Have you ever wondered why your family cooks turkey on Thanksgiving? If you ask, you might get all kinds of reasons: because it’s tradition, because it tastes good, because it’s what the pilgrims ate back in the early days of America. All of those factors—taste, personal history, and world history—lead to one small action of you eating turkey on a holiday.
That’s the premise of sociological imagination. Like imagination in the more typical sense, the sociological imagination asks us to use our brains to think differently about things and consider why we do the things we do.
In this article, we’ll introduce the concept of sociological imagination, its history, how it changed the sociological field, and how you can use it every day to change your way of thinking about the world.
What Is Sociological Imagination?
The sociological imagination is a method of thinking about the world. As you may have guessed, it’s part of the field of sociology, which studies human society.
When you put “sociological”—studying society—and “imagination”—the concept of forming new ideas, often creatively—together, you get a pretty good definition of the concept: a method of thinking about both individuals and society by considering a variety of sociological contexts.
The societal imagination encourages people to think about their lives not just on an individual level, but also considering societal, biological, and historical context. Societal context tells us about our culture—when we consider it, we think about how our desires, actions, and thoughts are shaped by our community and how that community is changing. Biological context tells us about how “human nature” impacts our desires and needs. And lastly, historical context considers our place in time; how have events of the past led up to where we are currently?
Basically, the concept of sociological imagination suggests that who you are as an individual is also the you shaped by your immediate surroundings, your family, your friends, your country, and the world as a whole. You may make individual choices about what to eat for lunch, but what you choose—a tuna sandwich, lobster ravioli, or shrimp tacos—is also determined by societal factors like where you live and what you’ve grown up eating.
To use the sociological imagination is to shift your perspective away from yourself and look at things more broadly, bringing in context to individual actions.
If you’re thinking about lunch, you’re probably more likely to choose something that’s familiar to you. In another culture or even another part of your city, a person who is very similar to you might choose a different food because of what’s familiar to them. If we zoom out a little further, we might realize that people in landlocked states might be unlikely to choose a seafood-based lunch at all because fresh fish is more expensive than it is on the coast. Zoom out more, and you might realize that fish isn’t even on the menu for some cultures because of societal taboos or restrictions.
And those are just spatial boundaries. You can also consider your family’s relationship with eating fish, or how your cultural and ethnic heritage impacted where you are, what food you have access to, and your personal tastes. All of this lets you see yourself and your culture in a new light, as a product of society and history.
In this sense, using a sociological imagination lets you look at yourself and your culture as a third-party observer. The goal is not to be dispassionate and distant, but rather to see yourself not as “natural” or “normal,” as a part of larger systems, the same way that all people are.
Why the Sociological Imagination Is Useful
Part of the appeal of using a sociological imagination is that it helps people avoid apathy. In this context, apathy refers to a sense of indifference or disinterest in examining the morality of their leaders. According to C. Wright Mills, creator of the idea of sociological imagination, if we accept that our beliefs, traditions, and actions are all normal and natural, we are less likely to interrogate when our leaders and community members do things that are immoral.
Considering sociological context allows individuals to question and change society rather than just live in it. When we understand historical and social contexts, we’re better equipped to look at our actions and the actions of our community as a result of systems—which can be changed—rather than as inherent to humanity.
In more technical terms, Mills was challenging the dominant structural functionalist approach to sociology. Structural functionalism suggests that society is composed of different structures that shape the interactions and relationships between people, and those relationships can be understood and analyzed to help us learn more about a society.
What differed for Mills and his concept of the sociological imagination was that he believed that society was not only a series of systems, but that the role of the individual should also be considered. In fact, Mills believed that social structures arise because of conflict between groups, typically the elite and the others, such as the government and the citizens or the rich and the poor.
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Where Does the Term Come From?
As previously mentioned, C. Wright Mills is the origin of the term “sociological imagination.” In his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination, the Columbia University professor of sociology suggested that sociologists rethink the way they were engaging with the field. During his time, many sociologists engaged in a sort of top-down view of the world, focusing on systems rather than on individuals. Mills believed both were important, and that society should be understood as a relationship between different systems that originated in conflict.
Though his book has since been named one of the most important sociological texts of the 20th century, Mills was not popular among his contemporaries. Mills was particularly concerned with class in social spheres, particularly the elite and the military, and how conflict between the elite and the non-elite impacted the actions of individuals and vice-versa.
Mills was also opposed to the tendency of sociologists to observe rather than act. He believed that sociology was a great tool for changing the world, and believed that using the sociological imagination encouraged people of all kinds, including sociologists, to expose and respond to social injustice.
Mills referred to the tendency of sociologists to think in abstraction “grand theory.” This tendency led to sociologists of the time being more concerned with organization and taxonomy over understanding—because Mills was so concerned with the experience of the individual as well as the experience of the whole, this contributed to his feeling that the sociological field was too far removed from the actual humans that comprise society.
Because so much of Mills’ ideas of the sociological imagination were intended to bring sociologists closer to the people and their concerns, he developed a series of tenets to encourage them to think differently.
Mills’ Sociological Imagination Tips
Mills' book was all about how the sociological imagination could help society, but it wasn't only a theoretical approach. The Sociological Imagination contained tips for sociologists as well as the general public to help them better contextualize the world!
Avoid Existing Sets of Procedures
So much of sociology was based on existing systems that Mills felt the field focused on method over humanity. To combat this, he suggested that sociologists should function as individuals and propose new theories and methodologies that could challenge and enhance established norms.
Be Clear and Concise
Mills believed that some of the academic language used in the field of sociology encouraged the sense of distance that so troubled him. Instead, he advocated that sociologists be clear and concise when possible, and that they do not couch their theories in language intended to distance themselves from society and from criticism.
Observe the Macro and Micro
Prior to Mills’ work, structural functionalism was the primary philosophy of the field. Mills disagreed with the top-down approach to sociology, and encouraged sociologists to engage with the macro, as they had been doing, in addition to the micro. He believed that history is comprised of both the big and small, and that study of each is required for a robust field.
Observe Social Structure as Well as Milieu
Building off of his last point, Mills also suggested that social structure and individual actions, which he called “milieu,” were interconnected and equally worthy of study. He explained that individual moments, as well as long spans of time, were equally necessary to understanding society.
Avoid Arbitrary Specialization
Mills advocated for a more interdisciplinary approach to sociology. Part of the sociological imagination is thinking outside of the boundaries of yourself; to do so, Mills suggested that sociologists look beyond their specialized fields toward a more comprehensive understanding.
Always Consider Humanity and History
Because so much of sociology in the time of Mills’ writing was concerned with systems, he advocated for more consideration of both humanity and history. That meant looking at human experience on an individual and societal level, as well as within a specific and broad historical context.
Understand Humanity as Historical and Social Actors
Mills wanted sociologists to consider humans as products of society, but also society as products of humanity. According to Mills, people may act on an individual basis, but their individual desires and thoughts are shaped by the society in which they live. Therefore, sociologists should consider human action as a product of not just individual desires, but also historical and social actors.
Consider Individuals in Connection with Social Issues—Public is Personal, Personal is Public
One of Mills’ biggest points was that an individual problem is often also a societal problem. He suggested that sociologists should look beyond the common discourse and find alternate explanations and considerations.
2 In-Depth Sociological Imagination Examples
The sociological imagination can be complex to wrap your mind around, particularly if you’re not already a sociologist. When you take this idea and apply it to a specific example, however, it becomes a lot easier to understand how and why it works to broaden your horizons. As such, we've developed two in-depth sociological imagination examples to help you understand this concept.
Buying a Pair of Shoes
Let’s start with a pretty basic example—buying a pair of shoes. When you think about buying a new pair of shoes, your explanation may be fairly simple, such as that you need a new pair of shoes for a particular purpose, like running or a school dance, or that you simply like the way they look. Both of those things may be true, but using your sociological imagination takes you out of the immediacy of those to answers and encourages you to think deeper.
So let’s go with the first explanation that you need a new pair of running shoes. Our first step toward using the sociological imagination is asking yourself ‘why?’ Well, so you can go running, of course! But why do you want to go running, as opposed to any other form of exercise? Why get into exercise at all? Why new running shoes rather than used ones?
Once you start asking these questions, you can start to see how it’s not just an individual choice on your part—the decision to buy running shoes is a product of the society you live in, your economic situation, your local community, and so on. Maybe you want to go running because you want to get into shape, and your favorite Instagram profile is big into running. Maybe you recently watched a news report about heart health and realized that you need a new exercise regimen to get into shape. And maybe you’ve chosen new shoes over used ones because you have the financial means to purchase a name-brand pair.
If you were a different person in a different context—say if you lived in a poorer area, or an area with more crime, or another country where other forms of exercise are more practical or popular—you might have made different choices. If you lived in a poorer area, designer shoes may not even be available to you. If there was a lot of crime in your area, running might be an unsafe method of exercise. And if you lived in another country, maybe you’d take up biking or tai chi or bossaball.
When you consider these ideas, you can see that while you’re certainly an individual making individual decisions, those decisions are, in part, shaped by the context you live in. That’s using your sociological imagination—you’re seeing how the personal decision of buying a pair of running shoes is also public, in that what is available to you, what societal pressures you experience, and what you feel are all shaped by your surroundings.
Who People Choose to Marry
Marriage for love is the norm in American culture, so we assume that the same is true and always has been true. Why else would anybody marry?
When we use our sociological imaginations, we can figure it out. You might get married to your partner because you love them, but why else might you get married? Well, it can make your taxes simpler, or make you more qualified to get a home loan. If your partner is from another country, it might help them stay within the US. So even in the United States, where marriage is typically thought of as a commitment of love, there are multiple other reasons you might get married.
Throughout history, marriage was a means to make alliances or acquire property, usually with a woman as a bargaining chip. Love wasn’t even part of the equation—in fact, in ancient Rome one politician was ousted from the Senate for having the gall to kiss his wife in public.
It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that love became a reason to marry, thanks to the Enlightenment idea that lives should be dedicated to pursuing happiness. But at that point, women were still seen more like property than people—it wasn’t until the women’s rights movements of the 1900s that American women advocated for their own equality in marriage.
In other cultures, polygamy might be acceptable, or people might have arranged marriages, where a person’s family chooses their spouse for them. That sounds strange to us, but only because in our culture the norm is marrying for love, with other reasons, such as financial or immigration concerns, being secondary.
So even for an individual, there might be multiple factors at play in the decision to be made. You may never articulate these desires because getting married for love is our cultural norm (and it wouldn’t sound very good in a wedding speech), but these kinds of considerations do have subconscious effects on our decision-making.
Sociological Imagination in the Sociology Community
As you might have gathered from the numerous challenges Mills’ concept of the sociological imagination posed to established practices, he wasn’t a super popular figure in sociology during his time.
Many sociologists were resistant to Mills’ suggested changes to the field. In fact, Mills is sometimes heralded to be ahead of his time, as the values he espoused about human connection and societal issues were prominent thoughts in the 1960s, just after his death.
One of his former students wrote about how Mills stood in contrast to other sociologists of the era, saying:
“Mills’s very appearance was a subject of controversy. In that era of cautious professors in gray flannel suits he came roaring into Morningside Heights on his BMW motorcycle, wearing plaid shirts, old jeans and work boots, carrying his books in a duffel bag strapped across his broad back. His lectures matched the flamboyance of his personal image, as he managed to make entertaining the heavyweight social theories of Mannheim, Ortega and Weber. He shocked us out of our Silent Generation torpor by pounding his desk and proclaiming that every man should build his own house (as he himself did a few years later) and that, by God, with the proper study, we should each be able to build our own car! “Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps,” Mills wrote in the opening sentence of The Sociological Imagination, and I can hear him saying it as he paced in front of the class, speaking not loudly now but with a compelling sense of intrigue, as if he were letting you in on a powerful secret.”
Though Mills’ philosophy is hugely important to today’s sociology field, his skewering of power and the myopic nature of his era’s academics didn’t make him many friends.
However, as time has gone on, the field has come to regard him differently. His challenge to the field helped reshape it into something that is concerned with the macro as well as the micro. Conversations—even negative ones—about Mills’ proposals helped circulate his ideas, leading to The Sociological Imagination eventually being voted as the second most important sociological text of the 20th century.
How to Apply Sociological Imagination to Your Own Life
The great thing about sociological imagination is that you don’t need to be a trained sociologist to do it. You don’t need a huge vocabulary or a deep understanding of sociological texts—just the willingness to step outside of your own viewpoint and consider the world in context.
This helps you escape your own perspective and think about the world differently. That can mean you’re able to make decisions less tinged with cultural bias—maybe you don’t need those expensive running shoes after all.
To train your sociological imagination, get into the habit of asking questions about behavior that seems “normal” to you. Why do you think it’s normal? Where did you learn it? Are there places it may not be seen as normal?
Consider a relatively common tradition like Christmas, for example. Even if you don’t come from a particularly religious family, you may still celebrate the holiday because it’s common in our society. Why is that? Well, it could be that it’s a tradition. But where did that tradition come from? Probably from your ancestors, who may have been more devout than your current family. You can trace this kind of thinking backward and consider your personal history, your family history, and the surrounding cultural context (not all cultures celebrate Christmas, of course!) to understand how something that feels “normal” got to that state.
But cultural context isn’t the only important part of the sociological imagination—Mills also suggested that sociologists should consider the personal and the public, as well. When you come upon something that seems like a personal issue, think about it in a societal context. Why might that person behave the way that they do? Are there societal causes that might contribute to their situation?
A common example of this is the idea of unemployment. If you are unemployed, you may feel simultaneous feelings of frustration, unease, and even self-loathing. Many people blame themselves for their lack of a job, but there are societal factors at play, too. For example, there may simply be no jobs available nearby, particularly if you’re trained in a specific field or need to hit a certain income level to care for your family. You may have been laid off due to poor profits, or even because you live in a place where it’s legal to terminate employment based on sexuality or gender identity. You may be unable to find work because you’re spending so much time caring for your family that you simply don’t have time to apply for many jobs.
So while unemployment may seem like a personal issue, there are actually lots of societal issues that can contribute to it. Mills’ philosophy asks us to consider both in conversation with one another—it’s not that individuals have no free will, but rather that each person is a product of their society as well as an individual.
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Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.