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 7: Class, elites and power: a contemporary perspective

John Scott

Subjects: social policy and sociology, sociology and sociological theory


Mills’s work on social stratification, and especially his work on elites, has been enormously influential. In this chapter I want to set out some elaborations of his view and to suggest some connections with aspects of Mills’s work that are generally treated as quite separate from his views on power. I look, in a particular, at his early arguments on ‘vocabularies of motive,’ arguing that these ideas are crucially important for developing a view of the legitimation of power. The idea of vocabularies of motives was set out in one of his earliest papers in 1940 (Mills 1963a), written at a time when he was thoroughly immersed in the pragmatist social philosophy of James, Peirce, and Dewey that he had worked on for his 1942 doctoral dissertation (Mills 1964). This idea was seen as an integral element in the social psychology that he was at the time developing as a basis for a sociology of knowledge. By the time he began to work on stratification he had encountered Hans Gerth and, through him, the work of Max Weber (see Gerth and Mills 1946). The two of them continued to see the social psychology of motives as an essential complement to a structural sociology and set out their joint ideas in a powerful statement of a radical sociology (Gerth and Mills 1953). Mills’s work on social stratification, however, made little direct reference to this, and it has not figured in the arguments of those who have followed him.

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