The Failure of American Sociology:
C. Wright Mills's Indictment
COLLEGE students, however unlettered, often possess what journalists call “the instinct for the jugular.” Meeting a class one day which had just been reading C. Wright Mills’s White Collar, I was asked on entering the room whether I agreed with the description of American professors as men “of typically plebeian cultural interests . . . and a generally philistine style of life.” I acknowledged that on the whole I did. Yet a reviewer of one of Mills’s later books reported that academicians of his acquaintance thought White Collar profound and acute on sales-girls and business-executives but wide of the mark on professors. I find my opposite reaction confirmed by Mills’s new book, The Sociological Imagination (Oxford University Press, $6.00), a full-scale dissection of his academic colleagues and to my mind the best book he has yet written.
The new book is an attack on the dominant schools or “styles of work” in contemporary sociology for their failure to meet the demands of the “sociological imagination.” Mills wishes by this phrase to indicate that quality of mind which fully perceives the intimate connection between the private and the public, between personal experience and the broader typicalities and specificities of this time and that place. Or, as he puts it repeatedly, “the sociological imagination is the ability to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society.” The forerunners and founders of modem sociology had such a grasp, and we still read Tocqueville and Marx, Weber and Veblen. Contemporary sociologists honor their names but rarely follow their example. Those in search of a sense of themselves and their time, a search that led some of us to become professional sociologists in the 30′s and 40′s, are apt today to turn to non-sociologists, to writers as different as Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, and W. H. Whyte, as well as to sociologists like David Riesman and Mills himself who are unlikely ever to become presidents of the American Sociological Society.
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