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C. Wright Mills: Sociological Imagination and the Power Elite

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  • 0:05 Knowledge and Power
  • 1:06 The Power Elite
  • 3:05 Personal Troubles and…
  • 5:01 The Sociological Imagination
  • 7:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bethany Johnson
This lesson discusses the sociologist C. Wright Mills and his view on the power elite and the sociological imagination. In this lesson, you will also discover what the term sociological imagination means and how it relates to social issues.

Knowledge and Power

C. Wright Mills was a sociologist who believed that knowledge was the crucial element to social change. He was a hugely influential, radical social theorist. One example of his works, which supports this distinction, is his legendary book on social power. In 1964, the Society for the Study of Social Problems established the C. Wright Mills Award. This award is given to the individual whose work 'best exemplifies outstanding social science research and a great understanding of the individual and society in the tradition of the distinguished sociologist, C. Wright Mills.'

He felt society needed to change - and that change would come through those who had knowledge and used it properly. He felt that critical thinking was the means of obtaining this crucial knowledge and, thus, used this thinking to create what he called the sociological imagination.

C. Wright Mills was a social-conflict theorist
C Wright Mills

The Power Elite

C. Wright Mills was a social-conflict theorist who argued that a simple few individuals within the political, military and corporate realms actually held the majority of power within the United States and that these few individuals made decisions that resounded throughout all American lives. To look at an example of the hierarchy of power, imagine a triangle with the executive branch, military leaders and corporate leaders at the top; interest group leaders, legislators and local political leaders in the middle; and, then, the common masses (the everyday people) at the bottom.

Mills wrote The Power Elite, identifying certain individuals as the 'national upper class' that own most of the country's wealth, run its banks and corporations, are in control of the universities and mass media and staff some of the highest ranking positions within government and courts.

Mills further explained that these elites often move fluidly between positions within the three controlling realms. For example, Hillary Clinton moved from the position of first lady to that of senator to secretary of state. Mitt Romney moved from the corporate world to governor and even presidential candidate. Mills noted that these power elite usually were people who interacted with each other regularly and typically held the same political and economic views or agendas.

Many power elite theorists actually argue that there is not such a thing as a true democracy because these few individuals have so much power that the wishes of the average people cannot be heard. These theorists believe that those at the top are so distant from the average people and that they are so powerful that there isn't any true competition for them. Thus, they usually tend to get what they want.

Personal Troubles and Public Issues

Government, military, and business leaders are at the top of the power hierarchy
Hierarchy of Power Triangle

C. Wright Mills once stated that 'It is the political task of the social scientist…to translate personal troubles into public issues.' What does this mean exactly? How are personal problems a matter of public issues? These might be two questions that you are asking yourself after reading this quote. Let us look at exactly what C. Wright Mills meant by this statement and how it applies to you, to your community and to society as a whole.

In order to get a better understanding of how personal troubles are linked to public issues, and in order for one to grasp a better understanding of their own personal lives, one must first fully understand that there is a link or a connection between the public and the private. One must see the difference between what trouble is and what an issue is.

To Mills, trouble is an individual's character and with those limited areas of social life of which he is directly and personally aware. An issue, then, is matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the limited range of their life. Basically, a personal trouble has to do with the individual, and to resolve the trouble, one must look at the character and life of the individual. Issues, then, have to do with society and some element within it.

For example, if you have one person who is unemployed then you look at that individual's skills and abilities to try and resolve the problem. This means that the trouble of unemployment is caused by something within the individual. However, if you have 14 million people unemployed, then this is beyond the individual and is now a social issue. This issue cannot be corrected by focusing on only the individuals, but must be resolved by looking at the bigger social elements involved.

The Sociological Imagination

So just how, exactly, does one make the connection or see the link between the personal and the public? C. Wright Mills stated that to do this, one must use critical thinking skills, such as the use of the sociological imagination. The sociological imagination is defined as an awareness of the relationship between an individual and the wider society. This awareness, then, allows us to make the connection of what is happening to us personally to the wider, broader social world. This imagination allows us to go beyond personal observations to understand the more complex social issues.

For example, let's look at the issue of divorce. When looking at divorce through the lens of one's personal troubles, divorce is very difficult on the individuals involved - emotionally, financially and even spiritually. Divorce is a personal hardship for the husband and the wife involved (not to mention the children, as well). By using the sociological imagination, we can see that divorce is not just a 'simple' personal problem for those individuals involved, but one that has consequences on a social level.

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