soc 101

need to be more than 350-400 words

One of the most important aspects about sociology is what a man named C. Wright Mills called the “sociological imagination”.

 “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both. Yet men do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction. … The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. … 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 this period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances. …We have come to know that every individual lives, from one generation to the next, in some society; that he lives out a biography, and that he lives it out within some historical sequence (The Sociological Imagination, 1959:3-10).”

 Okay, so what does that mean?  Well, it is really the essence of sociology.  Sociologists see the world as made up a intricate webs of connections.  Where everything impacts, or potentially impacts everything else.  It is kind of like that movie (which I haven’t seen, but my students keep telling me about) called The Butterfly Effect. We don’t know when something we do will impact another person, another institution, maybe the whole world.  It sounds grandiose, but the point is, to sociologists, we are all, always, impacting the world around us.

 At the same time, we are also being impacted by the world in which we live.  I was just reading something about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (okay, junk food reading!).  There was a picture of the two of them with her kids, one from Cambodia and the other from Ethiopia.  If either one of the those kids had not been adopted by her (them) their lives would be drastically different than they are now.  In 20 years, how different will think and act than if they were raised in their countries of origin? 

 While these may be drastic examples, it is also true that whoever we are has been deeply shaped by the society in which we have grown up.  It is interesting to think about ~ how would you be different if you had been born 200 years ago?  What would your life be like?  As a man or a woman, would you be treated differently?  What is your ethnicity?  Would that have made a difference?  Supposing you grew up very, very rich, like Paris Hilton? How would your life we different then?

 These are questions that looking at the world through the lens of the sociological imagination can help us to understand.

 Now, you may be thinking, “Well, what difference does the sociological imagination make if all it helps me to do is fantasize about what life might have been like for me if I was rich or born 200 years ago?  I can do that anyway!”  But, the real purpose of the sociological imagination, according to C. Wright Mills, is that it helps us to become more empowered.

Mills believed that in the modern world we were often very overwhelmed by the enormity of the social structures in which we live.  Mills was writing in the 1950’s.  He was an American Sociologist and was seeing first hand how the changes that were occurring and had occurred in the world were impacting people.  The 1950’s often gets portrayed as a time of happy homes and stable communities.  But in fact, that wasn’t really the case.  The country was still recovering from WWII and all the changes that had brought.  The first nuclear weapon was detonated in 1945.  By the 50’s, kids were getting practicing air raid drills my climbing under their desks, just in case the Soviet Union dropped a bomb on us.  (Exactly what protection a desk was going to provide from an atomic bomb was not a question we were allowed to ask.)  The truth about Nazi Germany was beginning become very clear and that was very scary. While the Soviet Union was portrayed as the big baddy “over there”, 35% of people in the US were of German descent.  So evil was potentially on our own doorsteps, and in our own blood.  The witch hunts of the McCarthy were going on.  People who had known people who were Communists in the 1950’s were losing their jobs, their friends and their families.  The first civil rights action took place in 1954. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man and the institution of segregation began to crumble.  Divorce was on the rise. Women were entering colleges at a never before seen rate.  The world was changing quickly.

Mills believed that the powerful sources of social change were everywhere and that the average Joe and Jane felt powerless and hopeless in the face of these changes.  That may be even more true today.  We are engaged in a war in Iraq that only 385 of the military continues to support.  Yet no one seems real clear about how to get out of there.  Global warming is scaring people a lot!  The average worker is working more hours per day since the 40’s and with commute time, who sleeps.  Yet what be done about these issues?  So feelings of powerlessness continue today.

 Mills did not have all the answers to this either, but he did propose that it was important for people to sort out the difference between personal troubles and social issues if they were going to be successful in solving social problems.

One of Mills main ideas, is that there is the difference between personal troubles and social issues.  But before we talk about the differences between personal troubles and social issues I want to explain what they both have in common.  Both personal troubles and social issues result in some form of human suffering.  In both cases, someone is experiencing some form of problem.  However personal troubles and social issues vary in three ways. 

 First they vary in terms of the numbers involved.  When something is a personal trouble, only a few people are involved.  When something is a social issue many people are involved. Now the question you may be asking is at what point does something move from being a personal trouble to a social issue?  That’s a good question and there is no exact answer.  All that sociologists can say is that when many social structures are involved human suffering has moved from being a personal trouble to a social issue.

 Second, personal troubles and social issues vary according to their causes.  The cause of a personal trouble lies within the individual.  The cause of the social issue lies within the social structures. 

 Third, the solutions to personal troubles and social issues are also different.  If one wants to solve a personal trouble one what has to change one’s own life.  If, however, one wants to change a social issue, then one has to change as a social structure.  Changing social structures requires group action.  Therefore it is always more difficult to resolve social issues than it is to resolve personal troubles. 

 Here are some examples of the difference between a personal trouble and a social issue.  Let’s say that Boeing is currently in a hiring phase.  Let’s say that Boeing is hiring a lot of machinists.  Mary loses her job as a machinist at Boeing.  This may be an example of a personal trouble because other machinists are not losing their job.  Perhaps Mary drinks on the job.  Perhaps Mary has a bad temper and gets into fights with people at work.  Perhaps Mary is a kleptomaniac and she is stealing tools.  In any or all of these cases, the problem lies with Mary not in the social structure.  It merely wants to change her situation she needs to deal with her personal problems.  She may need to join alcoholics anonymous.  Or she may need to get some therapy.  In either case the problem lies with Mary and can only be solved by Mary changing her own life. 

 However, let’s say that Mary is one of 10,000 machinists that are laid off at Boeing.  And let’s say that Mary was an excellent worker, very conscientious, got along well with others, never drank on the job etc. etc..  In this situation, the problem is not located in Mary.  The problem is located in some social structure.  Perhaps the source of the problem is the globalization of the economy.  Perhaps Mary has lost her job because Boeing a shipping more jobs overseas.  Perhaps the problem is that not enough people are buying airplanes.  Perhaps Mary lost her job because Boeing is losing contracts.  In any of these situations, the problem does not lie with Mary and even if Mary changes her personal behavior it probably won’t mean that she keeps her job.  Changing her personal behavior is not going to change the larger social structures that have led to her unemployment.  Therefore marry is experiencing a social issue not simply a personal trouble. 

 Many times when we are experiencing social issues we have to make changes in our personal behavior as well.  For example, Mary probably needs to go back to school and get more education so that she can get a different kind of job.  Mary will also have to be where of potential problems that are associated with the unemployment.  For example, Mary may be more at risk for alcohol problems or family fights or depression.  The point I’m trying to get at here is that social issues can also lead to personal troubles.  So the two are often very intertwined.

 I hope this helps you to understand the difference between personal troubles and social issues.  Please be sure to ask me any questions that you may have about this reading when we are in class together. 

DISCUSSION QUESTION

Take an issue, like employment and analyze from the perspective of the sociological imagination. Describe when it is s personal trouble and when a social issue. Show what needs to be done to solve this problem when it is both personal and social.

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