As a sociologist, close to half century of my life has been spent in the habit of mind that a well-known social critic C. Wright Mills called “the sociological imagination.” Mills was famous for making things simpler to the common readers but also insisting on the rigors of thinking that eschewed empty and pompous academic-professorial styles. I actually aspired to be the next C. Wright Mills who was frequently criticized that he was more of a journalist than a professor.
Mills taught that our effort to understand and explain society must begin, using our intellectual imagination, by connecting personal lives with the larger, and largely invisible, forces and conditions of society. When a man loses his job, for example, we tend to think it’s a matter between himself and his employment. Of course, it is possible that it’s strictly his personal issue, such as his own inaptitude or skill obsolescence. But Mills cautioned that such strictly personal issues are few.
In the majority cases of unemployment, when they reach millions and affect generations and groups, we need to look at the invisible-but-real connection between the unemployed and the larger social forces that ultimately condition his job loss. Obviously when the unemployed man struggles with his mortgage on the house, the forces he faces are much larger than his checkbook, such as banks, sheriff’s office, treasury department, the political party in power, and so on.
The invisible social forces could be international trade conditions, recessions caused by wars and conflicts, technological changes that sweep through society, now a pandemic, and many other cultural and historical developments over which the individual has no control or even knowledge. Finding this connection between an individual’s life and the larger society is often intellectually difficult (the subject is too large and the connection too vague) and practically unhelpful (so, war caused my job loss, what can I do about it?).
Especially in a society like the U.S. where we are constantly taught to think individually, the sociological imagination is not always easy to adopt or popular as a mindset. (I always love the comic strip, “Betty,” because her family relationships almost always have the larger “society” as their backdrop).
This morning, my fellow columnist John Bos has his article entitled “Horribly Inaccurate,” mainly quoting from Diane Hessan’s book entitled “Our Common Ground” which says we as Americans have more commonality among us than differences. Although the quotes are from her book, we often read such comforting comments in the media as common opinions.
Hessan says, and Bos quotes, “Our inability to hear each other. . . and our impatience are tearing us apart.” Without further ado, my habit immediately raises the question, what are the social conditions-forces that create this “inability” and “impatience”? Obviously, it’s a generational and cultural issue, not confined to few individuals’ inability or impatience.
So, what conditions or forces from society gave them the inability and impatience? Should we not look at the forces and conditions of consumer capitalism, Wall Street, and our large, indeed very large, entertainment industry that tends to turn us into children, typically with a lot of “inability” and “impatience”? If a child behaves oddly, should we not look at his parents whose conditions and forces of child rearing are obviously causing the child’s odd behavior?
Another quote from Hessan: “There is actually much more common ground than you would think in our country.” This is a hard one to judge intelligently. It’s like someone saying to a disgruntled wife, “Actually your husband loves you more than you think” or something like that. Obviously, the wife came to that conclusion of an unloving husband because she has evidence for that conclusion.
It’s also like saying “America is more democratic than you think” or “Democrats and Republicans have more in common than we think” or “White people and Black people share more in common than we think,” etcetera, etcetera.
In spite of such comforting conclusions, we are in the middle of the largest and most fiercely-contested schism between two groups — roughly Whites and non-whites — in American political history: Just witness the Jan. 6 Capitol mob who was 99.999 percent white (just in case there was one non-white, which I didn’t spot), violently plotting Constitutional Fascism in broad daylight. With such physical evidence in our faces, biased or not, what do we make of the conclusion that we have “more common ground” among us than we think? Like the unhappy wife, we would need some proof of our unity in the face of horrible disunity.
Hessan reached her conclusions about America by talking to hundreds of people, on both sides, and my sociological imagination tells me there is the problem of her research methods: People say things differently when faced with an obviously intelligent-educated interviewer asking questions. They tend to be more reasonable in such a set up than when they cast their solitary vote where they are freer to be selfish, childish and biased.
One more quote: “(W)e assume we are far apart,” says Hessan, “but it is not the case.” Well, how, then, do we explain away the number of unarmed Blacks three times more likely to be shot by white policemen, half of America still believing in Trump’s win, GOP Congress going fascist, or White America’s “inability” and “impatience” like children with nothing but sugar in their diet for decades?
My commonsense sociological imagination wants to know.
Jon Huer, columnist for the Recorder and a retired professor of sociology, lives in Greenfield.