See biography by I. L. Horowitz (1983); K. Mills and P. Mills, eds., C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings (2000).
(born Aug. 28, 1916, Waco, Texas, U.S.—died March 20, 1962, Nyack, N.Y.) U.S. sociologist. After studying at the University of Texas (B.A., M.A., 1939) and the University of Wisconsin (Ph.D., 1941), Mills joined the faculty of Columbia University; there he became associated with the theories of Max Weber and with issues regarding the role of intellectuals in modern life, and he contributed to the development of a critical sociology in the U.S. and abroad. Mills believed social scientists should shun “abstracted empiricism” and become activists on behalf of social change. His radical analysis of U.S. business and society appeared in White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956); other works include The Causes of World War Three (1958) and The Sociological Imagination (1959). A colourful public figure, he wore black leather and rode a motorcycle. His death at 45 resulted from heart disease.
Learn more about Mills, C(harles) Wright with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Personal Life: Mills was married to Ruth Harper Mills (died July 2008) for 12 years, the couple divorced in 1959. Mrs. Mills resided at Springhouse in Jamaica Plain, MA until her death. They leave behind a daughter, Kathryn and grandson Eric.
The New Men of Power: America's Labor Leaders (1948) studies the Labor Metaphysic and the dynamic of labor leaders cooperating with business officials. Mills concluded that labour had effectively renounced its traditional oppositional role and become reconciled to life within a capitalist system. Appeased by "bread and butter" economic policies, Mills argued labour adopted a pliantly subordinate role in the new structure of American power.
White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951) contends that bureaucracies have overwhelmed the individual city worker, robbing him or her of all independent thought and turning him into a sort of a robot that is oppressed but cheerful. He or she gets a salary, but becomes alienated from the world because of his or her inability to affect or change it.
The Power Elite (1956) describes the relationship between the political, military, and economic elite (people at the pinnacles of these three institutions), noting that these people share a common world view:
These elites in the "big three" institutional orders have an "uneasy" alliance based upon their "community of interests" driven by the "military metaphysic," which has transformed the economy into a 'permanent war economy'.
The Sociological Imagination (1959), Mills' most influential work, describes a mindset—the sociological imagination—for doing sociology that stresses being able to connect individual experiences and societal relationships. The three components that form the sociological imagination are 1. History: how a society came to be and how it is changing and how history is being made in it 2. Biography: the nature of "human nature" in a society; what kind of people inhabit a particular society 3. Social Structure: how the various institutional orders in a society operate, which ones are dominant, how are they held together, how they might be changing, etc. The Sociological Imagination gives the one possessing it the ability to look beyond their local environment and personality to wider social structures and a relationship between history, biography and social structure.
Other important works include: The Causes of World War Three (1958), Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba (1960), and The Marxists (1962).
In a 1997 survey of members of the International Sociological Association which asked them to identify the ten books published in the 20th century which they considered to be the most influential for sociologists, The Sociological Imagination ranked second, preceded only by Max Weber's Economy and Society.
While Mills never embraced the "Marxist" label, he nonetheless told his closest associates that he felt much closer to what he saw as the best currents of flexible, humanist Marxism than to its alternatives. He considered himself as a "plain Marxist", working in the spirit of young Marx as he claims in his collected essays: "Power, Politics and People" (Oxford university press, 1963). In a November 1956 letter to his friends Bette and Harvey Swados, Mills declared "[i]n the meantime, let's not forget that there's more [that's] still useful in even the Sweezy kind of Marxism than in all the routineers of J.S. Mill put together."
There is an important quotation from Letters to Tovarich (autobiographical essay) dated Fall 1957 titled "On Who I Might Be and How I Got That Way":
You've asked me, 'What might you be?' Now I answer you: 'I am a Wobbly.' I mean this spiritually and politically. In saying this I refer less to political orientation that to political ethos, and I take Wobbly to mean one thing: the opposite of bureaucrat. […] I am a Wobbly, personally, down deep, and for good. I am outside the whale, and I got that way through social isolation and self-help. But do you know what a Wobbly is? It's a kind of spiritual condition. Don't be afraid of the word, Tovarich. A Wobbly is not only a man who takes orders from himself. He's also a man who's often in the situation where there are no regulations to fall back upon that he hasn't made up himself. He doesn't like bosses –capitalistic or communistic – they are all the same to him. He wants to be, and he wants everyone else to be, his own boss at all times under all conditions and for any purposes they may want to follow up. This kind of spiritual condition, and only this, is Wobbly freedom.
These two quotations are the ones chosen by Kathryn Mills for the better acknowledgement of the nuanced thinking of C.W.Mills.
It appears that Mills understood his position as being much closer to Marx than to Weber, albeit influenced by both, as Stanley Aronowitz argued in A Mills Revival?. Mills argues that micro and macro levels of analysis can be linked together by the sociological imagination, which enables its possessor to understand the large historical sense in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. Individuals can only understand their own experiences fully if they locate themselves within their period of history. The key factor is the combination of private problems with public issues: the combination of troubles that occur within the individual’s immediate milieu and relations with other people with matters that have to do with institutions of an historical society as a whole. Mills shares with Marxist sociology and other "conflict theorists" the view that American society is sharply divided and systematically shaped by the ongoing interactions between the powerful and powerless. He also shares their concerns for alienation, the effects of social structure on the personality, and the manipulation of people by elites and the mass media. Mills combined such conventional Marxian concerns with careful attention to the dynamics of personal meaning and small-group motivations, topics for which Weberian scholars are more noted.
Above all, Mills understood sociology, when properly approached, as an inherently political endeavor and a servant of the democratic process. In The Sociological Imagination, Mills wrote:
It is the political task of the social scientist -- 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. It is his task to display in his work -- and, as an educator, in his life as well -- this kind of sociological imagination. And it is his purpose to cultivate such habits of mind among the men and women who are publicly exposed to him. To secure these ends is to secure reason and individuality, and to make these the predominant values of a democratic society.