The first fruit of this imagination and the first lesson of the social science

The first fruit of this imagination and the first

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The first fruit of this imagination -- and the first lesson of the social science thatembodies it -- is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge hisown fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in lifeonly by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances. In many ways it is aterrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one. We do not know the limits of man's capacitiesfor supreme effort or willing degradation, for agony or glee, for pleasurable brutality or thesweetness of reason. But in our time we have come to know that the limits of "human nature"are frighteningly broad. We have come to know that every individual lives, from one generationto the next, in some society; that he lives out a biography, and that he lives it out within some
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historical sequence. By the fact of his living he contributes, however minutely, to the shaping ofthis society and to the course of its history, even as he is made by society and by its historicalpush and shove.The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relationsbetween 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 ischaracteristic of Herbert Spencer -- turgid, polysyllabic, comprehensive; of E. A. Ross --graceful, muckraking, upright; of Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim; of the intricate andsubtle Karl Mannheim. It is the quality of all that is intellectually excellent in Karl Marx; it isthe clue to Thorstein Velben's brilliant and ironic insight, to Joseph Schumpeter's many-sidedconstructions of reality; it is the basis of the psychological sweep of W. E. H. Lecky no lessthan of the profundity and clarity of Max Weber. And it is the signal of what is best incontemporary studies of man and society.No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history, and oftheir intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey. Whatever the specificproblems of the classic social analysts, however limited or however broad the features of socialreality they have examined, those who have been imaginatively aware of the promise of theirwork have consistently asked three sorts of questions: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 the mechanics by which it ischanging? What is its place within and its meaning for the development of humanity as a whole?How does any particular feature we are examining affect, and how is it affected by, the historicalperiod in which it moves? And this period -- what are its essential features? How does it differfrom other periods? What are its characteristic ways of history-making?
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