Monday, 25 February 2013

The 'Sociological Imagination'

I have really been thinking a lot about this topic today, well for the past few weeks, as I have seen numerous blogs by others in which I have responded in much the same way as I am writing this.  A lot of my time lately has been thinking about social networks and a sense of place in the community, and how a community interacts.

When C. Wright Mills coined the phrase the 'sociological imagination', what was he suggesting?
He was suggesting a way of thinking about and researching people's lives to show how they are connected to a larger pattern of history and social processes.  Social networks produce their effects and are different from individual problems.

We are often unable to make a distinction because we often rely too much on common sense, that we can only understand what is happening and why it is happening by revealing the effects on us of history and society.  There is a larger history shaping our lives which is largely invisible - yet very real and powerful social factors shape what we think, feel and do.  We are free to choose and to act, but that we do not choose in a situation we ourselves have made.  In this way, our capacity to choose and to act freely is constrained by our history and by our larger social context.

A simple example of sociological imagination can be made by talking about a morning cup of coffee (or tea).  Having our coffee, or tea, is in sense a very ordinary everyday activity:  we reach for the cup, get the jar out of the cupboard, boil the kettle, poor the water in the cup, put milk in, sugar, however you like it.... simple right?  Applying the sociological imagination to this everyday event means asking questions and seeking answers to better understand it.  It requires partial disengagement from the small part of the world in which we live and from the common sense knowledge on which we rely.  If we can make this break, we may be able to think about all of the social connections and historical processes that shape our world and the way we live in and understand it.  Drinking a cup of coffee, or tea, then takes on a surprising complexity when we ask questions such as:

Where did the coffee come from?
Who made it?
Why do I make it this way?
Why do I drink it?
What role does advertising play in my decision to drink it?
Why do other people in other times or places start the morning with water, milk, rum, tea, juice?

Developing a sociological imagination means asking what, why and how questions... yet finding these things out is not that easy.  We might want to hold on to the commonsense idea that the world consists of facts, that we can discover by using our senses.  However, that will not get us far with abstract concepts of poverty, inequality, unemployment or crime.

There is simply no such place as a safe, predictable, linear world, but only in the eyes of the people who view it.  People see what they want to see, and this is why so many leading issues are not being addressed properly.  We live in a world of complex systems. organisms, ecosystems, our cities, our communities, our families, countries, and the earth itself are all complex systems, so it is really useful to develop a systems view of the world to be able to see it, whats the word, more accurately and form a better understanding.

We all have a mental model of the world and how it should be, made up of all our beliefs, attitudes and values. What is safe, predictable and linear, is very much how an individual perceives something to be, there is simply no such place as a safe, predictable, linear world, but only in the eyes of the people who view it.

In short, we live in a complex and sometimes confusing world of many different ideas, theories, political or ethical values, research methods, controversy and debate - we must accept that everyone will always share apposing views to our own but in order to succeed in good social networks, we all need a clear vision in order to make some sense of the world around us.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful explanation and article !

  2. You are very welcome.
    Thanks for your comment.