Monday, May 21, 2018

Review: The Sociological Imagination: 40th Anniversary Edition, by C. Wright Mills

New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 256.

Given how long ago I became acquainted with Mills' classics, The Power Elite and White Collar, I was slow to come to his book The Sociological Imagination. Less often mentioned, it simply seemed inessential. After having actually read it, though, I think I was wrong about that. Of course, his other books are quite self-contained and perfectly contained without reference to his thought on how sociologists can, do or should work. Still, the book is sufficiently rich to be worth a read for its own sake (while, I think, my appreciation of this book was strengthened by my having seen so much of his actual sociological work).

"The sociological imagination" to which the book's title refers entails the ability to relate the personal life to the collective life; the individual biography to human history. And it is underlain by the recognition that not only is there such a thing as society, but that without considering it we cannot understand the individual lives of the people in it; that we cannot usefully think about, let alone resolve, our problems without the benefit of such insight, recognizing in personal "troubles" the manifestation of bigger societal "issues." (That one does not have a job is a "trouble"; but it has to be understood in terms of the unemployment that is an "issue.") Indeed, this bestowed on social studies (he preferred the term to social science because of the latter's physics envy-evoking baggage) a great responsibility in relation to society—a key role as judges of the power-holding elite, and educators of any would-be democratic public, so that even if social scientists could not save the world, their trying to do so was an honorable and necessary endeavor, the more so given the confusion and dangers of the times as he saw them.

However, while Mills does explain this idea at length, most of the book is actually devoted to a critique of what sociologists were actually doing in his time—or as was often the case, not doing—and why, with several chapters devoted to what he saw as the problems in the way of their fulfilling their role. One of them, certainly, was the obsession with specialization—those jealousy guarded disciplinary boundaries obstacles that any researcher honestly trying to answer a meaningful question had to overstep, and which were, at least as problematic, the seed of a stifling bureaucratization and politicization of research work, as ridiculous as it was unfortunate.

Mills was also a sharp critic of the obsession with research methodology for its own sake, the methodological controversy by which so many academics set such great store sterile when disconnected from concrete work. In particular he criticized the extreme abstraction of what he called "Grand Theory," epitomized by the unreadable "concept"-mongering and term-coining of Talcott Parsons; and theoretically blinkered "abstracted empiricism," consisting of micro-studies without much sense of the relation or relevance of their questions and findings to the larger social scene, which had come to be so characteristic of corporate-government administrative research. Their other failings aside, the one was preoccupied with methodology for its own sake; while the other let a received methodology determine the problems to be studied (typically, not the really worthwhile ones), when in his view it ought to have been the other way around, methodological progress deriving from our grappling with the problems which leave us uncertain about how to deal with them. (Indeed, as Mills noted, Parsons abandoned his elaborate concepts when he actually endeavored to study a genuine sociological issue.)

And as might be guessed from a reading of Mills' other work, he was a critic not just of such academy-specific tendencies as overspecialization and the obsession with methodology, but the larger condition of society, and especially the prevailing, mainstream view—what he termed the "practical liberalism" or "pluralism," which would seem to have had connections with those academic trends he decried. Taking the facts of society for granted (especially as seen from a small-town, rural, Midwestern perspective), afraid to draw bold conclusions about the causes of social phenomena and hiding this behind an attribution of everything to innumerable minute causes, easily overwhelmed by the big questions, it inclined to a "psychologism" fixed on "the make-up of individuals"—and "rests upon an explicit metaphysical denial of the reality of social structure." The social world was so much a given as not to be considered at all; the troubled individual simply "maladjusted" and in need of being brought into "harmonious balance" with it.

If there was a positive recommendation to be derived from this line of thought, it was (as conveniently summed up in the appended essay "On Intellectual Craftsmanship") a call for "unpretentious intellectual craftsmen," with "every man . . . his own methodologist . . . his own theorist," working on significant problems without inhibition by specialization, conscious of human history and people as "historical and social actors" (as human beings in a particular time and social environment) and communicating it all clearly and simply, over "rigidity in procedure and fetishism of method and technique," the bureaucratization of research and unintelligible writing. Moreover, Mills had some optimism that the course was onward and upward. It seemed to him that the sociological imagination was becoming common currency, and that the social sciences were drawing together—with economics, for instance, becoming "political economy" again.

I cannot claim sufficient background in the state of the intellectual art in '50s sociology to confidently judge how prevalent "grand theory" and "abstracted empiricism" really were in his day. I must admit that all my knowledge of Talcott Parsons is secondhand (though that is also because those contacts with his ideas never left me with the impression that it was necessary to read his work the way it seemed necessary to read Mills, for example). Still, Mills' appraisal of the weaknesses of those approaches is compelling, and his argument for what sociology—and social science—ought to look like strikes me as axiomatic.

Still, it is also clear that he was overoptimistic about the trend in his field. As Todd Gitlin acknowledges in his afterword to this edition of the book, sociology "has slipped deeper into the troughs Mills described." To the extent that there is very much in the way of sociological imagination evident today, it is of the cheapened pop sociology kind—"sociological imagination lite, a fast-food version of nutriment, a sprinkling of holy water on the commercial trend of the moment, and a trivialization of insight" as Gitlin puts it, like the stultifyingly silly zeitgeist film criticism passing for profundity on so many review pages. Unintelligible concept-mongering, micro-studies—and of course, physics-envy—seem ever more widespread in an age of ultra-specialization. Economics has been a particularly troubling scene, with reputable and prominent economic thinkers time and time again over the years (you can see Lester Thurow do it here in 1983, Robert Heilbroner do it here in 1995) calling out that profession to no effect whatsoever, with even the crisis of 2008 having no lasting consequences—to the shock of anyone who thinks of mainstream economics as an actual would-be science rather than theology and apologetic.

I would go still further than Gitlin where sociology is concerned. While we have an abundance of cheap pop sociology, it can seem that the sociological imagination is as scarce as ever it was, and this unsurprising given the turn of economic life, politics, culture—our era of "no such thing as society" neoliberalism, "personal responsibility," "self-help," anti-intellectualism that may make what came before look like nothing, and consequent disdain for what social science has to teach. None of that has been for the better in a time that seems as much in need of the "sociological imagination" as it has ever been.

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