C. Wright Mills – Taking It Big and Speaking Truth To Power

The last parts of Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals deal with The Sociological Imagination and Mills’s overall impact as a public sociologist, his successes and failures as such.

“Mills’s refusal of psychoanalytic interpretations of history and politics and the absence of references to Nietzsche’s conceptions of power and history in his writings were by no means frivolous. His own idea of the politics of truth was anchored in a belief that reason could eventually govern human affairs if only beleaguered intellectuals stepped up to their moral responsibilities. In this sense, he exhibited an abiding faith in the Christian imperative to “speak truth to power,” although, in the end, Mills was less interested in taking power than in abolishing it. For Mills, it was not merely a matter of hectoring, although he did quite a bit of that. In the last years of his life, he was determined to live as a political and public intellectual. Or, to be more exact, he wanted to bring the political implications of critical social theory and commentary into the public sphere. And, perhaps more importantly, he assumed a mission to bring his writing and ideas into the mainstream as well as to audiences in and out of academia in the hopes of creating, despite the odds, a new public, which could be a catalyst for the emergence of a new Left from the shards of a confused and fragmented liberal center.” (196-197).

Public intellectuals, though, have always had a hard time in the US (as opposed to Europe where there are more of them, including quite a few hacks though).

“Mills held fast to the power of ideas to effect change, but he was not so naïve to believe that a relatively small band of intellectuals armed with a culture of critical discourse could by themselves be more than catalysts. Despite his critique of the massification of the public, he was still in Dewey’s camp and not Lippmann’s, insofar as he retained hope in the reemergence of a genuine public that could decisively affect the course of national politics from below.” (197).

This is especially interesting. because, after all, Mills missed the boat on the social movements of his time, such as the Civil Rights (Aronowitz states that Mills found the movement intellectually uninteresting but he supported it), the women’s movement (although he might have already been dead by the time Second Wave feminism really took off) as well as other community-based movements (and he had already pretty much given up on the labor movement).

“He regarded the American intelligentsia as totally lacking in “moral courage” and condemned intellectuals for their “moral cowardice” in the face of McCarthyite attacks on civil liberties and academic freedom and for their failure to grapple with the dark consequences of the permanent war psychosis.” (214-215)

Nothing really changed here.

But in addition to wanting to be a public intellectual, with The Sociological Imagination, Mills also engaged the social sciences in general and sociology in particular, in his own cranky way.

“The Sociological Imagination is nothing short of a program for a new social science. It was written in opposition to what Mills perceived as the two dominant tendencies in social science: what he called “abstracted empiricism” and “grand theory.” Even though his main targets are some of the most influential sociologists of the post–World War II era, they are, as he makes clear, representative of social science as a whole. But what is new for Mills is the imperative to return to the classical tradition of Marx, Simmel, Durkheim, and Weber, all of whom, despite their differences, wanted to understand the social structure, its relation to history, and to the individuals who inhabit it.” (216)

And Mill’s classical definition:

“No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history and their intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey.

What is the sociological imagination?

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. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social position.” (216).

Everybody is familiar with the concept of “false consciousness”:

““False Consciousness” is a category of the Marxist theory of ideology. Among other things, it connotes the inability of individuals and, perhaps, entire social formations to locate “their position” in the social structure or even their interests. It may mean, for example, that the poor identify with the rich rather than with their own class or that ordinary people patriotically follow their rulers in conducting brutal wars and genocidal annihilations against whole populations or, as Mills was wont to reiterate, to experience their public problems as private troubles.” (216-217)

But it is the practitioners of the discipline that bear the brunt of his critique:

“He critiques social scientists for their penchant for “abstraction,” for beginning with categories rather than social problems (i.e., grand theory), or for employing methodologies of research that have little or no substantive content (i.e., abstracted empiricism).


He is not concerned primarily with correcting these tendencies for the sake of merely reforming the discipline(s). True to the entirety of his writings—beginning with his study, almost twenty years earlier, of pragmatism in the context of the university—he is obsessed with the conditions under which the public can become vital participants in the political sphere. The manipulation of the public—its reduction to a mass of individuals who feel “trapped” in a welter of “private” troubles that for Mills must become public issues—remains the genuine object of the sociological imagination. But this transformation cannot be effected unless and until social studies—including journalism—begin with the premise that the task is to understand social structures in their historical context as the framework within which individuals experience everyday life, however falsely. The claim for “social studies” (we shall see why he wants to jettison the term “science” in this respect) is that they must go back to the future by resuming the world-historical project of classical social theory.


“The practice of social scientists has been and continues to be focused on discrete studies of a variety of social problems and phenomena. These studies fail to draw the implications of the results for an understanding of social structure and the “historical scene” within which they occur.


“Mills writes: “Specialists in method tend also to be specialists in one or another species of social philosophy. The important point about them, in sociology today, is that they are specialists, but that one of the results of their specialty is to further the process of specialization within social sciences as a whole.” A consequence of this specialization is that it tends to obscure the study of problems of social structure.” (221)

How many sections are there in the American Sociological Association these days?

“Sociological and political theory have been relegated to specialties within their respective disciplines and, for the most part, consist of histories and commentaries on past social and political thought. With only some exceptions, theorizing about the global present has migrated to Europe, Asia, and Latin America. The United States does not have its Pierre Bourdieu, Edgar Morin, Norbert Elias, Jürgen Habermas, or Anthony Giddens. But Polish, French, and British sociologies have their Mertons, Lazsarfelds, and Parsonses. American positivism and empiricism have become global phenomena in those societies where intellectuals wish to free themselves from the burdens associated with theories, particularly historical materialism, pointing to social transformation.” (221)

I find Aronowitz’s assessment a bit harsh here. What of Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen? (Do they count as Americans or as fully global – highly privileged – intellectuals) I would add though Manuel Castells and Zygmunt Bauman to the list and be more skeptical of Edgar Morin. What of Southern theorists?

The general point, though, is still valid when one looks at the training future sociologists get not just in the US higher education system but in Europe as well (even though there is indeed greater tolerance for “taking it big”).

“Those who do not address problems of humans from the perspective of social structures and historical contexts that condition their troubles have tacitly or explicitly accepted the current setup and seek only to tinker with it to make it more just.


It means “taking it big,” by which Mills meant that social studies must be bold enough to grasp the whole social world.” (239)

The last part of Mills’ critical sociology involved culture and its apparatus of production.

“Mills left unfinished the project of a comprehensive study of the cultural apparatus. He was less interested in the aesthetic dimension of cultural production than its political salience. Specifically, he wanted to understand the relation of cultural products to political consciousness and the place of its producers to possible social and political transformations. Mills had come to the conclusion that it was not the economy or even self-interest in general that drove contemporary social agents to action or inaction. Mills concluded that in the epoch of what he termed “overdeveloped” capitalism, the masses were moved more broadly by “culture” than by reason. He had become convinced that the cultural apparatus played a central role in reproducing the entire “set-up.”


Mills’s invocation of the cultural apparatus, paralleling Horkheimer and Adorno’s idea of the culture industry, signaled that culture was no longer the spontaneous creation of the people but instead was an aspect of the organization and reproduction of social and political domination. If social transformation was at all possible, its protagonists were obliged to understand the process of the production and distribution of the key cultural forms, especially the mass media. Clearly, the implication of his projected study was to argue for a new counterhegemonic strategy of the Left that matched the force of the culture industry.” (242)

“However, a half-century after Mills outlined a project for the critical study of the cultural apparatus, dominant disciplines, even the relatively recent domain of cultural studies, lack the grandeur of Mills’s proposal to ask the crucial question of the relation of the cultural apparatus to political and social power. Perhaps the major exception was the Birmingham School—Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Dick Hebdidge, Judith Williamson, Paul Willis, and Richard Hoggart, among others—whose ethnographies of working-class youth subculture and television analysis were remarkably in sync with Mills. In contrast, many scholars of postmodernism have chosen to follow the broader tendency among the social sciences to confine their research to narrow topics and have failed to connect the implications of what they find to the larger questions of social theory. In fact, among the new generation of practitioners of cultural analysis there developed a suspicion of theory, relegating its main tenets to an outmoded modernism.” (243)

I’m willing to bet that Mills would have no patience of postmodernists. They would make him especially cranky.

But Aronowitz see a few signs of hope and more reason to stay cranky:

“For example, the ethnographer Michael Burowoy’s inaugural 2005 address as incoming president of the American Sociological Association was a plea for sociologists to become public intellectuals. Some listeners understood that the speech was a tribute to the almost forgotten legacy of C. Wright Mills, who exemplified the category. Burowoy neglected to mention Mills, but he did invoke Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the “organic” intellectual—whom he defined as a person closely tied to social movements. Although careful to avoid criticizing his interlocutors, Burowoy’s implicit message to the gathering was that sociologists should enter the public sphere not mainly as experts subservient to prevailing powers but as allies of the agents of change. He argued that sociologists should orient their intellectual work to questions of concern to social movements. Burowoy listed four categories of intellectuals: professional, policy, critical, and public. He called for the “hegemony” of the last two, a project that at best remains a Sisyphean endeavor.

Half a century after Mills’s death, public intellectuals dedicated to fundamental social transformation have become a rarity in American political life, along with the exclusion of a radical politics in the public discourse. Journalists are trained to believe they are ideologically neutral and are warned that reporting from a leftist standpoint is a violation of ethics (the right and center perspectives are far less proscribed, however). Despite Burowoy’s plea, the training of intellectuals in universities tends to discourage students from embarking on a dissident path if, in an ever-tightening academic employment market, they expect to obtain and hold academic jobs. Given these pressures, most academics are content to remain teachers and scholars or, if inclined to politics and other forms of public discourse, are obliged to confine their efforts to tweaking the existing setup.” (243-244)

This is far from speaking truth to power (and let’s not forget the fiasco of the APA dealing with torture):

“The knowledge generated by the policy intellectuals is, frankly, done in behalf of the national, state, and local power elites.

Sociologists are among the main sources of social-welfare knowledge, much of it funded by public and nonprofit agencies. Knowledge is dedicated to assisting the state to regulate, in the first place, the poor. Having forsaken theoretical explorations aimed at explaining social events, the disciplines of economics and political science have, with the exception of a small minority of practitioners, become policy sciences. Economists assist and advise governments and corporations to anticipate and regulate the “market,” raise and spend tax revenues, and help direct investments abroad as well as at home. Political science has virtually become an adjunct to the political parties and to the foreign policy establishment; its polling apparatuses are guides to candidates on how to shape their messages and to whom to target their appeals.” (248)

This seems to parallel Mills’s view of labor leaders.

“Mills spurned the temptation to tailor his skills to the powerful but chose to study them using some of the tools of social research. While many socially conscious colleagues studied “down”—the poor, single mothers, homelessness, for example—Mills insisted on looking power directly in the face.” (248)

I think French sociologists Monique Pinçon-Charlot and Michel Pinçon provide a good example of sociology of the elite that Mills would have approved of.

In the final analysis, Aronowitz sees Mills in 3D: (1) political intellectual, (2) a theorist of American social structure, and (3) a meta-theorist of the social sciences, especially sociology. Because he died so young, it is hard to tell how successful he truly was in all three respects. It is also hard to see who walks in his footsteps today. Anybody? In Mills’s (and Aronowitz’s) view, it could not be someone from academia.

So, where are the public sociologists today? Those trying to take it big? The stars of sociology of globalization? Castells? Bauman? Sennett? Sassen? Stephanie Coontz (albeit in a very specialized way, on marriage and families)?

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