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Sociological Imagination

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Autor:  regina  22 April 2010
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Q: What is a sociological imagination? How did Durkheim, Weber and Marx respectively demonstrate their sociological imagination?

Mankind’s problem is that it doesn’t have the quality of mind to find or see the intricate connection between “man and society, biography and history, of self and the world”; such was the perspective of one C.Wright Mills. He was the man who coined the term sociological imagination. He described the sociological imagination as the ability to grasp history and biography and the relationship between the two in society. Mills said, “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both”. This he describes as the promise of the sociological imagination.
The sociological imagination is not possessed by all mankind. The general populous tends to have the view that the problems and issues they face in life are directly caused by the forces within the scope of their individual experiences in life. They do not think that what they experience is due to the society in which they inhabit, the opportunities they have shaped by the nature of the society. The sociological imagination however allows the possessor to detatch from their individuality and their introspective thoughts to see the general in the particular. It allows them to observe the connection between the individual in its category (eg males and females) and society, and to understand that the structures in place in that society, its essential features and components, ultimately shape the choices, decisions, opportunities and therefore the lives of the individual.
Mills wrote that only when an individual can become aware of all other individuals in their similar circumstances can she/he understand their own experience of life. Only when this quality of mind is achieved, the sociological imagination, can they begin to wholly understand the connection between biography and history and that their personal experiences are just small points of intersection within the interaction of biography and history.

Three main questions which Mills felt social analysts, those with a sociological imagination, would pose when studying society are
1. What is the structure of society? What are its essential components are these components related and how does the structure of the society differ from other social orders?
2. Where does this society stand in human history and what are its essential features?
3. What varieties of women and men live in this society and which varieties are coming to prevail? What is the meaning for �human nature’ in this society and what types of �human nature’ are being revealed by the conduct of men and women in this society?
Be asking these questions a social analyst can come to understand the greater sociological patterns related to the private troubles of the individual.

Mills describes the realization of a sociological imagination for an individual as a kind of revelation, a sudden awakening to the unfamiliar in the familiar. Previous thoughts, ideals, decisions which once were seen as completely normal and perfectly sound now seem almost nonsensical with the discovery of a sociological imaginative perspective. The new possessor realizes the relativity of society to all things involved within the individual. They must now see the general in the particular, see the strange in the familiar to truly appreciate the true relativity of the structure of society to the individual.
One of the greatest distinctions those with a sociological imagination come to realize is the relationship between personal troubles and public issues. Personal troubles occur when an individual’s cherished values are threatened. A public issue occurs when the public’s cherished values are threatened. These troubles and issues foster the uneasiness and indifference of our time. When people have no threat towards their particular values the experience a sense of well-being yet it is when these values are threatened they experience a crisis or in are in total threat the experience panic. Indifference is defined by Mills as the time when people are neither aware of any cherished values or of any threat, the exhibit an apathetic behavior. Uneasiness is when people are unaware of cherished values but very aware of a threat. Indifference and uneasiness inhibit the reason and sensibility of the individual, together they are the signal feature of our period and one of the largest problems of modern society. Durkheim, another famous sociologist, came to realize that suicide, one of the intimate of choices one could make if not the most intimate, could only be explained sociologically and it stemmed from these issues of indifference and uneasiness. He highlighted the fact that a structurally flawed society can have a detrimental effect for the individual. It is through a sociological imagination that summations such as this can be produced. According to Mills the foremost task for social scientists is to “make clear the elements of contemporary uneasiness and indifference”. Mills declares the sociological imagination as “our most needed quality of mind” and that it is the “common denominator of our cultural life and its signal feature”
Mills feels that a failure to develop the sociological imagination is a failure to meet our cultural expectations and that the sociological imagination will replace the tradition problem solving method of physical science which no longer retains its reputation as the consummate problem solver in this sociological age.
Emile Durkheim’s demonstration of his sociological imagination can be seen through his study of suicide. Durkheim revealed that the personal experiences that are thought to have caused suicide have only the influenced borrowed from the individual’s moral disposition. An individual’s inclination towards suicide comes from a sense of anomy running through society which is linked to values being threatened or lost. Individuals who then feel uneasiness (i.e. unaware of any cherished values yet very aware of a threat) to a degree where they commit suicide shows in fact that suicide is a growing concern that is most consummately explained sociologically. This does not mean however that suicide affects the whole social body. A society with undercurrents of anomy, altruism and egoism with a tendancy towards melancholy is something that presides over the whole social body yet may only affect certain individuals. Durkheim revealed that the certain structure of this type of society with its essential componenets such as uneasiness and indifference led to a specific trend in the �human nature’ known as suicide amongst the individuals part of that society, a perfect example of the sociological imagination at work.
Max Weber studied, amongst others topics, the topic of comparative sociology. Weber used comparative sociology to understand variance in society. He studied the difference in cultures that explained the different social orderings that emerged. From his work �A Protestant Ethic’, Weber acknowledges that religion can be a cause for societal change and a social structure imbued with religious influences and values can in turn influence the individual’s that inhabit such a society. For example Weber takes the Calvinist and Lutheran faiths and suggests that the are the mother and father of modern capitalism. With such strong beliefs in the Calvinist faith such as predestination (that those chosen for salvation were chosen before birth) Weber suggested this was a cause for uneasiness and indifference amongst the Calvinist as everyone wanted salvation. To acquire this they would strive to be worldly successful, in the belief that the successful would surely be those amongst the salvaged.Calvinists turned to labour to achieve success. Lutheranism beliefs stated that there was a calling in life and this calling was what the believer devoted their lives to, this calling for many was the life of labour. Weber suggested that these beliefs were the beginnings of a labour filled life that was the beginning of capitalism. According to Weber, religion’s strong foothold in society necessitated the search for success and salvation. The structure of society at the time with its essential features such as religion and its belief system had large affects for those individuals who occupied it such as the Calvinists and Lutherans. By using his sociological imagination Weber demonstrated the affect social structure had on the personal experiences of the individual.
Amongst Karl Marx’s key thoughts were the theories of;
1. Class consciousness
2. Alienation
3. Historical materialism
Marx’s theory of class consciousness is exactly that, a class in society becoming aware of itself. This is the theory of a whole class gaining a sociological imaginative perspective on itself and the social world around it. Gaining the ability to interpret the grander scale of life the link between biography and history to enact change or revolution. When a class has become �class conscious’ it can act upon its own rational interests based on its new sociological imagination.
Marx believed that modern capitalism alienated individuals from aspects of their �human nature’. In a capitalist society Marx believed that workers lose control of their lives and selves if they do not have control over their work. The lives of the workers were being controlled by the structure of society. As a result workers cannot become self realized and develop a sociological imagination. Marx displays the ability to see the general in the specific.
Marx’s theory of historic materialism looks for the way in which humans make the means to live. Marx said “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness”. An individual’s thought is limited by their experience, their existence, and it is how they find the means to exist that determines their experience. For example is humankind’s ability to master nature to a degree where it can be coerced to their own requirement, this in other words being the productivity of labour and the means by which humankind exists.
In conclusion, Marx uses his sociological imagination to show that a collective sociological imagination can enact change in society. He shows that �human nature’ can be affected by social structure and the essential features of that social structure such as capitalism. Finally he demonstrates his sociological imagination by observing that the experience any individual has is dependent on his means of his existence in society. He shows that the sociological imagination is not a methodical approach to solving human issues and problems but more a way of looking at individual problems as social issues which can be solve by remedying social flaws. It is the new type of physical science, it is the sociological science.

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