(2017) Sociological Imagination is Critical Reason at Work [ENG]

Thursday 31 August 2017, by Miguel Angel Martinez

All the versions of this article: [English]

Sociological Imagination is Critical Reason at Work


Every time I suggest my students to read Wright Mills’ book “The Sociological Imagination” (1959), especially his famous Appendix “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” I feel glad when hearing their reactions and I also remember my own joy when I read it for the first time long time ago. Perhaps, a very tricky question is that the core tenets of the book are not much about imagination in a postmodern sense. Quite the contrary, Mills outlines the project of a very ambitious social science able to shed light over the “total society”. This means he was concerned about social structures and what he called “biography”, which resembles agency, subjectivity and identity issues embedded in social contexts, according to our present jargon. Systematic historical comparisons were also an essential feature of the scientific endeavour he envisioned. His book “The Power Elite” (1956) represents a brilliant expression of all those concerns, and also a landmark in the development of political sociology. Another contemporary long reading that dealt with similar topics of corporate, political and military powers, while incorporating historical and urban implications, was the impressive Lewis Mumford’s “The City in History” (1961). However, Mills’ enlightened remarks on theory and method made of his cry to invigorate “sociological imagination” an unescapable reference for any social scientist. This blog entry may serve well to the purpose of recalling some of Mills’ key excerpts from the above mentioned Appendix.

I guess that the feminist motto “the personal is political” was not much seriously considered at the time Mills wrote his piece –the era of the Cold War, the atomic race, some decolonisation processes and the development of European welfare states. Notwithstanding, one can notice Mills’ worries on the connections between a fruitful sociology and a personal dedication to science explicitly immersed in the values of reason, freedom and democratic socialism (or “radical liberalism” as many would call that affiliation in the US context). According to the tradition of the Enlightenment and to Mills, an engaged social scientist is committed, above all, to questioning taken for granted assumptions. A healthy scepticism and reasonable explanations of our empirical experience are more specific contents of the sociological imagination, than artistic creativity and intuition, as some may expect.

The most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. (…) You must learn to use your experience in your intellectual work: continually to examine and interpret it. In this sense craftsmanship is the center of yourself and you are personally involved in every intellectual product upon which you may work. (…) To be able to trust yet to be skeptical of your own experience, I have come to believe, is one mark of the mature workman. This ambiguous confidence is indispensable to originality in any intellectual pursuit. (…) Build up the habit of writing. You cannot ‘keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least every week. (…) A practicing social scientist ought periodically to review ’the state of my problems and plans.’” (p.195-197)

Sometimes Mills seems to think on a sleepless scientist mostly working alone and continuously asking questions to himself and to the data he or she collects in their “journal” (file or notebook) –that celebrated sociological tool that he recommended to shake up and re-organise from time to time. It is remarkable that the scientist’s obsession about the topics that occupy their mind needs to endlessly hop from theories and social problems to “popular awareness” about them, and from here to the observed facts, even the surprising ones, that may challenge the initial hypotheses. Moving forward and backward means, to me, that hypotheses are entangled with the social problems they intend to capture, but they all have to be reformulated as many times as needed. Instead of just a radical break up with the common sense (a persistent aim for the French tradition from Durkheim to Bachelard, Althusser and Bourdieu, for instance), Mills suggests more frequent visits to the life out there and walk back to the working desktop while always keeping a critical sight. Thus, flexible plans and works-in-progress may help to develop the skills of systematisation and reasoning. Deadline-induced panic, I would add, should not even be dismissed as a productive source of inspiration and achievement. The human scientist is not a mere biological computer for testing and refuting hypotheses, but, among other things, a truth seeker who works with all the human-and-natural limitations and interferences they face, in a very non-linear trajectory. Based on this, many would embrace the “anarchist epistemology” (often summarised as “anything goes”) proposed by Paul K. Feyerabend (“Against Method”, 1974). However, although Mills sometimes uses expressions such as “hunches” and “playfulness of mind” (probably due to literary reasons in order to appeal to the readers’ curiosity for the “know how” of social science), he contends that research should follow some rational path of checking previous theories, first, and suggesting new ones, later, which were more capable to discover the intricacies of social phenomena.

“I found in the files three types relevant to my study of the elite: several theories having to do with the topic; materials already worked up by others as evidence for those theories; and materials already gathered and in various stages of accessible centralization, but not yet made theoretically relevant. Only after completing a first draft of a theory with the aid of such existing materials as these can I efficiently locate my own pivotal assertions and hunches and design researches to test them. (…) Take into account the available theories. (…) How can I put this into testable shape, and how can I test it? How can I use this as a center from which to elaborate—as a perspective from which descriptive details emerge as relevant? (…) The purpose of empirical inquiry is to settle disagreements and doubts about facts. (…) Facts discipline reason; but reason is the advance guard in any field of learning.” (p.202-205)

Theory is the first beacon of research and theory creation will indicate whether we have arrived to the intended port. It is then very striking to note nowadays that the term ‘sociological imagination’ is very often used without any reference to systematic theories and reliable methods to confront social reality. Indeed, it seems Mills gained an undeserved popularity for conveying that connotation. He basically insists in the need to disentangle “questions of facts” from the books and theories we start reading. Afterwards, he proposes to define concepts, elements and logical relations. Furthermore, he is much in favour to quantify every indicator if possible. If not, which is very usually the case, a clear classification of variables, ideal types, diagrams and graphs may clear the way ahead. Obviously, this is a very balanced plea between the virtues of quantification and the inescapable inertia to go qualitative from the beginning of the research process, and also at any stage where there are no credible (or available) data corresponding to the variables we have set up. By the end of the day, it is all about determining significant problems for both scientists and society.

The sociological imagination, I remind you, in considerable part consists of the capacity to shift from one perspective to another, and in the process to build up an adequate view of a total society and of its components. (…) Its essence is the combination of ideas that no one expected were combinable—say, a mess of ideas from German philosophy and British economics. There is a playfulness of mind back of such combining as well as a truly fierce drive to make sense of the world, which the technician as such usually lacks. (…) The technique of cross-classifying is not of course limited to quantitative materials; as a matter of fact, it is the best way to imagine and to get hold of new types as well as to criticize and clarify old ones. Charts, tables, and diagrams of a qualitative sort are not only ways to display work already done; they are very often genuine tools of production. (…) Cross-classification is the very grammar of the sociological imagination.” (p.211-213)

The last quotation includes references to “unexpected combinations” of ideas and the delineation of “new [ideal] types” (in a Weberian sense, but also following the structuralist vein of polar oppositions). Both seem to give credit to the sometimes prevailing interpretation of theory (and politics) as creative as art. Mills himself claims that social science is a sort of finely crafted activity (let’s also relieve ‘craftmanship’ from the gender-biased language so often pervading Mills’ writing style) without “any rigid set of procedures”. However, far from his intentions, what he stands for is sensible intellectual reflexivity, building upon previous knowledge, critically discussing prevailing theories, debunking myths and conducting original investigations for a better understanding of social problems. Theory creation by proposing novel concepts and explanations is part of our duties but this do not fully represent all of the work done. Just for the record (and hopefully also for the inspiration of the researchers to come), I still endorse much of Mill’s meaningful conclusions:

Urge upon yourself and upon others the simplicity of clear statement. Use more elaborated terms only when you believe firmly that their use enlarges the scope of your sensibilities, the precision of your references, the depth of your reasoning. (…)
Make any trans-historical constructions you think your work requires; also delve into sub-historical minutiae. Make up quite formal theory and build models as well as you can. Examine in detail little facts and their relations, and big unique events as well. (…)
Do not study merely one small milieu after another; study the social structures in which milieux are organized. (…)
Do not be merely a journalist, however precise a one. (…) Do not merely report minute researches into static knife-edge moments, or very short-term runs of time. (…)
Continually work out and revise your views of the problems of history, the problems of biography, and the problems of social structure in which biography and history intersect. Keep your eyes open to the varieties of individuality, and to the modes of epochal change. Use what you see and what you imagine, as the clues to your study of the human variety.
” (p.224-225)

P.S. If interested, Michael Buroway wrote a very nice, much longer and more analytical review of Mill’s legacy in Antipode journal.

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