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’.

Learning from an early encounter with The Power Elite

Ole Johnny Olsen

Subjects: social policy and sociology, sociology and sociological theory


For me, as for most sociologists, the strongest inspiration from Mills stems from The Sociological Imagination, which I first read around 1980 as a master’s student, and which ever since has been a good companion in introductory courses – or elsewhere – when presenting the idea of sociology as an engaged intellectual project, and when arguing for the relevance of a historical approach in sociological analysis. This, however, was not my first encounter with Mills. Already in my third semester as an undergraduate sociology student I was happy to join a course on ‘economy and society’ dealing with – among other themes – the military-industrial complex in the United States. On that course The Power Elite was a central text on the reading list. From my notes (kept, I suppose, for nostalgic reasons) I can see that we spent quite a lot of time on academic discussions of the elitist vs. the pluralist perspective on the development of the relations between the military, the economic, and the political elites. Stanley Lieberson’s (1971) article ‘An empirical study of military-industrial linkages’ in the American Journal of Sociology is carefully commented on. I did try to follow his argument supported by statistical regression analysis for comparing the relevance of the two perspectives. But I don’t think I was very impressed. Much more interest was found in reading C. Wright Mills himself – the main proponent of an ‘elitist’ perspective. Especially chapters 8, 9, and 12 of The Power Elite, dealing with the warlords, the military ascendancy and the power elite in general, were thoroughly read.

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