The Sociological Imagination as the Common Cultural Denominator: Are We just Kidding Ourselves? – by Oliver Rick

“For that imagination is the capacity to shift from one perspective to another – from the political to the psychological; from examination of a single family to comparative assessment of the national budgets of the world; from the theological school to the military establishment; from considerations of an oil industry to studies of contemporary poetry. It is the capacity to range from the most intimate features of the human self – and to see the relations between the two” (Mills, 1959, p.7).

Having now been at the University of Maryland for a year I have had the opportunity to teach eight discussion sections for the undergraduate class KNES287 – Sport and American Society. One of the key components of the course is the discussion and understanding of, but also hopefully, the eventual use of C. Wright Mills sociological imagination. Based on this concept being core to the course I have read Mills definitions previously but it was not until this semester that I had the opportunity to really sit down and get into Mills book. It was from this reading that something stood out to me, something I want to discuss here. The passage that I wish to discuss comes from section four of the chapter “The Promise” found in The Sociological imagination regarding what Mills calls the “one style of reflection [which] tends to become a common denominator of cultural life” (Mills, 1959, p. 13). It is indeed Mills contention that the sociological imagination (as defined above – although in a brief excerpt) has come to be this common denominator for western culture, taking over the mantel from Darwinian and Newtonian physical science. But as I taught my way through two semesters I asked myself ‘can I agree with Mills? Is the common denominator of these students, before they enter our class, a critical and dialectic conception of reality, society and culture?’ and sadly I would have to say no. This is not to say that there is some genetic/general dumbing down of our student populace but instead I believe that our society and our educational institutions as a major part of this – both in being shaped by and shaping society – are not rewarding, encouraging or facilitating this sociological imagination as the common denominator.

I argue that several factors have played a role in this lack of ubiquity of the sociological imagination in our student bodies:

1)    An increasingly corporatized and rationalized educational system

2)    An increasing dominance of neo-liberal ideology in the west, especially the USA

3)    Increasing resource scarcity and economic instability

Now I must say that I believe these things to be highly integrated but I will try to tease out, if somewhat arbitrarily, their influences on this trend in student engagement. But this discussion is just that, a partial teasing out. I do not have all the answers to this interrogation and so have several questions that I would like to pose also:

1)    As Mills poses that these common denominators happen as trends which can take time to develop are we still on the up slope of a developing common denominator in the ‘sociological imagination’ or have we seen a reversal in this trend?

2)    Do others experiences in settings different to a research one public institution pose a different situation to the one I am proposing?

Before I proceed in my discussion I want to carefully also add that this discussion is subjective (unavoidably so) and is generated from my own experiences and interactions with students. I do not wish to suggest that this will be the same for all educators but instead wish to offer an understanding I have created out of the experiences I believe I have experienced. Hopefully these will be useful in understanding those who have similar experiences but must always be considered as radically contextual and momentary.

With that reflexive moment shared it is important to move on, so I shall.  I turn to the factors I mentioned above:

Factor 1 – As many authors (Denzin & Giardina, 2006; Giroux, 2010; Williams, 2010; Silk et al, 2010) have noted universities have been experiencing an increasing corporatization over the last 20 years at least. With the increasing budget squeezing from the state and federal level in the US and in line with a general business/science/engineering tone fitting better within the neo-liberal ideologies of the west there has been little space left for critical, qualitative and sociologically imaginative work. The competition from for-profit institutions and the increasing adoption of profit maximizing business models has meant that many of these critical disciplines and departments become seen as ‘fluff’ or non-necessary add-ons to the important revenue generating departments. The critically qualitative departments often generate little profitable funding opportunities for the university disappointing on two fronts – firstly as not bringing money into the university but secondly not offering marketable recognition that the university can use to promote it’s ‘brand’. But also with this focus on profit maximization we can see other effects such as the increased importance of the – the most profit/marketing generating aspects at least– university athletic system and the athlete – student.

Factor 2 – The general prevailing neo-liberal sentiment in this country has been building heavily for many years but can see a spike in recent times in the post 9-11 landscape (Kellner, 2007; Peck & Tickell, 2002). The focus on independent funding and reduction in government intervention in taxation and funding has squeezed many universities into the corporatized and rationalized mode mentioned above (Giroux & Saltman, 2009). Indeed a couple of years ago I had the chance to hear the former president of the University of Rhode Island (URI) as he discussed state funding falling from around 70% of budget to 11% in his tenure at the university. This brings about many factors but one of the major factors for URI was a focus on recruiting out of state students that could generate much of this gap in funding. This has also meant a general saddling of many students with large amounts of debt creating a need for the rational connection of degree to increased earnings. A degree now must be worth the large amounts of money invested, giving a focus to pre-professional degrees and sidelining many critically qualitative focused majors. But this neo-liberal policy and ideology stretches back further into education, stunting the development of this sociological imagination, with the focusing of the k-12 curriculum being heavily on the sciences and a lack of funding and time provided for teachers to engage in other paradigmatic approaches to knowledge development (Grossberg, 2007).

Now I have given a very scant and anecdotal review of some of my thought on these factors as there has been many much more in depth and thorough discussions carried out previously. I have also tried to separate these discussions but as I stated earlier these things are unavoidably integrated and dialectically developing. But what I wanted to mention last is an idea that peaked my thoughts and which I think has had less academic development previously. I will not go into huge detail but just start my thoughts rolling.

Factor 3 – Mills states in passage four of ‘The Promise’ that “The obvious conquest of nature, the overcoming of scarcity, is felt by men of the overdeveloped societies to be virtually complete. And now in these societies, science… is felt to be footloose, aimless and in need of re-appraisal.” (Mills, 1959, p.15). And although this was the times that Mills faced at writing this book, in the US at least – a time of post war boom – these are not the times we currently face. We consistently are seeing a depleting of our resources, especially oil (Howard, 2009), and the resultant ecological disasters and international conflict (Giordano, 2005) we are experiencing as a result of our scouring the globe and exploiting it for every last little drop to fuel our overconsumption. No longer is science footloose, it has a purpose again. This I believe is a major reason recently of the refocusing on the sciences and results driven research, and a lack of interest in critical, qualitative and non profit/resource results driven work and study. Maybe any ground gained by the sociological imagination as the common denominator of thought for our students has started to seep away or maybe the only connections being made between the individual and society as a whole is in how one can become a productive cog in this consumption machine that is western society? As there is an increased need to deal with the worlds resource and environmental issues by large nation states and transnational companies I can only see the need for education that does not service this directly being squeezed out even further.

I think this last factor is one that has been very much developed by the rule of the neo-liberal capitalist ideology in the west and the solutions are being driven from the same point and cannot be fetishized out of its social and cultural contexts (Timura, 2001), however I think this will be a factor that will grow in coming years. As resources deplete and populations grow or maintain, the calls for attention to more immediate needs will cloud the importance of critical and insurgent disciplines. But it is necessary that we do what we can to push back, not only to give the space for more useful and just approaches to dealing with these dire problems (which I believe will and can be generated outside of the common areas of patriarchal science) but also so that injustices based on race, gender, sexuality, age, disability or nationality, which could very well intensify in these times, do not get hidden or ignored as unimportant in these times.

If Mills could see the regression in the solutions to resource scarcity and the results of the dominance of neo-liberal capitalist ideology we see now would he still have hope for a critical sociological imagination as the common denominator? Indeed should we carry on this hope or not?


Denzin, N. & Giardina, M. (2006). Introduction: Qualitative inquiry and the conservative challenge. In N. Denzin & M. Giardina (eds). Qualitative inquiry and the conservative challenge (pp. ix-xxxi). Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Giordano, M. F., Giordano, M. A., and Wolf, A. T. (2005). International Resource Conflict and Mitigation. Journal of Peace Research. 42: 47

Giroux, H. A. & Saltman, K. (2009). Obama’s betrayal of public education? Arne Duncan and the corporate model of schooling. Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 9, 772-779.

Giroux, H. (2010). Academic unfreedom in America: Rethinking the university as a democratic public sphere. In E. J. Carvalho & D.B. Downing (eds.), Academic freedom in the post-9/11 era (pp. 19- 40). New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Grossberg, L. (2007). Cultural studies, the war against kids, and the re-becoming of U.S. modernity. In N.K. Denzin & M.D. Giardina (eds.), Contesting empire, globalizing dissent: Cultural studies after 9/11 (pp. 95-120). Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Howard, R. (2009). Peak Oil and Strategic Resource Wars. Futurist, 43(5), 18-21.

Kellner, D. (2007). Globalization, terrorism and democray: 9/11 and its aftermath. In N.K. Denzin & M.D. Giardina (eds.), Contesting empire, globalizing dissent: Cultural studies after 9/11 (pp. 53-77). Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination. Oxford University Press, NY.

Peck, J., & Tickell, A. (2002). Neoliberalizing Space. Antipode, 34(3), 380-404.

Silk, M.L., Bush, A., & Andrews, D.L. (2010). Contingent intellectual amateurism, or, the problem with evidence-based research. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 34, 105-128.


Williams, J.J. (2010). Academic bondage. In E. J. Carvalho & D.B. Downing (eds.), Academic freedom in the post-9/11 era (pp. 169-183). New York: Palgrave MacMillan.


2 thoughts on “The Sociological Imagination as the Common Cultural Denominator: Are We just Kidding Ourselves? – by Oliver Rick

  1. Good stuff, Oliver…

    In early education not only are science and math afforded precedence over social concerns, ideological battles over what counts as social, cultural, and historical knowledge are under constant negotiation (for example, recently in Texas black historical figures were removed from textbooks in favor of whites). A positivist approach, it would would seem, counters non-fixed teaching dilemmas by offering a relatively stable set of ideas across US education programs. Clearly, ideas opposing control, mastery, and singular frameworks are not welcomed in the US! This leads me to my other comment.

    As I read this I thought of Bauman’s “The Holocaust and Modernity” and Hanna Arendt’s “Total Domination.” Mills himself is subject to critiques of Western knowledge, one of which argues that Western knowledges miss the nuances of “other” social theories. Through Bauman and Arendt, I’m inclined to say that Science has not been footloose. Rather, Enlightenment principles are coursing their way through our bodies (yep, read bio-power into this) more purposefully than ever.

    Hope… Our current President ran on this message. If that is any indication, then his continued path for education at early grade levels, which rests on testing and test results, is not cause for optimism or hopefulness… hope remains a pipe dream. Survival, the populace as walking (un)dead seems more fitting! Yet, recognizing the lack of criticality in the Western popular imagination is perhaps all the impetus needed for different knowledge projects that continue to challenge the present and dominant linear narratives and trajectory.

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