Social Structure and the Sociological Imagination

In this post, we discuss why the concept of social structure is important for the sociological imagination.

The Sociological Imagination and “The Promise”

The Sociological Imagination is perhaps sociology’s most famous treatise on what sociology is and should be. It is not necessarily correct, but it is famous.

C. Wright Mills, sociologist of the 1940s to early 1960s, was a strongly opinionated polemicist. He also popularized the term, The Sociological Imagination.

Mills wrote it in such a way that we can see some of the things that irked him in the 1950s happening today: information dominates our attention and we struggle to make sense of it; we feel society as going wrong but are not sure why or how; totalitarian societies rise and flourish; democracy is unequal; technological advance has led to some solutions and new problems. Mills also believed that World War III was coming (he wrote a book on it).

Sociology makes a “promise.” What is it?

It is a way of thinking about the world and studying it so as to illuminate the core problems of our time. On Pp. 6-7 Mills poses three main questions of the sociological enterprise:

  1. What is the structure of society (see White Collarthat Mills took from William Form’s dissertation in 1944, which was under the supervision of C. Wright Mills at the University of Maryland, but did not credit Form — for a partial address);
  2. How does this society compare with others through history, and how is it changing?;
  3. Who are the elite and how did they attain that status (the subject of Mills’ The Power Elite).

What Is Social Structure?

Sociology places the individual within a wider social structure.

What is a social structure? Social structures are enduring patterns of thought and behavior that set limits on thought and action and cannot be changed by any individual will.

Personal Troubles and Public Issues

Mills thought that individuals’ personal troubles are their private character. It is a psychological approach to understanding individual thoughts, feelings, and actions.

However, the sociologist, according to Mills, should study public issues, which is the structural condition (or societal or communal context) around which individuals think, feel, and act.

The “social” in social science is a focus on structures. The promise of sociology, or the social sciences, is to reveal these structures.

Sociology can be defined as the scientific study of human social life in all its aspects.

Sociologists can describe phenomena, and that is useful. But sociologists — especially for dissertations — must also explain. Explanations are the province of theory.

Further Reading

Book Review: C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by John Scott and Ann Nilsen

A Politics of Peace: Reflections on C. Wright Mills’s “The Causes of World War III”

NB: William Form earned his B.A. degree (1938) and his M.A. degree (1940) at the University of Rochester. His dissertation, “The Sociology of White-Collar Suburb: Greenbelt, Maryland,” was directed by C. Wright Mills, at the University of Maryland in 1944. The book White Collar, by Mills, was published in 1951.

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