C. Wright Mills, Excerpts from “The Promise,” Chapter 1 of
The Sociological Imagination
Oxford University Press, 1959.
owadays 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 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.
this sense of being trapped are seemingly impersonal changes in the very structure of continent-
The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure
of individual 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
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 wellbeing they enjoy, they do not usually impute to the big ups
and downs of the societies in which they live.
Seldom aware of the intricate connection between
the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history, 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 personal troubles in such ways as to control the structural transformations that usually
lie behind them.
Surely it is no wonder. In what period have so many men been so totally exposed at so
fast a pace to such earthquakes of change?
That Americans have not known such catastrophic
changes as have the men and women of other societies is due to historical facts that are now
quickly becoming “merely history.”
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