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 6: C. Wright Mills and the contemporary challenge of biographical methods

Mike Savage

Subjects: social policy and sociology, sociology and sociological theory


In the first decades of the twenty-first century, C. Wright Mills has re-emerged as an inspiring figure for new generations of sociologists (see for instance, Gane 2011; Back and Gane 2012; Kerr 2008). In this chapter I argue that as a critical commentator on the rise of new forms of bureaucratized social science at its inception, he presented a set of critical resources which offer renewed appeal and insight at the moment that the nature of social science is once again being rethought in the context of digitalization and the proliferation of social data. I argue that Mills’s fundamental concerns to relate history to sociology, to link the individual and social change, although laudable general aims which are widely shared by theorists of different hues, proved difficult to redeem in practice at the time he was writing because the methodological developments of the time were pushing firmly to separate out these different dimensions. His own defence of the intellectual craft of sociology might also seem to fly in the face of modern, scientific developments which attracted many sociologists of the 1950s and 1960s. However, I provocatively argue that Mills’s moment may be re-emerging. New developments in research methods, and new types of ‘mixed methods,’ offer the potential for finding more practical ways of linking the individual and society. I also explore how these methods themselves draw on intellectual resources close to Mills’s heart, notably concerns with pragmatism, and cross-fertilize with new currents of research in social stratification.

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