Sociological Imagination & the American Dream - sociology 101

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The Sociological Imagination
and the American Dream
Sociological Imagination
C. Wright Mills, 1959
“The Intersection of History
and Biography within the
context of Social Structure.”
 Sociology helps us to see our
lives and the lives of others in
social and historical context.

Each Component is Essential


History: how a society came to be and
how it is changing and how history is
being made in it. The great narrative.
Biography: the nature of "human nature"
in a society; what people in a particular
society are experiencing, and how they
interpret that experience.
• Human nature is a social creation.

Social structure: how the various
institutional orders in a society operate,
which ones are dominant, how they
persist and how they change.
Sociological Imagination, Restated

How individual experience and life
narrative (little story) is shaped and
made meaningful by the playing out
of the narrative of history (big
story) which we understand by
analyzing various social structures
and institutions.
Personal Issues in Social Context

Connection between
• Personal issues
• Public issues of social structure



Individual experiences in various and
specific situations are shaped by structural
changes.
Personal problems can only be understood
in larger structural context and thus take
on social significance.
Durkheim’s Suicide:
• Our most intimate thoughts and feelings have
a profound social component.
Sociological Imagination Remains
Counter-Cultural


Explanations for troubles are
individualistic, psychological.
Psychological explanations are
dominant (in popular culture, etc.).
• Oprah, Dr. Phil.
The American Dream
The American Dream




The American Dream is the faith held by
many in the United States that through
hard work, courage, and determination
one can achieve financial prosperity and
security.
Connected to belief in Progress.
Connected to belief in Equal Opportunity.
Specific content evolves as social
conditions change.
Changing Dream

Post Civil War: Personal Autonomy, Self-sufficiency:
• Be your own boss
• Homestead Act
• Little House on the Prairie

Post World War II:
• Consensus America




Company, Union, Govt. cooperation
Middle class life available to blue collar workers with high school
education
Lifetime employment
Single breadwinner
• Rise of Suburbia (Like Littleton)




Cheap energy, housing, education
Freeway System
G.I. Bill
Community College System
• Clear Path to Middle Class Security
American Dream in the 21st
Century


Postwar structure has radically changed.
Globalization:
• Investment, jobs
• Labor Outsourcing
• Role of digital technologies: Internet and the Death of Distance

From Production to Consumption Orientation:
• From GM to Wal-Mart
• Bubble economy, huge debt levels.

Industrial Economy to Knowledge Economy
• From manipulation of objects to manipulation of symbols
• Importance of Human Capital

Middle-class risk
•
•
•
•
Increasing income inequality (hidden by housing bubble)
Pensions to 401K. Risk shifting.
Housing, healthcare, education become much more expensive
Path to secure middle-class life much less clear, changing rapidly
Conclusion



Biography intersects history in our
own time in a powerful way.
Understanding this can empower
both our private and public selves.
All human phenomena—from the
tragic to the trivial—can be
understood sociologically.
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