“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”.
C Wright Mills. The Sociological Imagination (1959).
This statement is the reason for a good deal of my work. I was first introduced to the book ‘The Sociological Imagination’ way back in 1983 when it was the very first text given to us undergraduates. I admit the full force of the book’s meaning was understood only later and after reading various sociological theories and research studies did this ‘quality of mind‘ begin to flourish.
“The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and its promise”
In everyday conversations, and on social media, we speak about any manner of things that excite us, annoy us, amuse us. We complain and comment. All too often, however, we do not engage in the ‘quality of mind’ that is the sociological imagination and thus we fail to fully understand the issue. This does not matter for the trivial issues, but it does for wider social and political issues. Our lack of critical understanding, our lack of a historical context, our lack of imagination, leads all too often to views and actions that are stupid, racist, dangerous and callous. In so-called democratic societies, we end up voting for stupid, racist, dangerous and callous political leaders.
At best, this lack of an imagination leads to policy that is woefully lacking. In a previous post, I outlined the complex and multifarious nature of the obesogenic environment.
Those struggling with weight gain are all too familiar with the stigma that follows overly simplistic explanations and policymakers are all too readily drawn to lifestyle drift response to weight gain. Lifestyle drift refers to the phenomenon whereby policymakers accept that there are wider determinants to health issues such as weight gain but drift towards lifestyle responses as the key interventions. This results in the insanity of accepting the ‘obesogenic environment’ but then advocating individual behaviour change as the policy response.
It is necessary for me and others like me to point out that your personal trouble is to be understood not only, or just, as a result of your personal decision making. It is to show that your personal decision making occurs in a society in which there are powerful individuals, organisations, corporations, technologies and social structures who have a vested interest in the decisions you make, and who then collectively spend billions in product development, marketing with ‘sign values‘, demand management, and dissatisfaction manufacturing to make a profit. Claims of ‘corporatesocialresponsibility‘, or ‘creating shared value‘, have to be taken with huge truck loads of salt in far too many examples.
The sociological imagination links your individual decision to drink coca cola with the vast network that lies behind the point of delivery of that can into your hands. Your ‘personal biography’ which includes “I drink coca cola” is linked to this point in history in which there exists a multi-billion dollar corporation with a vested interest in you drinking its product. The sociological imagination takes this relationship between can and corporation and investigates what this means. It does not say “Thou shalt not drink coca cola”. It does however provide information about what that simple act means socially and politically so that we come to see drinking a can of coke as a social and political act as well as a thirst quenching one.