Sociological Imagination

The sociological imagination is the ability to look beyond one’s own everyday life as a cause for daily successes and failures and see the entire society in which one lives as potential cause for these things. It is described by C. Wright Mills in 1959 as a enabling “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”. Mills goes on to describe people as being “Seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history, ordinary people do not usually know what this connection means for the kinds of people 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 individuals and society, of biography and history, of self and world.”

Having sociological imagination is critical for individual people and societies at large to understand. It is important that people are able to relate the situations in which they live their daily lives to the local, national, and global societal issues that affect them. Without the ability to make these relations, people are unable to see societal issues that affect them and are unable to determine if these issues require change to better their everyday lives.

Throughout history different societies and nations have obtained different levels of social imagination. Some societies have never had it, others have obtained and lost it, while others have obtained it and thrived on it. The societies that have not obtained it or that have lost it are usually within nations that have suffered ongoing persecution, poverty, and social injustice. The societies that have obtained it and thrived on it are usually within the nations with the most freedoms and with the most advanced cultures. This theme is discussed in Linda Schneider and Arnold Silverman’s book Global Sociology: Introducing Five Contemporary Societies Fourth Edition.

The societies that have lacked sociological imagination have experienced ruling regimes as the norm and individuals live within the same humble confines that have plagued them for centuries. These societies have lagged behind what we think of as modern cultures. Industrialization, freedom, and equality are all things that the individuals in these societies lack or are just beginning to obtain. An example of this theme from Global Sociology is found in a discussion of Mexico in the second chapter of the book, the people of Mexico have lived under ever changing regime’s for centuries. From the Mayan and Aztec rulers, to the Spanish rulers, to the corrupt government of today, the people of Mexico have lived under autocratic rulers as poor slaves. The only attempt at social imagination was through a small revolution to gain independence from foreign rule, only to succumb to local government treating the people in the same manner.

This kind of example is echoed through many countries across the world. Egypt suffers from this same lack of social imagination as discussed in chapter four. Their culture, religion, and world view has changed through every religious hand over the last several centuries, again culminating in a revolution that has placed them under their own leader taking advantage of them in the same way as all the previous rulers. The Bushmen of Namibia suffered through numerous outside rulers replacing each other, first Germany, then Great Britain, and finally their own internally corrupt government not leaving the natural resources to the native inhabitants of the country. This is another example discussed in Chapter three of Schneider and Silverman’s book.

Throughout time this has been a common theme and in nations where social imagination has been recognized, individuals have found the root of their problems in the lack of change and governance that they live through every day. In nations where sociological imagination is prevalent such as Japan and the United States of America, social imagination has inspired momentous changes to the culture and to way of life.

This contrasting view is apparent in everyday life in the United States. Men and Women have equal rights, Slavery does not exist, religious freedom is a reality, and the ability for poor people to change their outlook is a reality. This is primarily due to the people of the United States embracing sociological imagination after the countries revolution and recognizing the affects of external forces, such as government, economic models, and global trade.

This opposing theme of sociological imagination is again exampled in Schneider and Silverman’s book in the discussion of Japan during the first chapter. Japan was in a unique position to control its interactions with outside nations through most of its history. This lead to Japan’s ability to consume the cultures, economic models, and political models that it desired from other nations and transform its own culture to thrive with western views.

This is certainly not to say that societies without sociological imagination are bad or will never obtain it. It is to say that there are obvious advantages of understanding the causes of one’s position in the world and what can be done to change that position past personal adjustment.

Works CitedMills, C. Wright The Sociological Imagination, 1959

Schneider, Linda & Silverman, Arnold Global Sociology: Introducing Five Contemporary Societies 4 e. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006

Comments (0)

  1. Marc Farley

    Josh, this is an interesting topic, thanks for posting. The question I have is how do we try to create socialogical imagination in a world where national boundaries and resource allocation are so strongly imprinted? The sources you cited portray a dichotemy of societal (approximations of a nations) and global (one human family) contexts. It is truly puzzling trying to figure out how we might be able to stop genocide in Darfur when a (slim) majority of us in the US recently approved a reckless war in Iraq that most of us now want to run away from. At some level we are truly confused and challenged by our visions. The notion of global, human responsibility seems to be extremely difficult to grasp- perhaps because we do not associate primarily with belonging to a global society, but instead belonging to distinct, provincial cultures. Socialogical imagination in the United States was developed through the leadership and amazing vision of people like Thomas Jefferson – a person that owned a large number of slave in his lifetime. The personal freedoms he envisioned and slavery are very difficult to reconcile, regardless of the historical context, which is no excuse for the atrocity of slavery. So what are the keys to change? I don’t know, but I believe that knowledge, awareness and brutal honesty might be the tools. Of course, most of us don’t like brutal honesty very much, which makes it hard to have a real examination of ethics. There are too many brute force instincts getting in the way. I don’t think the human race will be able to make the next step in socialogical imagination until we can get some unity on the personal importance of ethical action.

  2. Sue

    Nice! One never knows what to expect when plugging “sociological imagination” into a search engine.

  3. natalie

    u need to fix ur page u have things on top another things! cant understand It cant read it who the hell thought u had to do websites!!?? FIX IT NOW!!

  4. bhem luza

    you’ve made it.! you are good at it. you did help me.

  5. bhem luza

    i realized something by just reading your articles about it. i had read some of Mr. Mills books…..

  6. ashley

    Hey natalie… learn how to spell, you sound like an idiot, criticizing this article, when you are too illiterate to even spell taught. T_A_U_G_H_T. Taught!

  7. Lynne

    I agree with your comments about the sociological imagination offering better understanding of social inequality, and hopefully this better understanding would lead to overcoming the equalities that are still prevalent. However, I would question whether the sociological imagination has in deed overcome gender inequality and cyclical poverty in the United States. Simply giving a person equal rights does not mean that they have equality of life – there are still social structures in place (harder to see than the previous ones) that continue to cause inequality in the opportunities available to women. Also, there may have been changes made to make it easier for a person to climb out of poverty, but this does not mean they have the ability to. If this was the case, why are so many people still living in poverty?
    There is still work to be done, but I agree that some countries are certainly better than others and more consideration is needed to combat the negative effects of globalization and the resulting exploitation.

  8. belladonna

    Just thought you might want to know – your blog was cited as a reference to a discussion question in an online sociology class for Wenatchee Valley College.

    I was intrigued to be led to this post because of your references to Egypt. I spent some time there last year. I think it is inaccurate to characterize the society as a whole as being incapable of Sociological Imagination. I certainly met individuals there who very much understood the impact of history and world events in influencing their lives.

    Furthermore, you state that in the United States “Men and Women have equal rights, Slavery does not exist, religious freedom is a reality, and the ability for poor people to change their outlook is a reality. ”

    Try reading Kevin Bales book “Disposable People” about the new slavery that is alive and well TODAY or check current statistics on wage gap between men and women for same work before you paint such a glowing picture.

    We have PLENTY of people in the USA who are clueless when it comes to Sociological Imagination. We also have some that get it. While I would agree that there is some merit in recognizing that certain cultures in general foster or limit SI to varying degrees, I think the sweeping statements you make without evidence just contributes to more stereotype.

  9. Melissa

    I have to write a paper on the Sociological Imagination. My direction are to think of some kind of trouble,or issue that I see in the world today then describe what a sociological imagination might help us to understand about the trouble or issue.I have had a hard time with this class and I am wondering if someone could point me in some direction?

  10. esi

    the article is eye opening keep it up

  11. Bukeka Mkhosi

    What is important to know is that there is a historical dimension to the act of drinking coffee.The Sociological Imagination gives us “new perspectives on what social beings do and why they do it”.

  12. steve

    excellent piece.

  13. Josh Maher

    Thank you all for your comments, I am glad that you have cited my work or otherwise enjoy the piece. Please keep the questions and feedback coming.

  14. Kimberly

    VERY nicely done! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  15. shaikh nazeer ahmed

    For Sociaology imgination everybody should think and start to
    betterment of mankind in the world, verynice concept for the
    socioligy aspect

  16. Aklilu

    sir, do you think that Sociological Imagination explains the current economic crisis ?

  17. joshmaher

    Nope, I don’t think that it could. I do think that a better examination of history could have prevented the situation. Too many products were created and rated as low risk or sold without their risk being rated based on assumptions that were untested and not based on historical truths that have always proven true.

    I am not saying that you can judge future performance based on past activities, but it is possible to know that everytime a new product is created that artificially inflates the value of anything, it creates a bubble that pops.

  18. Ruben Becerra

    I needed to do a small report on sociological imagination. After reading just the first paragraph, it gave me an understanding of it right away. Thanks for the article.

  19. Hadi

    I beg to differ with the answer that sociological imagination had nothing to do with the current global crisis. I want to believe that it has – in my view the pressure for human beings to become capitalist and grab the possessions they cannot afford has driven us to this mess. The first world has propagated the culture of owning more and more without taking care of the crumbling boundaries that are necessary to curb increased spending. Perhaps it would be beneficial to link this to Marx’s theories.

  20. alexa.

    you’re concept was really good it help me widen my knowledge regarding about the said topic. our teacher ask us to do a reaction paper regarding sociological imagination by wright mills , thanks to you i did it well.

  21. Jack

    Excellent piece. i am currently reading mills work and am a little thrown off by the tone of his work. I am unsure whether it is fair to say that the sociological imagination is a relevant factor in the progression of all societies. Mills work , as far as im aware is based upon Western , predominantly American society. (please correct me if im wrong, as i have only just started studying Mills work) If this is the case could it be seen that other societies have progressed to similar levels as say the US, as a result of a different pheonomena. For example, in light of the nature of the sociological imagination, could you say that perhaps individuals in today’s developing societies now not only take on biography and history but also as a result of factors such as globalization, are perhaps forced into adopting a western and particularly American/European way of life? So perhaps the sociological imagination of today isn’t one of purely concious activity, is there now a style of society that developing nations are adopting purely because of an ever more ‘global economy’? So in essence, people are aware of the the relaionship between individual and society, but in effect can have very little say , or involvment?

  22. josh maher

    Interesting point Jack, I appreciate you bringing them here as I hadn’t thought of this previously…

    I don’t think that having Sociological Imagination necessitates having a say or involvement in shaping things beyond oneself; however, it does mean that an awareness of the influences is present and therefore an opportunity to change ones own actions is present.

    In many eastern societies, this capability existed far before the western ones, there are many advances eastern cultures had well before the west was, well – “the west”.

    In reference to current developing countries – I definitely think that western culture has an influence. Look at developing African countries where western influence is working to spawn entrepreneurealism through microfinance. These are definitely ideas that are beyond easy recognition of the masses there. Time will tell if these are a positive or negative impact, but they are definitely a forced sociological imagination.

  23. shelina prescott

    Social understanding and the responsibility for our children and preparing our youth as a whole and realizing the capability, for growth within the community. How will we influence each other ? Influence continues into motivation, and then this manifests action, what motivates the next generation towards intelligent, positive goals? How will we manipulate tomorrows youth based on relating interests and how do we develope techniques to properly teach. This is where I would incorporate social imagination. Imagination is limitless, an example would be to consider the sub conscious mind as an inspiring method….

  24. shelinaprescott

    I love the ability to use imagination to conquer… for instance can you imagine to distinguish the problem causing youth, like the media’s influence whether it be positive or negative as an influence in our society. It even eliminates religious beliefs where I believe was a way for people/ society to function and believe in to function normally in a social manner where it gave people something to believe in. Now as evolution transpires we look to other inspirations for our social back bone where as I repeated once before in my previous comment, motivation what motivates certain areas of our society, how can we manipulate these areas and why are certain communities excel. I had a great idea, what if we used entertainment as a way to influence our youth. Here is where i had realized how this works however in a negative way in the past. If you would like to discover this idea pls respond I believe it is too big to jot down at this moment.

  25. joshmaher

    Yes, teaching the kids is definitely the hardest part. Part of that problem is that the world views of different people are… well, different. These influences of different world views mean that the teaching of sociological imagination can be skewed by those world views. Racism for example can be taught along with sociological immagination and although the student will learn to be aware of class and structure, they may also be given a false perpective on how to navigate that structure.

  26. mathonsi marceli

    thanks for this very good passege. why do you base this passege in societies only, dnt you think you should even put it in a way based on humans socisl imagination, and pleas put the aspects of sociological imagination

  27. ngobene goodwin

    dats one of the greatest man. wish everyone was born with the sociological mind o imagination. keep it hope theirs lotg of people who’ll gain some open mind sociological

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