Research papers on sociological imagination
Many approaches to history focus on the actions of the individuals, colloquially known as “Great Men.” In a 1959 book, however, C. Wright Mills coined, or invented, the term ‘sociological imagination’ in order to put the relationship between the individual and society into a more meaningful context. Citing Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx as examples, Mills pointed out that the successful social critic takes into account the interrelationship between individuals both famous and obscure, and the circumstances under which they live. Understanding the person requires the socially imaginative thinker to examine the structure of that society, the changes occurring in it, and the type of individual likely to succeed under those circumstances. Full knowledge of society, likewise, would understand the biographies of those affected by mass movements, whether they be geopolitical, financial, or cultural, and, in turn, the individual’s influence on them.
Imbedded in the earlier paradigm is a defense of the prevailing social order. For example, the nineteenth century belief in social pathology maintained that those who were poor, or criminal, were personally deficient either morally or genetically. By concentrating on the individual, it protected those in power by deflecting examination of the social factors that led to a situation where a high percentage of criminality became inevitable. Obviously, exploitation of a previously (by and large) agrarian labor force by industrialization might have contributed to this.
Sociological imagination, as a concept, debunks this by distinguishing between personal “troubles” and “public issues.” The former occurs when something threatens the values of a single person. The latter describes the threat to the values shared by a number of people. In the above example, a personal problem would depend on the view of the individual. For the boss, it would entail getting the laborer to work longer hours with less money. For the worker, the problem would be getting from one day to the next.
The public issues of crime and poverty, however, threaten the values of many. The geneses of public issues are systemic, however, and as such personal solutions would not apply. If one were to educate every impoverished person in marketable jobs skills, it might help a few people. But overall, it would not end poverty, for society as structured requires that some percentage of the population remain poor. That type of solution would constitute a fallacy similar to the application of systemic solutions for personal troubles. If, for example, there were a society in which very few people were impoverished, then it would not make sense to institute a welfare system.