Edited by John Scott and Ann Nilsen
Chapter 3: The fate of The Sociological Imagination: Mills, social science and contemporary sociology
The Sociological Imagination was an unfortunate choice of title. To Mills, SI was not about sociology as a discipline, it was about a ‘style of work’ that he found also in the other social sciences and in history. Mills challenged the discipline of sociology. His attacks on Lazarsfeld- type abstracted empiricism and Parsonian grand theory countered the two major attempts to define the identity of sociology as a thoroughly ‘scientific’ discipline in the 1940s and 1950s. Mills wanted to defend social science against this trend towards disciplinary closure, sensing that his own discipline played a leading role: Should these two styles of work – abstracted empiricism and grand theory – come to enjoy an intellectual ‘duopoly’, or even become the predominant styles of work, they would constitute a grievous threat to the intellectual promise of social science and as well to the political promise of the role of reason in human affairs – as that role has been classically conceived in the civilization of the Western societies. (pp. 131f.) There are two promises here, and we shall call them programmes. On the one hand, Mills links the sociological imagination to an ‘intellectual promise’ internal to the academic sphere of higher education and research. On the other hand, he links it to an external ‘promise’ related to Western civilization. Mills would suggest the internal programme to any aspiring social scientists as an account – contrasted to abstracted empiricism/grand theory – of how research may best be carried out:
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