On The Sociological Imagination

Charles Wright Mills is a sociologist interested in how individuals are united into a collective society. In other words he joins together individual biography (the story of our lives) with history of society (the story of society).

Charles Wright Mills
of Waco, Texas

Troubles are when personal values are felt to be threatened. Troubles are private when personal and/ or concerning relations with those close by. This is a matter of individual awareness.
An issue is public when a collective value is threatened (over which there may be some debate). The issue transcends the individual and his immediate environment: s/he may not be aware of the issue as it lies at the collective level.

It is the public issue that shapes the private trouble. The individual may not realise this but the sociologist should.

It means analysing a particular local personal private trouble as something that exists at the higher level as a public issue.

It means looking for social causes, group identities, ideologies at work, agreements within groups and disagreements between them.

Then something that is private is found to exist in a broader context.

An individual will understand his or her situation better if s/he can acquire some sociological imagination.

This is what sociology students must acquire!

Exercise on Obesity

Read the following and absorb. Then with it removed from view write the same points in your own words.
Being obsese is clearly a personal matter. For some people, obesity comes through the pleasure of over-eating. Yet there is a price to pay. It increases the cost of clothing, adds to strain on bones, muscles and vital organs, raises blood pressure, reduces mobility and decreases life expectancy.

It might be a public issue in a common everyday sense that this person will visit the doctor and hospital more often that a person within expected weight ranges, but this does not mean a public issue in the sense introduced by C. Wright Mills. By "public issue", C. Wright Mills means using the sociological imagination to analyse the collective level broader context.

In the case of obesity, this means the trend in Western societies towards people becoming overweight. There is an increase in the consumption of junk food. People want to spend less time preparing food, because they lead busy working lives and because family arrangements for cooking have altered. The response has been a food industry that produces uniform food across the world that is easy to find and quick to consume and has an attractive taste. However, in becoming attractive, it contains higher levels of fat, sugar, salt and an absence of nutritional balance that are affecting the whole consuming population.

The highlight of this is the fast food outlet, but food increasingly is packaged and commodified into easy to buy units. Food is now an example of capitalism doing what it does best: providing what people think they want in the easiest to acquire way and cheaply.

The result, however, of the public issue of commodified food is that people become trapped in private troubles of obesity. The further public issue is that because this food is cheap and accessible, the poorer and less educated people of a society tend to buy it the most and prepare alternatives the least. As people eat around the television set, they are the ones who experience the private troubles the most, but their troubles are shaped by the public issue of how the contemporary food industry packages everything for convenience and instant pleasure.

How C. W. Mills connects
the individual to collective directives

Individual personality is anchored in social orders transmitted through the work of spheres.

Through spheres, especially language, the individual internalises society into personality. Society comes into the individual.

Thus self image can develop by cumulative confirmations, selection in career and position, and though the approval of significant others (other people in institutions). The motives of people come from the social level as they interact within the orders. Character traits depend on whether behaviours are premium to an institution or taboo.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful