C Wright Mills The Promise.pdf

C Wright Mills The Promise.pdf - The Promise NOWADAYS men...

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Unformatted text preview: The Promise NOWADAYS men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: What ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieux, they move vicari- ously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel. Underlying this sense of being trapped are seemingly in’iper- sonal changes in the very structure of continent-wide societies. The facts of contem r histo are also facts about the success aimmfifldmdfiflwmev is industrialized, a peasant becomes a worker; a feudal lord is liquidated or becomes a businessman. When classes rise or fall, a man is employed or unemployed; when the rate of investment goes up or down, a man takes new heart or goes broke. When wars happen, an insurance salesman becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar man; a wife lives alone; a child grows up without a father. Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both. Yet men do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction. The well-being they enjoy, they do not usually impute to the big ups and downs of the societies in which they live. 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K3303 b03033. 93.330003 330.35 303 030 305 0303 3003303033 03 0330 3 00503000 3050 m0 30303 530 303 05 0>03 m0 m0w3030 03530300300 3030 33003 303 0>03 030033033.q 303-3. 003303030 mo 0030365300 3030 03 000A 0 300m 00 30 50.0.0930 >=0303 00 3003 303 >303 00 0>03 300333 3033 3H 305303 03 3 3 > 35 03 #0530000 53.33 mo :03 .05 000mm 03.03 3%33 >05 30355 3 w33303>30303 mo 0533 05 30m 530 330000. 030 >05 303 m0 533— 05 30m 3003 305003300 0.35 3033 303 >530: 303 05 3033 >303530 $30333 .2303 mo 003300 05 53.0 00>: 330 .305 m0 033050m 05 3003303 305003300 03003.33 zo_h<z_0<2_ ._<0_00._O_00m ulh v il I m writ -mmm-IW‘p-u—mr: 6 THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION capacities for supreme effort or willing degradation, for agony or glee, for pleasurable brutality or the sweetness of reason. But in our time we have come to know that the limits of ‘human nature’ are frighteningly broad. We have come to lcnow that every in- dividual lives, from one generation to the next, in some society; that he lives out a biography, and that he lives it out within some historical sequence. By the fact of his living he contributes, how- ever minutely, to the shaping of this society and to the course of its history, even as he is made by society and by its historical push and shove. The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and its promise. To recognize this task and this promise is the mark of the classic social analyst. It is characteristic of Herbert Spencer—turgid, polysyllabic, comprehensive; of E. A. Ross-graceful, muckralcing, upright; of Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim; of the intricate and subtle Karl Mannheim. It is the quality of all that is intellectually excellent in Karl Marx; it is the clue to Thorstein Veblen’s brilliant and ironic insight, to Joseph Schumpeter’s many-sided constructions of reality; it is the basis of the psychological sweep of W. E. H. Lecky no less than of the profundity and clarity of Max Weber. And it is the signal of what is best in contemporary studies of man and society. N 0 social study that does not come back to the problems of biog- raphy, of history and of their intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey. Whatever the specific prob- lems of the classic social analysts, however limited or however broad the features of social reality they have examined, those who have been imaginatively aware of the promise of their work have consistently asked three sorts of questions: ”a (1) What is the structure of this particular society as a whole? What are its essential components, and how are they related to one another? How does it differ from other varieties of social order? Within it, what is the meaning of any particular feature for its continuance and for its change? (2) Where does this society stand in human history? What are ' ljéfdlkhe mechanics b which it is chan in P What is its lace within ' Y E g P and its meaning for the development of humanity as a whole? 'I'HE PROMISE 7 How does any particular feature we are examining afiect, and how is it aflected by, the historical period in which it moves? And this period—what are its essential features? How does it differ from other periods? What are its characteristic ways of history-making? (8) What varieties of men and women now prevail in this so- 4 ciety and in this period? And what varieties are coming to prevail? "1;, In what ways are they selected and formed, liberated and re- pressed, made sensitive and blunted? What kinds of ‘human na- ture’ are revealed in the conduct and character we observe in this society in this period? And what is the meaning for ‘human nature’ of each and every feature of the society we are examining? Whether the point of interest is a great power state or a minor literary mood, a family, a prison, a creed—these are the kinds of questions the best social analysts have asked. They are the intel- lectual pivots of classic studies of man in society—and they are the questions inevitably raised by any mind possessing the socio- logical imagination. For that imagination is the capacity to shift from one perspective to another—from the political to the psycho- logical; from examination of a single family to comparative assess- ment of the national budgets of the world; from the theological school to the military establishment; from considerations of an oil industry to studies of contemporary poetry. It is the ' “WM memmmmW een the twgI flack of its use there is always the urge to know e social and historical meaning of the individual in the Eociety and in the period in which he has his quality and his emg. That, in brief, is why it is by means of the sociological imagina- tion that men now hope to grasp what is going on in the world, and to understand what is happening in themselves as minute points of the intersections of biography and history within so- ciety. In large part, contemporary man’s self-conscious view of himself as at least an outsider, if not a permanent stranger, rests upon an absorbed realization of social relativity and of the trans- formative power of history. The sociological imagination is the most fruitful form of this self-consciousness. By its use men whose 8 THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION mentalities have swept only a series of limited orbits often come to feel as if suddenly awakened in a house with which they had only supposed themselves to be familiar. Correctly or incorrectly, they often come to feel that they can now provide themselves with adequate summations, cohesive assessments, comprehensive orientations. Older decisions that once appeared sound now seem to them products of a mind unaccountably dense. Their capacity for astonishment is made lively again. They acquire a new way of thinldng, they experience a transvaluation of values: in a word, by their reflection and by their sensibility, they realize the cul- tural meaning of the social sciences. 2 Perhaps the most fruitful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is between ‘the personal troubles of milieu’ and 'the public issues of social structure.’ This distinction is an essential tool of the sociological imagination and a feature of all classic work in social science. Troubles occur within the character of the individual and within the range of his immediate relations with others; they have to do with his self and with those limited areas of social life of which he is directly and personally aware. Accordingly, the statement and the resolution of troubles properly lie within the individual as a biographical entity and within the scope of his immediate milieu—the social setting that is directly open to his personal experience and to some extent his willful activity. A trouble is a private matter: values cherished by an individual are felt by him to be threatened. Issues have to do with matters that transcend these local en- viionments of the individual and the range of his inner life. They have to do with the organization of many such milieux into the institutions of an historical society as a whole, with the ways in which various milieux overlap and interpenetrate to form the larger structure of social and historical life. An issue is a public matter: some value cherished by publics is felt to be threatened. Often there is a debate about what that value really is and about what it is that really threatens it. This debate is often Without focus if only because it is the very nature of an issue, unlike THE PROMISE 9 even widespread trouble, that it cannot very well be dened in terms of the immediate and everyday environments of ordinary men. An issue, in fact, often involves a crisis in institutional ar- rangements, and often too it involves what Marxists call ‘contra- dictions’ or ‘antagonisms.’ In these terms, consider unemployment. When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to con- sider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individ- uals. Consider war. The personal problem of war, when it occurs, may be how to survive it or how to die in it with honor; how to make money out of it; how to climb into the higher safety of the military apparatus; or how to contribute to the war’s termi- nation. In short, according to one’s values, to find a set of milieux and within it to survive the war or make one’s death in it meaningful. But the structural issues of war have to do with its causes; with what types of men it throws up into command; with its effects upon economic and political, family and religious institutions, with the unorganized irresponsibility of a world of nation-states. Consider marriage. Inside a marriage a man and a woman may experience personal troubles, but when the divorce rate during the first feur years of marriage is 250 out of every 1,000 attempts, this is an indication of a structural issue having to do with the institutions of marriage and the family and other institutions that bear upon them. Or consider the metropolis—the horrible, beautiful, ugly, mag- nificent sprawl of the great city. For many upper-class people, the personal solution to ‘the problem of the city’ is to have an 10 THE SOCIOLOGICAI. IMAGINATION apartment with private garage under it in the heart of the city, and forty miles out, a house by Henry Hill, garden by Garrett Eckbo, on a hundred acres of private land. In these two con- . trolled environments—with a small staff at each end and a pri- vate helicopter connection—most people could solve many of the problems of personal milieux caused by the facts of the city. But all this, however splendid, does not solve the public issues that the structural fact of the city poses. What should be done with this wonderful monstrosity? Break it all up into scattered units, com- bining residence and work? Refurbish it as it stands? Or, after evacuation, dynamite it and build new cities according to new plans in new places? What should thoSe plans be? And who is to decide and to accomplish whatever choice is made? These are structural issues; to confront them and to solve them requires us to consider political and economic issues that, aifect innumer- able milieux. In so far as an economy is so arranged that slumps occur, the problem of unemployment becomes incapable of personal solu- tion. In so far as war is inherent in the nation-state system and in the uneven industrialization of the world, the ordinary indi- vidual in his restricted milieu will be powerless-with or without psychiatric aid—to solve the troubles this system or lack of system imposes upon him. In so far as the family as an institution turns women into darling little slaves and men into their chief providers and unweaned dependents, the problem of a satisfactory mar- riage remains incapable of purely private solution. In so far as the overdeveloped megalopolis and the overdeveloped automo- bile are built-in features of the overdeveloped society, the issues of urban living will not be solved by personal ingenuity and private wealth. What we experience in various and specific milieux, I have noted, is often caused by structural changes. Accordingly, to un- derstand the changes of many personal milieux we are required to look beyond them. And the number and variety of such struc- tural changes increase as the institutions within which we live become more embracing and more intricately connected with one another. To be aware of the idea of social structure and to THE PROMISE II use it with sensibility is to be capable of tracing such linkages among a great variety of milieux‘. To be able to do that is to possess the sociological imagination. 3 What are the ma'or issues for ublics and the ke troubles of Eivate individuals in our time? To formulate issues and troubles, we must ask what values are cherished yet threatened, and what values are cherished and supported, by the characterizing trends of our period. In the case both of threat and of support we must ask what salient contradictions of structure may be involved. l l When people cherish some set of values and do not feel an G“ I threat to them, they experience well-being. When the cherish values but do feel them to be threatened, they experiend’e a crisis —either as a personal trouble or as a public issue. And if all their values seem involved, they feel the total threat of panic. But suppose Fecal}: are? neither aware of any cherished values nor experience any eat That is the en‘ence of indifierence, which, if it seems to involve all their valig, becomes apathy. Sup- pose, finally, they are unaware of any cherished values, but still are very much aware of a threat? That is the experience of WM anxiety, which, if it is total enough, becomes a deadly lmspeciiied malaise. Ours is a time of uneasiness and indiiference—not yet formu- lated in such ways as to permit e wor reason and the play of sensibility. Instead of troubles—defined in terms of values and threats—there is often the misery of vague uneasiness; instead of explicit issues there is often merely the beat feeling that all is somehow not right. Neither the values threatened nor whatever threatens them has been stated; in short, they have not been carried to the point of decision. Much less have they been formu- lated as problems of social science. In the ’thirties there was little doubt—except among certain deluded business circles that there was an economic issue which was also a pack of personal troubles. In these arguments about “the crisis of capitalism,’ the formulations of Marx and the many unacknowledged re—formulations of his work probably set the leading terms of the issue, and some men came to understand 52% 12 THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION their personal troubles in these terms. The values threatened were plain to see and cherished by all; the structural contradic- tions that threatened them also seemed plain. Both were widely and deeply experienced. It was a political age. ‘ But the values threatened in the era after World War Two are often neither widely acknowledged as values nor widely felt to be threatened. Much private uneasiness goes unformulated; much public malaise and many decisions of enormous structural relevance never become public issues. For those who accept such inherited values as reason and freedom, it is the uneasiness itself that is the trouble; it is the indifference itself that is the issue. And it is this condition, of uneasiness and indifference, that is the signal feature of our period. All this is so striking that it is often interpreted by observers as a shift in the very kinds of problems that need now to be formu- lated. We are freq...
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