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Published: Thursday 31st of October 2013
The term sociological imagination was created by the American sociologist C. Wright Mills to denote the perception of the relationship that exists between an individual’s specific life experience and the broader society (Mills, 1959). It allows the knowledge gained from the discipline of sociology to be applied to everyday situations, therefore emphasizing the relevance of this scientific domain to every person’s life. Having the ability to switch perspectives and to look at a particular problem from a different angle is undoubtedly beneficial as it permits to step outside from whatever trouble a person might be in and to observe it from another point of view, thus making the problem more understandable and perhaps even easier to solve. Sociological imagination is used to put an individual and his/her actions into a broader societal context in a particular time period.
The theory of sociological imagination stresses the need to connect a person’s individual experiences and the societal relationships. Sociological imagination consists of three elements:
What determines a person’s behavior includes social norms, their personal motivations and the social context of the person`s existence. We are all guided by what is considered to be socially acceptable, i.e., the norms a society imposes upon its members, as well as by circumstances surrounding our efforts, including the country we live in, the social class to which we belong, and the people with whom we associate. The motives for whatever action we might be undertaking are both personal and societal. They include individual as well as cultural values and norms.
Being born into a particular family belonging to a specific social class in a particular country inevitably shapes our existence, at least to a degree. Sociological imagination makes us able to understand these circumstances and possibly rise above them. If a person is of modest family background, with poorly educated parents working as manual laborers, he/she can still surmount the obstacles posed by these circumstances, apply for scholarships, get a decent education and be able to accomplish more in life than the previous generations of his family were able to. To achieve this, however, it would be necessary to consider one`s life from a different perspective, as an outsider would look at it, which means applying social imagination. Removing oneself from one’s usual life experiences in one’s imagination allows one to put one’s personal problems into a broader context and find more efficient solutions to them.
Working class parents who want to provide their children with more options in life sometimes put all their life savings into their children’s education in an attempt to allow them to become successful in life despite their modest circumstances. This was the case with my family as well. My parents understood that the only chance I had to rise above the existence that was customary for members of our family for generations was to get a better education which would present me with more choices in life. Saving on holidays, birthday celebrations and even clothes they were able to afford the tuition fees of a private school and later university. Education became accessible to me, but socially it brought me more pressure and the awareness of being different and not being able to blend in with the majority of students coming from upper-class families. After enrolling in an American university, further issues concerning my dissimilarity to others were brought to my attention. Along with the language barrier, I encountered problems arising from racial issues.
As a concept of classification of humans into groups, race relies upon biological traits that all members of a particular race have in common, but it also exerts a strong social influence creating a social distance between members of different races and historically making certain things out of reach of members of particular races. Although such practices have nowadays become obsolete, they are still present in some social groups that are considered to be exclusive and available only to the elite. Racism allows particular social groups to be more powerful and to exert more influence on the society as a whole, so it is quite understandable that they would be reluctant to relinquish this control and become equal with everybody else.
According to Mills, we can regard all issues within social reality as either “private troubles” or “public issues,” the former relating to a single person and the latter to a social group. The social scientists have a task to observe private troubles through the lens of public issues. If, for example, a child’s schoolwork is poor, this can be due to his/her own shortcomings, or personal problems. However, these personal problems can also be a part of a broader social problem such as living in underprivileged life circumstances with no access to books or computers, or living in a crime-ridden community and often fearing for their life. The personal trouble in question can be something common among his peers, thus affecting a significant portion of society. In another example, a married couple can experience personal troubles in their relationship due to conflicts specific to a particular man and woman, but if divorce rates in the first year of marriage are as high as 250 out of 1000 marriages, this becomes a societal or a public issue. Sociologists connect a person’s individual problems and challenges to various social structures and place them in the appropriate time frame.
The society dictates what will or will not be accessible to its individual members. In my country, coming from a modest social background means that you would not automatically be eligible for college. It took significant financial resources and sacrifices made by my parents to allow me to attend university. Not many people from my neighborhood had this opportunity. The social class and the social community one lives in regulate to a great extent what one will be able to achieve in life. Nevertheless, my parents wanted me to have a professional career which I would enjoy and thrive in, so they chose to endure all the hardships associated with saving enough money to send me to college so that they could provide me with more chances in life. Education is the ticket into a world of opportunities. If one wants to go beyond the predispositions set by social class, one must excel academically and become proficient in his/her line of work. It is only natural that a young person wants more from life than what was given to him/her by birth or social background. The desire to achieve more than our parents and to live better lives is innate to all human beings.
However, social stratification prevents us from fulfilling all our wishes and aspirations. Social stratification is defined as social differentiation through grouping people into socioeconomic strata based on their wealth, income and social status. It determines the relative position that a person occupies in the society. In a book published in honor of the 150th anniversary of the original Communist Manifesto (1998), the fundamental ideas by Karl Marx are presented concerning property being the defining agent of fundamental relationships between people. The division into social classes is made on the basis of ownership of the means of production. The upper class, or the bourgeoisie, is in possession of all means of production in the capitalist social system while the underclass or the proletariat sell their labor to the owners of the means of production while personally having no significant property. These social positions remain the same for long periods of time, with the upper class being held in power by social control exerted by promoting submission through various institutions including the church. Marx predicted the capitalist economy to eventually dissolve and give way to a more egalitarian social system such as communism.
Based on the viewpoints initially developed by Marx, the social conflict theorists suggest that members of different social classes within a society possess different amounts of resources. This way, the social groups with access to more possessions have all the power over those who do not own significant property which makes the latter vulnerable to exploitation (Surhone, Timpledon & Marseken, 2010). According to the social conflict theory the society is based on the constant conflict between different societal groups. The conflict arises from inequities that exist between groups, and all social relationships center on power and exploitation.
Conversely, other theorists view social stratification more positively. Namely, advocates of the structural-functional analysis argue that social stratification is inherent to any society and is necessary to ensure social stability. An American sociologist Talkott Parsons (1975) is renowned for his social action theory offered a systematic approach to the analysis of social systems. There, among numerous other issues, he discussed the cultural values and social structures that limit and determine our social actions making them not primarily reliant on free will and internal psychological processes. In an overview of functionalist philosophy (Schmaus & Warren, 1994) Emile Durkheim`s positions on the issues of maintaining social order and stability are discussed. Functionalists view every single part of the society in terms of its contribution to the stability of the whole society. When a part of society becomes dysfunctional or deviant, it affects all the other parts and creates problems within a society that can only find resolution through social change. Durkheim was preoccupied with the issue of maintaining the society`s integrity and coherence in the modern age when religion and shared ethnic background are no longer a given fact of any society.
Sociological imagination is a capability to understand a person’s life and problems that arise in it by taking into consideration multiple influencing factors some of which go beyond personal characteristics or weaknesses. If we take an example of a student who is late for class one morning, we can just assume that he/she overslept or was slow to get ready in the morning. If, however, we choose to apply sociological imagination, we could look at a broader picture and consider factors not necessarily linked to this individual personally. There could have been a major accident on the road, or the student might have been helping a neighbor who had suddenly fallen ill. This perspective allows us to show more understanding and be less quick to judge without having all the facts of the case. Given Mills’ distinction of personal troubles and public issues, a student coming late to class every day could merely be lazy or tend to party all night, but if all the students are late for a particular class, this becomes a public issue. This opens the door to a possibility of something being wrong with the class or the teacher lacking authority or not being able to connect with his students academically.
Another thing to be taken into consideration in connection with social imagination is Durkheim’s notion of social facts. Social facts surpass the level of an individual and represent social norms, values, and structures that can exert social control. They affect people on a daily basis placing societal limitations on personal actions and strivings, and defining what a person can or cannot do within a specific society. In this way, one can consider society as a living organism whose behavior is subject to observation and examination, rather than just scrutinizing the behavior of individual society members.
Personally, I found my way out of the social class I was born into through education. By doing well academically, I was able to open a world of new possibilities I had previously never even deemed possible. With the existence of different types of scholarships, a person can no longer have an excuse for not accomplishing more in life due to a modest socioeconomic background or to the fact that college education is not standard in their neighborhood. The use of social imagination in looking at one’s own life puts everything into perspective and makes a person want more than they already have. It is always possible to expand one’s horizons and strive for more for the sake of realizing one’s full potential. Our social class does not necessarily need to determine our future. Willingness to learn more and rise above one’s circumstances makes all the difference in life. The societal and personal levels of functioning interlock to form a basis for a prosperous life if that is the way we choose to live it.
My own sociological imagination has in a sense allowed me to get to where I wanted to be and to where I am at this point. I refused to be held down by social class, race or any other form of social discrimination or stereotype. I stood up for myself, and, with great support from my family, decided to go to university and get a degree which will make it possible to secure a better future both for myself and for my family. In full awareness of the relationship between an individual and the society, as well as of the influence a society exerts on a particular person, I found it easier to face all the difficulties I encountered in life and to overcome the disadvantage of coming from a modest socioeconomic background. I feel as if every person as a member of the human race has an intrinsic need to go beyond whatever circumstances he/she was put into by birth and explore all the possibilities this world has to offer. Being reduced to limitations imposed by the society is extremely dissatisfying and restrictive and as such in sharp contrast to human nature, which makes humans want to strive for more and consequently leads to general social progress.