Promise Essay Charles Wright Mills


Mills begins The Sociological Imagination by describing the situation of man in the 1950s. He characterizes this situation as one of both confinement and powerlessness. On the one hand, men are confined by the routine of their lives: you go to your job and are a worker, and then you come home and are a family-man. There are limited roles that men play, and a day in the life of a man is a cycle through them. On the other hand, men are also powerless in the face of larger and global political conditions they cannot control. In the 1950s, shadowed by anxieties over nuclear warfare and tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War, there is increasingly a feeling that the big problems facing men today are not ones the average man can affect. You go to work and you go home, but at no time do you seem to have a role to play in global politics.

In order to understand this situation, Mills says, we should adopt a “sociological imagination.” By imagination, Mills means a way of thinking and asking questions. To have a sociological imagination means looking at the world sociologically, asking sociological questions and providing sociological answers. It will be the task of the rest of his book to describe in detail what specifically these questions and answers look like. For now, Mills outlines three types of questions sociologists tend to ask. First, what is the structure of society? This question wants to know how different groups in a society are related. Second, what is the place of society in history? This question wants to figure out how societies change across time and how our society today is related to societies of the past. Third, what kinds of people does society produce? This question seeks to describe how people’s personalities and moods—their beliefs and values—are also shaped by the social world in which they live.

Mills details the “promise” of this imagination: why he thinks it’s important to ask these questions and what he thinks they help us understand. For starters, a sociological imagination is able to shuttle between the personal and historical. In the case of the contemporary man who feels trapped and powerless, sociological study explains how these feelings are produced by something larger than an individual’s life. Such study can show him how his personal life is also shaped by the society in which he lives and the historical period to which he belongs. Sociology connects the personal and the historical by recasting personal problems as historical ones and historical problems as personal ones. Personally, an individual feels trapped; sociology asks, what is going on in history that produces this feeling? Or, historically, the world is in a Cold War; sociology asks, how does this global situation get played out in how people feel and think in their private lives?

To clarify the kind of work sociology does in connecting the personal and the historical, Mills makes a distinction between personal “troubles” and public “issues.” Personal troubles are what an individual experiences in his “milieu,” Mills’s word for the immediate situation in which man moves, such as his family. "Troubles" are a private matter. In contrast, “issues” belong to a larger social structure. An issue is a crisis in an institution, instead of a crisis in an individual. They are therefore a public matter. Mills asks us to consider divorce. A man and a woman may have “troubles” in their marital milieu. That is on the one hand a private matter. But when half of all marriages end in divorce in a society, that is also a public issue having to do with the institution of marriage as a whole. You can’t describe so many divorces just by looking at every individual’s troubles. You have to provide a larger social account instead.

According to Mills, the same can be said of a number of other things that at first look like personal troubles but end up being public issues as well. Unemployment, for instance: if one person in a society is unemployed, that is a private problem. But if a society has a high rate of unemployment, then we need to be asking social questions about how and why that is. Moreover, when we discover we are talking about a structural issue, we realize we can’t provide personal solutions alone. You can’t solve a high divorce rate by getting one husband and wife back together, just like you can’t solve widespread unemployment by giving one person a job. You have to give social solutions to social problems.

To continue his discussion of the relation between personal milieu and social structures, Mills then considers different ways in which the two can be related. He turns in particular to the relation between personal values and public issues, and how a society does or does not support an individual’s values. People with values supported by society experience well-being; those with values unsupported experience crisis; and those whose values are neither supported nor unsupported experience indifference. But some people may not have any deeply held values to begin with. These people, according to Mills, experience uneasiness. Mills thinks that his contemporary period is characterized by both indifference and uneasiness: social structures are not neatly characterized by any one issue; and people don’t really formulate their values explicitly. It is this that the sociological imagination must now explain.

To summarize so far: the sociological imagination is important today because it can relate personal troubles and public issues, connecting biography and history, in order to give a complete sense of the specific anxieties and crises in our society. But before sociology can accomplish this great task, Mills says, we first have to consider some of the ways in which sociology has failed to do so. Sociology has a great “promise,” but sometimes this promise has been distorted. That, Mills explains, will be the focus of chapters 2-6 of The Sociological Imagination, after which he will return to the “promise,” in chapters 7-10.

For now, Mills lists three “tendencies” in sociology. Exaggerating one of these tendencies leads to the distortions he will proceed to describe. The first is a historical tendency, characteristic of studies that describe stages of the development of man, from primitive to civilized. The second is a human nature tendency, which does away with history in order to describe man in universal terms: his desires or weaknesses across time. The third is an empirical tendency, which measures more and more facts, for instance by counting populations. Mills worries that people in the second tendency tend to over-generalize, producing “grand theories,” as he will explain in Chapter 2, that do not explain any actual social behavior. In contrast, people in the third tendency, which he discusses in Chapter 3, tend to over-specialize, collecting a lot of data about one thing without really describing the larger society as a whole. In the following chapters, Mills will aim to diagnose and correct these problems in order to give a better program to realize the promise of the sociological imagination.


By beginning with discussion of “the sociological promise,” Mills is also making a promise to his readers. He promises both to explain their world and to explain how society ought to be studied. What warrants this kind of ambition? What makes readers trust that Mills will derive on his promises? One answer is in Mills’s writing style. He writes clear sentences with provocative language. Consider the first sentence: “Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps.” This language of “traps”—hardly a jargon term—invites Mills’s readers to identify with his description and to trust that he will explain things in everyday language.

The everyday language suggests some of how Mills relates to his intended audience. On the one hand, Mills is clearly writing this book to social scientists with a degree of specialization. His audience includes university professors, and he is trying to tell them how to do their job better. But Mills also thinks these professors need to be talking to the larger public, explaining social issues to them in order to educate them on ways of making society better. Mills models this outreach to the public in his own writing, making his thinking accessible to those who are not necessarily sociology specialists. Mills’s writing is targeted to this public audience so much that it even becomes humorous or sarcastic at times. He makes fun of other sociologists who write two densely. By poking fun at them, he is both shaming them into writing clearer prose and making his own writing more humorous and enjoyable to read.

Notice this emphasis on “men,” however. Throughout this chapter—and throughout The Sociological Imagination—Mills frequently refers to “ordinary men,” “everyday men,” and so on. It’s clear from this first chapter that Mills doesn’t just mean the word in the sense of "mankind" but also men in the sense of males, specifically. That’s why he talks about businessmen or fathers. There is a gender bias at play here, and it will color some of Mills’s descriptions of society later on. Mills is clearly writing as a man and to men. The experiences of women are secondary to his account.

Although feminism will not be a focus of this book, Mills does already suggest some of his other political affiliations in this introductory chapter. Consider the examples he tends to provide, discussing war and unemployment in particular. He suggests that these are social problems that social scientists ought to be working to redress. In turn, he resists a conservative tendency to cast social problems as personal problems: unemployment as the failure of individuals, for instance. Although he won’t discuss politics at length until the end of the book, he already suggests some of his liberal allegiances and his desire for social science to not only describe society but also transform it.

Another main ambition hinted at in this chapter is Mills’s desire to establish sociology as a discipline. He is trying to carve out a specific and necessary function for the social sciences in the intellectual landscape of 1950s America. Around this time, C. P. Snow, a chemist and novelist, famously wrote about the “two cultures”; his thesis was that intellectual life had fragmented into the sciences and the humanities, which no longer speak to each other. Mills wants to introduce social science as distinct from these physical sciences Snow talked about, like physics or biology. Social science is, like the humanities, interested in human life. At the same time, it goes beyond the humanities. Art can express the human condition, but only social science can put these expressions into patterns and understand the larger structures that impact them. Mills wants to assert social science as a crucial area of study that is neither pure science nor pure humanities, but a way of bringing them back together.


C. Wright Mills on the Sociological Imagination

By Frank W. Elwell

The sociological imagination is simply a "quality of mind" that allows one to grasp "history and biography and the relations between the two within society.” For Mills the difference between effective sociological thought and that thought which fails rested upon imagination. Sociological thought, according to Mills is not something limited to professors of sociology; it is an exercise that all people must attempt.

Mills claimed that Sociological research has come to be guided more by the requirements of administrative concerns than by intellectual concerns. It has become the accumulation of facts for the purpose of facilitating administrative decisions. To truly fulfill the promise of social science requires us to focus upon substantive problems, and to relate these problems to structural and historical features of thesociocultural system. These features have meanings for individuals, and they profoundly affect the values, character, and the behavior of the men and women who make up that sociocultural system.

The promise of the social sciences is to bring reason to bear on human affairs. To fulfill this role requires that we "avoid furthering the bureaucratization of reason and of discourse. What I am suggesting is that by addressing ourselves to issues and to troubles, and formulating them as problems of social science, we stand the best chance, I believe the only chance, to make reason democratically relevant to human affairs in a free society, and so to realize the classic values that underlie the promise of our studies" (1959: 194). Mills set forth his own conception of how a social scientist should undertake the work. He conveys a sense of what it means to be an intellectual who concentrates on the social nature of man and who seeks that which is significant. In an appendix to the Sociological Imagination he set forth some guidelines that, if followed, would lead to intellectual craftsmanship.

1.    First of all, a good scholar does not split work from life. Both are part of a seriously accepted unity.

2.    Second, a good scholar must keep a file.  This file is a compendium of personal, professional, and intellectual experiences

3.    Third, a good intellectual engages in continual review of thoughts and experiences.

4.    Fourth, a good intellectual may find a truly bad book as intellectually stimulating and conducive to thinking as a good book.

5.    Fifth, there must be an attitude of playfulness toward phrases, words, and ideas.  Along with this attitude one must have a fierce drive to make sense out of the world.

6.    Sixth, the imagination is stimulated by assuming a willingness to view the world from the perspective of others.

7.    Seventh, one should not be afraid , in the preliminary stages of speculation, to think in terms of imaginative extremes.

8.    Eighth, one should not hesitate to express ideas in language which is as simple and direct as one can make it.  Ideas are affected by the manner of their expression. An imagination which is encased in deadening language will be a deadened imagination.

Mills identified five overarching social problems in American society: 1) Alienation; 2) Moral insensibility; 3) Threats to democracy; 4) Threats to human freedom; and 5) Conflict between bureaucratic rationality and human reason. Like Marx, Mills views the problem of alienation as a characteristic of modern society and one that is deeply rooted in the character of work. Unlike Marx, however, Mills does not attribute alienation to capitalism alone. While he agrees that much alienation is due to the ownership of the means of production, he believes much of it is also due to the modern division of labor.

One of the fundamental problems of mass society is that many people have lost their faith in leaders and are therefore very apathetic. Such people pay little attention to politics. Mills characterizes such apathy as a "spiritual condition" which is at the root of many of our contemporary problems. Apathy leads to "moral insensibility." Such people mutely accept atrocities committed by their leaders. They lack indignation when confronted with moral horror; they lack the capacity to morally react to the character, decisions, and actions of their leaders. Mass communications contributes to this condition, Mills argues, through the sheer volume of images aimed at the individual in which she "becomes the spectator of everything but the human witness of nothing.”

Mills relates this moral insensibility directly to the rationalization process. Our acts of cruelty and barbarism are split from the consciousness of men--both perpetrators and observers. We perform these acts as part of our role in formal organizations. We are guided not by individual consciousness, but by the orders of others. Thus many of our actions are inhuman, not because of the scale of their cruelty, but because they are impersonal, efficient. and performed without any real emotion.

Mills believed that widespread alienation, political indifference, and economic and political concentration of power is a serious all added up to a serious threat to democracy. Finally, Mills is continually concerned in his writings with the threat to two fundamental human values: "freedom and reason." Mills characterizes the trends that imperil these values as being "co-extensive with the major trends of contemporary society.” These trends are, Mills states throughout his writings, the centralization and enlargement of vast bureaucratic organizations, and the placing of this extraordinary power and authority into the hands of a small elite.

For the individual, rational organization is an alienating organization, destructive of freedom and autonomy. It cuts the individual off from the conscious conduct of his behavior, thought, and ultimately emotions. The individual is guided in her actions not by her consciousness, but by the prescribed roles and the rules of the organization itself. "It is not too much to say that in the extreme development the chance to reason of most men is destroyed, as rationality increases and its locus, its control, is moved from the individual to the big-scale organization. There is then rationality without reason. Such rationality is not commensurate with freedom but the destroyer of it." Like Weber before him, Mills cautions that a society dominated by rational social organization is not based on reason, intelligence, and good will toward all. Further, it is through rational social organization that modern day tyrants (as well as more mundane bureaucratic managers) exercise their authority and manipulation, often denying the opportunity of their subjects to exercise their own judgments.

For a more extensive discussion of Mills's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.


Elwell, F. W. (2006). Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Mills, C. W. (2000). C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings. (K. Mills, & P. Mills, Eds.) Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mills, C. W. (1960). Listen Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba. New York: Ballantine Books.

Mills, C. W. (1958). The Causes of World War Three. London: Secker & Warburg.

Mills, C. W. (1956/1970). The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. W. (1959/1976). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. W. (1951/1973). White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press.


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