|Erdapfel, Martin Behaim (1490-1492)|
Oldest surviving terrestrial globe
With Peter Holley and Sanna Saksela-Bergholm we are organizing the Mid-term Conference of the European Sociological Association’s Research Network 15: Global, Transnational & Cosmopolitan Sociology. The conference is supported by the European Sociological Association (ESA), the Swedish School of Social Science, the Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism (CEREN), the University of Helsinki’s Migrationand Diaspora Studies Research Group, and the European Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-CurieActions.
Read more HERE.
The conference clearly draws on Charles Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination (Oxford University Press, 1959) and his challenge to a structural functionalist approach for an integrated study of self and society, history and biography: “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” (3) The sociological imagination is not a theoretical or a conceptual tool strictu sensu. It is a task and a promise: “The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and its promise. To recognize this task and this promise is the mark of the classic social analyst.” (6)
This “quality of mind” sustains the interpretation of peoples’ lives within the broader social and historical context. Developing this quality, both the social scientist and the ordinary person can partially evade their private life “traps” by connecting “personal troubles” to “public issues”.
Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: What ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieux, they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel.” (3)
“Troubles” are private matters and mirror subjective challenges. “Issues” represent problems that transcend the private sphere of individuals, hence they are “public matter(s)” and deserve sociological consideration.
Yet men do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction… Seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history, ordinary men do not usually know what this connection means for the kinds of men they are becoming and for the kinds of history-making in which they might take part. (3-4, emphasis mine)
In times of “fake news” and pretentious “fact checkers”, Mills’ lesson comes in handy: people do not need more information in the “Age of Fact”. It is not a question of bad information or good information filtered by self-styled guardians of the news inhabiting a temple of knowledge. In actual fact and as a matter of fact, in the Age of Fact information dominates individuals’ attention and “overwhelms their capacities to assimilate it”. (5) People need to interpret and hence have a better grasp of what is going on in the world and what is happening in their private lives. Mills is calling for a crucial “quality of mind” to comprehend “the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world”. (4)
Thus, the sociological imagination – defined by Mills as a form of self-consciousness – refers to the ability to see beyond isolated subjective experiences and understand them in connection with the wider social themes impinging on them. According to Mills, the aptitude to see connections and patterns is the essence of sociological talent tout court.
The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals… It is the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self and to see the relations between the two (5 and 7).
Social analysts who have been “imaginatively aware” of the task-promise of their study, have always asked three kinds of questions: (1) What is the structure of this particular society as a whole? (2) Where does this society stand in human history? And the third question, that I would like to cite in full, is:
What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this period? And what varieties are coming to prevail? In what ways are they selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted? What kinds of “human nature” are revealed in the conduct and character we observe in this society in this period? And what is the meaning for “human nature” of each and every feature of the society we are examining? (7)
In a certain sense, the sociological imagination can, as a whole, be considered as the pursuit of a humanist sociology. And it is probably this kind of imagination that could help the researcher to overcome the challenges of a global world.
Mills introduces the expression “abstracted empiricism” (Chapter 3): the work of sociologists who equate empiricism with science and make a fetish of quantitative research techniques. In a word, data and statistical analyses are not sufficient for an appropriate sociological interpretation. Without theoretical categories and comparative historical analyses, the data is meaningless.
Regarding theories, Mills proposes another expression, “grand theory” (Chapter 2): the sociological practice of coming up with very abstract theorizing, which is obfuscating the fruitful interpretation of the social world. There is a famous passage (Appendix: “On Intellectual Craftsmanship”) in which Wright Mills summarises the basic practice underlying (good) sociological research.
Be a good craftsman: Avoid any rigid set of procedures. Above all, seek to develop and to use the sociological imagination. Avoid the fetishism of method and technique. Urge the rehabilitation of the unpretentious intellectual craftsman, and try to become such a craftsman yourself. Let every man be his own methodologist; let every man be his own theorist; let theory and method again become part of the practice of a craft. (224)