Imagining The Sociological Imagination: the biographical context of a sociological classic

Download 68.78 Kb.
Size68.78 Kb.

British Journal of Sociology, vol. 55, 2004, pp. 317-333

Imagining The Sociological Imagination: the biographical

context of a sociological classic*

John D Brewer

Department of Sociology

University of Aberdeen

Old Aberdeen AB24 3QY
01224 272171

*Work on this paper has been greatly facilitated by a visiting appointment in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University, which I am very grateful to acknowledge.

Word count 7992 27 April 2004


Charles Wright Mills’s arguments in The Sociological Imagination are very popular and this paper focuses on the biographical context in which his programmatic statements were occasioned. This breaks new ground by locating The Sociological Imagination and earlier programmatic statements in the professional and personal travails that motivated them. This approach is adopted in order to display the intersection between biography and sociology in Mills’s life and career, a feature that he made a central part of sociology’s promise. The paper utilises this approach to reflect on the reasons why The Sociological Imagination became so popular and was able to transcend Mills’s general unpopularity at the time of his death; and as part of the explanation of why the dismissal of the book on its publication contrasts with the contemporary view, enabling it to transpose successfully to a time significantly different than at its writing.

Key words: C. Wright Mills, the sociological imagination, biography


Charles Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination (2000[1959]) is one of the classic statements of the discipline. It was named the second most popular book of the twentieth century by members of the International Sociological Association (after Weber’s Economy and Society), translated into seventeen languages and reprinted many times, having a new edition nearly forty years after Mills’s death. Denzin (1990) revisited the notion in his 1988 Presidential address to the Midwest Sociological Association and Brewer (2003) employed it to offer a sociological analysis of the peace processes in Northern Ireland and South Africa. Undergraduate students are still routinely exposed to Mills’s book, despite it being nearly fifty years old, and many of the discipline’s teachers deploy his phrases in their attempts to convey to new intakes of students the idea that sociology is distinctive; student orientated web sites abound distilling his work to new generations. Mills’s vision of sociology is kept alive by the annual C. Wright Mills Award sponsored by the Society for the Study of Social Problems, which has been held annually since 1964; winners represent some of the greatest figures in US sociology.

The popularity of the book has both transcended Mills’s other work – in the poll of ISA members The Sociological Imagination was well ahead of his other books – and his general unpopularity in the discipline at the time of his death in 1962. Key sociologists of the period saw him primarily as a journalist (Wrong 1968) or political scientist (Lipset and Smelser 1961; Parsons 1976: 96), the latter reinforced by Mills’s popularity today in International Relations theory (see Halliday 1994; Rosenberg 1994). Recent assessments by sociologists of Mills’s career have been unflattering. Runciman reminded us that Mills’s public image then was as a sharp practised journalist rather than scholar (1999: 3-4), Becker that he was a ‘difficult smart ass’ who had marginalised himself (1994) and Oakes and Vidich (1999) document the accusations of unethical behaviour that were then current. Mills was a champion to a younger generation of social critics outside the discipline and had to die young to become a hero in sociology. It was The Sociological Imagination that did most to sanctify him, assisting in making the sociological rebel respectable. In consequence, he is remembered in sociology mostly for his statements about the distinctiveness of the discipline than substantive analyses of American society and politics. This has ensured that his reputation as a polemical social critic has diminished in favour of his claim to symbolise the methodological distinctiveness of sociology. He is still recognised as a radical (Casin 1990; Merrifield 2001), but more for his challenge to sociology than systems of power and stratification.

This is not incompatible with the observation that The Sociological Imagination was a product of its time. It is modernist in its language, not just the use of male pronouns but primarily its engagement with the concerns of classical sociology (on which see Binns 1977; Denzin 1990; Hearn 1985; Rosenberg 1994; Seidman 1998). Brewer (2003), for example, positions it in terms of Mills’s ambition to return sociology to the great European tradition of nineteenth-century sociology in which the discipline was the diagnosis and palliative for the whole social condition. Hearn (1985) and Binns (1977) identify its Weberian roots, with its emphasis on the dangers of rationalisation to human freedom and dignity, which positions Mills’s sociology as the study of the public issues that are premised on the personal travails this causes for ordinary people. Denzin attacks the book precisely for its promulgation of a modernist meta-narrative that post-modernism makes inimical, seeing the ‘grand narratives of classical sociology’ as now dead (1990: 13). Younger generations of students schooled in a background of post-modernism, feminism and post-colonialism, can find its modernist narrative and language to be out of time, yet teachers of the mainstream sociological tradition still propagate the book as a classic statement that speaks to new generations of students, transposing it to the contemporary period.

There is another sense in which The Sociological Imagination was a product of its time, for it has a strong biographical context tied to the personalities and debates Mills engaged with in its writing. Again however, the book has risen above its biographical referents to be seen by mainstream practitioners as a universal statement of the distinctiveness of sociology. The purpose of this paper is to explore this biographical context in order to document how it affected the short-term reputation of the book but not the long-term one. It failed to do so in part because Mills made the link between biography and sociology a central concern of The Sociological Imagination in ways that the mainstream sociological tradition still finds relevant. It is argued that this is a strength owed to the book’s biographical context.

The evidence on how Mills positions The Sociological Imagination within his autobiographical narrative is taken from his recently published letters and writings (Mills and Mills 2000) and whilst the letters are incomplete and subject to his daughters’ selection biases, they are sufficient in number and detail to permit this focus. In one sense, by drawing on previously published letters the arguments here are not new, but the letters have not been utilised before to draw attention to the biographical context of what has become Mills’s major sociological legacy. Secondary analysis of them not only serves his daughters’ purposes in publishing them by keeping his work alive, with respect to his writings on sociological methodology it enables us to better understand that work. These letters show that he was led into making these programmatic statements in large part because of the negative biographical experiences provoked by the rejection of his broader sociology by colleagues at the time, such that the occasion of his imagining of sociology was shaped only indirectly by his substantive sociological concerns. The biographical context to the book only served to reinforce its iconoclastic character. By making The Sociological Imagination a broadside against his colleagues Mills extenuated his reputation in the discipline as a renegade, affecting its short-term popularity, but over time the fame the book has gathered has also transformed his image into a radical critic of sociology rather than of modern systems of power. First it is worth briefly reminding ourselves of Mills’s argument.

The promise of sociology

Mills famously made sociology the study of the public issues that derive from the private troubles of people. Public issues are important for what they signify sociologically, for they bear on ordinary people’s biography, and reflect the historical, political and social structural milieux in which people live. Faced with issues they do not understand, with structural forces they cannot comprehend and over which it appears they have no power, ordinary people withdraw into apathy or anxiety (2000[1959]: 3 passim). Mills recognised ontological insecurity as an inevitable feature of the modern condition before it was made a defining feature of reflexive modernisation (Beck, Giddens and Lash, 1994). In the context of the fear at the time about the rise of mass society – Kornhauser’s book The Politics of Mass Society was published the same year as Mills’s manifesto – the social condition was one where ontologically insecure people were open to exploitation by elites. Mills saw sociology being employed ethically to allow ordinary people some sense of control over events by showing how public issues are interconnected with people’s ordinary lives, their history, biographical experiences and social structural milieux. Sociology in the service of the ‘small’ person unravels the connections and makes public the way in which ‘big’ institutions have taken over control of people’s ordinary lives, which is the sociologist’s ‘foremost political and intellectual task’ (2000[1959]: 13). It is a sociology that seeks information ‘in order to know what can and what must be structurally changed’ (2000[1959]: 174), one which sees as its purpose the enlargement of human freedom and the procurement of feelings of well-being by collecting information that helps ordinary people to ‘formulate the available choices, to argue over them – and then, the opportunity to choose’ between them (2000[1959]: 174). The sociological imagination is designed both to locate the private troubles of people in the social structural, political and historical context that shapes their travails and to make public issues out of them determining the sociological agenda so that these issues can be better understood, if not solved.

Sociology thus addresses simultaneously the link between biography and society, history and the social structure and the public-private relationship. This gives social reality a three dimensional quality. First, social reality is simultaneously microscopic, based around individuals’ personal worlds, and macroscopic, in that the social structure impacts on people’s personal milieux. Social reality is also concurrently historical and contemporary, in that present structures, circumstances, events, processes and issues have a history that may impact on their current form and future development. Thirdly, reality is simultaneously social and political; society is deeply impacted by the operation of power within the nation state and beyond. In espousing this approach, Mills railed against sociologists who preferred other views, and perhaps his book is most well known for its trenchant critique of sociology’s main traditions at the time, which in different ways distorted the promise. General theory, exemplified by Parsons, distorted it by formulations sufficiently obtuse in generality and prose to be unrecognisable as descriptions of the real world, abstracted empiricism, exemplified by Lazarsfeld, by substituting technical expertise in method in place of sociologically interesting issues and social administration, epitomised by Gillan, for being too state-stated and uncritical.
Occasioning the sociological imagination

It is fashionable to look back on Mills’s career from the contemporary period and portray him as overly ambitious and self-serving, obsessed with becoming a Professional Big Thinker (Becker 1994) or Sociological Big Shot (Oakes and Vidich 1999). He might reasonably have laid claim to such ambitions. Before launching his doctoral studies he published in the American Sociological Review (Mills 1939) and early as a doctoral student he had articles in the American Journal of Sociology (Mills 1940a) and the American Sociological Review (Mills 1940b). He was courted by doyens like Lazarsfeld and Merton to move to Columbia, at a meeting with whom Mills writes they threw ‘money around’ to persuade him (Mills and Mills 2000: 84), and was made the youngest assistant professor at Columbia in its history (Mills and Mills 2000: 82 n. 52). Mills’s trilogy of books on power and stratification in modern industrial society stamped him as one of the best sociological thinkers of his generation. The series began with the publication of New Men of Power in 1948, after which followed in rapid succession White Collar in 1951 and The Power Elite in 1956 (he also published two other books in this period). Mills was prodigious in his output and external recognition quickly followed. In his first decade at Columbia he won a prestigious award from the Guggenheim Foundation, worked for the US Congress as a special advisor during the war, and held visiting appointments at Chicago, Brandeis and the Huntingdon Hartford Foundation in California. In 1956 Mills was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to take up visiting appointments at the London School of Economics and the University of Copenhagen. Reviewing his career at that point Mills might be excused some degree of satisfaction; and all before his fortieth birthday. Mills achieved early in his career what others hope for in a lifetime.

Paradoxically Mills was a casualty of his greatness. He had exceedingly problematic interpersonal relations with others less bright or focused and lampooned colleagues for the vacuousness of their ideas; while a postgraduate in the department at Wisconsin, before the panel had met to adjudicate his PhD, he wrote an attack on its head of department, John Gillan, sufficiently meritorious to appear in The American Journal of Sociology (Mills 1943) but leaving few in doubt about his failure to suffer gladly those he thought fools. Gerth wrote to Merton in 1958 of his recollection at first meeting Mills: ‘an excellent operator, whipper snapper, [a] promising young man on the make’ (cited in Horowitz 1983: 72). Mills fell out with virtually all those who initially helped and admired him, which included most of the establishment sociologists of the day. He was nearly sacked from Lazarsfeld’s Bureau of Applied Social Research for failure to complete his work and he became isolated at Columbia and later in the sociological profession as a whole (for an excellent biography that does not shy away from these personal difficulties see Horowitz 1983). Many personal scores were settled in book reviews of colleagues’ writings and addressed in the pages of his work. As Becker (1994) makes clear, Mills made the private very public when his quarrels with sociologists became the subject matter of his own writing; a brilliant mind but also a disagreeable person – a hero with feet of clay.

It is in this maelstrom that The Sociological Imagination came to be conceived and written in1956-57. Mills’s letters disclose that it was begun simultaneously with the Letters to Tovarich. The Letters to Tovarich were autobiographical, in which Mills tries to explain to an imaginary Russian intellectual something of who he was as a person and sociologist. They began in Austria in 1956; by their end in 1960 Mills is writing to Tovarich that he should read The Sociological Imagination if he wished to understand Mills (Mills and Mills 2000: 296). That is to say, Mills was telling himself through his alter-ego that this book summarises his whole approach to the discipline. This is prosaic. But Mills is saying more than this. The fact that the contents of The Sociological Imagination appear in truncated and less technical form throughout the Letters to Tovarich reinforces the view that The Sociological Imagination is autobiographical. There is a lot of Mills’s personal biography in his account of sociological method and the impetus to making the programmatic statement was not so much professional but personal. Many of Mills’s early articles had been on the nature of sociology and two essays had already been published in 1953 and 1954 outlining his critique of the dominant approaches in sociology at the time (reprinted as Mills 1963a, 1963b). Professionally, he had by now set out his methodological stall, but Mills still felt the need to sell its wares. It is clear from reading his letters that considerable personal angst was motivating him to do so.

There are two senses in which The Sociological Imagination can be said to have a biographical context that occasioned it. The first is the space of its writing, which was in Europe, the second its attempt to deal with Mills’s biographical experiences through public writing. The Tovarich manuscript and The Sociological Imagination began when Mills for the first time separated himself physically and culturally from the United States. This spatial separation took on great meaning by enabling Mills to better reflect upon his homeland and throughout his tour of Europe Mills was resolving issues about his feelings towards the United States, facilitating his realisation that it was where he ought to be as its most ardent critic. Thus, in the opening of one of the Letters to Tovarich in June 1956, Mills states his recognition that he had first to leave America in order to discover it (Mills and Mills 2000: 208; also see pp. 223) and to Harvey Swados, one of his non-imaginary friends, he wrote that Europe had ‘added a new dimension to my rejection of “Amerika”’ (Mills and Mills 2000: 245). Simultaneously however, he was writing to other friends desperate for news of the US and for its gossip (Mills and Mills 2000: 219, 245), lamenting that he sat with head on pillow in the window yearning for gossip from home (Mills and Mills 2000: 245). Europe was beneficial for the renewal of Mills’s commitment to both the United States as a place – he rejected later offers to move to England – and to critical sociological analyses of it. In this latter respect, Europe provided a biographical space in which Mills could stand momentarily outside the discipline in the United States and envisage his contribution to it.

There was also a more immediate biographical edge. If Europe provided a space for reflection, his deteriorating relations with the sociological establishment afforded the sense of personal hurt and anger that encouraged the desire to draw together his previous methodological statements and elaborate his vision for the discipline. The Sociological Imagination began in January 1957 – in a letter from Copenhagen to William Miller dated 5 February 1957 Mills announced that he had just begun work on a ‘little book’, ‘a quite technical book’ on sociology, after months of writing nothing – and by 2 December 1958 he was telling Gerth that Oxford University Press had just begun the process of printing it for publication early the next year. The immense speed with which it was written speaks of an immense investment of energy and time. In one letter Mills declared, ‘never have I written so continuously (yesterday I wrote for fifteen hours) and, I do believe, turned out such a well-written first draft’ (Mills and Mills 2000: 230). While the finalisation of the text took a little longer – Mills was still writing to Miliband on 1 May 1958 thanking him for advice on the ordering of the text – the voracious energy shows the personal interest Mills had in its early public dissemination. This was a level of personal interest that involved, he wrote, the turning upside down of his whole life (Mills and Mills 2000: 230), to the point where he and his wife separated during its writing and eventually divorced (for reasons not necessarily connected to the time devoted to writing). It is clear that professional travails provoked this level of personal investment.

Six months before beginning The Sociological Imagination Mills described to Coser his great personal hurt at the reception of The Power Elite by American sociologists and commentators (Mills and Mills 2003: 209-10; many of these reviews are collated in Domhoff and Ballard 1968). Mills saw this as the best volume in the trilogy and he placed great expectations on its success, even asking colleagues to pass on whatever gossip they heard about it (Mills and Mills 2000: 196). Many reviews were from people whom by this time Mills considered personal enemies after having initially courted or befriended them, like Daniel Bell, Dennis Wrong and Robert Lynd. Mills was incensed and angry, thought of writing to editors to object, and then responded in his usual way by distancing himself from the emotional hurt by disparaging his accusers. In the same letter in which he outlines his intention to write to editors, he says of the critics that they ‘aren’t worth replying to’. However, Mills did turn his private hurt into public writings in two ways. He wrote a piece entitled ‘Comment on Criticism’, published in Dissent at the end of 1956 (reprinted as Mills 1968: 229-50), in which he personalised his reviewers’ criticisms by suggesting they were just having a ‘crack at him’; these ‘self-appointed statesmen of research’ were ‘know nothings who refuse to say anything’. However, he made one significant comment on what the criticism implied for the nature of sociology: ‘the social studies will not be advanced by pontificated dogma about method or pretentious cowardice. It will go forward by highly self-conscious work on social problems’ (1968: 234). In that remark The Sociological Imagination was conceived.

Mills was busily writing substantive studies, which only momentarily slipped from being his main priority. His 1958 book The Causes of World War Three was written at this time, and in other letters in this period he outlined plans for work on the ‘fourth epoch’ (which appeared as an article in the Listener in 12 March 1959) and on intellectuals (published in the Listener on 26 March 1959). He saw himself having to take time out of better things to write about the discipline; which is why, once published, he wrote to Miliband ‘I’m sick of writing about academic stuff and want badly to get back to writing about realities’ (Mills and Mills 2000: 273 italics in the original). Listen Yankee followed his return in 1960 to engagement with substantive issues, representing Mills’s penetrating analysis of American foreign policy. Nonetheless, for the short time he was writing The Sociological Imagination in 1957 Mills was carried along on a tide of enthusiasm and self-belief. He wrote in March, ‘it is once a “defense” of the kind of stuff I’ve done and a really detailed criticism of “the methodological inhibition” a la Lazarsfeld and of “the fetishism of the concept” a la Parsons…I am very excited about it all’ (Mills and Mills 2000: 230). He went on tellingly: ‘I must ask you not to mention any of this to our friends. I want it to be just one big dandy surprise: as from a prophet who comes in from the desert.’ The analogy was fitting for Mills saw himself as ignored in his own land yet with a message all ought to heed. The message was no less than the total revision of the methodology and approach of the social sciences – which is why in many of his letters the preliminary title of the book was ‘The Social Sciences’.

It is obvious from Mills’s letters why he opted for sociology in the final title, since the biographical context occasioning the book points to targets lined up within the profession. Old scores with Parsons, Lazarsfeld and Gillan were to be settled at the same time as which the mythology of ‘return’ enabled Mills to see himself as the outcast preaching the unpopular but pure creed. Thus he wrote to Coser in April 1957 about the manuscript, ‘I told you I was going “to return” to the profession. Well here it is. Believe me it is really quite an exciting little thing…It’s becoming quite a year. A pivotal year I think. Suddenly there’s the need to make a big sum-up’ (Mills and Mills 2000: 234-5). By remarks such as these Mills positions The Sociological Imagination autobiographically in the personal and professional travails of his career. It represents the triumphal proclamation to justify his kind of sociology and enervate his detractors.
Early imaginings

The Sociological Imagination was not Mills’s first attempt to chart the nature, scope and aims of the discipline, although it is his best known. The purpose in this section is to explore some of Mills’s earlier programmatic statements for their biographical referent. This involves further attention to Mills’s autobiographical narratives. It is additional demonstration of Mills’s capacity to render the private into the public and to turn personal travails into sociological writings, something that made The Sociological Imagination so compelling. Mills’s early career was very productive for developing his interest in methodology, but emerging professional and personal disagreements made them increasingly acerbic.

In a 1944 paper on the role of intellectuals published in a new magazine Politics (reprinted as Mills 1963c: 292-304) he outlined the familiar argument from The Sociological Imagination that sociologists had public responsibilities toward the powerless to engage with public issues. In the more prestigious American Journal of Sociology (Mills 1943) he outlined the proper form of this engagement. In his critique of the social administration tradition, epitomised by Gillan, his former Chair, he criticised an approach to social problems that was both apolitical and un-sociological, at least as Mills saw it. It rendered social problems as either forms of social disorganisation and not as ‘normal’ products of particular kinds of social structures or as personal failings in individual victims and not as structural problems at all. In this paper Mills was beginning to locate his approach to sociology in relation to others with whom he had a personal agenda and by December 1944 he came to realise the need to publish a book on his vision for the discipline (see Mills and Mills 2000: 59-63), the idea for which came then to nought. This might be because Mills’s main interests were substantive not methodological and the biographical context occasioning these programmatic statements was not yet pressing.

The Weber translations were the first of these substantive topics, setting up Parsons and Shils as life-long opponents. In October 1943 Mills was referring to Parsons as a son of a bitch over denuding Weber’s critical edge in his translations (Mills and Mills 2000: 53), and the following year Shils’s allegations that Gerth and Mills had undermined him witnessed the final end to any professional relationship (Mills and Mills 2000: 76). Another reason why substantive interests superseded methodological ones at this stage was that Mills moved in early 1945 to work with Lazarsfeld in the Bureau of Applied Social Research. But while his career path led Mills to feel that he should concentrate on public issues, the intellectual climate in New York exacerbated professional and personal disagreements. His move to the Bureau acquainted him with empirical survey work, state sponsored ‘practical’ sociology, statistical analyses and the special requirements of working in teams; and he hated it. Mills wrote to Gerth in 1948, ‘it drives me crazy; it just isn’t the kind of work I feel like doing’ (Mills and Mills 2000: 125). He objected to their manipulation of data devoid of analysing their meaning (Mills and Mills 2000: 111), came to believe that research techniques were a disease that interfered with work (Mills and Mills 2000: 146) and the Bureau crystallised his views about professional divisions within sociology. In a letter to a publisher in late 1951 Mills commented that the field was ‘now split into statistical stuff and heavy duty theoretical bullshit, turgid polysyllabic slabs of stuff’ (Mills and Mills 2003: 155).

This biographical space made Mills feel the need to air his disagreements publicly. Two papers followed. The first came in 1953 in Philosophy of Science (reprinted as Mills 1963a: 553-67), in which Mills identified two styles of social research. The first he termed ‘macroscopic’, which engaged in comparative-historical analyses of social structures and historical epochs, the other ‘molecular’, being small-scale studies with an applied focus. It goes without saying that his portrayal of the molecular was based on the experience of the Bureau. Institutional structures like large research bureaux were not conducive, he wrote, to critical engagement. Such work replaced the public’s interest with those of the sponsor, loosing its objectivity under the impulse to be ‘applied’. On the other hand, macroscopic work was abstract and removed from the concerns of ordinary people. If one can read macroscopic for ‘general theory’ and microscopic for ‘abstracted empiricism’ we have two of the three targets in The Sociological Imagination. A more radical and acerbic portrayal followed the next year in the popular magazine The Saturday Review (reprinted as Mills 1963b: 568-76). No longer restricted to an academic audience but engaging with the ‘public’, Mills identified three types of sociologist in terms that belittled two of them. ‘The scientist’ aspires to the IBM symbol and to wear white coats and become ‘higher statisticians’, exuding a bureaucratisation of the mind that opts for apolitical, safe studies. ‘The grand theorist’ is an obscurantist, engaging in clumsy, irrelevant ponderosity, from whose generalisations no one can derive observations about recognisably human problems. The third type, as yet unnamed, was exemplified by himself: publicly engaged, focused on the real problems of society and their historical trends, and concerned to explore the connections between individual biography and social structure.

The link between biography and sociology was something Mills was evidently reflecting upon in his life and career at the time, and this affected the tone and style of The Sociological Imagination, which came from The Saturday Review not Philosophy of Science; yet the book amplified the private agenda. The Saturday Review piece had personal targets in mind but they remained politely unmentioned. By 1957 when writing The Sociological Imagination, Mills lost the vestiges of professional courtesy and gave his targets names with no holds barred, lambasting Parsons and Lazarsfeld by name (Eldridge 1983: 105 makes the point that Mills remained loyal to Merton despite his close association with Lazarsfeld). As we have argued, the biographical context to The Sociological Imagination which occasioned it largely explains why this was so. Having wanted so badly to climb the Ivy League, by 1957 he was writing to Miliband and Birnbaum about ‘the little circuit of the Ivy League schools’: ‘Until now I have not really fought these people in American sociology; I’ve ignored them and done my own work; but they’ve been fooling around behind the scenes and now I declare war: I am going to expose their essential bankruptcy with my book on the social studies’ (Mills and Mills 2003: 257). On its publication, the book served only to reinforce his image amongst younger readers as a radical but amongst detractors it made him a renegade, someone who had turned against them personally and, so it appeared to them, the profession. Not only did they savage the book in their reviews, recognising its biographical context, some reproved Mills personally.
reactions to the sociological imagination

The sociological establishment in its two dominant spaces – Britain and the United States – rallied around the discipline and its prominent figures. A.H. Halsey noted that since much of sociology in Britain was within the tradition of social administration that Mills attacked as state centred and overly practical, the book was never likely to endear itself (cited in Horowitz 1983: 100), and the hegemony of structural functionalism in British social theory was not favourable to Mills’s stress on critique. Julius Gould was trenchant, referring to Mills as an ‘espresso radical’ with ideas attractive only to the ‘quarter baked’ (cited in Horowitz 1983: 101). Ronald Fletcher picked up on Mills’s messianism and in the British Journal of Sociology referred to him as the Billy Graham of sociology, travelling the earth bearing a torch to bring the discipline from darkness (1960: 169). Like Halsey, he saw that The Sociological Imagination was equally an attack on British sociology, for Westermarck as much as Parsons was amongst the false gods Mills denounced. But Fletcher felt the criticisms were too extreme, often unfair and Mills’s own proposals for method lamentably thin. Continuing the metaphor, he told readers not to fall on their knees in worship to Mills’s particular gospel; old gods had not been knocked from their pedestals. However, British reviewers took the arguments seriously, perhaps with the exception of Gould, even if they disagreed with them. Fletcher acknowledged there was ‘much sense and human concern in his message’ (1960: 170). Peter Winch, whose 1958 volume The Idea of Social Science covered similar ground, wrote in The Sociological Review (1960: 148-9) that it had ‘great merit’ in the force with which it raised philosophical issues. Thus Mills assessed British reviews as ‘on the whole rather good’ (Mills and Mills 2000: 273). However, US sociology panned it. This was not a difference in national tradition but of biographical context.

In the US some leading journals like Social Forces and Social Problems did not carry reviews and the reactions in others depended upon reviewers’ biographical experiences of Mills. His former mentors at Columbia reflected their sense of profound disappointment that the prodigal son remained bad. Lazarsfeld said the book was ‘advanced charlatanism not knowledge’ (cited in Horowitz 1983: 199) and Daniel Bell, with whom Mills had diametrically opposed views on Cold War America, that it was ‘vulgar sociology’, the author being ‘the caretaker of the dustbin of history’ (cited in Eldridge 1983: 110). People in Chicago, a tradition Mills ignored despite Herbert Blumer being one of the readers of the manuscript in draft, were unkind. Mills had been in Chicago on sabbatical a decade earlier but had behaved thoroughly unprofessionally. In a letter to Leo Lowenthal from Chicago in January 1949, Mills wrote of his meetings with people like Everett C. Hughes and William Ogburn: ‘I don’t talk much: just ask them what they’re doing and sit still, listening. They talk and talk and sell and sell. It’s easier this way’ (Mills and Mills 2000: 130). He became disillusioned and cynical. Since he was only there temporally he told a correspondent that ‘I thought I would therefore let them have it up the nose’. ‘I just can’t take these people seriously. I’m afraid my attitude shows thru and so I’ve ceased to behave. I just yawn when I want to and attack whoever talks foolishness. Well, hell, what do I care? Guess I can go on living in New York’ (Mills and Mills 2000: 132). Afterwards the Chicago tradition never featured in any of his denunciations; a kind of obliteration by neglect. Hughes responded by describing The Sociological Imagination a work in political philosophy not sociology (cited in Horowitz 1983: 104).

The Harvard connections of George Homans, who reviewed it for the American Journal of Sociology (1960: 517-18), were not conducive to a favourable opinion of the book either, describing it as nonsense. It was not that working alongside Parsons in Harvard resulted in any great sympathy for general theory; more that Harvard was one of the major centres of sociology in the US and keen to lead the discipline’s claim to professionalism. Homans was not an acolyte of functionalism (he gave a presidential address to the American Sociological Association in 1964 which criticised systems theories for their neglect of human subjects, see Homans 1964). In his review he admitted that he shared Mills’s judgements of general theory, however as an establishment figure soon to be the president of the ASA and to publish a similar book outlining his programmatic vision for sociology (Homans 1961), Homans defended the discipline’s claim to scientific status against threats from Mills to make it value oriented. He defended Mills’s targets (although not Parsons by name), referred to Mills as ‘seldom generous to an opponent’ and, more seriously, accused him of falsifying the arguments against them. He says of Mills that he ‘describes some work that I am familiar with in such loaded terms that I cannot recognize it’ (1960: 517). The extended review in the American Sociological Review came from William L. Kolb (1960: 966-69), sometime collaborator with Gould and a less august figure, placed then in a private liberal arts college in Minnesota, something of an outlander like Mills (but for different reasons). The Sociological Imagination was recognised as ‘a serious indictment and a serious proposal seriously made’ but ‘integrity of purpose does not’, Kolb wrote, ‘guarantee the correctness of conclusions’ (1969: 966). Rather than criticise from the fringes, as Mills opted to do, Kolb responded to his own marginality by defending the core, establishing himself as a supporter of structural functionalism, Parsons and Shils, and accusing Mills of dogmatism, inflexibility and perpetuating his own ‘abstract mode of sociologism’ (1960: 969).

The most infamous review was that by Shils in Encounter (1960). Although based at the time in London and Cambridge and writing in a British based journal, Shils’s review reflected long-standing tensions on the other side of the Atlantic dating back to the Weber translations and Mills’s attacks on Parsons, a collaborator and close friend of Shils. Encounter was also one of several journals and magazines supported by the Congress of Cultural Freedom, since shown to be funded by the CIA (Coleman 1989), that pursued the Cold War aims of liberal democracies to whom Mills was anathema. Political conflicts were rendered into debate about theory and method and made personal: in Shils’s review, Mills’s Texan roots were used as a metaphor for professional ridicule and an opportunity for personal abuse. Mills was described as a horseman, a cow puncher, a rough-tongued brawler, someone without the cultural capital or civility for life outside the pan handle, coming to ‘Columbia University carrying in his saddle bag some books which he reads with absorption while his horse trots along’ (1960: 81). There was an explicit attack on Mills personally, referring to him as the Joe McCarthy of sociology, with a bullying manner full of wild accusations, gross inaccuracies, harsh words and shifting grounds. Never one to accept touché, Mills saw this as ‘slander’ and ‘defamation of my person’ but decided against responding (Horowitz 1983: 102, italics in original).

Over time opinions of the book changed markedly. Seymour Martin Lipset’s views offer one measure of this. Lipset had been a student at Columbia during Mills’s tenure and was at Yale and Berkeley when The Sociological Imagination was published, other core centres of sociology in the US. In an article on American sociology for a British audience, written with Neil Smelser (Lipset and Smelser 1961), Lipset described Mills as ‘stodgily rejecting American academic sociology’, having ‘cut himself off from the sociological fraternity’, making him and his book of ‘very little importance for sociology’ (1961: 50 n. 10). This offending footnote was omitted from the US version printed later in an edited collection and Smelser came to feel the need to explain that it had been written by Lipset alone without his consent (Eldridge 1983: 110). By 1976 however, even Lipset had converted, describing Mills as ‘standing alone amongst prominent figures in the field’ and The Sociological Imagination as ‘critical to the development of a sociology of sociology’ (Lipset 1976: 204).

The book may have come to be seen as better than it was on its first publication by a natural process of maturation. Good books are perhaps like wine but in this case it was the perception that changed not the thing itself. Mills’s untimely death was significant to the altered perception of The Sociological Imagination, for it came to be seen as valedictory. The disciplinary context also transformed to make Mills popular. His substantive studies on systems of power and stratification in modern society fitted the sociological tenor of the 1960s as the discipline became comfortable in seeing itself as a form of critique and debunking (something that dominated even Berger’s more conventional portrayal in Invitation to Sociology (1963)). Thus, as the number of Mills’s devotees grew, perceptions of The Sociological Imagination benefited from it being seen as a methodological framework for critique. This allowed the book to be located as part of the popular attack on positivist social research and as contributing toward the development of sociological theory beyond structural functionalism. However, in itself The Sociological Imagination was only indirectly related to Mills’s radical critique of systems of power and stratification and could be perceived as standing alone from it. This meant that as time elapsed, detractors no longer panned the book because they disliked his political radicalism. Thus even as the number of his disciples declined once the mood in sociology changed after the radicalism of the 1960s faded, the reputation of The Sociological Imagination as a classic text had been established and it could be approached independently of people’s reactions to Mills’s substantive studies. This facilitated the detachment of The Sociological Imagination from Mills’s general sociology and widened its popularity amongst new generations of sociologists who otherwise knew little of his substantive concerns or were not responding negatively to Mills’s substantive critiques. The argument in this paper suggests a further reason, for the biographical context that occasioned the book had also dramatically altered. Mills gave The Sociological Imagination a strong biographical referent that made it inflammatory. Its arguments therefore had an immediate personal agenda to which many people responded negatively. Once the book was distanced from the biographical experiences that infused the controversy, and the personal hurts and disappointments that framed it lessened in their emotional intensity, the book could be perceived separately from its biographical context and the arguments approached for their universal appeal.

In a letter on 24 September 1957 when Mills announced that he had a manuscript on the social sciences ‘pretty well done’, despite only starting it in the New Year, he warned his correspondent that it would be ‘very hot’ (Mills and Mills 2000: 246). Methodological statements do not normally generate this level of excitement from authors. This paper has argued that the heat was provided by its biographical context. Mills’s letters reveal why he felt the terms appropriate. In a letter to Miliband only a few months later, Mills outlined his approach to dealing with criticism: ‘I don’t think it worthwhile to waste energy about it in small ways: analyze the world and locate them as a piece of shit within it’ (Mills and Mills 2000: 262).

Scatology often provided the symbolism for his detractors but Mills is saying something more significant than that they needed to be consigned to the privy: the advice was to turn criticism into sociology but never lose sight of its biographical milieux. This rendered biography into sociology. In Mills’s view it was the relationship between sociology and biography that helped to make sociology distinctive. This was clearly the outcome of reflections on their intersection in his own life and career. His pained reactions to attacks on his work were turned into sociology by spurring his need to write and by encouraging further reflection and refinement of his ideas. This gave his sociological writings an autobiographical thrust, so that sociology was simultaneously turned biographical. It has been argued in the past (for example Eldridge, 1983; Gillam 1981) that his substantive studies reflected his own biographical location as a member of the new middle class making the transition from small town America to the industrial and cultural heart of modern society. Mills endorsed this view, for several letters express the realisation that his work was autobiographical (for example Mills and Mills 2000: 138).

Authors naturally change in the subjective evaluation of their career as it evolves but each successive book was portrayed by Mills as the culmination of his biographical reflexivity, the best and most pivotal statement of his sociology (on later books see Mills and Mills 2000: 328). This paper has explored the biographical context to Mills’s methodological statements and has argued that irrespective of Mills’s subjective evaluations The Sociological Imagination is his most intensely autobiographical work. His letters disclose that his inclination to make these programmatic statements was provoked by the personal reaction to public criticism of his work, and he gave these methodological statements a strong biographical edge by using them to settle old scores and articulate the private agenda underlying normal professional disagreements over methods and approach and political disagreements. It has been argued that this biographical context not only helps to explain the occasioning and personal agenda of Mills’s programmatic statements, its assists in understanding both the negative reception they evoked amongst colleagues at the time and the improved reputation of The Sociological Imagination after his death. Once the book was distanced from the immediate biographical agenda that occasioned it, it could be approached for the undoubted quality of its argument; and its popularity has been fundamental to Mills’s capacity to transcend his time and place. Amongst mainstream sociology, the book is perceived as a universal prescription for the sociological tradition as formally taught, transcending its modernist narrative and language. The essential timelessness of this tradition, the continuity in the way it is constructed from the classics to today, has allowed The Sociological Imagination to remain central to the way it is defined. The book’s positioning at the core of the mainstream sociological tradition has contributed to the enhancement of Mills’s subsequent reputation, but transformed it in the process from a radical critic of industrial society into the prophet of sociology’s promise.


Beck, U., Giddens, A., and Lash, S. 1994 Reflexive Modernisation, Cambridge: Polity.

Becker, H. S. 1994 ‘Professional sociology: the case of C. Wright Mills’ in R. Rist (ed.) The Democratic Imagination, New Brunswick: Transaction Books.
Berger, P. 1963 Invitation to Sociology, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Binns, D. 1977 Beyond the Sociology of Conflict, London: Macmillan.

Brewer, J.D. 2003 C. Wright Mills and the Ending of Violence, London: Palgrave.

Casin, B.H. 1990 ‘C. Wright Mills: pessimistic radical’, Sociological Inquiry 60: 337-51.
Coleman, P. 1989 The Liberal Conspiracy, New York: Free Press.

Denzin, N. 1990 ‘The sociological imagination revisited’, Sociological Quarterly 31:1-22.

Domhoff, G.W. and Ballard, H. (eds) 1968 C. Wright Mills and the Power Elite Boston: Beacon Press.
Eldridge, J. 1983 C. Wright Mills, London: Tavistock.
Fletcher, R. 1960 Book review of The Sociological Imagination, British Journal of Sociology 11(2): 169-70.
Gillam, R. 1981 ‘White Collar from start to finish’, Theory and Society 10:1-30.
Halliday, F. 1994 ‘Theory and ethics in IR – the contradictions of C. Wright Mills’, Millennium 23(2): 377-85.
Hearn, F. 1985 Reason and Freedom in Sociological Thought, London: Allen and

Homans, G.C. 1960 Book review of The Sociological Imagination, American Journal of Sociology 65(5): 517-18.

Homans, G.C. 1961 Social Behavour: Its Elementary Forms, New York: Harcourt and Brace.
Homans, G.C. 1964 ‘Bringing men back in’, American Sociological Review 29(5): 809-18.
Horowitz, I. 1983 C. Wright Mills: An American Utopian, New York: Free Press.
Lipset, S. M. and Smelser, N. 1961 ‘Change and controversy in recent American sociology’, British Journal of Sociology 12: 41-51.
Lipset, S.M. 1976 ‘Social structure and social change’, in P. Blau (ed.), Approaches to the Study of Social Structure, London: Open Books.
Kolb, W.L. 1960 Book review of The Sociological Imagination, American Sociological Review 25(6): 966-69.
Merrifield, A. 2001 ‘An American aboriginal’, Antipode 33: 290-96.
Mills, C.W. 1939 ‘Logic, language and culture’, American Sociological Review 4(5): 670-80.
Mills, C.W. 1940a ‘Methodological consequences of the sociology of knowledge’, American Journal of Sociology 46(3): 316-30.
Mills, C.W. 1940b ‘Situated actions and vocabularies of motive’, American Sociological Review 5(6): 904-13.
Mills, C.W. 1943 ‘The professional ideology of social pathologists’, American Journal of Sociology 49(2): 165-80.
Mills, C.W. 1963a[1953] ‘Two styles of social science research’, in I. Horowitz (ed.) Power, Politics and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, New York: Oxford University Press.
Mills, C.W. 1963b[1954] ‘IBM plus researching plus humanism = sociology’, in I. Horowitz (ed.) Power, Politics and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, New York: Oxford University Press.
Mills, C.W. 1963c[1944] ‘The social role of the intellectual’, in I. Horowitz (ed.) Power, Politics and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, New York: Oxford University Press.
Mills, C. W. 1968[1956] ‘Comment on criticism,’ in G.W. Domhoff and H. Ballard (eds), C. Wright Mills and the Power Elite, Boston: Beacon Press.

Mills, C.W. 2000[1959] The Sociological Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mills, K. and Mills, P. 2000 C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Oakes, G. and Vidich, A. 1999 Collaboration, Reputation and Ethics in American

Academic Life: Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, Urbana: University of Illinois

Parsons, T. 1976 ‘Social structure and the symbolic media of interchange’, in P. Blau (ed.), Approaches to the Study of Social Structure, London: Open Books.

Rosenberg, S.J. 1994 ‘The international imagination – IR theory and classical social analysis’, Millennium 23(1): 85-108.
Runciman, W.G. 1999 The Social Animal, London: Fontana.
Seidman, S. 1998 Contested Knowledge, Oxford: Blackwell.
Shils, E. 1960 ‘Imaginary sociology’, Encounter 14: 77-80.
Winch, P. 1960 Book review of The Sociological Imagination, The Sociological Review, 8: 148-9.
Wrong. D. 1968 ‘Power in America’, in G.W. Domhoff and H. Ballard (eds), C. Wright Mills and the Power Elite, Boston: Beacon Press.

Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page