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’.

Encountering the sociological imagination

John Scott

Subjects: social policy and sociology, sociology and sociological theory

Extract

Like many people, I encountered C. Wright Mills through The Sociological Imagination. When I began my studies as an undergraduate student in 1968 it was one of the books recommended to us as an introductory guide to what good sociology is all about. Its radical perspective and direct style of writing immediately appealed to me and served to give me a perspective on the social world that has stayed with me ever since. Mills’s view of the intrinsic and essential relationship between social structure, history, and biography gave a view of the discipline that resonated with those things that had drawn me into the subject and still provides a charter for a comprehensive view of sociological understanding. Before engaging with sociology proper I had read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Marx’s Capital. Marx showed the ways in which individuals could be understood as determined yet active products of socially structured economic processes that exist as definite historical stages of social development. Freud showed that individual subjectivity and unconscious processes were an essential for understanding everyday social behaviour. While Mills was no Freudian, his argument did show me how psychological and historical-structural elements could be inter- related. It was only somewhat later, as I read more of his work, that I discovered the particular social-psychological preferences of Mills himself. Through reading The Sociological Imagination I discovered his Character and Social Structure, written with Hans Gerth. The textbooks we used were written from a largely structural-functionalist perspective and aimed at comprehensive empirical description.

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