The Age of Organized Irresponsibility: (And) The Importance of Being C. Wright Mills

“Organized irresponsibility, in this impersonal sense, is this leading characteristic of modern industrial societies everywhere. On every hand the individual is confronted with seemingly remote organizations; he feels dwarfed and helpless before the managerial cadres and their manipulated and manipulative minions.” 

C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes, (1951)



ORGANIZED IRRESPONSIBILITY is no longer the American phenomenon that C. Wright Mills described in the 1950s. The global financial crisis, both the cause and consequence of the housing crisis, the banking crisis, the stock market crisis, financial meltdowns of countries and high unemployment rates in the developed countries, to the existing political turmoil in the Middle East; the crisis of extreme and rampant corruption in India, genocide in Africa to environmental disasters in powerful nations such as China which most recently appeared in the most dramatic form in 2013, when a thick layer of poisonous pollutants smothered much of northern China and made air in Beijing toxic to breathe – these crises have spared no one, no region and no nation. There is a deep rooted crisis in our world today.


Who is responsible for these disasters, rather in the words of C. Wright Mills, to whose irresponsibility do we attribute these events?


C._Wright_Mills_-Image-1-wiki“The men of the higher circles are not representative; their high position is not a result of moral virtue; their fabulous success is not firmly connected with meritorious ability. Those who sit in the seats of the high and the mighty are selected and formed by the means of power, the sources of wealth, the mechanisms of celebrity, which prevail in “their” society.


They are not men selected (because) of knowledge and sensibility. They are not men shaped by nationally responsible parties that debate openly (and clearly the issues this nation now so unintelligently confronts). They are not men held in responsible check by a plurality of voluntary associations which connect debating publics with the pinnacles of decision. Commanders of power, unequalled in human history; they have succeeded within the (American) system of ORGANIZED IRRESPONSIBILITY.”

C. Wright Mills The Power Elite, 1956: pg 277


Is it some rogue leader or corporate manager that is causing the crisis? Is it some bad man or woman behind these serious, life-threatening problems – just like a mean villain in some Hollywood movie? We do not even have to look closely to see that irresponsible behavior is the norm rather than the aberration – among governments, corporations and within every system.


The manner in which our leaders, including hallowed ones like Barack Obama, are choosing to deal with the issues is as if nothing has happened. It is business as usual. Most of our newspapers are happy to headline the fact that orderly and smooth elections were conducted in a particular region of the world and celebrate the growth and rise of democracy in our time and age. However, not many seem to want to discuss what happens after an election? Yes, the electorate behaved responsibly to usher in or sustain democracy? But what did the leaders do? Did they behave equally responsibly? Do they even understand the oaths and pledges they take when sworn into office? Or have they become so callous and hypocritical that they could care less about what they say and do the exact opposite. They give speeches about the values of democracy but in practice are the most undemocratic people who behave like feudal lords. Managers of corporations and financial companies often laugh about playing with OPM (other people’s money). The behavior of our leaders in governments and corporations only highlights and underlines the fact that we are living in an age of organized irresponsibility. This epidemic of organized irresponsibility runs rife in the corridors of power.


Everyone in power seems to be infected with it today. Or maybe it is just fashionable to be irresponsible when you are part of an organized system.


At the start of 2014 we turn back the clock to the 1950s, especially to one sociologist – C Wright Mills who wrote about ORGANIZED IRRESPONSIBILITY. We explore the idea and notion of organized irresponsibility in the works of C Wright Mills; as we try to understand his seminal construct of organized irresponsibility, the reasons for its existence, and why it still continue to thrive.This exploration of ORGANIZED IRRESPONSIBILITY in the writings of Mills will hopefully help us understand our age and time better:


Like many intellectuals who came of age during the (Great) Depression, Mills hoped that America would advance beyond the competitive capitalism implicated in the crash of 1929. But to his disappointment, the new politics appeared more tepid than transformative. Despite its social welfare advances, Keynesian economics substantially sustained the free-market system while liberalism’s do-or-die pledge to contain Soviet power contributed to the militarization of American society. In response, Mills posited what he called the “politics of truth,” shorthand for a searching and critical re-examination of the nation’s values, commitments, and goals. Notwithstanding the suggestive optimism in the phrase, it translated into a frankly dystopian vision of the Modern Age. In a series of important books on contemporary America — The New Men of Power (1948), White Collar (1951), and the aforementioned The Power Elite — Mills maintained that the imperatives of the U.S. consumer-based economy combined with imperial ambitions to constrict freedom of thought and action.

David Brown in Free Radical, 2009


Mills’ theory of power was used not merely as a sociological tool in pointing to the actual distribution of power but equally as a political instrument in order to make it clear to the reader, that this differential access to influence and decision-making was unfair and had to be rectified. Mills’ power studies were similar to what could be termed bottom-up investigations. He was a kind of whistle-blower on those who thought themselves immune to public criticism and sociological scrutiny – who thought they were “above the law.” He was also a spokesman for the masses against the mass society and he therefore started to appear as an advocate for those struck by adversity and misfortune with his image of life as a trap and a reality going on behind people’s backs. Mills was clearly on the side of the downtrodden and the underdogs in society, the ordinary citizen so to speak.

C._Wright_Mills_motorcycle Image 2

Who was C. (Charles) Wright Mills?


C. Wright Mills evoked mixed emotions in people. His supporters called him a straight-shooter. And his critics thought he was unnecessarily vitriolic and dramatic – reacting more to opinion than facts. They said he was more political than an academic. C. Wright Mills never came to occupy the position as a key figure within mainstream sociology and therefore always led a rather sequestrated existence at the outskirts of academia and therefore of sociological theory. An obscure hybrid of politics and social science who continuously antagonised established positions – the perpetual bee in the bonnet.


Mills decided quite early in his life to debunk the same society that he himself was part of (de-familiarize the familiar); to question the validity of the claims made by those in power positions and to try and to scream aloud the fact that the emperor simply has no clothes on:


“He hated sham and illusion. He did not fear the naked truth and realized that power needs to be clothed, lest if appear naked, and the Emperor has no clothes on like in Andersen’s fairy tale… He was tough-minded and loved tough-minded writers, men of tall talk and no bones about it” (Hans Gerth 1980:72).


Mills is often depicted as something of a mix of the secluded and snobbish intellectual and the uncompromising and cheeky cowboy with a tendency to shoot before asking.Due to Mills’ oppositional approach, he found both aversion and admiration. Thus there are supposedly two positions on Mills within the sociological tradition after his demise – either to valorise Mills or to debunk his influence and reduce his wisdom to trivial insights. Exponents of the admiring school write:


“When Charles Wright Mills died in 1962 at the age of forty-five, he was reputed to be the most widely read sociologist in the world. His work was marked by vigour and energy.He challenged much that passed for conventional wisdom in the spheres of politics and sociology”

(J. E. T. Eldridge 1983)


The second group of critics, though, claim that Mills…


“… has little importance for contemporary American sociology, although his books are bestsellers outside the field and are widely hailed within certain political circles.” 

(Lipset & Smelser 1961:50)


Although Mills was almost always unapologetic about always taking an opposite or oppositional view on a topic, it is only those who did not have the patience to understand his dissent and label him as a Marxist. He was perhaps influenced by a stream of thought that was quite resonant in the USA of his formative years – a farmer and labor organized resistance or movement such as that reflected in the literary writings of Sandburg (Carl) and Steinbeck (John). Mills had socialistic sympathies but he was not a classical Marxist writer. His work opened the doors to a world of power, mostly the abuse of power, and how people came into power not because of merit but due to their family of birth; and their standing in society. Those who were born in a higher class would remain in the higher circles. Mills wanted to expose and attack the very basis and foundation of American culture and thought – which believed in the ‘American Dream’: that America is a classless society and that anyone from any family or class could become whatever they wanted to be in this new country. It was not that Mills did not believe in that. In fact he was a firm believer of that America. It pained him to see that this America of his dreams was just a dream – it could never become reality because of the power elite.


Mills was a sociological prodigy as well as a provoking personage. His writings show a rather fascinating and ingenious radical sociological position of provoking and thought-provoking. His position is an unavoidable perspective within the field not as an obscure variant of Marxist sociology but at the centre-stage of American sociological thinking particularly in the period ranging from the early 1940’s until the late 1960’s:


“What does this solitary horseman – who is in part a prophet, in part a teacher, in part a scholar, and in part a rough-tongued brawler – a sort of Joe McCarthy of sociology, full of wild accusations and gross inaccuracies, bullying manners, harsh words, and shifting grounds – want of sociology?” 

(Shils 1960:78)


Leaving these very harsh words and gross inaccuracies of the above quotation, which J. E. T. Eldridge (1983:109) termed nothing but “an ugly insult” - this quotation probably is a somewhat accurate description of the way Mills was viewed by many of his peers and is viewed by many sociologists even today.


Mills’ contribution to sociology has been questioned, especially by his contemporary sociologists. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Maybe for someone who is interested in following a safe career path – to be questioned and criticized by one’s colleagues and peers is not a good thing. But never judge a book by its cover and never uncritically accept so-called official accounts of how people are to be viewed and categorized especially of those whose ambition is to attack those in power.


People who attack the positions of power often have more enemies than the people in power themselves. And this is exactly the argument put forth by Mills in his book White Collar. He described the growth of the middle management group in corporations and bureaucracies and the middle class and argues that this group which really does not have much money or much power in reality is actually more invested in maintaining the status quo than anyone else.


As an analyst of his time, a critic of power in general, a castigator of the Cold War realism in international and military affairs and in constant opposition to the academic stalemate of American sociology, Mills always found himself in a never-ending battle with his contemporaries, a battle that in the long run gave him more agony than victories and eventually appeared to be instrumental in crushing him.


In a cultural climate where saying yes to whatever peers are saying or doing is considered clever and smart, the naysayers and objectors to “business as usual”  are the wet-blankets – the party poopers. They are kicked out of the system before they can say C. Wright Mills.


They are not simply kicked out; there is a systematic attempt to first find faults with their personal lives. Oh, now you say that the economic system is rotten – didn’t you buy your wife expensive jewellery for your anniversary then what right do you have to criticize our way of doing things and then simply shouting: You are a liar on 24/7 TV news channels. And then comes the ignoring. Once you have established the criticism of the current system comes from a person of dubious moral standing, you ignore them. And then the argument is turned around on its head – this person is being ignored because they have nothing worthwhile to say.


Although Mills never craved an academic career, never sought sociological salvation through titles, chairs and honors (Horowitz 1972:7), he was a person who liked to stage himself – particularly against the so-called orthodox consensus of the times (Giddens 1982) comprised by a mixture of positivist research techniques, structural-functionalist theories, pragmatic philosophy and modernization theories. Mills was therefore at odds with the mainstream of the sociological tradition of his time which relied heavily on the ideas of this orthodox consensus. And although an award for best book in sociology was eventually named after him, the orthodox consensus nevertheless completely dominated the picture of the sociology between 1940 and 1965. Mills never became a salonfähig scholar – not that he ever wanted to be. C. Wright Mills encountered this orthodox consensus, especially the positivist approach, many times in his lifetime and painstakingly attacked it; it was in diametrical opposition to his own more humanistic vision of the sociological imagination. Throughout his own life time he dedicated his effort to distance himself from this positivist and in his view also reactionary and arch-conservative epistemology.


Mills arrived at Morningside Heights in 1945 as a research associate at Columbia University’s Bureau for Applied Social Research (BASR), which was led by Paul F. Lazarsfeld. The bureau was a leader in the emerging field of survey research and Mills quite rightly regarded his appointment as “a hell of a big break for a kid 28 years old”. Eventually he moved to the sociology department, where he became a full professor in 1956. Among the cluster of public intellectuals who distinguished Columbia during this era — including Richard Hofstadter, Lionel Trilling, and Jacques Barzun — Mills remains a compelling figure whose scholarship continues to challenge our notions of what it means to live in a democracy that comfortably houses a power elite.


In the field of sociology, to be unfashionable, and indeed downright unpopular, some would claim, is the predicament of most C Wright Mills Image 7academics some of the time and something almost everybody will suffer from to certain moderate degrees at particular periods of one’s career; but continuously and intensively to be so is something of a rare honour only conferred on the very few chosen ones within this field. Charles Wright Mills, at one and the same time an intellectual prodigy and an enfant terrible of his discipline, appears to belong to this latter exquisite group of sociologists labelled as outcasts and unfashionable thinker, but as it has been rightly noted, that


“a doctrine [or a person for that matter] that is unfashionable today is, among sociologists, almost guaranteed to be fashionable tomorrow.

(Cohen 1980:141)


But before we get entangled in more quibbling about the perceptions of Mills in society and sociology, let us start from the beginning or close to it.


From Texas to New York


The straight-shooting style of C Wright Mills seems to have been imbibed from his birth-place of Texas where he spent his formative years. Born on August 28th 1916 in Waco, Texas to parents of Irish and English origin with a touch of French ancestry, he was a hybrid of the countryside and cosmopolitanism. His parents were both religiously practising Catholics living in a Protestant area (Tilman 1984:5), but he, as Weber had also described himself some decades earlier, was religiously unmusical and despite being placed in the middle of the Bible Belt did not take an interest in religious matters.


In his adolescent years he went to a rural military school and according to many biographers had a miserable time there – an experience which together with his poor physical shape made him a conscientious objector during World War II. His academic career took off when he enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin where he studied philosophy and became acquainted with the writings of Thorstein Veblen and G. H. Mead. During this period he lived a rather insulated life of anonymity.


In early 1939, as an undergraduate student, he was transferred to Wisconsin, the birthplace of his great idol Thorstein Veblen, and it was here, at Mills’ second destination, that he took keen interest in sociology, guided by two equally liberal and muckraking sociologists – Howard Becker and Edward Ross. Mills subsequently received his PhD in sociology and anthropology from the same university. It was also here that Mills’ tendency to create academic havoc was born, as he ceaselessly started to confront his colleagues with his own ideas and vision of sociology and by many he was already now regarded as much as a provocateur as well as the prodigal son. His professors both praised him as a unique and unusually strong student and looked with concern about his eagerly critical nature.


C Wright Mills Image 5 ApplicationA few years later, Mills moved to the University of Maryland. It was here, when in the backdrop of the World War II and contrary to many other notable radical sociologists such as Herbert Marcuse and Barrington Moore Jr., he did not want to take up work in the State Department as he was a pacifist and believed that any involvement in the war would be an acceptance of war as a means to achieve a given end. He was also suspicious of the Roosevelt administration which, to him, represented a gigantic Leviathan with the ability as well as the ambition to control and regulate society.


After the war Mills received a Guggenheim fellowship to the University of Columbia in New York and it was from this base that the world would come to hear of C. Wright Mills through the next 15 years or so. At Columbia Mills quickly earned the position of associate professor and came to work as director of the Bureau of Applied Social Research (BASR) under the direct supervision of Paul Lazarsfeld. After Mills’ arrival the BASR turned out to be a battlefield for conflicts and antagonism as well as a forum for alliances and new friendships. Throughout his years here,in one of the main two academic sociological strongholds in the U.S.A. at the time (Harvard University being the one and Columbia University the other – the return to sociological prominence of the University of Chicago had to wait until the 1960’s), he was connected to many fascinating empirical projects, most notably those dealing with the distribution of power in American society. He wrote several theoretical as well as downright polemical pieces of work which ranged from anywhere between superb to dubious in quality. It was here that his critique of how prosperity was a facade of misery in American society began to take its form and it was here that his own sociological imagination saw the light of day. Eventually it was also here that this light was finally extinguished.


C. Wright Mills’ Analysis of Power and Organized Irresponsibility


Mills lived in a time obsessed with power; an obsession that stemmed directly from the fact of having lived through a period of world history in which power manifestations were the order of the day, either on the international scene as World War II and de-colonisation struggles flamboyantly symbolised, or on the national level, as the struggle between men and women, capitalists and proletariat, the have and the have-nots were all special cases of. Mills’ writings were clearly contaminated by this obsession with power structures, domination and strong men but he did not so much focus on power as an end product but more on the power processes that took place.


Mills explained the transition of power from being a known force to the current complex force that produces an organized irresponsibility:


“In pre-capitalist societies, power was known and personal. The individual could see who was powerful, and he could understand the means of his power. His responses, of obedience and fear, were explicit and concrete; and if he was in revolt, the targets of that revolt were also explicit and concrete … In an impersonalized and more anonymous system of control, explicit responses are not so possible: anxiety is likely to replace fear; insecurity to replace worry. The problem is who really has power, for often the tangled and hidden system seems a complex yet organized irresponsibility. When power is delegated from a distant center, the one immediately over the individual is not so different from the individual himself; he does not decide either, he too is part of the network by means of which individuals are controlled. Targets for revolt, given the will to revolt, are not readily available. Symbols in terms of which to challenge power are not available – in fact, there are no explicit symbols of authority to challenge”

(White Collar: The American Middle Classes 1951:349).


Mills further explained how large bureaucratic organizations also affect the relations between the rulers and the ruled. Such organizations insulate the managers from those in lower offices, cutting them off from identifying with them (Mills 1951:110-111). In a bureaucratic setting the decision-maker is often far removed from his victims. Opposition in such a situation is difficult to organize. Because of manipulation, targets for revolt are not readily recognizable, because of bureaucratization they are not readily available (Mills 1951:349). Such a situation promotes not only schemers whose explicit ideology is to manipulate the ruled, but a system of social control that fosters irresponsibility on the part of the rulers.


Mills believed that the bureaucratization of the social structure was both partial and unevenly spread. Yet he saw it as an on-going C Wright Mills Image 4b Power Eliite Coverprocess, a process that threatened to replace our once loosely integrated democracy with a more managed “corporate-like society” (Mills 1951:78). The power of decision-makers, Mills points out, has always been limited by the technology of violence and the degree of organization that prevails in a society. But historically in the West, the means of violence has greatly increased, and the degree of organization has enlarged, centralized, and become ever more efficient, as Mills stated in The Power Elite (1956:23). Those at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchies that dominate modern industrial society are far more powerful than Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Vladimir Lenin, or even Adolf Hitler:


“That the facilities of power are enormously enlarged and decisively centralized means that the decisions of small groups are now more consequential” (Mills 1956:23).


Thus, C Wright Mills brought the spotlight directly on the powerful elite.


While there are many different approaches to the study and comprehension of the origin of power, Mills’ work appeared to be unique in its perspective. His approach could also be termed a positional approach since it basically is the institutionalised position that a person holds which grants him or her power and not, although he was aware of the importance and relevance of these aspects, the background, status or privileges to which one can fall back upon. He noted that:


“If we took the one hundred most powerful men in America, the one hundred wealthiest, and the one hundred most celebrated away from the institutional positions they now occupy, away from their resources of men and women and money, away from the media of mass communication that are now focused upon them – then they would be powerless, and poor and uncelebrated…To be celebrated, to be wealthy, to have power requires access to major institutions, for the institutional positions men occupy determine in large part their chances to have and to hold these valued experiences”(Mills in Putnam 1976:15).


Power according Mills, was thus situated in institutions and therefore in the men that occupy positions within these.Mills also clarified about his alleged obsession with power in the following fashion:


“It’s been said in criticism that I am too much fascinated by power. This is not really true. It is the intellect I have been most fascinated by, and power primarily in connection with that. It is the power IN the intellect and the power OF the intellect that most fascinates me, as a social analyst and cultural critic” (Mills 1968:5).



What does Organized Irresponsibility thrive on?


It is their similar social backgrounds that provide one of the major sources of unity among the elite. The majority of the elite, Mills wrote, come from the upper third of the income and occupational pyramids. They are born of the same upper class. Probably their parents were also elites. They attend the same preparatory schools and Ivy League universities. They join the same exclusive gentleman’s clubs, belong to the same organizations. They are closely linked through intermarriage. It is these common experiences and role expectations that produce men of similar character and values (Mills 1956:19).


Non-upper class members of the elite consist of hired corporate managers, experts, and corporate lawyers – men who are competent technocrats, who have risen through the ranks, and are subsequently sponsored by the elite and the organizations that they control. The unity of the power elite, however, does not rest solely on psychological similarity and social intermingling, nor entirely on the structural coincidences of commanding positions and interests; at times it is the unity of a more explicit co-ordination (Mills 1956:19).


Schools, Mills asserts, have become appendages of corporations and government, sorting and training young people for their corporate careers, and in so doing inculcating patriotism, respect for authority, and the glories of capitalism along the way. Families are still major socialization agents of the young, but they now share this function with schools and the mass media (Mills 1956:6).  Through the socialization process, each of us has come to embrace and internalize the system as it is. A general consensus of what is right and natural, good and just, valued and reviled is forged. The interests of the elites become our interests, they become internalized and legitimized.


Organized irresponsibility thrives on both hegemony and apathy of intellectuals.


Intellectual hegemony coupled with the apathy and moral insensibility of the masses and by the political inactivity of intellectuals in both communist and capitalist countries, has led to the domination of manufactured militarism. Most intellectual, scientific, and religious leaders are echoing the elaborate confusions of the elite. They are refusing to question elite policies; they are refusing to offer alternatives. They have abdicated their role, they allow the elite to rule unhindered (Mills 1958:88-89).


If as intellectuals we fail to confront these issues, Mills asserts, we are in default of our intellectual heritage and have abdicated our duty to our society (Mills 1951:158). Unfortunately, Mills concludes, very many in the intellectual community are in default:

“What scientist,” Mills asks, can claim to be part of the legacy of the great western scientific tradition and yet work for the Military Industrial Complex?  What social scientist can claim to be part of the legacy of western humanism and, despite a world in which “reason and freedom” are under attack, retreat into methodologically sophisticated studies of trivia?  What minister can know God and still approve of the immortality and irresponsibility of our leaders?  (Mills 1958:130).


Exertion of Power at a Global Level


Already in his books The New Men of Power (1948) and The Power Elite (1956)Mills began to contemplate the international aspects of power and how power is exercised on a trans-national basis. He clearly saw the connection of the distribution of power on the national scene and the politics of war on the international arena and his analyses were clearly coloured by his own pacifist conscience. This was the backdrop against which Mills unfolded his understanding of history in which the military had played a crucial role in the formation of states and the internal as well as external stability of these states.


International affairs are therefore, in his rather realist view, run by warlords and warmongers who take no interest in the consequences of their staged conflicts and pantomime of power. Furthermore, they were not capable – or interested for that matter – in the personal consequences of their decisions on ordinary people who had to live with fear, anxiety and distrust. In Mills’ view the U.S.A. were just as responsible for the maintenance of this climate of anxiety and threat of mutual destruction as the Eastern (Soviet) Bloc countries. With his focus on the imperialist tendencies of American foreign policy, as we shall return to below in our discussion of his polemical tour de force in The Causes of World War III (1958), Mills was seen as the traitor in American society by many of the so-called sophisticated conservatives as well as many of the more right-wing oriented people because America following World War II had begun to regard itself as the policeman or umpire of international conflicts.


Mills’ overtly questioned this role of international policeman in his writings, not only the role performed by the U.S.A. but by any super power, in which arbitrary and naked power was seen, not merely as illegitimate, but equally as an encroachment on and an injustice to humanity.


Can we then, do something about this organized irresponsibility? Can we hold the powerful elite responsible and address impending disasters?


The positions of the elite allow them to transcend the ordinary environments of men and women. The elite have access to levers of power that make their decisions (as well as their failure to act) consequential. In a society in which structural institutions have become enlarged, centralized, and all encompassing, who controls those institutions becomes the central issue of our time. One important consequence of this fact, Mills asserts, is that leaders of the modern nation state can exert much more coordination and control over the actions of that state.To date, Mills fears, these leaders are acting (or failing to act) with irresponsibility, thus leading us to disaster. But this does not mean that it always must be so.


“What ‘practical men of affairs’ do not face up to is the fact that ‘politics’ today has to do with the wilful making of history. The enlargement and the centralization of the means of history-making signify that, for better or for worse, power elites are no longer in a situation in which their will and reason need be overwhelmed by ‘impersonal forces beyond their control’ … A politics of responsibility is now much more possible than in a society with less far-reaching and less centralized means of power. The present fact is otherwise: A politics of semi-organized irresponsibility prevails. But that fact ought not to blind us to the political possibilities opened up by this great structural change: It is now sociologically realistic, morally fair, and politically imperative to make demands upon men of power and to hold them responsible for specific courses of events.”

(Mills, The Causes of World War III, 1958: 100)


Is there an answer to the problems of the present? Troubles and Issues


C. Wright Mills’thinking was based on the assumption that “human nature” is formed by the intricate interaction of historical and social structure (Mills 1959, p. 13). Socio-cultural systems, in particular the modern nation-state, determine the type of men and women who inhabit that system. Human beings, Mills asserts, cannot be understood apart from the social and historical structures in which they are formed and in which they interact (Mills 1959, p. 162). Through the socialization process, aspects of human character are liberated or repressed. As the history-making unit, the nation-state selects and forms the character of human beings; it opens up possibilities and imposes limits on the variety of men and women who make up the society.


The struggle between countries or blocs of countries – such as the struggles between fascism and democracy, or between capitalism and communism – is more than a struggle between which political or economic system will prevail, it is a struggle over which types of human beings will prevail (Mills 1959:158).


Historical transformations within societies, say the decline of agriculture and the rise of small business, also affect the predominant character of human beings, their values and ideologies, their beliefs and expectations, their very character. Again, men and women can only be understood in the context of the historical socio-cultural system in which they live and interact.


While human beings are motivated by the norms, values, and belief systems that prevail in their society, structural change often throw these “vocabularies of motivation” into some confusion (Mills, 1959, p. 162). The number and variety of structural changes within a society increase as institutions become larger, more embracing, and more interconnected (Mills 1959, pp. 20-21).  As structural institutions become enlarged and centralized the circle of those who control these organizations also becomes narrowed—the “iron law of oligarchy” prevails (Mills 1956, p. 21). Consequently, the tempo of change has sped up appreciably in the modern era, and the changes have become far more consequential for all—for those who are in control of these enlarged organizations, and for those who are subject to them.


Mills presents the “sociological imagination”as an approach to understand the present society as well as comprehend the future. Such an approach warrants sensitivity to the fact that the life of individuals and the history of societies are inextricably linked to each other, and that this link is not always immediately visible. But if we are armed with the sociological imagination, this link will become crystal clear and we will be able to understand connections previously hidden or impenetrable and be capable of explaining to people their lives and their problems more fully and adequately. Mills tries to capture the essence of his seminal contribution of ‘sociological imagination’ in the possibly most famous phrase from his masterpiece, by saying that:


“…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 enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions. Within that welter, the framework of modern society is sought, and within that framework the psychologies of a variety of men and women are formulated. By such means the personal uneasiness of individuals is focused upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is transformed into involvement with public issues”

(Mills, The Sociological Imagination 1959:5)


One of the most central aspects of the sociological imagination has to do with the separation of troubles from issues (Mills 1959a: 8-C._Wright_Mills_Book Imagination Image 69), the public versus the private, and not just a separation but perhaps more importantly the ability to see the connection between the two. The former has to do with “the character of the individual and within the range of his immediate relations with others…a trouble is a private matter” (Mills 1959a: 15). Troubles are concerned with how the inner lives of individuals are shaped by outer social structures and how this has an impact on this individual’s behaviour. Issues, on the other hand, are concerned with the structural level and how this is constructed and maintained: “Issues have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the range of his inner life. They have to do with the organization of many such milieux into the institutions of a historical society as a whole, with the ways in which various milieux overlap and interpenetrate to form the larger structure of social and historical life. An issue is a public matter” (Mills 1959:15).


The sociological imagination – a title supposedly inspired by Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination from 1950 – and the idea of craftsmanship also has a close resemblance to Weber’s notion of sociology as a vocation without which, sociology would be an endless drought: “Without this strange intoxication, ridiculed by every outsider; without this passion…you have no calling for science and you should do something else. For nothing is worthy of man as man unless he can pursue it with passionate devotion” (Weber 1948:135).


The ways of Weber and Mills, however, parted with Mills’ insistence that not only ought sociology be regarded as a humanistic vocation but it should also be a political past-time with political connotations in a fashion that would seem inappropriate to Weber’s idea of a value neutral sociological enterprise. The plea for a political sociology is evident when Mills says: “It is the political task of the sociologist – as of any liberal educator – continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals” (Mills 1959:187).


The problem with much social science today, as Mills sees it, is that it is both devoid of theory and any sense of history.  Being atheoretical, the social scientist often overlooks the relationships among various technologies, structures, and ideas.  Being ahistorical, many social scientists lack the ability to recognize new trends as well as to discriminate between trends of major and minor significance.  Classical social analysis, Mills repeatedly insists, is a set of usable traditions and insights that are strongly rooted in history and theory (Mills 1959, p. 21).


Classical social science focuses on substantive social problems.  It neither builds up from empirical observation nor does it begin with a grand theory of socio-cultural systems and deduce down to human behaviour.  Rather, classic social science places empirical research and theory building in a continuous interaction.  Practitioners of the craft attempt to develop comprehensive frameworks for understanding social order, social change, and social problems.  They then continually test and reformulate these explanatory frameworks in light of empirical study (Mills 1959, pg. 128). However, there are trends within the social sciences as well as trends in the broader society that are endangering the classical tradition and stand in the way of greater social understanding (Mills 1959, p.21). Within the social sciences, Mills maintains, three trends – abstracted empiricism, grand theory, and the use of social science to improve bureaucratic efficiency – have arisen that serve to obscure rather than increase people’s understanding of human social behavior.


Hence, he recommends sociological imagination as an alternative point of view. Mills’ own example of how the sociological imagination can be utilizzed is the case of unemployment. He shows how what appears to be an individual problem and the cause of much private distress actually is linked to the broader structures of society, and equally how a structural economic problem like unemployment is simultaneously the reason behind depressing daily struggle for many people, how the individual’s life is intimately connected to processes beyond his own reach. When contemplating this we must be aware, something which Weber also recognised, that many troubles as well as issues have an economic cause and Mills stated that “both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals” (Mills 1959 a: 15).


Issues are, in short, politicised troubles and troubles are the intimately felt repercussions of structural and economic changes in wider society. In this way, the sociological imagination appears as an early attempt at integrating the individual level with the structural level and creates some kind of hybrid in the form of an undefined Giddensian structuration theory or Mertonian theory of the middle range. His attempt at integrating the individual and the collective level by focusing on their point of intersection in particular decisions of social importance, however, was criticized by William Spinrad, who stated that “his interest was in the ‘life’ and ‘death’ decisions, not the vast majority of political-economic-social acts that daily affect people’s lives” (Spinrad 1966). Mills’ megalomania made him focus on world events as the dynamic of social transformation and this meant that his focus on daily decisions was skewed in the direction of the big picture.


Mills wanted to instil in sociologists the desire to ask even the most trivial questions, to make them wonder about social reality and its constitution. Sociologists have to be inquisitive and questioning, to whom nothing seems too obvious and nothing appears too obscure. Only by asking questions can problems – either understood as troubles or issues – be illuminated and eventually solved. Make their troubles your issues and vice versa could almost be the manifesto of the sociological imagination. It ought, however, to be an imperative for the sociologist to ask certain questions: “Whatever else sociology may be, it is the result of consistently asking: (1) What is the meaning of this – whatever we are examining – for our society as a whole, and what is this social world like ? (2) What is the meaning of this for the types of men and women that prevail in this society? And (3) how does this fit into the historical trend of our times, and in what direction does this main drift seem to be carrying us? No matter how small-scale what he is examining, the sociologist must ask such questions about it or he has abdicated the classic sociological endeavor” (Mills 1972:572). In C. Wright Mills own words:


“What I am suggesting is that by addressing ourselves to issues and to troubles, and formulating them as problems of social science, we stand the best chance, I believe the only chance, to make reason democratically relevant to human affairs in a free society, and so to realize the classic values that underlie the promise of our studies” (Mills, 1959, p. 194).



Only the good die young?


“He [Mills] worked hard, often twenty-four hours at a stretch, and he relaxed hard. Since he knew nothing of tennis, swimming, skiing, even walking, he took his relaxation in the form of sleeping…eating…gadgetry, and building” (Life-long friend Harvey Swados (1963:38), reflecting on Mills’ life)


Due to excessive work burdens and the constant trench wars with colleagues at the University of Columbia Mills’ position in the end became increasingly uncomfortable, particularly after the publicised attacks on his superior Paul Lazarsfeld. His physical health began to deteriorate and ultimately his heart failed him, and Mills died in New York on March 20th 1962 at the age of forty-five.


C._Wright_Mills_Diner Image 3


Mills was never particularly popular amongst fellow colleagues, regarded by many as an outcast prophet or opportunist; yet,his work does remain alive among some sociology students and scholars. This essay at the start of 2014 is an attempt to rekindle the fire of “imagination” in societal thinking and action – a torch that has hopefully not been extinguished with Mills’ death.It is perhaps a torch that is passed on from one generation to another as the flame of Mills life and work seemed to be from the same torch lit by John Steinbeck (which he inherited from thinkers before him) and articulated in the voice of the character of Tom Joad in the 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath:


“Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there… I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’-I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build-why, I’ll be there.”


The show must go on…


Can we take on the epidemic of organized irresponsibility that plagues our planet today?  Will you be there– participating, watching or changing the channel?



 ©  Michael Jacobsen and Nilesh Chatterjee



Some References:


Brown, David (2009). Free Radical. In Columbia: The magazine of Columbia University. (Review of the book Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought – by Daniel Geary, University of California Press) Access:


Cohen, Percy (1980): “Is Positivism Dead ?”. Sociological Review, 28 (1):141-176.


Eldridge, J. E. T. (1983): C. Wright Mills. Chichester: Ellis Horwood Publishers.


Gerth, Hans H. (1980): “On C. Wright Mills (1962)”. Society, 17 (2):71-73.


Giddens, Anthony (1982): “Hermeneutics and Social Theory”, in Profiles and Critiques in Social Theory. University of California Press.


Horowitz, Irving L. (ed.)(1972): Power, Politics and People – The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.


Lipset, Seymour M. & Neil Smelser (1961): “Change and Controversy in Recent American Sociol-ogy”. British Journal of Sociology, 12 (1).


Mills, Charles Wright (1951): White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press.


Mills, Charles Wright (1954): “The Conservative Mood”. Dissent, 1:22-31.


Mills, Charles Wright (1956): The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.


Mills, Charles Wright (1958a): The Causes of World War III. New York: Simon and Schuster.


Mills, Charles Wright (1958b): “The Structure of Power in American Society”. British Journal of Sociology, 9 (1):29-41.


Mills, Charles Wright (1959a): The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.


Mills, Charles Wright (1959b): “Culture and Politics: The Forth Epoch”. The Listener, March.


Mills, Charles Wright (1959c): “The Decline of the Left”. Contact, 3:5-18.


Mills, Charles Wright (1959d): “Crackpot Realism”. Fellowship, 25 (1):3-8.


Mills, Charles Wright (ed.)(1960a): Images of Man: The Classic Tradition in Sociological Thinking. New York: George Braziller.


Mills, Charles Wright (1960b): Listen Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Mills, Charles Wright (1968): On Social Men and Social Movements: The Collected Addresses of C. Wright Mills (Only published in Spanish with the title De hombressociales y movimientossociales). Mexico City: SigloVeintiuonEditores.


Putnam, Robert (1976): The Comparative Study of Political Elites. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.


Shils, Edward (1960): “Imaginary Sociology”. Encounter, 14.


Spinrad, William (1966): “The Socio-Political Orientations of C. Wright Mills: An Evaluation”. British Journal of Sociology, 17 (1):46-59.


Weber, Max (1948): “Science as a Vocation”, in Gerth, Hans H. & C. Wright Mills (eds.): From Max Weber – Essays in Sociology. London: Routledge.


Image references:


Image 1: Wikimedia Commons. Accessed from:

Image 2: Mills commuted to Columbia College on his motorcycle (Photo by Yaroslava Mills). Accessed at:

Image 3: Roadside Diner:

Image 4: Power Elite:

Image 5: (Image 3 C). Wright Mills at age twenty-eight in a photo he submitted with his application for a Guggenheim Foundation grant in late 1944 (Photo by Brooke Studio, Maryland). Accessed at:

Image 6: C. Wright Mills’ Book – The Sociological Imagination. Accessed from:

Image 7: C. Wright Mills – Accessed from:

Image  8. The New men of Power (Book cover). Accessed from:

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