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The Promise Essay

People are often quick to blame others for their misfortunes. However, C. Wright Mills argues that the only way to truly understand people’s behavior is to examine the social context in which the behavior occurs. In other words, Mills believes that we need a quality of mind that he calls the sociological imagination. By using sociological imagination, we learn how social, historical, cultural, economic, and political factors influence the choices that people make and the ways in which they live their lives. As you read this article, think about how the larger social context has shaped your own choices over the course of your life.

Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. The sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: What ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieux, they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel.

Underlying this sense of being trapped are seemingly impersonal changes in the very structure of continent-wide societies. The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure of individual men and women. When a society is industrialized, a “The Promise,” by C. Wright Mills, reprinted from The Sociological Imagination, 1959. Copyright © by Oxford University Press. Pp. 3–24.


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