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 8: Access to power resources and increase of the symbolic body

Daniel Bertaux

Subjects: social policy and sociology, sociology and sociological theory


To any classic European scholar these two sentences would have sounded extremely surprising. Why give ‘biography’ a scientific status equivalent to those of history and social structures? Of course Tocqueville, Marx, Durkheim, Tönnies, Max Weber, Simmel, and Spencer would all have agreed with the idea that one cannot understand a given society without knowing its history. And of course they would have also agreed that a good, thorough study combines the analytic approaches of various disciplines focusing on various types of structures (political, economic, social structures …) with the synthetic one of history. But why put ‘biography’ on the same footing? Perhaps the young Dilthey, with his passion for autobiographies as tools to understand a culture from within, would have found Mills’s phrase interesting. But he was rather alone in this respect; and although the influence of his thought was very strong on the next generation of German scholars, none of his followers, including Weber, took up and developed the idea of using autobiography as a core source of sociological data. Although, after reading Oscar Lewis’s The Children of Sanchez (1961), I developed a keen interest for life stories, and although I tried my best to carve some space for them in the array of legitimate empirical methods – and during the 1970s it was no easy task – I have always wondered exactly what Mills meant to say in the quote above. So this is perhaps the right time to decipher his message; and I will start with this.

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