Sociology and Anthropology Monday: C. Wright Mills

Dropped on:July 15, 2014
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C. (Charles) Wright Mills (1916-1962) was one of the most significant sociologists and sociological theorists to challenge the Parsonian consensus in American sociology during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Born in Waco Texas he completed his doctoral dissertation in the sociology of knowledge on the relationship between pragmatism and sociology, having been influenced in his thinking by the writings of John Dewey and George Herbert Mead among others. In 1945 he was appointed to a research position at the Bureau of Applied Research at Columbia University headed by Paul Lazarsfeld. In the following year Mills became an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Columbia and remained a faculty member in that department until his death in 1962.

In one of his influential books – The Power Elite (1956) – Mills outlined the tacit and even explicit collusion among the leaders of big government, big business, big labor and the military in pursuit of their “common” interests domestically and in terms of foreign policy. This kind of political, economic and cultural steerage ran in opposition to the kind of democratic expression, which had been the promise of the American revolution and subsequent developments. Mills believed that this kind of hidden manipulation was accomplished with the collusion of the mass media.

Mills’ linking of big labor with the business and military elites represented a break with the old social democratic and communist left for whom labor represented the major force for progress i.e. socialism. For Mills the problem of the agency of historical change became a central issue for his political sociology and he influenced the thinking of the New Left which had also rejected the “labor metaphysic” as an outmoded model for social change. Mills also contributed to the attempt to equalize American capitalism and Soviet and social democratic “bureaucratic” socialism implying that there was little difference among them in terms of the models they offered for real social change. Members of the old social democratic left were appalled at this equation of socialism, communism and capitalism, seeing it as a kind of minimization of the danger of communism during the Cold War.

In his influential work – The Sociological Imagination (1959)  – Mills proposed that sociology ought to link history, biography and social structure and revealed his debt to Max Weber whose works he (under the influence of Hans Gerth and others) helped popularize in America in a way that decoupled it from the Parsonian perspective. Although influenced by the early Marx, socialist humanism and the theme of alienation, he broke with Marxism over the question of agency and believed that the older class analysis could not be supported in the case of the United States. He contributed to the literature on the new middle class in his book White Collar (1951) and ought to be considered much closer to the spirit and letter of Max Weber than to Marx and his epigone.Unlike the older style Marxisms he gave emphasis to the connection between the personal and the political. Mills (1959: 226) wrote in this regard:

“Know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues – and in terms of the problems of history making. Know that the human meaning of public issues must be revealed by relating them to personal troubles – and to the problems of the individual life. Know that the problems of social science, when adequately formulated, must include both troubles and issues, both biography and history, and the range of their intricate relations. Within that range the life of the individual and the making of societies occur; and within that range the sociological imagination has its chance to make a difference in the quality of human life in our time.” More recent developments in sociology thus stand on the shoulders of Mills’ concern with linking the personal with the political.

Mills was also influenced by the neo-Freudians (Eric Fromm, Karen Horney, Abraham Kardiner and Harry Stack Sullivan), in terms of his understanding of the relation between Character and Social Culture (1953) a book he co-authored with Hans Gerth whom he met at the University of Wisconsin and from whom he drank deeply from Gerth’s translations and understanding of Max Weber. His collaboration with Gerth in their jointly edited publication of Gerth’s translations of Weber From Max Weber (1946) provided Mills with much intellectual capital for his future works.

Although Mills never achieved the stature of Talcott Parsons or Robert Merton in their prime, his writings played a central role in the radical leftward shift in sociology in the mid-sixties and became a major influence on the theorists associated with the New Left in the United States and Canada. The Port Huron Statement authored by Tom Hayden, Richard Flacks (sociologist at UC Santa Barbara), Bob Ross (sociologist at Clark University) and many of the other participants in the early Students for a Democratic Society heavily relied on the works of C. Wright Mills for their information and analysis. (Tom Hayden, Richard Flacks et al. wrote a biography of C. Wright Mills). And Mills concern with the question of historical agency for social change, made imperative by his rejection of Marxism’s emphasis on the proletariat of old, occupied many discussions into the night by the New Left. Mills’ Letter to the New Left written to E.P. Thompson and the readers of The New Left Review helped popularize the term New Left as a self-conscious and self-referential label among the young activists of the 1960s and among the wider public.


Hans Gerth, C. Wright Mills. Character and Social Structure. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 1953

Tom Hayden, et al. Radical Nomad: C. Wright Mills and His Times. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm Publishers. 2006

C. Wright Mills. White Collar. New York: Oxford University Press. 1951

Id.          The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press. 1956

Id.          The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press. 1959

Id.          Letter to the New Left in the New Left Review, no. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1960

Donald A. Nielsen. Hans H. Gerth, C. Wright Mills, and the Legacy of Max Weber in International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol. 13, No. 4, 2000.

Guy Oakes and Arthur Vidich. Collaboration, Reputation and Ethics in American Academic Life: Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press. 1999.

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