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C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination

Contemporary Perspectives


Edited by John Scott & Ann Nilsen


Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2013

Hardcover. xx + 233 p. ISBN 978-1782540021. £75


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London



To my amazement, I realise that it was 44 years ago that I purchased my copy of The Sociological Imagination that was first published in 1959. Its author, Charles Wright Mills (1916-1962) was a prolific, influential  and controversial scholar who sometimes arrived to deliver classes at Columbia University, New York, dressed in leather jeans, sweatshirt and boots astride a motorbike that was the envy of many of his students. Mills popularised the ideas of Max Weber, Karl Mannheim and other European sociologists in the United States. He believed that social scientists should not be disinterested observers of life, manipulating quantities of statistical data, but should be socially responsible members of the community. He questioned the ethics of some of his professional peers, believing that they failed to exercise moral leadership or to argue against manifestations of social injustice. Not surprisingly, he made more than a few intellectual and political enemies. His main books were The New Men of Power, America’s Labor Leaders (1948), White Collar (1951), The Power Elite (1956), The Sociological Imagination (1959), and Character and Social Structure (1953, written with H.H. Gerth). In The Sociological Imagination, Wright Mills insisted:

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 … 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 the kind of history-making in which they might take part [9-10].

As I continue to research the making of geographical knowledge among French academics during the course of the past century, the relevance of Mills’s words comes home to me as I seek to discover the intricacies of biography and the operation of networks of institutional power in the shaping of individual careers, the moulding of publications, and the organisation of learned societies. In other words, as I attempt to relate the life of the individual to what was happening in the bigger academic picture.

In 2012 a number of events were held to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Mills’s death. Among these were a couple of special meetings in the United Kingdom and in Norway from which the chapters of the book under review were crafted. The greater part of the volume comprises nine essays that trace various aspects of his intellectual legacy, such as his contribution to research methodology, his sustained belief in the necessity of history and biography, and his trenchant views on power, war and peace. Chapter 5, written by Michael Newman, has a double resonance at present since it deals with the friendship between Mills and Ralph Miliband (father of the leader of the Labour Party) and their shared respect for Marxism. The second part of the volume is made up of seven shorter reflections on the work of Mills and recollections of encounters with him. Particularly notable is the essay by Kathryn Mills on her father’s views on war and peace, civil rights and gender. This piece complements her brief Foreword to the collection that encapsulates her memories of both her parents, her exposure to her father’s ideas and writings, and her decision to edit some of these in C. Wright Mills : Letters and Autobiographical Writings (2000). She writes warmly of Ralph Miliband and the ‘environment of contemporary European social thought [that] was highly stimulating and inspiring to Wright’ in the middle 1950s [xiii]. Indeed, Wright and Miliband travelled together from London to Poland to interview political intellectuals over a period of three weeks, and remained close friends after Wright had returned to New York. Having acquired a variety of meanings over the past half century, there is no doubt that ‘the sociological imagination’ not only has passed into the folklore of the social sciences but remains alive in their continuing practice.


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