What is Sociological Imagination?

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To put it simply, sociological imagination is an ability to connect personal challenges to larger social issues. However, a simple definition is not enough to explain a modestly complex idea like sociological imagination. What kind of personal challenges or social issues? How do they connect? 

Exploring a brief summary of sociological imagination can help introduce the concept in a more meaningful way; it can also be an important step towards understanding how sociological imagination is useful to the personal and professional lives of those who develop this particular skill.

Exploring The Concept of Sociological Imagination 

The father of sociological imagination, C Wright Mills, founded this field of thinking in the mid-20th century. At the time he wrote, “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” Just the same, it’s also important to put Mills’ theories into context. 

Mills’ contemporaries in sociology tended to focus on understanding systems rather than exploring individual issues. (For example, structural functionalism.) But Mills argued that thinking of society as just a series of systems was not quite accurate. And equally important, it ignored the role of the individual within those systems.

He believed that looking at a balance between systems and the individuals within them was essential to understanding their collective relationship, as well as the social structures that arise out of conflict between various groups. This perspective also helps enable sociologists to do more than observe, but to expose social injustice, and act and change the world.

And that’s important because without sociological imagination, all of our common sense ideas are drawn from our limited social experiences. Sociological imagination is a framework for viewing the social world that exceeds those limitations; an ability to develop understanding how biography is the consequence of historical processes, and unfolds within a bigger context in society. As such, sociological imagination requires us to separate ourselves from the familiar reality of our personal circumstances, and view social issues from a broader context. 

Troubles vs Issues 

As part of explaining his conception of sociological imagination, Mills made an important distinction between “personal troubles” and “public/social issues.” In our personal lives, we make decisions that impact our family, friends, coworkers, and other communities where we’re involved. Personal troubles involve an individual’s private problems in relation to others.

By contrast, public/social issues are forces which are outside of the personal control of an individual. For living in an environment where there is pervasive poverty, racism, sexism, etc. Mills notes that personal troubles can become social issues once they’re pervasive enough, i.e. once the problems people face in their lives are common among their community, those problems can become a societal issue.

Sociological Imagination & History  

Mills also believed studying history was an important element in sociological imagination. Because historical events have helped our shape contemporary society, and the lives of every living person. As such, learning history can help us view our lives within the context of others, based on past experiences. That provides us a better basis for understanding our own actions, and the actions of our community as a result of systems used throughout history, which can be valuable in viewing our own lives and in explaining the world to others.

Sociological Imagination Examples

When buying a new gym shirt, sociological imagination asks you to look beyond simple questions, like your needs for new clothing, or your aesthetic preferences. For instance, why are you buying a gym shirt in particular? Why go to the gym as opposed to some other kind of exercise? Why exercise? Why look for new products instead of used ones?

Answering these questions involves raising a variety of different factors, like your economic circumstances, the stores available in your community, and the styles that are popular in your area. Maybe you saw a health study that scared you into wanting to improve your fitness, or recently found inspiration by watching someone else on social media. 

Provided a different context and circumstances, you would make different choices. Perhaps you would have considered alternatives to the gym if you had the resources or space to purchase training equipment. The societal values and norms which exist around us can even have a subconscious influence on our decisions. 

Interestingly, the reasons that people get married have changed throughout history, and continue to vary across cultures. Marrying “for love” is a relatively new societal norm, one which didn’t start becoming popular until the 17th century. Viewing this kind of contrast can help us better understand our own decisions about marriage, and how they are made within our own contemporary social frameworks.  

Why is Sociological Imagination Useful? 

Arguing that you can only understand yourself if you can understand your circumstances, Mills believed sociological imagination is not merely a practice for professors of sociology. Rather, it’s something everyone must attempt, because it allows people to better understand their own personal experiences and within the context of society at large.

He further argued the advantage of sociological imagination is connecting “personal troubles to public issues.” Because the things we do are influenced by the circumstances where we find ourselves our values, the behavior of the people in our environment. And sociological imagination prompts us to examine these and their interrelationship towards outcome. 

Lacking in sociological imagination, we’re vulnerable to apathy: accepting the beliefs, actions, and traditions around us are natural and unavoidable. We’re also vulnerable to moral insensibility as the result of a simple rationalization process. For instance, when people carry out terrible acts as part of their role in an organization, not guided by a person’s individual consciousness, but the commands issued by an external body. 

In summary, sociological imagination is an ability to see the context which shapes your individual decision making, as well as the decisions made by others. But the reason why it’s useful is because it allows us to better identify and question various aspects of society, as opposed to passively living within it. Essentially, someone who can exercise sociological imagination is better equipped to make smarter personal choices. 

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Developing Sociological Imagination at National University  

National University is a regionally accredited institution that offers a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology as well as several programs in criminal justice that enable students to develop and use concepts like sociological imagination for application in the real world. Students learn to apply their ability to enhance human interactions in various fields, from healthcare and advertising to law enforcement or social work, to apply sociological theories to practice, and change the world in a positive way. 

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