Sociological Imagination: Definition & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 01, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • The term sociological imagination describes the type of insight offered by sociology; connecting the problems of individuals to that of broader society.
  • C. Wright Mills, the originator of the term, contended that both sociologists and non-academics can develop a deep understanding of how the events of their own lives (their biography) relate to the history of their society. He outlined a list of methods through which both groups could do so.
  • Mills believed that American society suffered from the fundamental problems of alienation, moral insensibility, threats to democracy, threats to human freedom, and conflict between bureaucratic rationality and human reason, and that the development of the sociological imagination could counter these.

What is Sociological Imagination?

Sociological imagination, an idea which first emerged in C. Wright Mills' book of the same name (2000), is the ability to connect one's personal challenges to larger social issues.

The sociological imagination is the ability to link the experience of individuals to the social processes and structures of the wider world. It is this ability to examine the ways that individuals construct the social world and how the social world and how the social world impinges on the lives of individuals, which is the heart of the sociological enterprise.

This ability can be thought of as a framework for understanding social reality, and describes how sociology is relevant not just to sociologists, but to those seeking to understand and build empathy for the conditions of daily life.

When the sociological imagination is underdeveloped or absent in large groups of individuals for any number of reasons, Mills believed that fundamental social issues resulted. 

Sociological Imagination Theory

C. Wright Mills established the concept of sociological imagination in the 20th century. Mills believed that, "Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both" the daily lives of society's members and the history of a society and its issues.

He referred to the problems that occur in everyday life, or biography, as troubles and the problems that occur in society, or history, as issues.

Mills ultimately created a framework intended to help individuals realize the relationship between personal experiences and greater society (Elwell, 2002). 

Before Mill, sociologists tended to focus on understanding how sociological systems worked, rather than exploring individual issues. Mills, however, pointed out that these sociologists, functionalists chief among them, ignored the role of the individual within these systems. 

In essence, Mills claimed in his book, The Sociological Imagination, that research had come to be guided more by the requirements of administrative concerns than by intellectual ones. He critiqued sociology for focusing on accumulating facts that only served to facilitate the administrative decisions of, for example, governments.

Mills believed that, to truly fulfill the promise of social science, sociologists and laypeople alike had to focus on substantial, society-wide problems, and relate those problems to the structural and historical features of the society and culture that they navigated (Elwell, 2002). 

Mill's Guidelines for Social Scientists

In the appendix of The Sociological Imagination, Mills set forth several guidelines that would lead to "intellectual craftsmanship." These are, paraphrased (Mills, 2000; Ellwell, 2002):

  1. Scholars should not split work from life, because both work and life are in unity.

  2. Scholars should keep a file, or a collection, of their own personal, professional, and intellectual experiences.

  3. Scholars should engage in a continual review of their thoughts and experiences.

  4. Scholars may find a truly bad sociological book to be as intellectually stimulating and conducive to thinking as a good one.

  5. Scholars must have an attitude of playfulness toward phrases, words, and ideas, as well as a fierce drive to make sense of the world.

  6. The sociological imagination is stimulated when someone assumes a willingness to view the world from the perspective of others.

  7. Sociological investigators should not be afraid, in the preliminary and speculative stages of their research, to think in terms of imaginative extremes, and, 

  8. Scholars should not hesitate to express ideas in language that is as simple and direct as possible. Ideas are affected by how they are expressed. When sociological perspectives are expressed in deadening language, they create a deadened sociological imagination.

Mill's Original Social Problems

Mills identified five main social problems in American society: alienation, moral insensibility, threats to democracy, threats to human freedom, and the conflict between bureaucratic rationality and human reason (Elwell, 2015). 

1. Threats to Democracy and Freedom

The end result of these problems of alienation, political indifference, and the economic and political concentration of power, according to Mills, is a serious threat to democracy and freedom.

He believed that, as bureaucratic organizations became large and more centralized, more and more power would be placed into the hands of a small elite (Elwell, 2006). 

2. Alienation

Mills believed that alienation is deeply rooted in how work itself works in society; however, unlike Marx, C. Wright Mills does not attribute alienation solely to the means of production, but to the modern division of labor.

Mills observed that, on the whole, jobs are broken up into simple, functional tasks with strict standards. Machines or unskilled workers take over the most tedious tasks (Elwell, 2002).

As the office automated, Mills argues, authority and job autonomy became the attributes of only those highest in the work hierarchy. Most workers are discouraged from using their own judgment, their decision making forced to comply with the strict rules handed down by others.

In this loss of autonomy, the average worker becomes alienated from their intellectual capacities and work becomes an enforced chore (Elwell, 2015).  

3. Moral Insensibility

The second major problem that C. Wright Mills identified in modern American society was that of moral insensibility. He pointed out that, as people had lost faith in their leaders in government, religion, and the workplace, they became apathetic.

He considered this apathy to be a "spiritual condition" which underlined many problems — namely, moral insensibility. As a result of moral insensibility, people within society accept atrocities, such as genocide, committed by their leaders.

Mills considered the source of cruelty to be moral insensibility and, ultimately, the underdevelopment of the sociological imagination (Elwell, 2002). 

4. Personal Troubles

Personal troubles are the issues that people experience within their own character, and in their immediate relationships with others. Mills believed that people function in their personal lives as actors and actresses who make choices about friends, family, groups, work, school, and other issues within their control.

As a result, people have some issue on the outcomes of events on a personal level. For example, an individual employee who spends most of his work time browsing social media or online shopping may lose their job. This is a personal problem.

However, hundreds of thousands of employees being laid-off en masse constitutes a larger social issue (Mills, 2000). 

5. Social and Public Issues

Social and public issues, meanwhile, are beyond one's personal control. These issues pertain to the organization and processes of society, rather than individuals. For example, universities may, as a whole, overcharge students for their education.

This may be the result of decades of competition and investment into each school's administration and facilities, as well as the narrowing opportunities for those without a college degree.

In this situation, it becomes impossible for large segments of the population to get a tertiary education without accruing large and often debilitating amounts of debt (Mills, 2000). 

The sociological imagination allows sociologists to distinguish between the personal and sociological aspects of problems in the lives of everyone.

Most personal problems are not exclusively personal issues; instead, they are influenced and affected by a variety of social norms, habits, and expectations. Indeed, there is often confusion as to what differentiates personal problems and social issues (Hironimus-Wendt & Wallace, 2009). 

For example, a heroin addiction may be blamed on the reckless and impulsive choices of an addict. However, this approach fails to account for the societal factors and history that led to high rates of heroin addiction, such as the over-prescribing of opiate painkillers by doctors and the dysregulation of pharmaceutical companies in the United States. 

Sociological imagination is useful for both sociologists and those encountering problems in their everyday lives. When people lack in sociological imagination, they become vulnerable to apathy: considering the beliefs, actions, and traditions around them to be natural and unavoidable.

This can cause moral insensitivity and ultimately the commitment of cruel and unjust acts by those guided not by their own consciousness, but the commands of an external body (Hironimus-Wendt & Wallace, 2009). 

Examples of Sociological Imagination

Fast Fashion

Say that someone is buying themselves a new shirt. Usually, the person buying the shirt would be concerned about their need for new clothing and factors such as the price, fabric, color, and cut of the shirt.

At a deeper level, the personal problem of buying a shirt may provoke someone to ask themselves what they are buying the shirt for, where they would wear it, and why they would participate in an activity where they would wear the shirt over instead of some other activity.

People answer these questions on a personal level through considering a number of different factors. For example, someone may think about how much they make, and how much they can budget for clothing, the stores available in the community, and the styles popular in one's area (Joy et al., 2012). 

On a larger level, however, the questions and answers to the question of what shirt to buy — or even if to buy a shirt at all — would differ if someone were provided a different context and circumstances.

For example, if someone had come into a sudden sum of wealth, they may choose to buy an expensive designer shirt or quit the job that required them to buy the shirt altogether. If someone had lived in a community with many consignment shops, they may be less likely to buy a new shirt and more likely to buy one that was pre-owned.

If there were a cultural dictate that required people to, say, cover their shoulders or breasts — or the opposite, someone may buy a more or less revealing shirt. 

On an even higher level, buying a shirt also represents an opportunity to connect the consumption habits of individuals and groups to larger issues.

The lack of proximity of communities to used-clothing stores on a massive scale may encourage excessive consumption, leading to environmental waste in pollution. The competition between retailers to provide the cheapest and most fashionable shirts possible results in, as many have explored, the exploitation of garment workers in exporting countries and large amounts of co2 output due to shipping.

Although an individual can be blamed or not blamed for buying a shirt made more or less sustainably or ethically, a discussion of why an individual bought a certain shirt cannot be complete without a consideration of the larger factors that influence their buying patterns (Joy et al., 2012). 

The "Global Economic Crisis"

Dinerstein, Schwartz, and Taylor (2014)  used the 2008 economic crisis as a case study in the concept of sociological imagination, and how sociology and other social sciences had failed to adequately understand the crisis. 

The 2008 global economic crisis led to millions of people around the world losing their jobs. On the smallest level, individuals were unable to sustain their lifestyles.

Someone who was laid-off due to the economic downturn may have become unable to make their mortgage or car payments, leading to a bank foreclosing their house or repossessing their car.

This person may also, unable to afford groceries, need to turn to a food bank or amass credit card debt to feed themselves and their families. As a result, this person may damage their credit score, restricting them from, say, taking out a home ownership loan in the future. 

The sociological imagination also examines issues like the great recession at a level beyond these personal problems. For example, a sociologist may look at how the crisis resulted from the accessibility of and increasing pressure to buy large and normally unaffordable homes in the United States.

Some sociologists, Dinerstein, Schwartz, and Taylor among them, even looked at the economic crisis as unveiling the social issue of  how academics do sociology. For example, Dinerstein, Schwatz, and Taylor point out that the lived experience of the global economic crisis operated under gendered and racialized dynamics.

Many female immigrant domestic laborers, for example, lost their jobs in Europe and North America as a result of the crisis.

While the things that sociologists had been studying about these populations up until that point — migration and return — are significant, the crisis brought a renewed focus in sociology into investigating how the negative effects of neoliberal globalization and the multiple crisis already impacting residents of the global South compound during recessions (Spitzer & Piper, 2014).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 01). Sociological Imagination: Definition & Examples. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/sociological-imagination.html

References

Bhambra, G. (2007). Rethinking modernity: Postcolonialism and the sociological imagination. Springer.

Dinerstein, A. C., Schwartz, G., & Taylor, G. (2014). Sociological imagination as social critique: Interrogating the ‘global economic crisis’. Sociology, 48(5), 859-868.

Elwell, F. W. (2002). The Sociology of C. Wright Mills.

Elwell, F. W. (2015). Macrosociology: four modern theorists. Routledge.

Hironimus-Wendt, R. J., & Wallace, L. E. (2009). The sociological imagination and social responsibility. Teaching Sociology, 37(1), 76-88.

Joy, A., Sherry Jr, J. F., Venkatesh, A., Wang, J., & Chan, R. (2012). Fast fashion, sustainability, and the ethical appeal of luxury brands. Fashion theory, 16(3), 273-295.

Mills, C. W. (2000).The sociological imagination. Oxford University Press.

Spitzer, D. L., & Piper, N. (2014). Retrenched and returned: Filipino migrant workers during times of crisis. Sociology, 48(5), 1007-1023.