February 19, 2014

C. Wright Mills, Public Sociologist

Screen shot 2014-02-05 at 1.32.27 PMBy Arlene Stein

Professor of Sociology, Rutgers University, and co-editor of Contexts

While there are certainly aspects of our lives which are unique to us as individuals, so much of what we experience— the ways we eat, we think, we live— are products of how and where we are situated. Society, in other words, makes up people. 

At the same time, we also act upon the world--we make history. We do so by raising children and teaching them, to the best of our abilities, to be good citizens; by participating in the world of work and being a part of different organizations, by developing relationships with coworkers, subcultures, and at times, by joining social movements. 

C. Wright Mills' The Sociological Imagination is, for my money, the best articulation of this, and of the role that sociology might play in offering us alternatives. Mills spoke of the uneasiness that surrounded the world in the 1950s, and the need for a deeper analysis of its sources. He worried that the rise of the large corporation was diminishing the capacity for ordinary people to reflect upon their lives. He is thought to be the first to use the term “postmodern” in print. 

And while he was not a feminist, his desire to link “the personal troubles of the milieu and the public issues of social structure” sounds a lot like the slogan that became synonymous with feminism in my youth: “the personal is political.”  

“Much private uneasiness goes unformulated," he wrote. "Much public malaise and many decisions of enormous structural relevance never become public issues. . . It is this condition of “uneasiness and indifference, that is the signal feature of our period.” By developing a sociological imagination, Mills believed, we can better make sense of this world, understand our place in it, and change it for the better. 

Today, the work of Mills has largely faded from view, and yet the private uneasiness of which he spoke persists. And while undergraduate students of sociology are still likely to encounter him in introductory courses, The Sociological Imagination is rarely read in graduate departments of sociology any longer. Why is this? When I posed that question to my grad students, they immediately offered that Mills’ vision is at odds with much of what they are taught: that the sociologist must strive, first, and foremost, for professional success, and only secondarily for social relevance. 

It seems that there is a disconnect between the vision of sociology that we imagine will excite the beginning student, and the demands of graduate study and professionalism, with its commitment to specialization and methodological rigor. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I know from my work with Contexts that there are lots of sociologists who have very interesting things to say about the world. And in fact, they yearn to share their work with audiences beyond the academy, but they don’t know how to do so. That's because they don't know how to translate their work for different publics. 

In recent years, more and more sociologists are making a case for the importance of doing "public sociology." This discussion, while certainly important, has taken place largely at the level of theory, via the work of past American Sociological Association President Michael Burawoy and others.  Some of it is taking place among those who are engaging in digital sociology, if posts I've been seeing on such blogs as The Sociological Imagination are any indication. 

Yet few, it seems, are focusing their sights on making sociological writing more engaging, and fewer still see this as central to the public sociology project.

We need to do all of these things simultaneously: reflect upon the work we do and the uses to which it is put; use new technologies as tools for research and communication; and value good writing--and teach others how to do it. 

If Mills were alive today, that's the kind of public sociology he would want to be building.


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Great article,I’m the kind of person who’s interested in public socioly.

Dear Arlene!

Let me thank you for this insightful post on Mills. I have recently committed an other one from a quite different angle here: https://sociologyinmotion.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/in-praise-of-babbling-arguments/
Mills should be taught and taken more seriously everywhere in academia, he has got a lot to say about how science functions and how it really should.
His desire to link “the personal troubles of the milieu and the public issues of social structure”, as you put it, had in my opinion an other goal as well: by pointing out how much influence vast and impersonal social structures have on our lives, he helps us understand to what large extent we are constantly acting under social constraints. If we understand this message, we will stop blaming ourselves for things we have no or little influence on.

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