Psychology•January 16, 2023
Sociological imagination is a concept that refers to the ability to connect personal experience with larger social structures and to see the link between personal troubles and public issues.
This allows us to see how our environment and society influence our lives. For example, you might blame yourself for not finding a job and hold yourself completely responsible for failing to develop the skills required by an employer. However, if your country is facing an economic crisis, businesses may have the means to employ only a small number of people. In this case, low employment success may be the result of the environment and not a reflection of skill or desirability.
In this article, we will explore how the line between personal and public issues and how understanding a larger context can provide a more insightful perspective regarding the nature of your problems.
The Sociologist C. Wright Mills introduced the concept of sociological imagination in his book, published in 1959, titled “The Sociological Imagination.” Mills argued that personal lives and the social world are interconnected, and that personal choices and experiences cannot be fully understood without understanding the larger social structures in which they are embedded. He wrote, "neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”
Sociological imagination helps individuals view the world from a different perspective and to question the assumptions they may have taken for granted.
One of the key elements of sociological imagination is the ability to view personal troubles as public issues. A divorce may be considered a personal issue, citing incompatible personalities or actions made by one or both parties as the contributing factors. However, if the country is seeing higher divorce rates overall due to changes to the institution of marriage, divorce may instead be a public issue.
One’s preference for a certain pair of shoes may not be a personal preference at all but rather the influence of a trend that popularized that pair of shoes or peers’ opinions about the shoes. Of course, societal factors are not always the sole drivers of action, but sociological imagination allows us to analyze our personal preferences and choices and discover if there are societal, cultural, and other types of influences behind them.
The International Labour Organization reports that the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic contributed to an estimated 8.8% loss of total working hours, the equivalent to the hours worked in one year by 255 million full-time workers. This loss of working hours had a wide-reaching impact worldwide, and many small businesses shut down as a result. A survey conducted by the International Labour Organization found that 80% of micro-enterprises and 70% of small firms experienced serious financial difficulties in the second quarter of 2020. Based on data provided by the BLS, many people lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of the 16.9 million people unemployed in July 2020, 9.6 million (57%) were unable to work because their employers closed or lost business due to the pandemic.
Looking at that tumultuous time from an outside perspective and seeing only the data about the rising unemployment rates and loss of working hours without considering the context would have led to the wrong assumptions about the situation.
During the pandemic, there were a large number of people choosing to become self-employed. This could have seemed strange if you had not considered that many businesses shut down and restrictions were put in place, blocking people in their homes, to contain the virus.
The main benefit of sociological imagination is that it allows you to see beyond the appearances of certain issues, regardless of whether there are personal problems or public ones. It can help you identify the root cause of the problem and see possible solutions to it.
The framework created by Mills’ sociological research helps people realize the connection between personal experience and their society. Using sociological imagination, he identified five main social problems in American society: threats to democracy, threats to human freedom, moral insensibility, alienation, and the conflict between human reason and bureaucratic rationality.²
Mills believed that as bureaucratic organizations become bigger, they tend to become more centralized, and all the power falls into the hands of a small, elite group, posing a threat to democracy and freedom. His concern can be justified when looking at the events related to Facebook’s data and Cambridge Analytica.
In the 2010s, the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica collected millions of Facebook users' personal data without their consent to use it for political advertising.
That scandal showed the danger of giving tech giants data on millions of people because, similar to the threats Millis envisioned, a small number of people running the companies gain the power to influence countless lives. This influence infringes on people's freedom, as they can be manipulated to think or choose certain things they might disagree with.
Sociological imagination forces us to take a second look at our lives and realize that something seemingly harmless, like introducing and sharing personal data on a social media website, can be dangerous.
It also brings to light that our apparent “free choices,” such as voting for a particular political candidate or choosing to support them, might have resulted from a carefully orchestrated marketing plan. And, in some cases, our “free choices” may even be driven by manipulations.
The framework Mills created can help people free themselves from the unseen influences various institutions, groups, and structures have on them.
Mills believed that many people’s feelings of alienation resulted from the modern division of labor. He observed that jobs in the United States and other parts of the world were broken up into simple, functional tasks, with machines or unskilled workers taking over the most tedious ones.¹
He considered that, with the rise of the automated workforce, autonomy, and authority became a privilege only available to individuals from the highest parts of the work hierarchy. As a result, most workers would have to accept that they would not be able to use their own judgment and would simply need to comply with the strict guidelines determined by those in power.
This society enforced a gradual removal of people’s autonomy in their work and encouraged the creation of what many felt were soulless occupations. Considering these circumstances, we saw the emergence of an unprecedented way to approach work.
The creator economy refers to the emergence of a new type of work occupation, where an individual becomes a content creator, providing value through a skill that highlights their uniqueness. For example, PewDiePie, one of YouTube’s most famous creators, became a millionaire by creating videos about gaming and other topics.
Analyzing these events using social imagination, we can see that the burning desire for meaning has led people to create novel jobs that did not exist before, which have at their center the uniqueness and autonomy of the individual. This evolution within the scope of America’s workforce became possible when people decided to take advantage of current opportunities, such as the internet, in order to solve a problem that arose in their society.
The framework that leverages the human imagination Mills envisioned can help us see the development of society as an interconnected series of events, and it gives us the possibility to identify the real problems and what we should do about them.
If you are interested in learning about concepts such as sociological imagination, the human psyche, and the interrelations between society and the individual, consider checking our Psychology Programs Overview or speaking with an Admission Advisor to learn more about our programs.
Sociological imagination teaches us to analyze our current problems and gives us a chance to prevent events such as the Great Resignation, which led to millions of Americans voluntarily quitting their jobs.
Even though the COVID-19 Pandemic was mainly the reason the Great Resignation started, the problem is more complex. According to the Pew Research Center, most workers who quit reported that the pay was too low (63%), there were no opportunities for advancement (63%), and they felt disrespected at work (57%).
Exploring imaginative thought related to sociology encourages us to unravel problems we may never have thought about and may make us consider the path toward societal progress we want to take. It allows the acknowledgment of people's desires and needs and provides a possible path toward addressing them.
The first component of sociological imagination is the ability to see the connection between individual behavior and larger social forces. This means understanding how the culture, political systems, and economy influence personal experiences such as getting a job or starting a family. The second component is the ability to identify how social systems generate behavior.
This requires understanding how seemingly personal troubles can be public issues. For example, explaining the unemployment of a single individual addresses only the character and skills of that individual. However, if there is an economic crisis and a significant number of people are unemployed during that time, we can consider it a public issue.
The third component is the ability to identify social forces that shape individual behavior. This is to understand how larger social influences such as race, power, and culture shape the opportunities of individuals.
There are multiple benefits to practicing sociological imagination: