C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination
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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’.
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Chapter 3: The fate of The Sociological Imagination: Mills, social science and contemporary sociology

Lars Mjøset


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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