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Writing for Sociology: How to think like a Sociologist

Developing the Sociological Imagination

The Sociological Imagination

A recent cover C. W. Wright's book The Sociological ImaginationThe phrase sociological imagination was coined by C. W. Wright in his book of the same name. Although published in 1959, the book has remained influential in defining a sociological approach to understanding the world. 

The phrase denotes a sociological view that encompasses the private, biographical experience of individuals (i.e. the micro perspective), and it's connection to historical patterns and relations in the larger society (i.e. the macro perspective):

           Every individual lives, from one generation to the next, in some society;....[individuals] live out a biography, and it out with some historical sequence.
              By the fact of [their] living they contribute, however minutely, to the shaping of [their]  society and its history; even as [individuals are] made by society and its
             historical push and shove.
(Mills [1959] 2000 p.6)

In other words, the sociological imagination posits that neither the lives of individuals, nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both (Mills [1959, 2000 p.3].

Mills, C. Wright. ({1959] 2000. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford [England] New York : Oxford University Press.

Read Mills' book online. You can access the online edition directly by clicking the cover of the book, or by clicking this link to the catalog record. You can access the online text by clicking the link in the middle of the catalog record. In order to access the online text off campus, you must have a TU AccessNet and Password.

To read more recent discussions of the concept of the sociological imagination from a range of scholars, see a special issue of The International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, The New Sociological Imagination, Vol. 18, No. 3/4, Spring - Summer, 2005. The articles in the issue "offer a reflection on the concept of sociological imagination conceived as a key element for the task of facing the intellectual challenges of the present times" (from the introduction The New Sociological Imagination: Facing the Challenges of a New Millennium (pp. 113-122) ).



We all have secretsPostSecret is a popular website and ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously.

Shiri Noy, from the Department of Sociology at the U. of Wyoming, used secrets from PostSecret to teach students "about the sociological imagination and [to] incorporate biographical examples in explanations of broader social trends and sociological concepts." Secrets "represent information about hidden, nonnormative behaviors and attitudes" [and] "constitute a part of everyone's lived experience". As such, PostSecret is a resource well suited to introduce students to the discipline. Students in the class "indicated that PostSecret helped them to understand the sociological imagination and learn important sociological concepts and to understand course content through the use of examples". Most importantly, "the discussion of secrets helped students recognize their own assumptions about the social world and provided them with a perspective different from their own."

Read Dr. Noy's paper online describing how she used PostSecret to provoke in her students the sociological imagination:

Secrets and the Sociological Imagination: Using to Illustrate Sociological Concepts by Shiri Noy. Teaching Sociology (2014), Vol. 42 (3) 187 - 195.

To access the online article, you must identify yourself as a Temple person by entering your AccessNet ID and password when asked.

How does the sociological perspective differ from that of other social sciences

The table below, was adapted from A Guide to Writing Sociology Papers by the Sociology Writing Group, pages 5-6.

  Similarities Differences
Contrasting the sociological perspective with other social sciences
Psychology Both concerned with attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, emotions, customs, interpersonal relationships  Psychology more likely to focus on individuals, sociology with individuals in social groups
Political Science Both are concerned with government Political Science studies different forms of government and the political process, sociology the interrelationship between political structure and behavior and other aspects of society such as economics, religion, attitudes, etc.
History Both examine human activities over time History focuses on the influence of individuals and cause of events, sociology on the causes and effects of changes in patterns of social life
Philosophy Both study beliefs about the nature of life Philosophy seeks to understand by using abstract reasoning based on rules of logic; sociology is empirical and gathers data about the behavior of people
Anthropology Both are concerned with aspects of social life: culture, beliefs relationships, etc.

Anthropology often studies societies other than our own, and makes comparisons cross-culturally


Both are concerned with the production and distribution of goods and services
Economics studies the economy in its own right; sociology studies the affects of the economy on other social processes and how they affect the economy in return




Autobiography and the Sociological Imagination


"Working Lives": The Use of Auto/Biography in the Development of Sociological Imagination.

Stephenson, Carol ; Stirling, John ; Wray, David
McGill Journal of Education, 2015, Vol.50(1)

Practicing Sociological Imagination through Writing Sociological Autobiography     
Kebede, Alem

Teaching Sociology, 2009, Vol.37(4), p.353-368

Let's Play a Game

Role-Playing-Games (RPGs) can be useful for teaching methodology because of their ability to allow students to observe and analyze society from a new perspective. Simpson and Elias describe a game "based on a clearly articulated theoretical foundation, reflects contemporary American demographics, and recreates the full breath of social structures and relationships, that "develops critical thinking skills, encourages the sociological imagination, and is applicable to a wide range of classes and topics". The game was enjoyed by students, aided them in learning sociological concepts and encouraged social critique beyond the classroom.

Read the Simpson and Elias article about the RPG they developed to "nurture the development of a sociological imagination" in students:

Choices and Changes: The Sociology Role-Playing Game - The Sociological Imagination in Practice by Joseph M. Simpson and Vicky L. Elias. Teaching Sociology (2011), Vol. 39 (1) 42-56.

To access the online article, you must identify yourself as a Temple person by entering your AccessNet ID and password when asked.