The Sociological Imagination 50 Years Later: Reflections by Craig Calhoun
The 50th anniversary of the publication of C. Wright Mills'
The Sociological Imagination (1959) is eliciting
a series of anniversary celebrations. One, at the Left Forum on April 17-19, gave WBAI Pacifica Radio the occasion to
bring together four sociologists to discuss the continuing relevance of Mills’
work. (To listen to the entire show, go to "City Watch" archives for Wednesday April 15, 2009, 10:00
It’s appropriate that Mills is being discussed in political as well as academic forums, for he was a very publicly-oriented social scientist. His books, which also include another classic work of sociology, The Power Elite, reached broad readerships and inspired a generation of students who wanted their scientific work to matter deeply at both a personal and a public level. They speak to enduring concerns and are enjoying a renewal of attention today.
The WBAI panel featured SSRC President Craig Calhoun, along with Stanley Aronowitz, Lauren Langman, and Bill DiFazio (DiFazio is also the program host).
The following are edited excerpts from Calhoun's remarks:
On the relevance of C. Wright Mills' insights to the current economic crisis:
Mills' The Power Elite is especially relevant. At the heart of that work are questions about the structures of inequality and power. That doesn't mean that the answers, in 2009, are exactly the answers from fifty years ago, but the questions are pretty much the same questions, and we've got to continue the kind of analyses that Mills did, ask the questions about how the power elite is formed, reproduced, constituted, how this works to shape American society.
Illusions are fostered by talking only about whether there is recovery, whether the Dow is going up or down—whether "we" in general are enjoying economic growth. We've also got to ask a bunch of other questions about who benefits from economic growth, whether it reinstitutionalizes the same or new kinds of growth, and whether is sustains the power gaps between most of the people and those who are running the show.
And I think that Mills' point on this is that there's no guarantee that recovery is going to do a lot of good for a lot of people. Whether it's globalized or national, the inequalities now are enormous. The production of a globalized power elite is going on, as well as the emiseration of a variety of other people in the world, and the precariousness of a whole lot of people in-between—who are not living in day-to-day poverty, but are living in day-to-day anxiety.
On Mills' concept of the sociological imagination:
The sociological imagination is about saying that big issues of social structure are connected to personal issues of biography and life chances. And so in order to think critically, you have to connect what's happening to you—in terms of the labor market, in terms of the prices of things, in terms of the foreclosures of real estate and who's affected by this—to larger structural systemic forces.
The sociological imagination is about being able to think that way, rather than making the sort of separation on which the dominant ideology depends—namely, that either there's sort of a system in which it's all working OK, or even if you know there's unequal power, you can't do anything about. Mills was trying to say, "Right, wake up, it's there in your life. You think it's not there, but it is."
In calling attention precisely to the way in which active exercise of power was shaping everybody's life, he was marrying an American radical tradition to some European and American social theory at the same time that other figures like Talcott Parsons were using European social theory to try to quiet down and obscure that tradition. Parsons and others were trying to forward the vision that "everything sort of works"—a kind of dominant ideology that reinforces the naive notion that everything's equal, that everything has its place in the system, so you just sort of worry about moving up one step in that system.
That kind of Parsonsian vision was being promoted exactly in Mills' lifetime. Mills hated it and was all about calling attention to the ways it wasn't true. Mills' response had a lot of indigenous American radicalism in it, a lot of an earlier kind of sociology—Veblen was a great figure for him—that pointed to the connections between individual lives and the invisible workings of culture. Mills and these earlier thinkers felt that sociology colluded in a sort of normalization, where it enabled people to see more stuff about their lives without focusing on power. He indicts the discipline of his day for not living up to the task of making the underpinnings of culture more visible—which is part of what makes the book inspiring for the next fifty years.
On Mills' legacy for the social sciences:
Good sociology has to be critical sociology, and Mills helps to bring forward the tools for that critique. The social sciences have been part of a long academic trend of eviscerating the broader public in order to strengthen an internal academic discussion and structure. Mills helps us to see that problem. And appropriating Mills, building on Mills as well as others who are part of that tradition—W. I. Thomas and Dewey, for instance—is helpful in getting the social sciences out of that, in envisioning a different way to do serious intellectual work, a way that does not divide theoretical work, which is very abstract, from the empirical work of dealing with social problems. Mills saw the two forms of work as closely interconnected. That's what we social scientists can learn from and do more of.
Compiled, condensed, and edited by Mary-Lea Cox.
Editor's note: Calhoun, Aronowitz, Langman and DiFazio also appeared on a panel dedicated to Mills at the Left Forum's 2009 conference, "Turning Points," held on Saturday, April 18, at Pace University.