“Sociological Imagination” is a term that was coined by the popular American sociologist, Charles Wright Mills (28 August 1916 – 20 March 1962), in one of his several books, The Sociological Imagination, published in 1959 by the Oxford University Press. It is in this book that he developed the notion of sociological imagination (as a sociological concept). In addition to that, he also established an understanding of how the relationship between the self and society works.
In general, this concept is usually used, by scholars in the discipline of sociology, to also explain sociology as a study as well as how it is relevant to human daily experiences.
This is why our focus in this article will be to explain the relevance of this term in understanding the nature of sociology. In addition, we shall also be examining the self–society relationship, how it works as well as some of the underlying factors or elements, in sociology, that hold these conventionally established relations together.
So, with the understanding that other closely related works have been done on this same topic, this article will, however, expressly create a fundamentally simpler picture of how this sociological concept can be better understood by both students and researchers in the field of sociology.
Mills’ “Sociological Imagination” is a concept that provides a fundamental structure for understanding how we can better understand our social world (Mills, 1959).
Scholars have offered different explanations of this concept, however, there seems to be an element of similarity between all of them: this is the human–society relation. Therefore, we can view sociological imagination as the awareness we have of the link that exists between our personal experiences and the conventions of the wider society or the world at large.
Essentially, Mills’ Sociological Imagination departs from the common sense understanding of the human–society relationship that is through day-to-day experiences alone. According to Giddens (2006), it specifically involves the application of imaginative thoughts and experiences to the understanding of sociological systems or organizations; that is, how humans develop a “deep understanding” of human nature or “biography” within a larger structure conventionally created through one’s direct interaction with society.
In simpler words, Sociological Imagination refers to the individual ability to identify experiential issues within a larger framework of social processes (Social Science–LibreTexts, 2020).
According to Mills (1959), human experience and social conventions can only be explained when we understand the connections between both ideas and notions. According to him, “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without first understanding the relationship between both.” (Mills, 1959).
What Mills hoped to achieve, with his concept, was to deliberately encourage people to focus on understanding their personal experiences as a part of a larger structure of the entire society and not as a single, isolated structure or system on its own
A quite common example given in the explanation of the concept of Sociological Imagination pertains to joblessness. For example, if an individual is unemployed, he or she might feel a bit sad, useless, and dejected for not having a job with which they can earn good money and build a life. The unemployed person might say to themselves, “You are a loser,” or “You’re insufficient!”
However, for Mills, this problem of unemployment can only be explained as part of the larger society. What Mills is saying is that “Hey, it’s not solely your fault that you’re jobless. Look around you, I think it’s actually the society or world you’re in, its structure and system of doing things!”
From Mills’ perspective, every problem of the individual can only be interpreted as having deep roots within society. Say if we are to reply or give advice to the jobless person, we would, in accordance with sociological imagination, say, “it’s not your fault, it’s, rather, the fault of the society around you.” There’s the likelihood that another person is facing the same problem of unemployment, which explains why it is not entirely the fault of the victim but of society.
With The Sociological Imagination, Mills did not only aim to address sociological problems but also issues that arise in other sciences as well. His objective was to bring scientists together to expressly explain every social problem humans are likely to encounter in their day-to-day interactions with the biological world.
In conclusion, Mills believes that every individual experience humans go through (unemployment, marriage, education, and so on) is not the unique situation on their own. They are not only experienced by one person; they’re, however, experienced by different people scattered across the globe.
He believes these situations can only be explained in relation to historical elements in the real world. They didn’t just appear out of nowhere. They evolved over time, and can only be explained or “imagined” in relation to the social factors surrounding their occurrence.