Social Science Imagination: Session 2 – 10 October

Last week, Gary wrote a short summary of what we discussed in the Social Science Imagination course. Feel free to comment, and we hope it is useful for those who want to follow the course online. You are always welcome to join us on Thursdays between 19.00 and 21.00 at the Revival Centre on Sincil Street in Lincoln.

This week, we were pleased to meet a few new people and learn about the interests and concerns that brought them to the course. We also found our way into deeper conversations about questions raised last week: what ‘social science’ is, how it can help us understand the world and our places in it, how we can learn to see patterns and trends, and how we can work together to use this way of thinking (or ‘quality of mind’) to make a difference, to empower ourselves, to change situations that are socially constructed.

So, what is ‘the sociological imagination’ (according to C. Wright Mills, in the first instance)? Here are some of our early thoughts.

How we are defining the sociological imagination…

As our second session came to a close, we began to define the sociological imagination for ourselves, and to think about why Mills’ says it offers a ‘promise’. We also decided that, while promising the possibility of empowerment, it is perhaps more simply an invitation to think differently, in ways that carry some responsibility for responding critically to what we learn, even when this is uncomfortable. We will be working to put these thoughts into practice next week, practicing ‘sociological imagining’ in order to redefine some of our emerging concerns more critically…and imaginatively!

‘The use of information, knowledge, rational thinking and a quality of mind that allows us to develop a politics of thinking, to link history and biography in society, and to understand the relation between them.’

‘Thinking more teleologically about how decisions I make in my own bubble affect others. Mills’ ideas are a transitional point, and enlightenment.’

‘A way that people can understand themselves within a larger context: the relationship between individuals and history, individuals and society, and private and public – to understand these relationships and structures.

‘It gives individuals the potential to understand themselves and place themselves within society; to understand how what we do has an effect on our own personal circumstances and society. It helps us see how our personal views and histories are shaping our current decisions and actions. It is a tool for cohesive thinking.’

‘It can be a “common denominator”, a way of thinking collectively, in common; a way of thinking critically together to reveal the sources of our uneasiness and indifference and to do something about them politically and intellectually.’

‘It is like a conceptual and moral toolbox that gives us the possibility of connecting with others and joining the dots to understand the social forces that have shaped our lives, and it can give us critical tools to develop skills of imagination about how to change them.’

‘Something that can help us see beyond our “private orbits” and to see the connections between individuals and social structures; a “quality of mind”.’

We had various other thoughts as well: that this way of thinking can help us to ‘denaturalise’ things about our lives and the social world that we are encouraged to think of as ‘natural’ (and therefore beyond our capacity to affect or change); that it can help us to understand the complexity of the social world in a way that is empowering rather than overwhelming; and that it can help ‘demystify’ personal circumstances, social issues and ‘traps’ of power.

And it occurred to us that the methods of ‘the sociological imagination’ might be used by those in power to control others, in addition to being tools for liberation.

Making connections from the first session: Is the ‘sociological imagination’ a kind of ‘really useful knowledge’ for us today? Is it similar to or different from the kind of thinking that we discussed had been common in other kinds of popular education which have existed at other times in this society? Can people feel that the ‘sociological imagination’, as a way of thinking, is for them, in the way we hope everyone can feel that art is for them? How might we use art (or science) to practice or communicate this way of thinking?


We spent a bit more time talking about why everyone is participating in this course and what they want to accomplish by doing so. We started with a comment made last week by someone who says she ‘hated school’, and ended up discussing…

The nature of education (mainly based on our experiences as children, young people, parents or carers):

  • as involving many different things: institutions, people, relationships, learning, families, historical developments, moral purpose, social control, economic value, beliefs
  •  as often authoritarian, a place where people are often taught that hierarchies (of ‘intelligence’, types of school, kinds of knowledge, economic class) are ‘natural’ and that there are undesirable consequences for transgressing them
  • as a social structure and institution which has a history (has not always been as it is today) and a politics (because it is connected so closely with inequality, elitism, distribution of resources and life chances, quality of life, power and privilege), and which is connected to or ‘converges’ with many other institutions (such as religion, the church, the military, economic and state institutions, the police) and industries
  • as a social activity that is not just one thing – we spoke of progressive education, alternative kinds of education, as we did last week – and that people have very different experiences of which cannot be easily explained (in addition to others in the group who also ‘hated’ school, there are some who enjoyed it or had no strong experiences)

We also discussed how these ideas do not relate only to education, but have wider importance.

  •  Some people writing about social institutions, such as Michel Foucault, argue that the growth of formal education (at least as we understand it based on our own cultural experiences) has some things in common with the development of factories, prisons, asylums and the modern military. We have not yet explored this in any depth.
  • The ideas also raised even deeper questions about power, capitalism, racism, how people become institutionalised, why it is difficult to change the way we think about the world through ‘common sense’, why people conform, how we can resist conforming and become able to think, act and be differently.

Some interesting concepts from all of this include: power, politics, institutions, inequality and equality, capitalism, work, choice, coercion, demystification, hierarchy, social control, resistance, reason, practice, history. Were there any concepts influencing the discussion but not mentioned aloud?

Preparation for the next session…

We wondered, at the end of the class, where to begin. Next week, we will continue to answer this question by using Mills’ ideas to think more critically about the themes we have been discussing. We will read Chapter 1 of The Sociological Imagination (‘The Promise’) with these in mind, and decide on one problem to work on together.

Do this however you like – the greater the diversity of approaches, the more imaginative we can be together! But, if you would like a little guidance, try the following.

  • Think about what brought you to this course, and/or one of the major concerns you have been sharing thus far. Write down (or speak out) a short explanation.
  • Review Mills’ chapter with your interest or concern in mind. Try to find connections between his ideas and yours. Pay attention also to where you disagree with him.
  • Using Mills’ definition of ‘the sociological imagination’, or our own definitions of it (above), try explaining your interest or concern in a sociological way, as Mills describes. Try expressing it as an issue or problem of ‘public concern’ – one that we can all think about, respond to, read about, study, etc. together. You might also take a look at the kinds of questions he believes good social analysts tend to ask…




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