Sociological Imagination: From Personal Troubles to Social Issues



One of the first concepts, perhaps, that is introduced to one who is beginning to learn the discipline of sociology is, the sociological imagination. It is not quite as different from daydreaming or the mere act of imagining. Sociological imagination was introduced by C. Wright Mills. If one were to think sociologically, one has to look at the bigger picture. Sociological imagination is the way to look at the bigger picture. According to Mills, sociological imagination can be described as the ability to “grasp the interplay between man and society, biography and history, of self and world” (Mills, 1959, as cited in Wiley, 2015). In other words, it is to “think ourselves away” from the routine of one’s everyday life so as “to look at them anew” (Giddens, 2009). If one were to think of an analogy for the same, one would describe it as shifting from a first-person point of view to third-person point of view. To be a sociologist is to be able to go beyond personal circumstances and place them in a wider context (Giddens, 2009). Or, to put it simply, one should be able to differentiate between personal troubles and social issues (Wiley, 2015). An example of this way of thinking could be an undergraduate student looking for an internship during the COVID-19 Pandemic. First, if one were to break it down, the search of an internship is a ‘personal trouble’; one is unable to find any to suit one’s interests and qualifications. Now if one were to go beyond this ‘personal trouble’, one can see that the world- or wherever one is- has come to a standstill due to social distancing. There is a need to prevent the spreading of the virus. It may so happen that there are not many work-from-home options that match one’s interests and qualifications; this is could be because work-from-home is not possible or there is no need for interns as work has slowed down. In this way, one’s personal trouble has become a social/ public issue. It could be the case that one’s fellow undergraduate students are also finding it difficult to secure an internship for the same reasons.

The process of sociological imagination seems like one is zooming in on something and then zooming out; much like a camera. Take another example into consideration: going to the movies. Firstly, going to the movies is a social activity. Movies are a form of entertainment that we consume frequently. Secondly, films are a medium to disseminate ideas, thoughts and, culture; American movies like The Perks of being a Wallflower, Mean Girls or Love, Simon – to name a few- illustrate the lives of American high school students. Films also communicate the norms and values of a society or a group. To put it simply, films are a reflection of society. In this case, one is seeing films as a form of entertainment or just likes to watch movies and then further, as a reflection of society. One may also take another step further and wonder why certain films are more popular than others. Other examples are that of divorce and unemployment. With respect to unemployment, one may have lost one’s job not due to some fault of oneself but because one is living in the time of an economic recession (Wiley, 2015). It is kind of like understanding how one jigsaw puzzle piece relates to other pieces; there is more to it than that one puzzle piece.

There are other concepts to keep in mind when it comes to sociological imagination. Structure refers to those roles that are common and persistent and “shape human interaction”; for example, a student and a teacher (Wiley, 2015). The second institution is the set of rules that enable and constrain human activity (Wiley, 2015). Understanding these concepts can aid one in using sociological imagination in an effective and critical manner; these concepts are often ignored (Wiley, 2015). One is better able to look at the bigger picture. Additionally, developing the skill of sociological imagination helps one is distinguishing between bad circumstances one experiences as a result of poor choices and, those that are brought about by structural forces that are outside one’s control (Hironimus- Wendt & Wallace, 2009).


One can now understand why sociological imagination is probably the first concept that is introduced; examining and understanding the society is what sociology is all about. Sociological imagination is a tool that allows one to do just that. It involves separating from the personal and looking at the bigger picture, to understand why a certain social phenomenon is occurring. With this one can examine an instance as simple as the act of drinking coffee to an instance like unemployment. As stated earlier, one’s personal trouble is a part of a larger jigsaw puzzle. Through sociological imagination, one can relate one’s puzzle piece to other puzzle pieces to understand the bigger picture.


Giddens, A. (2009). What is Sociology? Sociology (6th ed.). Polity Press. (Buy from Amazon)

Hironimus-Wendt, R., & Wallace, L. (2009). The Sociological Imagination and Social Responsibility. Teaching Sociology, 37(1), 76-88. Retrieved from

Wiley, J. (2015). Sociological Imagination: A Critical Way to the World. Student Resources. Retrieved from

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