“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” C. Wright Mills.
Written by sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1959, The Sociological Imagination is a book that encourages people to replace the lenses they're currently using to view their own lives. In it, Mills encourages every member of society to stop boxing their personal situations into isolated corners and open up to the wider landscape of the world.
The most common example of the sociological imagination pertains to unemployment. An individual facing unemployment might feel defeated, depleted, and discouraged. That person is likely to look in the mirror and say, "You didn't work hard enough. You didn't try hard enough…" You, you, you.
If Mills were around, he'd say, "Not you. The world around you." Mills believed things only worked when you saw "the vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society." He encouraged people to stop focusing on themselves alone and to look at the wider landscape of society.
If you take Mills' stance, you'll start to believe that every problem faced by an individual has roots in society as a whole and is faced by many others. There's some truth to that, isn't there? It's unlikely that every struggle you face is unique to you alone. There are hundreds, thousands, if not millions of others who are going through the same struggle.
Mind you, Mills never thought sociology alone was the ultimate science. He felt sociologists, psychologists, economists, and political scientists should all work together. Makes sense, given his broad pair of lenses.
This is a fun place to start because it allows us to see how virtually any behavior can have the sociological imagination applied to it. Something as simple as drinking tea can be examined from several different perspectives. It's rarely just an old lady sipping a warm cup of Earl Grey on a misty morning.
As soon as you start to think about various issues or activities in perspectives that differ from your own, you're entering the realm of the sociological imagination.
When it's time to make your way into college, you might think this is a solitary path. You have to pass the tests. You have to nail the college entrance essays. But, is it a solitary path?
Never mind the obvious point that millions of others are also doing it. Your current situation is broader than your immediate world when you consider your family members and school teachers.
Do they have any expectations of you? Are they indirectly pushing you toward an Ivy League when you want to attend art school in Manhattan? Or, do you have a longstanding family history at one university over another?
Boxing up your college choices into a solitary experience can easily be shaken up by the sociological imagination.
Whether we see it on TV or see it in real life, deviance is prevalent. Where do we even start? There's common thievery, random murder, gang violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and on and on.
Is deviance a personal act of desperation? Maybe. Gang members make terrible decisions each and every day. Is that because they're terrible people? That's not for us to say. But, taking things in a broader context, think about this: what if one of those gang members met his fate when his father started abusing him and his mother abandoned him. In a search for some sort of familial replacement, suddenly, he's a deviant member of society.
The sociological imagination is never meant to excuse someone's position in life. Whether we're dealing with unemployment or gang members, it's never okay to just put it all on society. We have to show some accountability for our choices and actions. It's just that life is rarely a solitary situation where our singular choices are untouched by societal or cultural variables.
We might consider social media to be a 21st century phenomenon. Mills would probably say, "Is that so?" Social media didn't pop out of thin air and land in the laps of millennials. It must've taken root somewhere, evolved from something else.
So, while we don't really consider Instagram to be the brain child of, say, the beeper, there are wider lenses we should be using whenever we contemplate current life. Indeed, nearly everything we experience today is an extension of some prior period in life.
It would be hard to call social media a personal experience. Just look at the name. But, how is it impacting you every day? How does it touch your study habits and work opportunities? How does it shape your relationships or help you identify yourself? These are questions that will have different answers for everyone. But, every time you click on that Instagram icon on your phone, 500 million others could be doing the exact same thing.
Do you think all our ancestors got married because they fell madly in love? Did some of them get married because their parents arranged it? Did others get married simply because they felt it was "time"?
How about today? Does everyone marry strictly for that fairy tale kind of love? Or do they marry because it's what society tells them is right? This is not a judgment on any decision any person makes. It's a commentary on how something so personal, love and romance, isn't always a singular experience.
Taking out those wider lenses, we might see that dating and marriage has a little bit to do with what our friends say, how our parents feel, or the feared stigma of being labeled a "loner".
In the end, unemployment, education, deviance, and marriage are not singular situations. First, they're rarely dealt with by one unique individual. They're often experience by thousands, if not millions, of others across the globe.
Second, each of these situations didn't come out of nowhere. They evolved from some past event or way of living. Thus, whenever someone thinks their current station in life is unique, just imagine Mills asking, "Is that so?" Do you believe every outcome has a social cause?
Use those wider lenses to consider the relationship between your personal experience and society as a whole. This will help you change perspectives on your story and your connections to society, to institutions, to history. Now you’re using the sociological imagination.