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College of Social & Behavioral Sciences
The Sociological Imagination

The Sociological Imagination Must Tie Individual Experience to Broader Historical Circumstances

[This is an earlier draft of a portion of the now published chapter, Paul Prew. 2015.“Understanding Society: Sociology and the Sociological Imagination” in Introduction to Sociology: A Paul Prew Collaborative Custom eBook. Boise: Ashbury Publishing]

    Mills reserved the use of the sociological imagination for those social scientists that go beyond individual and psychological explanations and include historical context in their analysis. If a sociologist is to claim that they adopt a “sociological imagination,” they cannot attempt to use theories that focus on individuals or small groups of people in their studies. They must tie the individual experience to the broader historical circumstances (milieux) in which they occur. Otherwise, according to Mills, the analysis is not rooted in the sociological imagination. Mills (1959) states,
The idea of social structure cannot be built up only from ideas or facts about a specific series of individuals and their reactions to their milieux. Attempts to explain social and historical events on the basis of psychological theories about ‘the individual’ often rest upon the assumption that society is nothing but a great scatter of individuals and that, accordingly, if we know all about these ‘atoms’ we can in some way add up the information and thus know about society. It is not a fruitful assumption. In fact, we cannot even know what is the most elemental about ‘the individual’ by any psychological study of him as a socially isolated creature. (163)

Role of Sociologist Is to Explain Personal Troubles as Social Issues

    While the sociological imagination is used by social science researchers, Mills also argued that it should inform public issues and attempt to improve human existence through the understanding of the world around us. Mills felt the social scientist should ensure that the public is able to identify the origins of personal troubles in the broader social issues. “It is the political task of the social scientist ... continually to translate personal troubles into public issues and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals” (Mills 1959:187). In this way, the sociological imagination is very important for understanding contemporary events.
    Typically, discussion of social issues in the media rarely goes beyond an explanation rooted in personal troubles. If we look a some recent events in the media, we can see this pattern. For example, what do politicians and the media tend to use to explain mass shootings? You may hear discussion of the mental state of the killer. You may also hear about people who observed the killer’s behavior prior to the events. “Shooter’s odd behavior did not go unnoticed,” “but his manner was strange,” and “Page’s behavior became odder still” are examples from an article (Romell 2012) in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel regarding the shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
    Focusing on the psychological motivations of the killer is exactly the problem that Mills identified. While Mills was emphatic about not relying on psychology to explain social events, he was not the only social theorist to understand the importance of a social analysis and the problem of relying on psychology to understand social events. Emile Durkheim (1938:104) commented, “Consequently, every time that a social phenomenon is directly explained by a psychological phenomenon, we may be sure that the explanation is false.” As sociologists, we must look for causes in the broader social and historical context because psychology is limited in providing explanations to the social problems we face. Thus, if we use a sociological imagination, we cannot rely on the killer’s personal psychology to explain his choice of targets. Unlike the media, we have to look deeper for the underlying social context of the shooting. We have to situate the event in the broader historical circumstances.

Explanation of Hate Crime

    In the Oak Creek shooting, the killer may have had some underlying psychological issue, but why would the killer target people practicing the Sikh religion? If we focus on his obvious psychological problems, we miss why these specific people were chosen as targets. You have to ask yourself, why would the killer target this group out of all of the possible causes for the social ills he feared? The sociological imagination demands that we have to find something in the broader social context that would lead him to target these specific individuals. To truly understand the shooting, we have to place it in the actions taken to justify the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the attacks of September 11 in the United States. The rush to promote war inflamed prejudice not only against Muslims, but people who are thought to be from the Middle East.
    According to information provided by Goal Auzeen Saedi (2012), attacks on people “perceived to be Arab” increased over 1,600 percent after 9/11. The data for the claim was gathered here: (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2001) (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2002) (Federal Bureau of Investigation n.d.).
    Sikhs do not practice Islam, and are not predominantly from the Middle East, but ignorance of religious difference and the germination of anti-Middle Eastern sentiment in the United States has led to statistically identifiable patterns of attacks on Sikhs and others perceived to be Arab. The killer’s choice of victims could not be understood by an examination of his psychology alone, but must be understood in the broader historical context of war in the Middle East and a lack of education regarding religious difference in the United States. If the United States was not at war with Iraq and Afghanistan, the killer may have targeted a different group, but let us take this a bit further. What if the U.S.’ society was different in terms of how it views guns and gun violence?
    To examine this question, we can look at another racially motivated crime. What about our society would make a relatively large man fear a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, with a bag of candy in his pocket? Why would the killer feel emboldened to stalk, confront, and kill this youth instead of retreating, as instructed by the police, and leaving any potential issue to the proper authorities (CNN Library 2014; Weinstein and Mother Jones News Team 2012)? To understand the Trayvon Martin case, you have to understand the intersection of the killer’s personal history, gun violence as a solution to problems, and racial disparity in the United States.
    To understand the Trayvon Martin case and those similar, we need to use our sociological imagination to make the links between the killer’s personal biography and the broader social circumstances that led to the shooting. If we look at the background of the killer and his personal history, we can see that he was a “victim of a minor criminal assault” (Roig-Franzia, Jackman and Fears 2012) when he was a teenager. He later took it upon himself to be the guardian of his neighborhood by calling the police frequently for a variety of reasons, including open garages and suspicious people. At this point in his life, the killer’s personal history makes him a nosey neighbor, but what prompted him to elevate his behavior to become the neighborhood vigilante?

Understanding the Small-Scale and the Large-Scale

    To answer this question, we have to understand that the sociological imagination is also the capacity to move from the small-scale (individual level experiences) to the large-scale (society and its institutions) and understand the connections between them. The sociological imagination also allows us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes by understanding the broader social context in which they are situated. People’s personal biographies are part of a larger picture. The sociological imagination demands that we understand people may have “agency” to make choices in their life, but their ability to determine their circumstances is largely constrained by the broader social context in which they are a part (Mills 1959:7).
    So, what broader social context provided the background for the killer’s actions? While there are a number of issues to consider, let’s begin with government doctrines and legal codes. In the United States, after the attacks of September 11, the George W. Bush administration developed what has come to be termed the “Bush Doctrine.” According to the Bush Doctrine, “the United States must be ready to wage preventive wars” (Jervis 2003:369) to prevent threats from other nations from harming U.S. citizens. In other words, if the United States perceives that another nation poses a threat to the safety of the United States, it must act because the consequences of not acting would be more undesirable (Jervis 2003:374). Although preventive war violates the U.N. Charter according to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Bush Doctrine was used to justify the war in Iraq (UN News Centre 2004). In effect, the idea behind the Bush doctrine is that an emerging threat must be confronted with force immediately before the threat grows more dangerous (Jervis 2003:373).
    In the United States, foreign policy is not the only aspect of society where this attitude is expressed. The Bush doctrine of preventive war is mirrored by “stand your ground” legislation in many states that allow citizens to shoot people who are perceived to pose a threat. Stand your ground legislation explicitly argues that people do not have a “duty to retreat” when they face a danger from other person(s) (Florida Legislature 2013).
"A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."
    Thus, instead of leaving the situation, people have a right to “stand their ground” to protect themselves from a perceived threat. Stand your ground legislation is an extension of people’s right to self-defense. Instead of using comparable force to defend yourself as in self-defense, you are able to proactively put an end to a perceived, impending confrontation through lethal force. Like the Bush doctrine, “stand your ground” allows violence to be used prior to being the victim of an attack by another party. Both of these legal positions reinforce an attitude among the public that they will have a right to use violence to put an end to a suspected confrontation, whether the threat is real or imagined. Although the legislation is relatively new, there appears to be real consequences for “stand your ground” legislation. Research suggests that homicides (murders) increase in states that enact “stand your ground” laws (Cheng and Hoekstra 2013:849).
    Returning to our original question, why would the killer stalk, confront, and kill Trayvon Martin? Although the killer did not claim “stand your ground” in court, he disregarded police instructions to stop following Trayvon. He was acting, not under expectations associated with self-defense laws where you must leave if given the opportunity, but more consistently with the stand your ground legislation that does not require a person to retreat. If we use our sociological imagination and look at the broader context, we can see how the situation may have unfolded differently in a completely separate society. If we consider a society where there were no “stand your ground” laws and people frowned upon the use of violence to resolve perceived threats, the killer would likely have not pursued his victim and initiated a confrontation. Given “stand your ground” and the Bush doctrine, the killer grew up in a social context in the United States that is sympathetic to the use of deadly force instead of other methods of resolving perceived conflict.
    Although the social context of “stand your ground” helps explain why the killer initiated the deadly confrontation, it does not explain why he perceived a teenage boy with candy and tea in his pockets as a lethal threat. This is where the issue of the Trayvon’s race comes into play. Had Trayvon Martin been a white male wearing a suit jacket and a tie, carrying a bag of Skittles and a bottle of tea, there is little chance that the killer would have noticed him, let alone followed him. The killer’s suspicions were raised, not by any objective threat that Trayvon posed, but by racial stereotyping of a black youth wearing a “hoodie” in a predominantly white neighborhood (Thakore 2014:3-4). Thus, the legacy of racial discrimination and prejudicial stereotyping led the killer to identify, incorrectly, Trayvon as a threat. Otherwise, the killer would not have followed Trayvon.
    The killer’s personal biography (small-scale) of being attacked early in his life and then becoming a self-appointed neighborhood watchman put him in the area looking for suspicious behavior. Racial stereotyping provided the impetus to define Trayvon as a threat worthy of stalking. Stand your ground legislation (large-scale) provided the legal context that emboldened the killer to follow Trayvon, against police instructions, confront Trayvon, and ultimately kill him. A clearer understanding of the killing develops when we see intersection of the biography of the killer (small-scale) and the social context (large-scale) of racial disparity and legal legitimation for lethal force when someone perceives a potential threat.
    So, we have, in the United States, social attitudes within society that have become solidified in state law and federal foreign policy that sanction the use of deadly force when someone perceives a threat. Because these attitudes are not only shared by members of the U.S. society but also codified into law, some people within the United States act based on these attitudes. It is important to note that the “Bush Doctrine,” “stand your ground” laws, racial attitudes, and other social factors do not influence everyone equally, or in the same way. This is why it is so very important to follow the sociological imagination’s prerequisite to understand the relationship between individual biography and the social circumstances. Tragedies like the Sikh temple shooting and the slaying of Trayvon Martin are the result of the mixture of personal biography and the broader social context.
    While there are unique aspects to every tragedy, these incidents are part of broader patterns. For example, a man targeted a Jewish community center and retirement home during shooting rampage in 2014 (Ahmed, Fantz and Shoichet 2014). In 2013, a young black woman was shot and killed attempting to get help after a car accident (Isom 2013). Mills’ admonition to use the sociological imagination demands that we confront the fiction that these are “isolated incidents” and inexplicable tragedies. To understand the Sikh temple shooting, Trayvon Martin’s murder and others like it, we have to understand that the personal biographies of the killers may have made them susceptible to violent action, but the social circumstances of “stand your ground” attitudes and racial stereotyping played a role in the manner of attack and the selection of targets. If we “blame society” by singling out racism or violence as the sole cause of the shootings, we miss the role of personal biography. If we only blame the individual’s mental state, then we miss the role of social influences in the tragedy. As Mills (1959:6) states, “No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history and of their intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey.” To truly understand the issues of our day, we have to understand how history intersects with biography. If you are able to develop a sociological imagination, you will be better able to understand both your own personal troubles and the broader social issues facing contemporary society.