C. Wright Mills and ‘The Sociological Imagination’: linking subject knowledge to the real world

First posted on Tales From The Reach on 29 May 2019.

As teachers we talk about ‘teaching and learning’ all the time; at staff meetings, when giving or receiving lesson observation feedback and when we plan lessons and schemes of work collaboratively with colleagues. Therefore, in most books on teaching and learning there will be a chapter on pedagogy, which is often defined as ‘the methods and practice of teaching’ (Capel et al., 2013, p. 7). Bearing this in mind, it is obvious that thinking about pedagogy is crucial to teaching successfully.

Nonetheless, the scope of pedagogy is huge and includes theories and research from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, educational development and, of course, the sociology of education. Some, therefore, prefer to call pedagogy the art or craft of teaching in the classroom (Gershon, 2015, p. 21); whether this is delivering activities in actual lessons or planning activities beforehand, pedagogy is often seen as the skills, strategies and methods employed by the teacher to support pupils’ learning.

Pedagogy and philosophy

However, thinking deeply about pedagogy transcends any focus on teaching strategies and should encompass more than the ‘best methods’ of teaching. As Smith (2012) argues, pedagogy ‘is concerned not just with knowing about things, but also with changing ourselves and the world we live in’.  In this sense, pedagogy is not just about the practicalities of teaching, but also the philosophy of education; thinking about pedagogy should challenge us to question why we are teaching and what we hope to achieve by teaching it. Smith suggests that as well being concerned with a process of ‘inviting truth’ about what is being studied and the possibility of advancing our pupils knowledge and development of a given subject, pedagogy should also centre around certain values and commitments inherent in that subject, such as fostering respect for others and for one’s self. In fact, ‘Education is born, it could be argued, of the hope and desire that all may share in life and be more’ (ibid, my italics).

The Sociological Imagination

In a similar vein, the American sociologist C. Wright Mills argued that the subject of sociology should invite students to ‘share in life’. Wright Mills’ argument was formulated in his book The Sociological Imagination (1959), which encouraged sociology students to imagine, explore, develop and articulate the connections between their ‘personal histories’ and the social world they live in. For Wright Mills this would combine ‘biography’ and ‘history’ as students start to see the ‘self’ as part of the wider ‘whole’ (ibid, p. 4).

Wright Mills recognised that our ‘private troubles’, such as worrying about career progression or concern for a friend in an abusive relationship, are often reflected in less personal ‘public issues’, such as a lack of job opportunities in society or a statistical increase in recorded incidents of domestic abuse. If we have experienced these ‘troubles’ or have family and friends that have, then it is arguably incumbent upon us to think about the wider social causes of these issues or trends as they could shed light on a potential way to prevent them. Here, our ‘personal troubles’ may be bound up in these larger ‘public issues’ or vice versa.

The same could be said for learning in the classroom. More often than not, pupils’ ‘private worries’ or day-to-day activities may be bound up in the subject being taught in the classroom. Whether this relates to the importance of mathematics in understanding daily monetary transactions (at a basic level) and foreign exchange rates (on a slightly more complex level) or the application of good spelling, punctuation and grammar in CVs, especially in a competitive  job market, we need to get pupils to see – or rather ‘imagine’ – how what they are learning links to the real world; how our subjects affect their ‘private’ lives as well as their roles, positions and opportunities in the wider ‘public’ world.

An understanding of everyday events

Therefore, the sociological imagination has two main pedagogical impacts: firstly, and by way of sociology as an example, developing the sociological imagination furthers pupils’ understanding of everyday events, such as getting a doctor’s appointment (in a unit on the sociology of healthcare) or choosing subjects for A Level (in a unit on the sociology of education), as it presents various sociological arguments, or perspectives, as to why these things happen. Could a pupil’s inability to get an immediate doctor’s appointment be due to the marketisation of the NHS? Are they socialised in a way that made them opt for sociology, psychology and English literature as opposed to chemistry, physics and further maths? It is here that the sociological imagination comes into play as pupils are invited to imagine why their life is set up and organised the way it is.

Similarly, in science, applying the sociological imagination may bridge the gap between understanding the basic scientific theories and facts taught in isolation to their impact on the world (both physical and, importantly, social) around us. For example, the DfE KS3 Science Programmes of Study emphasise that pupils must learn the importance of the effects of recreational drugs (including substance misuse) on behaviour, health and life processes (DfE, 2013, p. 6). Pupils also need to understand power ratings of appliances in watts as well as comparing amounts of energy transferred (J, kJ and kW per hour), which is great for understanding the implication of domestic fuel bills, fuel use and costs on ourselves (‘private troubles’) and society as a whole (‘public issues’) (ibid., p.9).

Furthermore, the sociological imagination clearly bridges the ‘private’ and ‘public’ worlds in science, as the University of California’s ‘Understanding Science’ website implicitly attests:

“Scientific knowledge can improve the quality of life at many different levels — from the routine workings of our everyday lives to global issues. Science informs public policy and personal decisions on energy, conservation, agriculture, health, transportation, communication, defence, economics, leisure, and exploration. It’s almost impossible to overstate how many aspects of modern life are impacted by scientific knowledge” – University of California, Berkeley

The sociological imagination as a pedagogical concept

The second pedagogical impact of the sociological imagination – again in reference to teaching sociology – is that it is a beneficial pedagogical concept as it allows the pupil to compare and contrast the life they live and the experiences they have had with the results and findings of sociological studies (or, rather, subject knowledge). For example, does Willmott and Young’s (1972) research on gender and housework contrast to who does the household chores in the pupils’ homes. Moreover, do statistical trends on secularisation mirror the religiosity of the communities the students live in? By combining their ‘personal biographies’ with these wider ‘social histories’ or studies, it can be said that Wright Mills’ concept of the sociological imagination is a good starting point when considering what constitutes a socially aware and empathetic approach to pedagogy, especially one that engages and develops students’ view of themselves in the world as well as what it might be like for others. Once this approach to teaching the subject has been established, we can start to think about the most appropriate strategies and methods that will help us develop our pupils’ sociological imagination in various subjects – not just sociology.

Therefore, the sociological imagination is a pedagogical concept that transcends sociology. Getting pupils to compare, contrast and even empathise with the content they study is important to history, religious education and geography, for instance. It is also central to understanding the context and meaning of literally texts in English. As Richard Hoggart (1970) points out, a sociological – or literally – imagination:

…points outside the literature to the life that literature examines, and claims to say something true about that life. It claims that the literary imagination can give insights into the nature of society itself, insights which cannot be contained within a self-enclosed aesthetic world; insights which, it is often assumed, can affect a reader’s own sensibility thereafter.

– Richard Hoggart, ‘The Literacy Imagination as The Sociological Imagination’

Subsequently, I would argue that Wright Mill’s concept of the sociological imagination can enhance the underlying philosophy of our pedagogy in that we must try to seek ways to make our subject knowledge and skills relevant to the pupils’ ‘private’ and ‘public’ lives. Although this is not always possible or conducive to particular topics, we should really endeavour to link what we teach to the real world: this is the foundation of good teaching – it is then imperative to choose the right methods or teaching styles to get this message across.

Sociological pedagogies

Nevertheless, just focusing on Wright Mills’ concept would be a great injustice to all the other potential pedagogies that can be derived from sociology (see here, for example). All of the classical theories can be said to offer valuable pedagogical insights. Moreover, it is worth considering these pedagogies after discussing Wright Mills’ core ideas as in some ways they are all compatible with attaining the outcomes of the sociological imagination and can all be seen as developing students’ ability to contemplate the world beyond themselves. As Halasz and Kaufman have argued, ‘By viewing our classroom as a social space, our discipline can explore a range of sociological themes such as interactional dynamics, identity formation, institutional effects, structural inequalities, and knowledge production. If sociologists already study these levels of social analysis, why not capitalise on this for the betterment of teaching and learning?’ (2008, p.301).

References

Capel, S., Leask, M. and Turner, T. (eds.) (2013). Learning to Teach in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience. London: Routledge.

DfE (2013). KS3 Science Programmes of Study. London: DfE.

Gershon, M. (2015). Teach Now: History. London: Routledge.

Halasz, J.R. and Kaufman, P. (2008). ‘Sociology as Pedagogy: How Ideas from the Discipline Can Inform Teaching and Learning’ in Teaching Sociology, Vol. 36, pp. 301 – 314.

Hoggart, R. (1970). Speaking to Each Other (About Literature Vol II). London: Chatto & Windus, pp. 260-274.

Smith, M. K. (2012). ‘What is pedagogy?’ in The Encyclopedia of Informal Education [online]. Available at: http://infed.org/mobi/what-is-pedagogy/ [Retrieved: 4/11/2014].

Willmott, P. and Young, M. (1972). Family and Class in a London Suburb. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Wright Mills, C. (1959). Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Some of the above text is adapted from Jones, A. (2017). Teaching Sociology Successfully. Abingdon: Routledge.

Featured image: Jared Rodriguez/Truthout (used under a Creative Commons Licence). 

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