Mills - Sociological Imagination - Konradi

Mills - Sociological Imagination - Konradi - 26 Toward an...

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Unformatted text preview: 26 Toward an Understanding ofCurrent Social Problems THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION C.WRIGHT MILLS owadays men often feel that their Nprivate lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their every- day worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: What ordinary men are di- rectly 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 vicariously 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 impersonal changes in the very structure of continent-wide societies. The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure of in— dividual men and women. When a society 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 From The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills. Copyright C 2000 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. the history of a society can be understood without understanding both. Yet men do not usually define the trou- bles 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 soci- eties in which they live. Seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world his- tory, ordinary men do not usually know what this connection means for the kinds of men they are becoming and for the kinds of history-making in which they might take part. They do not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world. They cannot cope with their per- sonal troubles in such ways as to control the structural transformations that usually lie behind them. . . . The history that now affects every man is world history. Within this scene and this period, in the course of a single generation, one sixth of mankind is transformed from all that is feudal and backward into all that is modern, advanced, and fearful. Political colonies are freed; new and less visible forms of imperialism installed. Revolutions occur; men feel the intimate grip of new kinds of authority. Totalitarian societies rise, and are smashed to bits—or succeed fabu- lously. After two centuries of ascendancy, capitalism is shown up as only one way to make society into an industrial apparatus. After two centuries of hope, even formal democracy is restricted to a quite small portion of mankind. Everywhere in the un- derdeveloped world, ancient ways of life are broken up and vague expectations be- come urgent demands. Everywhere in the overdeveloped world, the means of author- ity and of violence become total in scope and bureaucratic in form. Humanity itself now lies before us, the super-nation at either pole concentrating its most co-ordinated and massive efforts upon the preparation of World War Three. The very shaping of history now out- paces the ability of men to orient themselves in accordance with cherished values. And which values? Even when they do not panic, men often sense that older ways of feeling and thinking have collapsed and that newer beginnings are ambiguous to the point of moral stasis. Is it any wonder that ordinary men feel they cannot cope with the larger worlds with which they are so suddenly confronted? That they cannot understand the meaning of their epoch for their own lives? That—in defense of selfhood—they become morally insensible, trying to remain altogether private men? Is it any wonder that they come to be possessed by a sense of the trap? It is not only information that they need—in this Age of Fact, information often dominates their attention and overwhelms their capacities to assimilate it. It is not only the skills of reason that they need— although their struggles to acquire these often exhaust their limited moral energy. What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop rea— son in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves. It is this quality, I am going to contend, that journalists and scholars, artists and pub- lics, scientists and editors are coming to The Sociological Imagination 27 expect of what may be called the sociologi- cal imagination. I The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of in- dividuals. It enables him to take into ac- count how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely con- scious of their social positions. Within that welter, the framework of modern society is sought, and within that framework the psy- chologies of a variety of men and women are formulated. By such means the personal uneasiness of individuals is focused upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is transformed into involvement with public issues. The first fruit of this imagination—and the first lesson of the social science that em- bodies it—is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances. In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one. We do not know the limits of man’s capacities for supreme effort or willing degradation, for agony or glee, for pleasurable brutality or the sweet- ness of reason. But in our time we have come to know that the limits of ’human na— ture' are frighteningly broad. We have come to know that every individual 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 t0 the course of its history, even as he is 28 Toward an Understanding ofCurrcnt Social Problems 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 recog- nize this task and this promise is the mark of the classic social analyst. . . . No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history and of their intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey. Whatever the specific problems of the classic social an- alysts, however limited or however broad the features of social reality they have exam- ined, those who have been imaginatively aware of the promise of their work have consistently asked three sorts of questions: 1. What is the structure of this particular so- ciety 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 the mechanics by which it is changing? What is its place within and its meaning for the develop- ment of humanity as a whole? How does any particular feature we are examining affect, and how is it affected by, the his- torical period in which it moves? And this period—what are its essential fea- tures? How does it differ from other peri- ods? What are its characteristic ways of history-making? 3. What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this pe- riod? And what varieties are coming to prevail? In what ways are they selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted? What kinds of ’human nature’ 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 fam- ily, a prison, a creed—these are the kinds of questions the best social analysts have asked. They are the intellectual pivots of classic studies of man in society—and they are the questions inevitably raised by any mind possessing the sociological imagina— tion. For that imagination is the capacity to shift from one perspective to another—from the political to the psychological; from ex- amination of a single family to comparative assessment of the national budgets of the world; from the theological school to the military establishment; from considerations of an oil industry to studies of contempo- rary poetry. It is the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transfor- mations to the most intimate features of the human self—and to see the relations between the two. Back of its use there is al- ways the urge to know the social and histor- ical meaning of the individual in the society and in the period in which he has his quality and his being. . . . 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 so- ciological 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 state- ment 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 pri- vate matter: values cherished by an individ- ual are felt by him to be threatened. Issues have to do with matters that tran- scend these local environments of the indi- vidual and the range of his inner life. They have to do with the organization of many such milieux into the institutions of an his- torical society as a whole, with the ways in which various milieux overlap and inter- penetrate to form the larger structure of so- cial 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 even widespread trouble, that it cannot very well be defined in terms of the immediate and everyday environments of ordinary men. An issue, in fact, often involves a crisis in in- stitutional arrangements, and often too it in- volves what Marxists call ’contradictions’ 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 opportu- nities has collapsed. Both the correct state- ment of the problem and the range of The Sociological Imagination 29 possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situa- tion and character of a scatter of individuals. 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 termination. 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 re- ligious 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 four years of marriage is 250 out of every 1,000 attempts, this is an indication of a structural issue having to do with the in- stitutions of marriage and the family and other institutions that bear upon them. Or consider the metropolis—the horri- ble, beautiful, ugly, magnificent sprawl of the great city. For many upper-class people, the personal solution to ’the problem of the city’ is to have an apartment with private garage under it in the heart of the city, and forty miles out, a house on a hundred acres of private land. In these two controlled envi- ronments—with a small staff at each end and a private 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, combining resi— dence and work? Refurbish it as it stands? Or, after evacuation, dynamite it and build 30 Toward an Understanding of Current Social Problems new cities according to new plans in new places? What should those plans be? And who is to decide and to accomplish what- ever choice is made? These are structural issues; to confront them and to solve them requires us to consider political and economic issues that affect innumerable milieux. In so far as an economy is so arranged that slumps occur, the problem of unem- ployment becomes incapable of personal so- lution. In so far as war is inherent in the nation-state system and in the uneven in- dustrialization of the world, the ordinary individual 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 marriage re- mains incapable of purely private solution. In so far as the overdeveloped megalopolis and the overdeveloped automobile are built-in features of the overdeveloped soci— ety, the issues of urban living will not be solved by personal ingenuity and private wealth. What we experience in various and spe- cific milieux, I have noted, is often caused by structural changes. Accordingly, to un- derstand the changes of many personal mi— lieux 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 embrac- ing and more intricately connected with one another. To be aware of the idea of social structure and to 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 major issues for publics and the key troubles of private 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 contra- dictions of structure may be involved. When people cherish some set of values and do not feel any threat to them, they experience well-being. When they cherish values but do feel them to be threatened, they experience a crisis—either as a per- sonal trouble or as a public issue. And if all their values seem involved, they feel the total threat of panic. But suppose people are neither aware of any cherished values nor experience any threat? That is the experience of indifference, which, if it seems to involve all their values, becomes apathy. Suppose, finally, they are unaware of any cherished values, but still are very much aware of a threat? That is the experience of uneasiness, of anxiety, which, if it is total enough, becomes a deadly unspec- ified malaise. Ours is a time of uneasiness and indif- ference——not yet formulated in such ways as to permit the work of 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. Nei- ther 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. . . . It is true, as psychoanalysts continually point out, that people do often have ’the in- creasing sense of being moved by obscure forces within themselves which they are un- able to define.’ But it is not true, as Ernest Jones asserted, that ’man’s chief enemy and danger is his own unruly nature and the dark forces pent up within him.’ On the con- trary: ’Man’s chief danger' today lies in the unruly forces of contemporary society itself, with its alienating methods of production, its enveloping techniques of political domi— nation, its international anarchy—in a word, its pervasive transformations of the very ’nature’ of man and the conditions and aims of his life. It is now the social scientist's foremost political and intellectual task—for here the two coincide—to make clear the elements of contemporary uneasiness and indifference. It is the central demand made upon him by other cultural workmen—by physical scien— tists and artists, by the intellectual commu- Toward a New Vision 31 nity in general. It is because of this task and these demands, I believe, that the social sciences are becoming the common denomi- nator of our cultural period, and the socio- logical imagination our most needed quality of mind. . . . QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION . What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society? . What seem to be the widely recognized public issues in our society? . Can you provide some examples of how your personal biography reflects larger historic trends in American soci- ety or even the world? TOWARD A NEW VISION Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection PATRICIA HILL COLLINS The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us. —AL‘DRE LORDE Sister Outsider, 123 Collins, Patricia Hill. Fall 1998. ”Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection." Race, Sex, {7 Class, vol. I, no. 1. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. udre Lorde’s statement raises a trou- Ablesome issue for scholars and activists working for social change. While many of us have little difficulty assessing our own victimization within some major system of oppression, whether it be by race, social class, religion, s...
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