The sociological imagination by C. Wright Mills provides a framework for understanding our social world that far surpasses any common sense notion we might derive from our limited social experiences. Mills (1916-1962) was a contemporary sociologist who brought tremendous insight into the daily lives of society’s members. Mills stated: “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”1
The sociological imagination allows one to make the connection between personal challenges and larger social issues. Mills identified “troubles” (personal challenges) and “issues” (larger social challenges), also known as biography, and history, respectively. Mills’ conceptualization of the sociological imagination allows individuals to see the relationships between events in their personal lives, biography, and events in their society, history. In other words, this mindset provides the ability for individuals to realize the relationship between personal experiences and the larger society.
Mills taught we live much of our lives on the personal level, while much of society happens at the larger social level. Without a knowledge of the larger social and personal levels of social experience, we live in what Mills called a false social consciousness which is an ignorance of social facts and the larger social picture.
Personal troubles are private problems experienced within the character of the individual and the range of their immediate relation to others. Mills identified the fact that we function in our personal lives as actors and actresses who make choices about our friends, family, groups, work, school, and other issues within our control. We have a degree of influence in the outcome of matters within the personal level. A college student who parties 4 nights out of 7, who rarely attends class, and who never does his homework has a personal trouble that interferes with his odds of success in college. However, when 50% of all college students in the United States never graduate, we label it as being a larger social issue.
Larger social issues are those that lie beyond one’s personal control and the range of one’s inner life. These pertain to society’s organizations and processes; further, these are rooted in society rather than in the individual. Nationwide students come to college as freshmen ill-prepared to understand the rigors of college life. They haven’t often been challenged enough in high school to make the necessary adjustments required to succeed as college students. Nationwide, the average teenager text messages, surfs the Net, plays video or online games, hangs out at the mall, watches TV and movies, spends hours each day with friends, and works at least part-time. Where and when would he or she get experience focusing attention on college studies and the rigorous self-discipline required to transition into college credits, a quarter or a semester, study, papers, projects, field trips, group work, or test taking?
The real power of the sociological imagination is found in how we learn to distinguish between the personal and social levels in our own lives. Once we do, we can make personal choices that serve us best, given the larger social forces that we face.
1 Mills, C. W. 1959. The Sociological Imagination page ii; Oxford U. Press.