4 page paper on the Sociological Imagination and the movie THE 13TH

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C. Wright Mills, “The Promise [of Sociology]”
Excerpt from The Sociological Imagination (originally published in 1959)
This classic statement of the basic ingredients of the “sociological imagination” retains its vitality and
relevance today and remains one of the most influential statements of what sociology is all about. In reading,
focus on Mills’ distinction between history and biography and between individual troubles and public issues.
Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday
worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: What ordinary
men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their
visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieux, they
move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and
of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel.
Underlying this sense of being trapped are seemingly impersonal changes in the very structure of continentwide societies. The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure of individual
men and women. When a society is industrialized, a peasant becomes a worker; a feudal lord is liquidated or
becomes a businessman. When classes rise or fall, a man is employed or unemployed; when the rate of
investment goes up or down, a man takes new heart or goes broke. When wars happen, an insurance salesman
becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar man; a wife lives alone; a child grows up without a father.
Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.
Yet men do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional
contradiction. The well-being they enjoy, they do not usually impute to the big ups and downs of the societies
in which they live. Seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the
course of world history, ordinary men do not usually know what this connection means for the kinds of men
they are becoming and for the kinds of history-making in which they might take part. They do not possess the
quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world.
They cannot cope with their personal troubles in such ways as to control the structural transformations that
usually lie behind them.
Surely it is no wonder. In what period have so many men been so totally exposed at so fast a pace to such
earthquakes of change? That Americans have not known such catastrophic changes as have the men and
women of other societies is due to historical facts that are now quickly becoming “merely history.” The history
that now affects every man is world history…..
The very shaping of history now outpaces the ability of men to orient themselves in accordance with cherished
values….Is it any wonder that ordinary men feel they cannot cope with the larger worlds with which they are so
suddenly confronted? That they cannot understand the meaning of their epoch for their own lives?…Is it any
wonder that they come to be possessed by a sense of the trap?
It is not only information they need–in this Age of Fact, information often dominates their attention and
overwhelms their capacities to assimilate it….What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of
mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of
what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves. It is this quality, I am going to
contend, that journalists and scholars, artists and publics, scientists and editors are coming to expect of what
may be called the sociological imagination.
The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its
meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account
how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social
positions. Within that welter, the framework of modern society is sought, and within that framework the
psychologies of a variety of men and women are formulated. By such means the personal uneasiness of
individuals is focused upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is transformed into involvement
with public issues.
C. Wright Mills, “The Promise [of Sociology]”
Excerpt from The Sociological Imagination (originally published in 1959)
The first fruit of this imagination–and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it–is the idea that the
individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his
period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his
circumstances. In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one. We do not know the
limits of man’s capacities for supreme effort or willing degradation, for agony or glee, for pleasurable brutality
or the sweetness of reason. But in our time we have come to know that the limits of ‘human nature’ are
frighteningly broad. We have come to know that every individual lives, from one generation to the next, in
some society; that he lives out a biography, and that he lives it out within some historical sequence. By the fact
of his living he contributes, however minutely, to the shaping of this society and to the course of its history,
even as he is made by society and by its historical push and shove.
The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two
within society. That is its task and its promise. To recognize this task and this promise is the mark of the
classic social analyst. It is characteristic of Herbert Spencer-turgid, polysyllabic, comprehensive; of E. A.
Ross-graceful, muckraking, upright; of Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim; of the intricate and subtle Karl
Mannheim. It is the quality of all that is intellectually excellent in Karl Marx; it is the clue to Thorstein
Veblen’s brilliant and ironic insight, to Joseph Schumpeter’s many-sided constructions of reality; it is the basis
of the psychological sweep of W.E.H. Lecky no less than of the profundity and clarity of Max Weber. And it is
the signal of what is best in contemporary studies of man and society.
No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history and of their intersections
within a society has completed its intellectual journey. Whatever the specific problems of the classic social
analysts, however limited or however broad the features of social reality they have examined, those who have
been imaginatively aware of the promise of their work have consistently asked three sorts of questions:
(1) What is the structure of this particular society as a whole? What are its essential components, and how are
they related to one another? How does it differ from other varieties of social order? Within it, what is the
meaning of any particular feature for its continuance and for its change?
(2) Where does this society stand in human history? What are the mechanics by which it is changing? What is
its place within and its meaning for the development of humanity as a whole? How does any particular feature
we are examining affect, and how is it affected by, the historical period in which it moves? And this periodwhat are its essential features? How does it differ from other periods? What are its characteristic ways of
(3) What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this period? And what varieties are
coming to prevail? In what ways are they selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and
blunted? What kinds of ‘human nature’ are revealed in the conduct and character we observe in this society in
this period? And what is the meaning for ‘human nature’ of each and every feature of the society we are
Whether the point of interest is a great power state or a minor literary mood, a family, a prison, a creed-these
are the kinds of questions the best social analysts have asked. They are the intellectual pivots of classic studies
of man in society-and they are the questions inevitably raised by any mind possessing the sociological,
imagination. For that imagination is the capacity to shift from one perspective to another-from the political to
the psychological; from examination of a single family to comparative assessment of the national budgets of
the world; from the theological school to the military establishment; from considerations of an oil industry to
studies of contemporary poetry. It is the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote
transformations to the most intimate features of the human self and to see the relations between the two. Back
of its use there is always the urge to know the social and historical meaning of the individual in the society and
in the period in which he has his quality and his being.
That, in brief, is why it is by means of the sociological imagination that men now hope to grasp what is going
on in the world, and to understand what is happening in themselves as minute points of the intersections of
C. Wright Mills, “The Promise [of Sociology]”
Excerpt from The Sociological Imagination (originally published in 1959)
biography and history within society….. They acquire a new way of thinking, they experience a transvaluation
of values: in a word, by their reflection and by their sensibility, they realize the cultural meaning of the social
Perhaps the most fruitful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is between ‘the personal
troubles of milieu’ and ‘the public issues of social structure.’ This distinction is an essential tool of the
sociological imagination and a feature of all classic work in social science.
Troubles occur within the character of the individual and within the range of his immediate relations with
others; they have to do with his self and with those limited areas of social life of which he is directly and
personally aware. Accordingly, the statement and the resolution of troubles properly lie within the individual
as a biographical entity and within the scope of his immediate milieu-the social setting that is directly open to
his personal experience and to some extent his willful activity. A trouble is a private matter: values cherished
by an individual are felt by him to be threatened.
Issues have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the range of his
inner life. They have to do with the organization of many such milieux into the institutions of an historical
society as a whole, with the ways in which various milieux overlap and interpenetrate to form the larger
structure of social and historical life. An issue is a public matter: some value cherished by publics is felt to be
threatened. Often there is a debate about what that value really is and about what it is that really threatens it.
This debate is often without focus if only because it is the very nature of an issue, unlike even widespread
trouble, that it cannot very well be defined in terms of the immediate and everyday environments of ordinary
men. An issue, in fact, often involves a crisis in institutional arrangements, and often too it involves what
Marxists call ‘contradictions’ or ‘antagonisms.’
In these terms, consider unemployment. When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his
personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate
opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue,
and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very
structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible
solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the
personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.
Consider war. The personal problem of war, when it occurs, may be how to survive it or how to die in it with
honor; how to make money out of it; how to climb into the higher safety of the military apparatus; or how to
contribute to the war’s termination. In short, according to one’s values, to find a set of milieux and within it to
survive the war or make one’s death in it meaningful. But the structural issues of war have to do with its
causes; with what types of men it throws up into command; with its effects upon economic and political,
family and religious institutions, with the unorganized irresponsibility of a world of nation-states.
Consider marriage. Inside a marriage a man and a woman may experience personal troubles, but when the
divorce rate during the first four years of marriage is 250 out of every 1,000 attempts, this is an indication of a
structural issue having to do with the institutions of marriage and the family and other institutions that bear
upon them…
What we experience in various and specific milieux, I have noted, is often caused by structural changes.
Accordingly, to understand the changes of many personal milieux we are required to look beyond them. And
the number and variety of such structural changes increase as the institutions within which we live become
more embracing and more intricately connected with one another. To be aware of the idea of social structure
and to use it with sensibility is to be capable of tracing such linkages among a great variety of milieux. To be
able to do that is to possess the sociological imagination…..

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