In The Sociological Imagination, Mills coined the same famous phrase, which is used throughout sociology today. The sociological imagination is the concept of being able to “think ourselves away” from the familiar routines of our daily lives in order to look at them anew. Mills defined sociological imagination as “the vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society.” It is the ability to see things socially and how they interact and influence each other. To have a sociological imagination, a person must be able to pull away from the situation and think from an alternative point of view. This ability is central to one's development of a sociological perspective on the world.
Mills’ famous dictum holds that personal troubles are public problems. What seem to be the private troubles of a single person are the result, at the individual level, of the working out of the problems of the society that person lives in. Being without a job is a terrible personal trouble, but it is neither the result nor the fault of anything the unemployed have done. Rather, it is the working out, for them, of society's inability or unwillingness to provide full employment.
Mills' dictum was never more true than in his own case. His professional problems were the outcome, on the personal level, of the general directions and troubles of American sociology during his lifetime. Using his dictum as an analytic research tool, we can inspect Mills' professional life and intellectual career to see what it reveals about the public (or, better put, the institutional and organizational) problems of sociology (and, especially, American sociology) in the middle of the 20th century. This is the fruitful perspective from which Irving Louis Horowitz approached Mills’ life; this essay is an appreciation and retelling of Horowitz's analysis.
Personal troubles and public issues
C. Wright Mills argued that perhaps the most helpful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is that between personal troubles and public issues (Mills 1967: 395; Mills 1959: 8). For him troubles have to do with ‘an individual’s character and with those limited areas of social life of which he is directly and personally aware’ (op. cit.). To describe those troubles and to resolve them, he argues, we must attend the individual’s biography and the scope of their immediate milieux – what Mills describes as ‘the social setting that is directly open to his personal experience and to some extent his willful activity’ (Mills 1967: 395-6). A trouble is, thus, a private matter: ‘values cherished by an individual are felt by him to be threatened’
Example Of Applying The Sociological Imagination
We can apply the concept of the sociological imagination to any behavior. Take the simple act of drinking a cup of coffee for example. We could argue that coffee is not just a drink, but rather it has symbolic value as part of day-to-day social rituals. Often the ritual of drinking coffee is much more important than the act of consuming the coffee itself. For example, two people who meet “to have coffee” together are probably more interested in meeting and chatting than in what they drink. In all societies, eating and drinking are occasions for social interaction and the performance of rituals, which offer a great deal of subject matter for sociological study.
A second dimension to a cup of coffee has to do with its use as a drug. Coffee contains caffeine, which is a drug that has stimulating effects on the brain. For many, this is the reason why they drink coffee. It is interesting sociologically to question why coffee addicts are not considered drug users in Western cultures while they might be in other cultures. Like alcohol, coffee is a socially acceptable drug whereas marijuana is not. In other cultures, however, marijuana use is tolerated, but both coffee and alcohol use are frowned upon.
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