Commentary Magazine

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 salesgirls 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 modern 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 40s, 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.

The condemnation of sociology that this suggests needs qualification on two counts. First, to expect professional sociologists to be the primary possessors of the sociological imagination would be to perpetuate an ancient intellectual imperialism which the humanities and the older social sciences have always rightfully resented. Mills himself makes it clear that he is using the phrase to refer to an ethos or intellectual ambiance, analogous to “Newtonian mechanism” and “Darwinian ethics,” rather than to an outlook that can or ought to be the exclusive property of a single discipline. Secondly, much of the work of contemporary sociologists in special areas such as criminology, population problems, or the study of voting trends is unquestionably valuable, as even the harshest critic of the field discovers when seeking comparable information about a foreign country where academic sociological research remains undeveloped. Yet sociology aspires to be more than a loose grouping of semi-autonomous specialties—not to speak of the armory of research techniques plus an esoteric vocabulary—which it is in danger of becoming.

Literary men and journalists who regularly sneer at the graceless verbosity and obsessive methodolatry of sociologists are likely to applaud much of what Mills says without paying very close attention to it. But Mills’s point of view is not really theirs: he knows that “insight” ox “literary sensibility” or an awareness that in some sense “Dostoevsky said it all before and better” are not enough to assure even a limited understanding of history, politics, and society. Disciplined thinking, much plain fact grubbing, unremitting exposure to the materials of contemporary and recorded history, the capacity to brood over and exploit one’s personal experiences without crudely projecting them onto the universe—all this and more are necessary. Neither a personal gift of perceptiveness nor any easily teachable method can provide a short cut. The trouble with contemporary sociologists is that from the mixed ingredients of the sociological imagination they have extracted a few mental skills and thought-ways and set them up as the royal road to truth.

Max Weber, the one great man we sociologists can plausibly claim as our own, once wrote: “No sociologist should think himself too good, even in his old age, to make tens of thousands of quite trivial computations in his head and perhaps for months at a time.” A social researcher, one of those Whom Mills with his usual talent for phrase-making calls an “abstracted empiricist,” once quoted this to me in justification of the narrow technicism of the quantifiers and tabulators. But Weber obviously didn’t mean that “trivial computations” ought to be rushed into print and hailed as science or scholarship. And he went on to remark that such busywork is not worth the effort “if no idea occurs to his [the sociologist’s] mind about the direction of his computations . . . [for although] the idea is not a substitute for work . . . work in turn cannot substitute for or compel an idea any more than enthusiasm can.”

I don’t suppose that even the most hidebound empiricist would withhold verbal assent from that today. No one believes any longer that “the facts speak for themselves”; it is universally admitted that “theory” and “research” ought to be united. But what Mills labels Grand Theory, meaning chiefly the work of Talcott Parsons and his followers, not only has little or no intrinsic relation to the research routines and the processed questionnaire “data” of the empiricists, but is a very different thing from theory as we find it in the classical sociologists. Marx’s “capitalism,” Weber’s “rationalization of life,” or Veblen’s “leisure class,” ideas which, inclusive as they are, have clear historical referents linking them to the world as we know it, are usually surrounded by deprecatory quotation marks in the writings of the grand theorists. The latter prefer to deploy terms like “dysfunction,” “role expectation,” or “structural requisite”—highly abstract and formal concepts which at best amount to possible building blocks for theory rather than to theory itself. The ugliness of this jargon1 would be a small price to pay if we had any assurance that it would give us otherwise unobtainable answers to important questions. But when “applied” by Parsonians to the concrete social and historical world, we merely find translations of what more old-fashioned historians and social scientists tell us in English.



Grand theory and abstracted empiricism are degenerations of older intellectual traditions in which each found a proper and limited place. Mills’s account of how such partial perspectives have become dominant in American sociology and how they are sustained and perpetuated by trends in American society amounts to a first-rate sociology of sociology itself. To appreciate it fully one must oneself be a sociologist, preferably a former graduate student at Columbia in the postwar years, for although Mills names a good many names his book has some of the traits of a roman à clef. He is marvelously accurate at describing and recording the intellectual mannerisms, the falsely modest solemnities about the “hard and unrewarding demands of real science,” the new academic types, and the new forms of career-making that prevail in the “research shops” of bureaucratic social science. To give the full flavor requires quotation. Mills writes of the younger men, exclusively “trained” in the new social science:

I have seldom seen one of these young men in a condition of genuine intellectual puzzlement. And I have never seen any passionate curiosity about a great problem, the sort of curiosity that compels the mind to travel anywhere and by any means, to remake itself if necessary, in order to find out. These young men are less restless than methodical; less imaginative than patient; above all, they are dogmatic—in all the historical and theological meanings of the term. . . . They have taken up social research as a career; they have come early to an extreme specialization, and they have acquired an indifference or a contempt for ‘social philosophy’—which means to them ‘writing books out of other books’ or ‘merely speculating.’ Listening to their conversations, trying to gauge the quality of their curiosity, one finds a deadly limitation of mind.

Mills sees more clearly than previous critics the extent to which abstracted empiricism has robbed sociology of its traditional subject matter. Sociology has become “the methodological specialty”; the sociologist is now a toolmaker, a technician of research, possessing skills equally usable by advertising agencies, giant bureaucracies, and independent scholars. For a few years research money flows from corporations concerned over industrial morale; then a foundation becomes interested in, say, attitudes toward civil liberties and a whole new sub-field springs into being appropriately labeled and discussed at a session of the September A.S.S. meetings; at present, hospitals and mental health groups are providing jobs and research funds, so “medical sociology” and the “sociology of mental health” are burgeoning specialties. Now the new research skills are indispensable for many purposes: it would, I think, be a gain to all concerned if those who wished to concentrate on elaborating and refining them were to secede from sociology and set up shop as a service discipline like statistics, accessible to all would-be users. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen. Nor can I share the optimism of some of my fellow members of what might be called the Humanistic Underground in American sociology, who think that abstracted empiricism will prove to be a passing fad. It is now, as Mills shows, too securely built into the very structure of American society as one of the instrumentalities of bureaucratic administration. Those of us, therefore, who still value understanding more than know-how may have to accept and wear with pride the labels “social philosopher,” “journalist,” or even “literature major,” the latest appellation adopted by research technicians to describe their betters.



Mills’s chapter on Talcott Parsons is less satisfactory than his discussion of empiricism. He makes much of the opaqueness of Parsons’s terminology and effectively ridicules it by quoting huge globs and then “translating” them into a few brief and lucid sentences. I have no desire to defend Parsons’s prose, which has to be read to be believed, but it does have more content than Mills’s jibes suggest. Mills in fact implicitly concedes as much when he criticizes the conservative view of the social order that is embedded in Parsons’s categories.

For Parsons, unlike most of his epigoni, deals with real theoretical problems, especially in his earlier books. Why, given a secular Hobbesian or Darwinian view of man as simply a gifted animal, do men refrain from regular resort to fraud and violence in pursuit of their ends and maintain a viable society at all? Parsons answers that their very ends are acquired from other men and become shared moral values, “internalized” by processes with which psychoanalysis has made us familiar. But even if biological man is thus transformed into social man, why is society not rent apart by warring groups, each seeking to advance its own values and collective interests? To this, the “Marxist” problem, Parsons answers, more dubiously, that society has a tendency toward an equilibrium in which its component groups and institutions become harmoniously adapted to one another.

The trouble with Parsons’s theory is that, in trying to explain conformity and social stability, which become problematical once the assumption of an innate or God-given moral sense or Lockean “identity of interests” is abandoned, he manages to make their opposites appear even more problematical. That violence, revolution, and historical change occur at all becomes incomprehensible. In the terms o£ Parsons’s theory, as Mills observes, “the idea of conflict cannot effectively be formulated. Structural antagonisms, large-scale revolts, revolutions—they cannot be imagined.” At most they can be explained by individual psychopathology as “failures of socialization,” which is not even adequate to account for the juvenile delinquent, let alone the reformer, the revolutionary, or the prophet.



Parsons reviewed Mills’s The Power Elite at considerable length (World Politics, October 1957), and it is instructive to compare Parsons on Mills with Mills on Parsons. Parsons challenges Mills’s assumption that the exercise of power always imposes some deprivation on those subject to it. To him power is essentially “a facility for the performance of function in and on behalf of the society as a system” and he refuses to regard its expansive tendency and its openness to abuse as of more than secondary importance. He does not even look on power as at best a necessary evil.

Mills is right, I think, to see tension and potential conflict between the goals of the power-holders and their subjects as inescapable. But his pose as a tough-minded connoisseur of power inclines him to a neo-Machiavellian cynicism in which the “common values” stressed so heavily by Parsons are re-defined as “master symbols of legitimation” which “justify or oppose the arrangement of power and the position within this arrangement of the powerful.” This amounts to saying that values and ideologies are mere epiphenomena and that power interests alone are autonomous in history. Far from disposing of Parsons’s over-socialized man and over-integrated society, such a view simply reinstates the original “problem of order” as it stood before Parsons tried to solve it. No true dialogue takes place between the two men, no dialectic of their ideas results—they succeed merely in negating one another.

If Mills reminds us of Pareto and Mosca in his conception of what is, Parsons rightly argues that Mills’s notion of what might be implies “a utopian conception of an ideal society in which power does not play a part at all.” It is here that traces of ideological Marxism, or even of Leninism, are most evident in Mills’s thinking. He could, of course, reply to Parsons that in refusing to view power as beneficent he at least doesn’t make the mistake of reasoning as if Utopia were already here. But the question of Mills’s ideological preconceptions must be raised because readers who do not accept the diagnosis of contemporary America or of the cold war set forth in his earlier books may be inclined to look on his indictment of sociology with suspicion. Is he simply complaining that sociologists are not radicals and thus are not preoccupied with his own political concerns in their work?

Except for occasional lapses, I do not think Mills is vulnerable to this charge. Actually, most of the thinkers he praises as exemplars of the sociological imagination were by no means radicals themselves—Marx, Veblen, and possibly Mannheim are the only real exceptions—and several, notably Durkheim, Mosca, and Schumpeter, are usually classified as conservatives. Mills’s liberal-radical outlook is most evident in his two final chapters. Since I share this outlook, much of what he says seems to me to be unexceptionable. For the most part he echoes, down to the very phrasing, ideas he has developed at greater length elsewhere, although his particular views on American society and world politics are considerably muted.

Inevitably, it is partly this avoidance of detailed political programs and analyses that leads me in common with others (e.g. George Lichtheim in the September issue of COMMENTARY) to find The Sociological Imagination more impressive than its predecessors. But there is, I think, more to it than this. Mills is undoubtedly at his best in writing about what he knows at firsthand—a further bit of evidence that sociological understanding differs only in degree from the understanding achieved by a good novelist or by any acute observer of the life around him. Moreover, Mills has always made his most telling points when he is opposing a point of view which has been stated with sufficient clarity and intelligence to make it impossible to dismiss it in its least convincing form. In taking on Parsons and Paul Lazarsfeld, Mills chooses the most able spokesmen for grand theory and abstracted empiricism respectively. As a result, his own arguments are sharper and more probing and the frequent lapses into rhetoric and journalistic purple patches that mar his other books are less in evidence.

Mills’s gift is largely for synthesis, for sketching in the outlines of the whole, rather than for careful, close reasoning. His books are full of exciting vistas, imaginative suggestions pointing to overlooked connections in social life, but he invariably fails to follow these up in any rigorous fashion. For example, The Power Elite provides us with no more than a starting point for the analysis of power in American society: Mills tells us who the decision-makers and power-holders are, but, as I argued in the September 1956 issue of COMMENTARY, he neglects to discuss in detail what sort of things they decide and what interests they serve. He seems to hold assumptions about these latter dimensions of power that remain hidden. Again, in Character and Social Structure, an advanced text in social psychology that Mills wrote with Hans Gerth several years ago, we are promised “a view of man as an actor in historic crises and of man as a whole entity”—a prospect offering an exciting contrast to the usual hodgepodge of attitude studies and watered-down psychoanalysis that passes for social psychology. But, as Philip Selznick pointed out in an acute review, the book does not live up to its promise: the authors are erudite in their use of wide-ranging historical illustrations, but they largely confine themselves to elaborating a set of concepts and definitions, an enterprise which, though more elegantly executed, does not differ in kind from what Mills condemns as “grand theory.”



There is a striking discrepancy between Mills’s own work and the admirable conception of what sociology ought to be advanced in The Sociological Imagination. To begin with, his books are surprisingly diffuse and repetitive if measured against the altogether fascinating discussion of his methods of work which he includes in an appendix entitled “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” And if there is one rule that Mills insists on again and again as an absolute prerequisite for the exercise of the sociological imagination, it is the necessity of thinking historically and comparatively. “Never think of describing an institution in 20th century America without trying to bear in mind similar institutions in other types of structures and periods,” he writes. “The aim of classic social science requires that we seek a fully comparative understanding of the social structures that have appeared and now exist in world history.”

Yet, in spite of these exhortations, I find his own studies of contemporary America lacking in historical depth and comparative perspective. The only other societies he ever discusses in detail are early 19th-century America and Nazi Germany. He holds a somewhat idealized and Whitmanesque view of the former and his main, if not only, authority on Nazism is Franz Neumann’s Behemoth, an excellent study of the pre-war Hitler regime; but Mills seems unaware of the fact that Neumann later qualified or rejected many of its neo-Marxist conclusions. Does Mills think that contemporary Britain is ruled by a “power elite” resembling that of the United States? Or did the Labor party seriously modify capitalist institutions and break the continuity with the past he finds in America? No answers to these queries can be found in Mills’s books because, except for a passing reference to the superiority of the British civil service in The Power Elite, he never mentions England. And beyond a few comments on the brutalities of enforced industrialization, he has surprisingly little to say, even in The Causes of World War III, about Soviet Russia. Tocqueville maintained that he did not write a single paragraph of Democracy in America without having France in mind and, although he never mentions France as such, we know fully what he thought about his own country as well as about the United States. “One need not make explicit comparisons,” Mills observes. Indeed, but his own books do not pass the Tocqueville test. (But, then, how many do?)

And yet The Sociological Imagination is incredibly rich in ideas. It is impossible not to feel a sense of personal gratitude to Mills for having dispelled the air of make-believe that clings to contemporary sociology, the dominating pretense that its practitioners are skilled scientists when their work so often falls below the standards of the most old-fashioned kind of scholarship. The strange linguistic habits of the theorists and the “methodological inhibition” of the empiricists have a common source in the ambition to create a social science matching the natural sciences in its monopoly of an arcane and specialized expertise. Whatever one’s view of the possibilities of ever achieving such a science (and my own is decidedly skeptical), one can be sure that neither physics nor biology would have advanced very far had they been guided solely by a like ambition. But, in his stress on the contemporary bureaucratic and ideological trends which currently sustain American sociology, Mills perhaps fails to recognize how venerable the ambition is. The following episode occurs in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, a novel written in and about the Russia of the Czars well over a century ago: Tchitchikov, Gogol’s dealer in dead souls, has been asked to wait in the library of a vain and pretentious provincial landowner. “It was an immense apartment, the walls of which were lined with books from the floor to the ceiling. . . . There were six volumes in a row, entitled Preliminary Introduction to the Theory of Thought in its General Aspect as a Whole, and in its Application to the Interpretation of the Organic Principles of the Mutual Distribution of Social Productivity. Wherever Tchitchikov opened the book, on every page he found ‘phenomenon,’ ‘development,’ ‘abstract,’ ‘cohesion,’ and ‘combination’; and the devil only knows what. ‘No, all that’s not in my line,’ thought Tchitchikov.”




1 Kathleen Nott writes: “Jargon is a parrotlike or mumbo jumbo imitation of the precise classifications of the physical and mathematical sciences. A language is a jargon when its references claim an objectivity, an agreement about definition, that does not exist.”

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