Sociological Imagination

Podcast 010: The Sociological imagination

Sociological Imagination
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In todays Ultimate Youth Worker Podcast “the sociological imagination”, Aaron gets us thinking about the need for youth workers to see more than just the individual young person. We look at the work of Sociologist C. Wright Mills and how it relates to youth work. Here are the shownotes.

Welcome back to the Ultimate Youth Worker Podcast for 2017. We are stoked to have you with us and we hope that your youth work journey is inspiring you to great things. We know its not easy to be a youth worker in the current climate and to all of you who are struggling to keep your jobs and defend the practices of youth work we salute you.

The struggles that we are facing currently in youth work are ideologically driven. We are seeing the tightening grip of neoliberalism on the social sector as a whole. We are hearing the ongoing rhetoric that youth work is not professional. We are also seeing the challenges of public perception of our practice. Amongst all of this we need to remember that we have a strong foundation from which to stand and leverage our work.

Youth work as we know it across the globe sprung forth from diverse fields which has led to contentious issues of our knowledge frameworks ever since. One of the underpinning theoretical frameworks which guides the practices of youth work is that of Sociology. It helps us to look more deeply at the world our young people live, work and play within. One of the key thoughts within Sociology is the sociological imagination. The ability to look at an issue from an individual and social perspective. So let’s find out more about this key framework and how it fits within youth work.

C. Wright MILLS

American Philosopher and Sociologist, Charles Wright Mills was a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University from 1946 until his death in 1962, aged 45. Mills, a native Texan, was published widely throughout his career in popular and intellectual journals, and is a proponent of the conflict perspective within sociological thought. Mills was concerned with the responsibilities of intellectuals in post-World War Two society, and advocated public and political engagement over disinterested observation.

Mills sociological work was heavily influenced by eminent German conflict theorists and fathers of sociology Karl Marx and Max Weber.

Mills is remembered for several books, among them ‘The Power Elite’, which introduced that term and describes the relationships and class alliances among the U.S. political, military, and economic elites; ‘White Collar’, on the American middle class; and ‘The Sociological Imagination’, where Mills presents a model of analysis for the interdependence of subjective experiences within a person’s biography, the general social structure and historical development.

Overview of the sociological imagination

In 1959 one of the most important texts in sociological work was published by Oxford University Press. The book by American Sociologist C. Wright Mills “The Sociological Imagination” changed the landscape of sociological thought and research forever.

Mills conveyed that the core undertaking for sociology as a discipline and sociologists particularly was to discover and express the connections between the particular social environments of individuals (also known as “milieu”) and the wider social and historical forces in which they are embroiled. This approach challenges the structural functionalist approach to Sociology, as it opens new positions for the individual to occupy with regard to the larger social structure. Individual function that reproduces larger social structure is only one of many possible roles, and is not necessarily the most important. In Mills own words, “The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That’s its task and its promise”.

In ‘The Sociological Imagination’, Mills endeavoured to reconcile two abstract conceptions of social reality—the “individual” and “society”—and thereby confronted the dominant sociological discourse of functionalism. In essence he asked where the convergence point is between an individual’s ‘personal troubles’ and societies ‘public issues’.

Private issues

Mill work on the sociological imagination looked at the dominant discourse of individuality which had grown since the second world war and sought to understand the framework of an individual’s ‘personal troubles’. These private issues which are said to have nothing to do with the rest of society such as what you eat, who you vote for, which religion you follow or what type of job you have. For Mills these private issues were not just the sole purview of the individual, but a complex system of interweaving thought and ideas from everywhere.

Public issues

This interweaving system is what Mills coined as public issues. Why is it that individuals in poor communities seem to have children who follow in the same footsteps as their parents? Mills argues that it has little to do with the individual’s choices and much more to do with the systems and the power of the elites which guide the forces around the individual. There is an intricate relationship between the individual and society.


An individual person becoming unemployed is a personal trouble, one million people becoming unemployed is a public issue. But what makes them personal or public? If the issue affects an individual or a small group that is a personal trouble. If it affects a significant proportion of society it is a public issue.

Family violence had historically been seen as a private issue. It was seen as only affecting that family. However we know that family violence is visited on a significant proportion of the population so it is really a public issue.

What does this mean for youth workers?

Well first and foremost it gives us a lens to look at what our clients need. Do they require individual support of wider advocacy? In the case of family violence probably both. In the case of unemployment an individual may need retraining and support around interviewing. If it is a larger issues such as the slow death of manufacturing then advocacy and innovative redistribution may be needed. The sociological imagination asks us to recognise where the problem lies.

The second thing is that we need to be skilled in personal support and as change makers. We need to know how to support our individual clients in the space where they are at. We also must become fluent in community development and activism. Currently, the youth sector in the Uk is being squeezed. The issues are personal for the young people losing support, and the youth workers losing jobs. They are also public issues as millions of dollars are pulled from a sector designed to help the most vulnerable and generalist youth work is under siege.

Finally, it gives us a useful language to speak into these situations which is clearly defined. It is a language which is hard to ignore and it is a language which is shared in the sector.

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Lets recap.

C. Wright Mills coined the term sociological imagination in 1959. It seeks to understand the personal troubles and public issues which define humanity. It asks us to think about issues through the lens of both the individual and the system. It asks us to understand the effects on the person. It asks for action.


We hope that todays cast on the sociological imagination has given you something to think about. We believe that if youth workers remember some of our sociological roots it will help us to be the best supports for our young people that we can. If you found this cast helpful or you have any questions touch base with us on our facebook page

Stay frosty, and we will see you in the next episode of the Ultimate Youth Worker Podcast.

Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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