The article presents a holistic picture on the concept of ‘The Sociological Imagination’. It discusses in length how sociological imagination reasons out the relation between the ‘personal trouble ‘ and the ‘public issues’. Questions such as do we face the consequences of our choices only because of our actions or something much larger a social phenomena is associated to it, how one perceives a social reality is an oversocialized phenomena, how our reflexivity is being controlled by the societal structures etc.; such questions have been tried to cater to in this essay. Besides that, in this article, it has been explained extensively how the concept of Sociological Imagination provides a unique lens to visualize our everyday behaviour and action and helps us find sociology in it; thereby forming the very root of the discipline.
The term ‘Sociological Imagination’ was firstly coined by Charles Wright Mills in the book of the same name as the concept. His writings are vastly different from the contemporary works in American sociology that was overshadowed by Talcott Parsons’ impact. His work ‘The Sociological Imagination’ links the individual’s inner self with the larger historical and the social concept. C. Wright Mills (1959) stressed that ‘Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.’ He tried linking the relation between one’s personal experience into the larger social reality. This unique concept helps one distinguish between one’s ‘personal trouble’ and the ‘public issues’ thereby connecting the ‘biography’ of an individual with the ‘history’ of the society. Anthony Giddens (2006) stated that “The application of imaginative thought to the asking and answering of sociological questions. Someone using the sociological imagination “thinks himself away” from the familiar routines of daily life.”
The sociological imagination has a distinct way from the sociological perspective as it sets aside the path of common sense and encourages one to look at everyday actions and behaviours with a new perspective. For example- Often we observe the Division of Labour in our society based on the division of sex where females are assigned household chores and males command the outer realm. This is so much internalized in us that we never question this! Instead, we consider it as a natural construct rather than a social one. Another example could be the reason of unemployment that one faces in the society today. Question lies is it because of one’s lack of skills and degrees or is it the society at large, who is the leviathan here? Answer probably lies in the multidimensional perspective i.e. the sociological imagination here.
Historical trajectory of the ‘Sociological Imagination’
This unique concept of sociology was introduced in the discipline in the mid 20th century. Before Mills, his contemporaries focused on understanding the functioning of the society than stressing upon understanding the individuals issues. However, Mills argued that simply understanding the social reality without placing individual in its structure, won’t give a holistic picture of the same. Sociologists can now discern between the sociological and personal issues that arise in everyone’s life; due to the Sociological Imagination theory. This theory stated that when one assumes a readiness to see the world from the perspective of others, the sociological imagination gets aroused. In his work, Mills claimed that by using sociological imagination, one can more accurately situate themselves in the appropriate historical context and, as a result, they better comprehend themselves and their lives. demonstrate the relationship between history and biography and how the two are really complementary. The same way that we must first understand the historian in order to comprehend the history he writes, so too must we first recognize the sociological significance of any given event before we can analyze it appropriately. This is the main relevance of the sociological imagination notion, and it aids in both improving our understanding of society and of ourselves as individuals.
According to Mills, people are “trapped” by a lack of knowledge of how society functions because they are preoccupied with living their own lives and hardly ever take the time to consider how frequently changes in society are directly related to their successes and failures. Mills noted that the majority of personal difficulties are not solely personal; rather, they are impacted and affected by a range of social norms, customs, and expectations. For example: If an individual is facing some psychological issues, it doesn’t mean that it was genetic. Multifarious reasons could cater to it like break-ups, peer-pressure, academic pressure, family pressure and the list goes on. Similarly, the study done by Emile Durkheim on ‘Suicides’ stated that the suicide was not simply related to the personal issues but the social one. Durkheim found a pattern in the committing of suicides among a particular age-group, sex etc.; which reinforces the arguments made by Charles Wright Mills.
Applications of Sociological Imagination
Sociological Imagination can be observed and applied in our everyday lives much frequently. From making our choices in the selection of our dresses to picking up a restaurant for a supper; are all conditioned and pedestaled on the Sociological Imagination theory. For instance: After completion of the graduation, individuals usually prefer working in the MNCs. This choice is not just related to one’s personal expectation or preference rather it’s linked to the social prestige, power and status which that structural position shall be accompanied with. Similarly, a large segment of population opts for pizza from McDonalds; it’s not only because the individual likes pizza of that particular franchise rather due to the label of the elite that it carries. Similarly, opting iPhone over Android, government jobs over businesses, Western wears over ethnic outfits, software engineers over civil engineers; all these have been the result of the social structure that we are placed in. Every action of ours, from the time of waking up to our way of clothing to our choices related to marriage; almost all gets subsumed in the realm of the sociological imagination. Charles Wright Mills gave a brilliant example for understanding the biography of the individual and the history of the society.
The concept of Sociological Imagination does not confine itself to the black and white pictures of the society. Its roots mainly lie in the grey area. Sociological Imagination helps in looking beyond one’s individual identities and caters to a larger cause. The overlapping of the race, class, gender, age, social class etc. of an individual determines their personal experience. Individual often carries with them multiple identities which in turn impacts their environment. The causes of inequality that an individual faces in the society, differs vastly with the change in the frame of the intersectional analysis. For example- the experience of a Black American Woman differs from that of the man. Another example could be the difference in experience of the so called Upper Caste Women and Lower Caste Women in India. The discrimination experienced by the lower class American men will be highly different from the experience of the lower class Black American women. Besides these, the looking down attitude of people towards the LGBTQ+ community; owes connection to the history of the society. Thus, these personal troubles can only be understood if one connects it to the public issues and understands in the historical context of the society. In addition to these aspects, the Sociological Imagination can also be applied to look at the intersection of age and social class etc. The educational disparities, the health disparities etc. all gets linked to the domain of class and gender. The hierarchized structure of the society makes more sense when interlinked with its structural parts. For example – The factor of race gets involved when patterns of migration is to be analysed. It has been observed that the people of White race migrates less than the Blacks.
Sociological Imagination also helps in analyzing the intersection in light of globalization, socio-political issues etc. Mills stated that if there is only one unemployed person in a city of 100,000, we should appropriately consider that person’s character, skills, and current opportunities in order to alleviate his or her situation. The issue becomes more pressing when 15 million people in a country with 50 million workers are unemployed. In such scenario, one may not be able to find a solution to this problem within the opportunities available to an individual, and thus, one must take into account the social, economic, and political structures of the country as a whole. He also stated that if majority faces one particular issue in the similar social context, then this condition is termed as the ‘structural circumstances’. One of the examples of the structural circumstance is patriarchal rule in the society which almost every women faces. Even the racial discrimination which is faced by the Black and the Brown people or the social discrimination being practiced with the immigrants; all portrays how social system influences individuals collectively and makes it look like a mirage of social fact. Thus, the dynamicity and the flexibility of the sociological imagination can be seen and applied in all realms and dimensions at any point of time.
Critical review of the concept of ‘Sociological Imagination’
Some sociologists of the contemporary times believe that it almost seems inevitable that a sociologist’s capacity to interact freely and uncomplicatedly with the outside world will be negatively impacted by undertaking such a thorough and intricate study. It is also observed that individuals often lose motivation of attaining upward social mobility as they start believing that individual reforms won’t make much of the difference as it is linked with the public issue. For example- If a student hails a degree from a highly reputed educational institution and still remains unemployed or does a job of minimal value in the society; it doesn’t necessarily indicate to their incapability rather it can be because of the high competition in the society, easy replacement value of the individuals in MNCs or some other social factors. Similarly, if a woman runs the household chores, it may not necessarily imply her choice rather the stringent division of labour which she has been entangled in.
Other school of thought like liberalism and neo-liberalism emphasized that since social, cultural, political and religious context of different societies are different therefore sociological imagination needs to be applied before carefully, keeping in consideration all the sensitivities. Radical school of thought considers the concept to be abstract as it caters much to the individual opinions and viewpoints. They also believe that one should not cede their moral and political sovereignty by embracing the liberal or illiberal practicality of the moral scatter in terms dictated by someone else.
Despite these limitations pointed out, there are other school of thoughts which stand as strong proponents of this theory. One of them is the Feminist School of Thought. The Feminist standpoint states that the social impediments present in the society can be decreased by inculcating in oneself the emotion of reflexivity. The branch of Feminist Sociological Imagination highlighted the use of Mills’ concept by restating that an individual’s position in the society weaves their personal experiences and social roles. Besides these, even Marxist standpoint uses Sociological Imagination to a great extent to locate the oppressions of the proletariats in the larger context of the European society.
To conclude, the concept of Sociological Imagination encouraged people to look beyond individualistic explanations for social occurrences and to take into account the larger social, economic, and political elements at work, resulting in a more complex and comprehensive understanding of social dynamics and human behaviour. The concept of Sociological Imagination not only enables us to examine the social patterns that exist today, but it also enables us to envision some of the possibilities that may be available to us in future. One may perceive both what is real and what can become real through the sociological imagination, if we choose to make it so! The recognition given to the LGBTQIA+ community today and the legalization of the same-sex marriages in some countries are some of the victories of the applications of the Sociological Imagination.
Durkheim, E. (1982 ). The rules of sociological method. London: Palgrave.
Giddens, A. (2006). Sociology (5th ed.). Cambridge: Polity.
Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.