Speaking Volumes: C. Wright Mills's The Sociological Imagination

March 21, 1997

On C. Wright Mills's The Sociological Imagination.

In 1948, when I was 11 years old, my father took me to the London Olympics. That was when I fell in love for the first time - with Arthur Wint, the Jamaican sprinter. He moved like a gazelle and I was transfixed watching his glistening body glide through the tape, utterly coordinated, totally beautiful. Fanny Blankers-Koen ran at those games, too, that amazing Dutch woman who won four gold medals when she was 30 years old and three months' pregnant. For the first time I sensed that the wonder of the human body in motion was to do with more than just muscular physicality.

Then I went to college and was trained in the human sciences: anatomy, physiology, biomechanics. I was taught that "black" people have more mobility in their hip joints than "white" people and by their very natures are predisposed to be good at sport. This was my first exposure to biological determinism. I was being inducted into a way of thinking and feeling that is a denial of reason; subjected to an ideology that explains cultural behaviour according to scientific criteria. I was also taught that men are innately more aggressive and competitive than women and hence best suited to do sports and other physical activities. The idea that sport is linked to the physical body in an insular way, is outside "real" life, separated from the worlds of the social, economic and political, was taken for granted, part of commonsense thinking and everyday reality.

As a mature student at university, I underwent a conversion, although the process had already started while I was teaching students of sport studies. I had begun to understand the shifting nature of scientific explanations for human behaviour, and found it impossible any longer to ignore the intrinsic link between sport and culture. That was why I chose to study sociology at masters level. But the conversion was only complete after I had read The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills.

This is a wonderful introduction to sociology. Written in accessible language for the beginner, it provokes readers to think analytically about the social world of which they are a part. As its title suggests, it encourages an imaginative approach to knowledge and a rejection of uncritical assumptions; it invites one to look for connections between the personal and the social; and it demands an investigation of values - where they come from and how they are reproduced. It is, in essence, a quest for understanding and self-awareness.

C. Wright Mills examines some of the central conceptions of the social sciences and looks at problems of theory. He deconstructs the esoteric "sociologese" of Talcott Parsons and in this way encourages students not to be put off, but to tussle with difficult language and to search for texts that provide meaning. His claim that "all sociology worthy of the name is 'historical sociology' ", his references through the book to different social structures and political arrangements, and his comments on the power to manage and manipulate consent, in particular directed me to the work of Antonio Gramsci. (This turned out to be a strangely personal experience when I discovered that I was born on the very day that Gramsci died.) The Sociological Imagination was the stimulus for me to explore the ways in which the physical (and sport, specifically) is linked to the social. It encouraged me to look for connections, to interrogate, to recognise contradictions, and self-consciously to reassess sporting performances, such as those of Arthur Wint and Fanny Blankers-Koen.

Since the 1980s, various subdisciplines - the sociologies of culture, leisure, and sport - have developed into sophisticated fields of study. Most recently, the burgeoning of a new sociology of the body has further drawn attention to the ways in which the body is socially constructed and to the particular link between the body and identity. In my opinion, the best writers are those who, in the tradition of Mills, have systematically applied a sociological imagination to their work.

Jennifer Hargreaves is professor of the sociology of sport and codirector, Centre for Sport Development Research, Roehampton Institute, London.

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