C. Wright Mills, “The Promise,” from The Sociological Imagination,

Oxford University Press, 1959.


1.   People feel that their private lives are a series of traps.

            They believe that they cannot overcome their troubles.

            Their vision is limited to the things immediately around them, their “direct experience”—jobs, families, neighborhoods.

      But we are each connected to the broader world around us.

            To understand our individual lives we must understand society and how society is connected to us.

      But we usually don’t realize the connection between our lives and historical change and social structure.


2.   Social change now proceeds so rapidly that we are unable to make sense of the world in terms of the values we have long cherished.

            In order to protect ourselves, to see ourselves as individuals, we become “morally insensible.”

      We retreat into private worlds [of entertainment, consumption, family, friends].

      These private worlds in turn are often sensed as traps.


3.   What do we need in order to cope?

      We need more than “facts.”  We have them in abundance.

      We need more than skill in thinking.

      What we need is the “sociological imagination”—the ability “to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals."

            The sociological imagination can help us understand how people can misunderstand their social positions, i.e., their place in the structure of society.


4.   The first lesson of the sociological imagination is that we can understand ourselves as individuals and get an accurate sense of our likely futures only by understanding what’s happening in our time and by becoming aware of what’s happening to people like ourselves.

            This can be frightening.

            It can also give us courage.


5.   What social analysts have traditionally asked:

      a.   What is the structure of this particular society as a whole?

      b.   Where does this society stand in human history?

                  How does it differ from others?

                  What might it become?

      c.   What kinds of people seem to dominate in this society?

                  How are they selected?

                  What does the structure of this society indicate about the varieties of “human nature”?


6.   “Personal troubles of milieu”/”Public issues of social structure.”

      a.   Troubles: personal problems, disappointments, confusions.

            “Values cherished by an individual are felt … to be threatened.”

      b.   Issues: social problems; matters that transcend any one individual’s life.

                  Issues are when values that large sectors of society (“publics”) hold in common are challenged or threatened.

            We often are not sure what value is threatened or what threatens it.

                  That is because it is often beyond our immediate experience and immediate, everyday environment.

      c.   Examples of Public Issues:




            Urban living

      d.   We can—and must try to—find individual accommodations to the problems we encounter.

      e.   But we must realize that these personal solutions are likely to be inadequate without collective solutions to the public issues that actually lie at the foundation of our personal troubles.


7.   Terms

      a.   Well-being: cherished values are not felt to be threatened.

      b.   Crisis: cherished values are felt to be threatened.

      c.   Panic: all cherished values are felt to be threatened.

      d.   Indifference: People are neither aware of any cherished values nor do they experience any threat.

      e.   Uneasiness: People are unaware of any cherished values, but they feel threatened anyway.


8.   This is an era of indifference and uneasiness.

      Neither personal nor social values have been defined with clarity, but there is a vague sense of threat.


9.   Some psychologists have claimed that our “chief enemy and danger is [our] own unruly nature and the dark forces pent up within [us].” (Ernest Jones)

      But that is not so.

            The chief enemy and danger is in our society, and especially what we don’t know about it and how we are affected by it.