The Sociological Imagination
and the American Dream
C. Wright Mills, 1959
“The Intersection of History
and Biography within the
context of Social Structure.”
Sociology helps us to see our
lives and the lives of others
in social and historical
Each Component is Essential
History: how a society came to be and
how it is changing and how history is
being made in it. The great narrative.
Biography: the nature of "human nature"
in a society; what people in a particular
society are experiencing, and how they
interpret that experience.
• Human nature is a social creation.
Social structure: how the various
institutional orders in a society operate,
which ones are dominant, how they
persist and how they change.
Sociological Imagination, Restated
How individual experience and life
narrative (little story) is shaped and
made meaningful by the playing out
of the narrative of history (big
story) which we understand by
analyzing various social structures
Personal Issues in Social Context
• Personal issues
• Public issues of social structure
Individual experiences in various and
specific situations are shaped by structural
Personal problems can only be understood
in larger structural context and thus take
on social significance.
• Our most intimate thoughts and feelings have
a profound social component.
Sociological Imagination Remains
Explanations for troubles are
Psychological explanations are
dominant (in popular culture, etc.).
• Oprah, Dr. Phil.
The American Dream
The American Dream
The American Dream is the faith held by
many in the United States that through
hard work, courage, and determination
one can achieve financial prosperity and
Connected to belief in Progress.
Connected to belief in Equal Opportunity.
Specific content evolves as social
Post Civil War: Personal Autonomy, Self-sufficiency:
• Be your own boss
• Homestead Act
• Little House on the Prairie
Post World War II:
• Consensus America
Company, Union, Govt. cooperation
Middle class life available to blue collar workers with high school
• Rise of Suburbia (Like Littleton)
Cheap energy, housing, education
Community College System
• Clear Path to Middle Class Security
American Dream in the 21st
Postwar structure has radically changed.
• Investment, jobs
• Labor Outsourcing
• Role of digital technologies: Internet and the Death of Distance
From Production to Consumption Orientation:
• From GM to Wal-Mart
• Bubble economy, huge debt levels.
Industrial Economy to Knowledge Economy
• From manipulation of objects to manipulation of symbols
• Importance of Human Capital
• Increasing income inequality (hidden by housing bubble)
• Pensions to 401K. Risk shifting.
• Housing, healthcare, education become much more expensive
• Path to secure middle-class life much less clear, changing rapidly
Biography intersects history in our
own time in a powerful way.
Understanding this can empower
both our private and public selves.
All human phenomena—from the
tragic to the trivial—can be