Understanding the Classical Approach to Sociological Imagination

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The sociological imagination is the ability to look at the everyday world and understand how it operates in order to make sense of their lives. It is a state of mind, which enables us to think critically about and understand the society in which we live, and our place in that world as individuals and as a whole. C. Wright Mills, first wrote of the concept in 1959. His understanding of it being that it was “a quest for sociological understanding” involving “a form of consciousness for understanding social processes.”

It is a way for a person to look at their life as a result of their interaction with society. It can explain why a life is lived the way it is and all events, decisions, successes, and failures that have occurred. Further more it enables us to understand the relationship between private troubles and public issues. Only by understanding how society affects us as individuals can we ever hope to change society effectively.

A classical approach to sociological imagination is understood has having the ability to recognise the relationship between history and biography within society. This is the basis of Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Max Weber. This focus generally sets out to answer three questions. What is the structure of a particular society as a whole? Where does this society stand in human history? What kind of human nature is revealed in this society? In answering these questions they hope to comprehend what is going on in the world and what is happening to the individual as a part of the intersection between biography and history within society.

Contemporary analysis has developed upon the classical approach in that it attempts to put the understanding into practical use. Anthony Giddens sees the sociological imagination as “sociological quest” for an ‘understand of the social world initiated by the contemporary industrial societies.” He sees this being achieved through knowledge of three factors. They are historical, cultural and critical. Knowledge of history allows us to learn from the struggles of other.

Knowledge of culture shows us ways of life that are entrenched in our society and are unlikely to change quickly. An awareness of both the historical and cultural nature of society can have important practical implications. Being critical of the two is the basis of sociological imagination because it leads to an understanding of how the world operates and how we arrived at a certain point in time and what can be done to change social troubles and issues. Critical sociology does not simply accept society as it is, but continues to investigate unexamined ideas.

The classical approach, as taken by Max Weber, rejected that sociology should be affected by values and should only deal with facts. This was done in an effort to leave research undertaken in the field, free of outside influences. According to Mills the sociological imagination enables us to grasp the relationship between “the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self.” Our values are a big part of the human self as they influence what we think and do, and need to be recognised to fully understand this relationship.

Further more, in practice ignoring our values proves difficult and most contemporary sociologists accept their inherent values and express them in their work. Mills believed that this understanding of the human self leads to “the first fruit of this imagination – and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it – is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances.” In understanding this we come to understand the nature of sociology.

In order to understand how sociological imagination relates to contemporary issues such as gambling, unemployment and suicide you must understand how the two spheres of sociological understanding operate. Private troubles occur within an individual and their immediate relationships with others. It is a matter that is of importance to the individual but does not bare great importance to the wider community, such as losing your job.

Public issues however, have a much wider bearing and is of greater importance to the majority of the public, such as wide spread unemployment. In order to determine what constitutes major issues for the public and troubles for individuals there must be knowledge of what values are held within a particular society and wether or not they are under threat. Private troubles are essentially part of the larger social issues.

In 1888 the consensus was that suicide was a private act that lacked social approval. At the time suicide was largely considered to be a nervous disorder derived from a weak physiological disposition. Still today, when someone commits suicide the question is “what was wrong with them?” Rather than “what lead them to be in such a state?” The first question suggests that it is a personal trouble, something that the individual failed to cope with. The second question suggests that there were institutional or social pressures that lead to suicide.

In the 19th century Durkheim examined suicide rates records in and around France and found that some people were more likely than others to commit suicide. He found that men, Protestants, wealthy people, and unmarried people had higher suicide rates. This suggests suicide was not limited to a small number who were “insane” but to a much larger portion of society. Durkheim thus questioned the traditional view, claiming it was not so much an individual’s weakness but rather underlying social factors that were responsible. It started the transition of suicide from being considered a private trouble, to a public issue. Durkheim concluded that these social factors corresponded to people’s degree of social integration.

Through an examination of social integration, Durkheim concluded that there were three varieties of suicide. The first was known as egotistic suicide. In this instance suicide resulted due to a lack of integration from the individual into a social group. The second, altruistic, occurs when there is too much integration into a social group. An example of this is Japanese Kamikaze pilots. They believe so deeply in their cause and their social structure that they become martyrs. Third is anomic, it is a situation in which there are rapidly changing social norms and institutional change. By breaking down social structures individuals are given to much freedom, which they do not know how to handle.

Durkheim’s theories are a classical approach to suicide and he therefore took the information he gathered at face value. He assumed suicide was a simple measurable social fact that was concrete and could be measured. A contemporary critical perspective suggest that it is better viewed as something that has a variety of different meanings for people in different societies and cannot simply be categorised. The official figures Durkheim gathered did not take into account this fact.

The fact that there are differing opinions about the nature of sociology and what the sociological imagination is, is due to the variety of theoretical perspectives which all offer different ways of making sense of social experiences, and because new research reveals more insights into the social environment. Further troubles come about due to the fact that society is constantly changing. There are also great differences between different societies and even groups within a society. As theories are developed about subject matter, such as the incidence of suicide, the subject changes in the light of new information. Any research undertaken can never attempt to cover all variables.

Sociological imagination and the study of sociology comes from the human desire to “discover and interpret the meaning of our experience.” It is the study of the nature between social groups within and between societies. The wide range of sociological perspectives means that by nature any research done in the field will be contested and differing reasons for results will be put forward. To be aware of and understand social forces and to apply this knowledge to the great variety of social issues is to “possess the sociological imagination.”


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Understanding the Classical Approach to Sociological Imagination. (2022, Dec 30). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/understanding-the-classical-approach-to-sociological-imagination/

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