gain such widespread recognition. We will argue that some notions and concepts obscure rather than illuminate the history– biography dynamic. Drawing on Mills’s discussion about groups of concepts together forming vocabularies, we will discuss the vocabularies associated with notions such as ‘late modernity’ and ‘individualization’ against the backdrop of the type of specific contextualized framework that Mills’s writings inspire. We start with a discussion of how Mills’s contextualized understanding of sets of concepts as vocabularies can help to illuminate the contemporary fascination with non-specific terms to indicate period-specific conditions. We also draw on insights from historians who criticize these epochal terms for being so wide-sweeping and generalized as to obscure important dimensions of the contemporary world. One of the notions associated with theories of late modernity is the individualization thesis. A brief description of this popular thesis as formulated in the writings of Ulrich Beck, in particular, follows. A further section examines aspects of the history–biography dynamic in relation to the agency–structure divide at a conceptual level, and explores how the wider historical circum- stances in the 1980s and 1990s can help understand why this thesis came to enjoy the popularity it did.

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