the sociological imagination

Jackson Pollock, Stenographic Figure, c. 1942


Commentary on the collection organized by Heloísa Fernandes, “Wright Mills: sociologia”

My first contact with texts by Charles Wright Mills (1916-1962) occurred in 1972, when I was still studying the initial semesters of the graduation course in Public Administration at Fundação Getúlio Vargas and it happened through José Paulo Carneiro Vieira, Zé Paulo, as he was acquaintance, professor in the former Department of Social Sciences. The late and dear Zé Paulo gave me the sociological imagination, by Mills, and then read the power elite e The New Middle Class (White Collar: The American Middle Classes). Later, in classes with Maurício Tragtenberg, further discussions were deepened and other texts ended up being read and discussed.

The collection organized by Professor Heloísa Fernandes, then a professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at USP sought, in addition to retaining significant moments of Wright Mills' intellectual production, to outline a profile of those who produced it. The option for this criterion derived from a double need: “to select some publications from a very wide body of work” (and extremely diversified) and to present works that are “strategic for the understanding of Mills’ thought and, as far as possible, not yet accessible”. in Portuguese".

In her introduction, “Mills, the artisan sociologist”, Heloísa points out that the author only left his hometown (Waco, Texas) at the age of 23, after graduating in philosophy and sociology in 1939. He worked at the University of Wisconsin (1940-1945) ) and, from 1946, on Columbia. During this period he was a colleague of Paul Lazarsfeld and, through Hans Gerth – with whom he organized and published a collection of Weber's work, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology - in Portuguese, Sociology essays –, kept in touch with the group of German philosophers who had migrated to the United States of America with the rise of Nazi-Fascism, among which Theodro Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Franz Newman stand out, owing to them his more systematic concern with the European radical movements and the Marxist tradition.

From the mid-1950s, Mills began a series of trips to Europe, the Soviet Union and Latin America. These trips ended up helping him to overcome the parochial nationalism of North American culture to which he was subject, as well as to recognize the other face of this same society – imperialism –, whose visibility only manifests itself outside its borders. .

From this new perspective, Mills produced some of his most significant books, such as the power elite (1956) The causes of the next world war (1958) the sociological imagination (1959), the anthology Images of man: the classical tradition in sociological thought (1960) and the marxists (1963). In these books, the author criticizes the main currents of North American sociology, represented by “Grand Theory” (Talcott Parsons) and by “Abstract Empiricism” (Paul Lazarsfeld); he warns that an attempt by the US to destroy Cuba could trigger the third world war; proposes to spread Marxism in his country, through a large volume of almost 500 pages; dissects, in a controversial way, the North American society through the power elite. According to his friend Irving Louis Horowitz, author of C. Wright Mills, an American utopian (1983), after the publication of this text, “the large 'philanthropic' institutions – with one honorable exception – turned down all their scholarship projects” for research.

Heloísa Fernandes also points out that, in order to understand Mills' thought, in all its extension, one must take into account “the political and cultural moment of the forties which, at best, is the decade of bankruptcy and dissolution of the radicalism itself, which, in other words, is the flip side of economic prosperity, conformism, and the growing celebration of American way of life of postwar. In this process, American intellectuals stopped thinking of themselves as rebels and radicals. Within this general framework, Mills was um of the intellectuals who refused to defeat; for him, as and as an intellectual, thought can only be critical and radical”. And in his works, he sought his answers from three general questions: a) how to conserve a critical perspective of society?; b) which social groups have an “objective possibility of power”?; c) how to elaborate “bold and clear political opinions, opinions that allow their diffusion as effective ideologies”?

A large part of Heloísa's introduction is also concerned with the onerous reckoning that Mills' sociology carries out with pragmatism – above all John Dewey's pragmatism.

Criticizing pragmatism, Mills states that it “does not become impatient and political”, on the contrary, it isolates itself in intellectual and academic circles: “Perhaps because of this position it never reached a properly anchored political orientation…”. He demanded practice, but isolated himself from social groups and classes. In Mills' hands, pragmatism “reworked”, via sociological discourse, wants to become public discourse. Through his books, articles, reviews, courses and conferences, Mills has always sought to be a practical sociologist, understanding sociology as a tool that aims at the de-alienation of men. In this sense, he analyzed North American society in several of its dimensions, knowing it deeply in order to be able to inform those who needed to know: “In a society in which a large part of power and prestige is based on lies, the authentic interest in the truth becomes becomes one of the few possessions of the dispossessed”.

In summary, “the promise of sociology is not limited to the mere search for truth, as this is eminently practice. And the truth, to be practical, must be presented to the public, it must be communicated, it must be shared: it seeks its addressee. This means that the discourse itself, to be active, must be calibrated. Your words need to be strategically chosen and weighted according to the sphere really open to your influence. Only in this way does the intellectual fulfill his mission of making the truth active – articulating the truth for whom it is intended…”. Thus, all of his works make explicit the audience for which they are intended, that is, those who must hear a specific truth and, based on that, do something, be they North Americans, students, clergy, journalists, union leaders etc.

In just over 200 pages of this anthology of texts by Wright Mills, relevant moments of the author's sociological production can be found, exemplarily condensed. Detailed bibliographical references, well-constructed arguments and extensive field research are disappearing: “the urgency of time increasingly marks research and style. Urgency that reveals so well the craftsman who refuses to apathy and give up”. While his infarcted heart resisted, Charles Wright Mills ended up following, in the words of Heloísa, the “path of continuous disillusionment”: the power elite, the working class, the middle class, mass society.

*Afranio Catani he is a retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF.


Heloísa Fernandes (org.). Wright Mills: sociology. Translation: Aldo Bocchini Neto and Mitsue Morissawa. São Paulo, Attica, 216 pages.


This essay is a slightly shortened version of the review published in Magazine of Business Administration (RAE), São Paulo, EAESP-FGV, vol. 25, no. 3, p. 85-86, July-September, 1985.


See this link for all articles