C. Wright Mills Essay

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C. Wright Mills is perhaps the most recognized figure in the history of sociology in the USA. He authored three of US sociology’s most influential books — White Collar (1951), The Power Elite (1956), and The Sociological Imagination (1959) — and did much else to define US sociology’s distinctive character.

C. Wright Mills was born Charles Wright Mills in Waco, Texas, on August 28, 1916. He earned a BA in sociology and an MA in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin in 1939 and his doctorate in sociology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1942. Mills served as a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park before accepting appointments at the Bureau of Applied Social Research and, in 1946, a faculty position in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University, which Mills held until his death at the age of 45 on March 20, 1962.

Mills’ critical sociology fused American pragmatist philosophy and European social theory into a parallel to Frankfurt School-style critical theory. Mills regarded this work as a continuation of the classic tradition” of sociology, which was founded most of all in the work of Max Weber and Karl Marx (see his books From Max Weber [1946] and Images of Man [1960]). Mills’s particular contribution to this style stemmed from the fact that he was among the first to glimpse the rise of what he called post-modern society,” which he analyzed, on the one hand, in terms of mass society’s self-reproduction (The New Men of Power [1948], White Collar [1951]), and the advent of the nuclear state on the other (The Power Elite [1956], The Causes of World War Three [1958], Listen, Yankee [1960]). In the above as well as in such political documents as his Letter to the new left” (1960), Mills also engaged in partisan opposition to these dominant tendencies of his age. A new left” was needed, he argued, because postmodernity rendered reason and freedom moot in everyday human affairs, and was geared structurally to end in the destruction of humankind as such.

When Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his famous farewell address to the nation in 1961 in which he warned of the pernicious development of a military-industrial complex,” he gave C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite perhaps the best de facto book review in the history of US sociology. When President John F. Kennedy defended his policy toward Castro’s Cuba by explaining that he was President of the USA, not some sociologist,” he suggested the public importance of Mills’ timely and urgent interventions into the crises of his times. And when it is recalled that Mills passed away only a months prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is not difficult to appreciate the urgency and passion which Mills infused in his later work, what, in a relatively light-hearted moment one imagines, Mills called his preachings.”

Mills’s legacy continues to be assessed. New studies of Mills’s sociology, his politics, and even his biography compete for shelf-space with new editions of his most enduring books, publication of his letters and autobiographical writings, and new collections of his many scholarly articles and essays. Mills’s currency is only partly explained by the intrinsic value and attraction of his engaging style, as documented both in his writings and in the often exaggerated, no doubt, remembrance of his larger-than-life persona. More significant, and more consistent with Mills’s own historically-grounded sociological project, Mills’s legacy remains debated because the everyday denizens of postmodernity — Mills’ primary audience — continue to struggle to gain perspective and self-understanding and the means to face down new threats to their well-being and survival.

Bibliography:

  1. Aronowitz, S. (ed.) (2004) C. Wright Mills, 3 vols. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  2. Summers, J. (ed.) (2008) The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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