There are three key questions that constitute the core of Mills' sociological imagination:
Mills1 argued that ‘nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps’. Mills maintained that people are trapped because ‘their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family [and] neighbourhood’1, and are not able to fully understand the greater sociological patterns related to their private troubles. Underlying this feeling of being trapped are the seemingly uncontrollable and continuous changes to society. Mills4 mentions unemployment, war, marriage and life in the city as examples where tension between private trouble and public issues becomes apparent.
The feeling that Mills identified in 1959 is still present today, and many examples can be found in popular media. One example is the tension that present-day women experience regarding their perceived housekeeping responsibilities, as discussed in a 2004 broadcast of Life Matters (Radio National 2004). The discussion focused on the rising popularity of domestic advice and support services, in particular the immensely popular American website FlyLady.net (Cilley 2004), which provides advice to people (mainly women) who are not able to deal with their perceived roles as home maker. Sociologist Susan Maushart argues that second-wave, White middle-class feminism has ‘thrown out the baby with the bathwater’ (Radio National 2004) because, although the victories of feminism have ensured that women are not restricted to being homemakers, they have devalued the home in their wake. Many women thus feel trapped between the social change achieved by feminism and the cultural expectations of being home makers. Another example of the "sociological imagination" discussed by Mills and still present today is one's reaction to being unemployed. An individual may attribute his/her inability to find a job to his personal characteristics rather than the larger social forces at work such as the economy and job market. Individuals who feel this way are, as Mills describes, "trapped" due to their narrowed vision of the problem of unemployment.
Mills offers a solution to this feeling of being trapped. He argues that because: "neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both"1, we need to develop a way of understanding the interaction between individual lives and society. This understanding is what Mills calls Sociological Imagination: the 'quality of mind' which allows one to grasp "history and biography and the relations between the two within society"3. Mills believed, however, that "ordinary people do not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world"2.
Sociological imagination is much more part of contemporary society than in the days when Mills wrote his book. Programs like Life Matters mainly deal with issues located on the crossroads between private trouble and the public sphere. Many people, however, do not seem to be interested in developing the ‘quality of mind’ that Mills envisaged. Most remain focused on private issues, without realising the social reality in which the issues are embedded.
One of the primary goals is to help develop the ability to participate in social life and step back and analyze broader meanings of what is going on in the world around us..
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