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’.

The sociological imagination and public sociology

John D. Brewer

Subjects: social policy and sociology, sociology and sociological theory


I first encountered Charles Wright Mills’s work in 1968 when I entered a further-education college in order to study A level sociology, which was then not available in traditional schools, and he has been the star by which I have since plotted my entire sociological career. I believe that sociology has a distinct imagination, in which it explores the intersections between individual lives, social structure, history, and politics. I believe there are no issues that cannot be approached in this way, although this is not to say that sociology always asks the most important questions about them, for despite my strong disciplinary identity, I am not a sociological aggrandizer. Like Mills, I see sociology as an inherently multidisciplinary subject, the least closed and the most open of disciplines. In this respect I am persuaded by his informative second footnote in the first chapter of The Sociological Imagination, where he describes sociology in terms that identify its interdisciplinary character. The working title for the book throughout his letters was ‘The Social Studies’, which I would have much preferred. And I subscribe to the same vision of sociology as Mills, that it has an essentially political task to try to make a difference to, and where possible, improve the lives of ordinary men and women. But all this only makes me more deeply aware of the paradox of the man: his view of sociology fits the mood of our epoch for engagement, for a form of public social science that addresses the real world problems facing twenty-first-century society

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