C. Wright Mills: Biography, Contributions, Conflict Theory

Charles Wright Mills was an American sociologist and a professor of sociology at the Columbia University; he was born in 1916 and died in 1962, living a life of 46 years. Mills was a known figure in the popular and intellectual journals; he wrote several books which highlighted several the relationships among the American elite and the common people during the post-World War 2 era.

Mills was born in Texas; his father was an insurance salesman and his mother a homemaker. Due to his father’s job, Mills kept moving through the American landscape, hence leading to a life of isolation with a few discontinued relationships. The positive which came out of the moving situation was that Mills learned how the Americans in the different parts of the country lived their lives. Mills got a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Throughout the early phases of his career, his sentiment and involvement in American politics grew, he wanted to understand how these institutions functioned and how they would affect society.

There are three books which define his term as a sociologists, ‘The Power Elite’ looks to focus on the relationships and the class alliances among the US political, military and economic elites, ‘White Collar: The American Middle Classes’ which was a study of the American middle class and ‘The Sociological Imagination’, which presents a model of analysis for the interdependence of subjective experiences within a person’s biography, general social structure and historical development.

Mills was widely regarded for his political stands and is often associated with the term ‘New Left’. He was also concerned with the roles and responsibilities of intellectuals post the Second World War era in the United States of America. Mills advocated the public and political engagement over disinterested observations; he urged them to take a stand against the government to keep them in check.

 The Weber Connection

Mills had popularized the Weberian theories in the United States of America; he also looked to apply Karl Manheim’s theories on sociology of knowledge to the political thought and behavior. Mills drew his inspiration for his thought process from Weber’s definition of the impact of class, status and power on explaining stratification system and politics.  Throughout his research and the books he wrote, he concluded that there is a significant connection between the decisions made by the “elite” had severe consequences for everyone residing in the American country. These “elite” were consisting of the ruling class, business people and government and military leaders.

Weber made Mills draw a significant comparison between the European ideology and the American ideology; he saw the similarities and tried to make due for his own observations. He based his books on his observations of the society which he resided in and spread the awareness throughout his life.

The Sociological Imagination

The Sociological Imagination is regarded as Mills’ most influential work, in which he describes the way in which one should observe the world in order to view it from a sociologist’s perspective. He wants people to observe connections between individuals and their everyday life; he further urges them to observe how the greater social forces have an effect on their everyday life. He urges the common folk to understand their contemporary lives and social structure in the historical context and possibly a study for the near future. Mills had the mindset in which he wanted people to take into account that some of the people’s “personal problems” as being “public issues”. Through his books he wanted the common folk to understand the issues which they had in their everyday life may be traced back to the government itself.

The concept of sociological imagination enables an individual to attain a wider understanding of the society through the contexts of history which explain the way things have been and might be an indicator of what things can be. All individuals residing in smaller groups throughout their lives; they see the society within their groups and in turn possess a very limited understanding of the same. However, when these groups come together they form what one knows as a society, these people are only limited to the information within their own group, but with coming together, they would possess knowledge about everything and everyone.

Mills believes that sociological imagination is very essential to learn and survive as a society. These people study the social structure of institutions in order to study what these institutions are offering and how they are contributing to help with transforming society. They ensure that social change keeps happening for the betterment of society, they also believe that political institutions should be kept in check by the people as they are there for the people’s betterment.

Questioning the structural conditions that influence your life is the essence of utilizing your sociological imagination.

The Middle Class

The labor class had always been of interest to Mills, he strongly believed that the labor class was a strong force to decimate the monopoly of the corporate capitalist in economic, political and cultural terms. He further stated that mass society and culture were needed to affect the systems which were governing the society at that point of time. A mass society refers to the coming together of communities to form a mass in public society. In his famous book ‘White Collar’, he described the ‘new middle class’ as the people who were on white collar jobs with respectable salaries. He further predicted that the American work society would see a change from white collar preference to a more corporate setting. He believed that society would be divided and be governed by the entrepreneurs and workers leading by their mass way of life.

There were three basic themes which stood out in Mills’ book, the first being the rise of mass society and the power of the corporate society, the diversity of the new jobs which were created and the lack of political consciousness in the United States of America.

Personal Troubles and Public Issues

Mills gave the most distinct piece of writing on his approach to distinguish between personal troubles and public issues. The idea of ‘trouble’ is the concept originating from the individual’s character which is limited to only the limited areas in life or which directly affect them. The simple solution to these problems is to understand the problem and understand its point of origin. A direct definition which Mills gives out is the ‘values cherished by an individual are felt by him to be threatened’.

On the topic of “issues”, Mills defines them as the matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the limited range of their life. An issue is often associated with a crisis which arises in the institutional arrangements. For instance, unemployment may be viewed and regarded as an issue as it is a problem of the masses and it affects them negatively. The issues can also arise from personal troubles; issues may be viewed as personal troubles which have taken rise to problem the masses.

The Conflict Theory

Mills is regarded as the father of the modern conflict theory; he regards society as a dynamic entity constantly undergoing change as a result of competition over scarce resources. Most of these ideas have been originated from Marx’s theory on social sciences and sociology in the specification. The theory regards life competition and focuses on the distribution of resources, power, and resources. The conflict theory is better at explaining social change and the weaker at explaining social stability. There are some shortcomings of the theory, for instance, its shortcomings to explain the concept of stability and incremental change.

Mills strongly believed social structures are created because of the conflicts between differing interests. The people are directly influenced by the social structures which are formed and the usual differentiation is because of the power struggle between the “elite” and the “others”. He helped people answer the question, “Who benefits from these elements of the society?”, they become essential for studying an institution or phenomenon.

The New Left

Mills followed a political ideology known as the “new left”, where they campaigned for social issues such as civil and political rights, feminism, gay rights, abortion rights, gender roles, and drug policy reforms. There was some dilemma regarding how to view the approach of the new left, Mills was inspired by the Marx definition of society and politics, but the new left was seen as an opposition of the same. However, the new leftists did argue that it was merely a continuation of and revitalization of the traditional leftist goals.

There were people who self-identified themselves as the “new left”, completely rejected their involvement in the Marxist historical theory of class struggle leaving the basis of the ideology vague. Things took a very different turn in the United States of America; the movement was generally associated with anti-war-college-campus protest movements which included the Free Speech Movement.


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Kartik is studying BA in International Relations at Amity and Dropped out of engineering from NIT Hamirpur and he lived in over 5 different countries.