Sociological Imagination: A Critical Way to the World


Posted: May 6, 2015

by Jeanette Wiley

"I'm going to show you how to make yourself recession-proof. If you apply the principles I recommend in the following pages, you'll be presented with more opportunities than you ever thought possible."- Charlie Hoen, Recession Proof-Graduate

We're often told that in order to achieve the American Dream, one must simply work harder. In politics especially, it is common for members of both parties to tell an idealized story about hard work and great success. This, however, denies a larger structure at play that either enhances or deters people from achieving their goals. This common mindset is highlighted by the statement "blame no one but yourself". Upon hearing this, I began to reflect back to an important concept popularized by author and sociologist C.Wright Mills called the "sociological imagination". How can we relate individual biographies to a greater history? Could these personal troubles be part of much larger social problems? These are the questions that the concept of sociological imagination raises. By looking deeper into this notion, along with the ideas of structures and institutions, we can begin to answer these crucial questions and identify why things that plague our individual lives may be much more than just our failure to work hard enough.

Before answering these questions, one must have a clear understanding of the definition of sociological imagination. C. Wright Mills famously made this term popular in his paper "The Promise." Mills argues that a sociological imagination is essentially having the ability to "grasp the interplay between man and society, biography and history, of self and world" (Mills 1959). Being able to distinguish between personal "troubles" and greater social "issues" is the true heart of thinking sociologically. One of the best examples of separating these two phenomena is by looking at the job market through a personal trouble of a relative losing a job in relation to the greater social issue of widespread unemployment. Many times individuals feel that their failure to get hired is a personal problem due to a poor interview or lack of experience. What this fails to recognize, however, is that during an economic recession, there are many more people out of work competing for the fewer number of jobs in the market. It is an individual problem, of course, but it also shines light onto the much larger social issues at hand. Being aware of this relationship is crucial to our understanding of the world.

Other important concepts that help explain the complexities of individual vs. social problems are structures and institutions. Structure can be thought of as "common and persistent roles and relationships that shape human interaction" (Glenna n.p.). For example, structures could be the relationships between Professor and Student, Husband and Wife, or Employee and Employer. While they are not always intentional, they reflect a power dynamic that reveals roles and expectations of how someone should act in that particular setting. Institutions, on the other hand, are a set of rules and resources that enable and constrain patterns of human activity (Glenna n.p.). An example of such patterns can be seen in the institution of higher education. In order to understand this, one must ask questions such as, "How can we explain widespread 18-22 year old migration patterns across the United States as summer ends each year?" It is best explained by the phenomenon of higher education, which provides resources for young people to get a job. Both structures and institutions are often ignored by the public when looking at individual situations, but act as fundamental elements of analysis that help us to use a sociological imagination more effectively and critically.

Understanding these concepts is crucial to viewing the world sociologically. It is clear that in the popular book Recession Proof Graduate, author Charlie Hoen lacks these critical tools. He argues that if one follows his guide, they will be able to get a job that they love in any job market. This concept is not unique to this specific book, however. It is a common mindset in the United States that we should hold a Protestant work ethic where we work multiple jobs and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to attain success. This mindset was made popular in the 1890s by the writer Horatio Alger who famously described romantic stories about leaving poverty by being a self made man through a classic rags-to-riches tale. This dangerous mindset perpetuates the idea of attainable success with the adoption of the right mindset and perseverance. This minimizes the difficulties faced by many Americans who cannot escape these social structures by just working harder.

These common arguments, like the ones presented in Recession Proof Graduate, ignore highly important social structures that prevent people from being able to achieve the same privileges that others have. For example, Recession Proof Graduate argues that you should ask your "network" to help you find a rare job that isn't your typical 9-5, where you can first work for free and then hope to get a job later on. This is a rare privilege that only a small population can afford to carry out. Providing a young student with a manual that suggests these things is ignoring the interplay between a societal issue of a poor job market and cultural problem of encouraging Americans to work excessive hours, and is merely confusing it with the lack of individual motivation and strategy. According to an article written by Mugambi Jouet, "Naturally, hard work can significantly contribute to one's success. That sensible proposition is distinct from the suggestion that any indigent person could become affluent by simply adopting the right attitude" (Joet 2012). This quotation shows that there is a common generalization made that suggests that poverty is a mindset and can be changed by setting more goals. This is not to say that hard work has no effect on standard of living, but there are other influential sociological factors that play into one's life situation.

Another common area where we can see institutions and structures impeding our view of the world is through sustainability and environmental standards. A large portion of people actually do care about the Earth and recognize the eminent threat we face across the world. Why, then, is it common to see so many people still driving to work everyday and buying SUVs at excessive rates? It is because there are institutions and structures that make it much easier to choose these options than to choose the option that is most in line with our desires. For example, our world's infrastructure is primarily built around cars, rather than pedestrians or bikes. We make the default option to drive. We also subsidize oil, create huge barriers for companies like Tesla from selling directly, and more. These constrain the consumer to only be able to choose within a finite set of options.

This has become so much the case that it is often much harder to find a safe way to walk to your destination than to drive there. For example, my best friend lives very close to my house in my hometown. While I could walk there in about fifteen minutes, I always drive because there are no sidewalks to get to her house and the road is very dangerous. This speaks to both the nature of poor suburban design that encourages sprawl, but also to the fact that it is easier for me to drive than to walk. Even though it is still my personal choice to drive, there are lots of overarching structures that make this overwhelmingly more likely for me to choose.

It is clear that being aware of structures and institutions can drastically alter the way we view the world. Together, they act as tools within the greater sociological imagination to help us think critically about why individuals may make choices. Whether it has to do with being unemployed during an economic recession or choosing to drive an SUV when you agree that environmental stewardship is highly important, having a sociological imagination helps us to explain the true reasoning behind them. Rather than trying to make college graduates "Recession-Proof" or focusing a lot of energy on environmental education, perhaps looking at the world more sociologically will help us to see that these really are not the roots to the overarching social issues that plague our world.