C. Wright Mills
Charles Wright Mills
August 28, 1916
|Died||March 20, 1962 (aged 45)|
|Thesis||A Sociological Account of Pragmatism (1942)|
|School or tradition||New Left|
|Notable students||Morris Rosenberg|
Charles Wright Mills (August 28, 1916 – March 20, 1962) was an American sociologist, and a professor of sociology at Columbia University from 1946 until his death in 1962. Mills was published widely in popular and intellectual journals. He is remembered for several books, such as The Power Elite, which introduced that term and describes the relationships and class alliances among the US political, military, and economic elites; White Collar: The American Middle Classes, on the American middle class; and The Sociological Imagination, which presents a model of analysis for the interdependence of subjective experiences within a person's biography, the general social structure, and historical development.
Mills was concerned with the responsibilities of intellectuals in post–World War II society, and he advocated public and political engagement over disinterested observation. One of Mills's biographers, Daniel Geary, writes that Mills's writings had a "particularly significant impact on New Left social movements of the 1960s era." It was Mills who popularized the term New Left in the US in a 1960 open letter, "Letter to the New Left".
C. Wright Mills was born in Waco, Texas, on August 28, 1916. His father, Charles Grover Mills, worked as an insurance salesman, while his mother, Frances Wright Mills, stayed home to care for their children. Charles Grover Mills grew up in poverty in rural Florida and only moved to Texas after he began his career as an insurance salesman. Mills's mother and maternal grandparents, on the other hand, were all born and raised in Texas. Mills's family moved frequently while he was growing up, and as a result, Mills lived a relatively isolated life as a child, with few continuous relationships. He spent the majority of his time with his grandmother, mother, and older sister Ursula as his father was often away. Mills attributes his more feminine qualities to the fact he spent more time with the women in his family than the men.  With his family, Mills spent time living in the following cities (in order): Waco, Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Sherman, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. Growing up Mills strongly disliked school and was especially stubborn. He once was so adamant about missing school he wrapped his body around a telephone pole until his father gave up.  Perhaps his dislike for school came from the fact he was very shy and saw himself as a loner or an "autonomous person interested in books" as William Form describes. 
In 1934, Mills graduated from Dallas Technical High School and went on to attend Texas A&M University, in favor of his father's wishes. Unfortunately, Mills found the military based University "suffocating" and left after his first year. Subsequently, he transferred to the University of Texas at Austin where he studied anthropology, social psychology, sociology, and philosophy. In 1939, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology, as well as a master's in philosophy.
By the time he graduated, Mills had already been published in the two leading sociology journals in the US: The American Sociological Review and The American Journal of Sociology.
While studying at Texas, Mills met his first wife, Dorothy Helen Smith, a fellow student seeking a master's degree in Sociology. She had previously attended Oklahoma College for Women, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in commerce.
After their marriage, in 1937, Dorothy Helen, or "Freya", worked as a staff member of the director of the Women's Residence Hall at the University of Texas. She supported the couple while Mills completed his graduate work; she also typed, copied and edited much of his work, including his Ph.D. dissertation. There, he met Hans Gerth, a German political refugee and a professor in the Department of Sociology. Although Mills did not take any courses with him, Gerth became a mentor and close friend. Together, Mills and Gerth translated and edited a few of Max Weber's works. They also collaborated on Character and Social Structure, a social psychology text. This work combined Mills's understanding of socialization from his work in American Pragmatisim and Gerth's understanding of past and present societies.
In August 1940, Freya divorced Mills, but after only a year they were remarried. Shortly after, their daughter, Pamela, was born on January 15, 1943.[page needed]
Mills received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1942. His dissertation was entitled A Sociological Account of Pragmatism: An Essay on the Sociology of Knowledge. Mills refused to revise his dissertation while it was reviewed by his committee. It was later accepted without approval from the review committee.[verification needed] Mills left Wisconsin in early 1942, after he had been appointed Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Interestingly, Mills was able to further his career and avoid the draft by using his high blood pressure as a deferment. During his work as an Associate Professor of Sociology from 1941 until 1945 at the University of Maryland, College Park, Mills's awareness and involvement in American politics grew. During World War II, Mills befriended historians Richard Hofstadter, Frank Freidel, and Ken Stampp. The four academics collaborated on many topics, and each wrote about contemporary issues surrounding the war and how it affected American society.
While still at the University of Maryland, Mills began contributing "journalistic sociology" and opinion pieces to intellectual journals such as The New Republic, The New Leader, as well as Politics, a journal established by his friend Dwight Macdonald in 1944.
During his time at the University of Maryland, William Form befriended Mills and quickly recognized that "work overwhelmingly dominated" Mills's life. Mills was continuing his work with Gerth while simultaneously trying to publish Weber's "Class, Status, and Parties". Moreover, Form explains that Mills was determined to improve his writing after receiving criticism on one of his works; "Setting his portable Corona on the large coffee table in the living room, he would type triple-spaced on coarse yellow paper, revising the manuscript by writing between the lines with a sharp pencil. Unscrambling the additions and changes could present a formidable challenge. Each day before leaving for campus, he left a manuscript for Freya (his wife) to retype."
In 1945, Mills moved to New York after earning a research associate position at Columbia University's Bureau of Applied Social Research. He separated from Freya with this move and the couple divorced in 1947.
Mills was appointed assistant professor in the university's sociology department in 1946. Mills received a grant of $2,500 from the Guggenheim Foundation in April 1945 to fund his research in 1946. During that time, he wrote White Collar, which was finally published in 1951.
In 1946, Mills published From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, a translation of Weber's essays co-authored with Hans Gerth. In 1953, the two published a second work, Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions.
In 1947, Mills divorced his wife Freya and married his second wife, Ruth Harper, a statistician at the Bureau of Applied Social Research. She worked with Mills on New Men of Power (1948), White Collar (1951), and The Power Elite (1956). In 1949, Mills and Harper moved to Chicago so Mills could serve as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. Mills returned to teaching at Columbia University after a semester at the University of Chicago, and was promoted to Associate Professor of Sociology on July 1, 1950. In only six years, Mills was promoted to Professor of Sociology at Columbia on July 1, 1956.
In 1955, Harper gave birth to their daughter Kathryn. From 1956 to 1957, the family moved to Copenhagen, where Mills acted as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Copenhagen. Mills and Harper separated in December 1957 and officially divorced in 1959.[page needed]
Mills married his third wife, Yaroslava Surmach, an American artist of Ukrainian descent, and settled in Rockland County, New York, in 1959. Their son, Nikolas Charles, was born on June 19, 1960.[page needed]
In August 1960, Mills spent time in Cuba, where he worked on developing his text Listen, Yankee. Additionally, Mills interviewed President Fidel Castro, who claimed to have read and studied Mills's The Power Elite.
Mills was described as a man in a hurry. Aside from his hurried nature, he was largely known for his combativeness. Both his private life – four marriages to three women, a child from each, and several affairs – and his professional life, which involved challenging and criticizing many of his professors and coworkers, have been characterized as "tumultuous". He wrote a fairly obvious, though slightly veiled, essay in which he criticized the former chairman of the Wisconsin department, and called the senior theorist there, Howard P. Becker, a "real fool".
During a visit to the Soviet Union, Mills was honored as a major critic of American society. While there he criticized censorship in the Soviet Union through his toast to an early Soviet leader who was "purged and murdered by the Stalinist." He said, "To the day when the complete works of Leon Trotsky are published in the Soviet Union!"
In a biography of Mills by Irving Louis Horowitz, the author writes about Mills's acute awareness of his heart condition. He speculates that it affected the way he lived his adult life. Mills was described as someone who worked fast, yet efficiently. That is argued to be a result of his knowing that he would not live long due to his heart health. Horowitz describes Mills as "a man in search of his destiny". In 1962 Mills suffered his fourth and final heart attack and died on March 20 in West Nyack, New York. 
Mills was an intense student of philosophy before he became a sociologist. His vision of radical, egalitarian democracy was a direct result of the influence of ideas from Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, and Mead. During his time at the University of Wisconsin, Mills was deeply influenced by Hans Gerth, a sociology professor from Germany. Mills gained an insight into European learning and sociological theory from Gerth.
C. Wright Mills was strongly influenced by pragmatism, specifically the works of George Herbert Mead, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James. Although it is commonly recognized that Mills was influenced by Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen, the social structure aspects of Mills's works are shaped largely by Max Weber and the writing of Karl Mannheim, who followed Weber's work closely. Max Weber's works contributed greatly to Mills's view of the world overall. Being one of Weber's students, Mills's work focuses a great deal on rationalism. Mills also acknowledged a general influence of Marxism; he noted that Marxism had become an essential tool for sociologists, and therefore all must naturally be educated on the subject; any Marxist influence was then a result of sufficient education. Neo-Freudianism also helped shape Mills's work.
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"I do not believe that social science will 'save the world', although I see nothing at all wrong with 'trying to save the world' ... If there are any ways out of the crises of our period by means of intellect, is it not up to the social scientist to state them? ... It is on the level of human awareness that virtually all solutions to great problems must now lie" – Mills 1959:193
There has long been debate over Mills's intellectual outlook. Mills is often seen as a "closet Marxist" because of his emphasis on social classes and their roles in historical progress, as well as his attempt to keep Marxist traditions alive in social theory. Just as often, however, others argue Mills more closely identified with the work of Max Weber, whom many sociologists interpret as an exemplar of sophisticated (and intellectually adequate) anti-Marxism and modern liberalism. However, Mills clearly gives precedence to social structure described by the political, economic and military institutions, and not culture, which is presented in its massified form as means to ends sought by the power elite. Therefore placing him firmly in the Marxist and not Weberian camp, so much that in his collection of classical essays, Weber's Protestant Ethic is not included. Although Mills embraced Weber's idea of bureaucracy as internalized social control, as was the historicity of his method, he was far from liberalism (being its critic). Mills was a radical who was culturally forced to distance himself from Marx while being "near" him.
While Mills never embraced the "Marxist" label, he told his closest associates that he felt much closer to what he saw as the best currents of a flexible humanist Marxism than to alternatives. He considered himself a "plain Marxist", working in the spirit of young Marx as he claims in his collected essays: "Power, Politics and People" (Oxford University Press, 1963). In a November 1956 letter to his friends Bette and Harvey Swados, Mills declared "[i]n the meantime, let's not forget that there's more [that's] still useful in even the Sweezy[a] kind of Marxism than in all the routineers of J. S. Mill[b] put together."
There is an important quotation from Letters to Tovarich (an autobiographical essay) dated Fall 1957 titled "On Who I Might Be and How I Got That Way":
You've asked me, 'What might you be?' Now I answer you: 'I am a Wobbly.' I mean this spiritually and politically. In saying this I refer less to political orientation than to political ethos, and I take Wobbly to mean one thing: the opposite of bureaucrat. ... I am a Wobbly, personally, down deep, and for good. I am outside the whale, and I got that way through social isolation and self-help. But do you know what a Wobbly is? It's a kind of spiritual condition. Don't be afraid of the word, Tovarich. A Wobbly is not only a man who takes orders from himself. He's also a man who's often in the situation where there are no regulations to fall back upon that he hasn't made up himself. He doesn't like bosses—capitalistic or communistic—they are all the same to him. He wants to be, and he wants everyone else to be, his own boss at all times under all conditions and for any purposes they may want to follow up. This kind of spiritual condition, and only this, is Wobbly freedom.[c]
These two quotations are the ones chosen by Kathryn Mills for the better acknowledgement of his nuanced thinking.
It appears that Mills understood his position as being much closer to Marx than to Weber but influenced by both, as Stanley Aronowitz argued in "A Mills Revival?".
Mills argues that micro and macro levels of analysis can be linked together by the sociological imagination, which enables its possessor to understand the large historical sense in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. Individuals can only understand their own experiences fully if they locate themselves within their period of history. The key factor is the combination of private problems with public issues: the combination of troubles that occur within the individual's immediate milieu and relations with other people with matters that have to do with institutions of an historical society as a whole.
Mills shares with Marxist sociology and other "conflict theorists" the view that American society is sharply divided and systematically shaped by the relationship between the powerful and powerless. He also shares their concerns for alienation, the effects of social structure on the personality, and the manipulation of people by elites and the mass media. Mills combined such conventional Marxian concerns with careful attention to the dynamics of personal meaning and small-group motivations, topics for which Weberian scholars are more noted.
Mills had a very combative outlook regarding and towards many parts of his life, the people in it, and his works. In that way, he was a self-proclaimed outsider: "I am an outlander, not only regionally, but deep down and for good."[page needed]
Above all, Mills understood sociology, when properly approached, as an inherently political endeavor and a servant of the democratic process. In The Sociological Imagination, Mills wrote:
It is the political task of the social scientist – as of any liberal educator – continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. It is his task to display in his work – and, as an educator, in his life as well – this kind of sociological imagination. And it is his purpose to cultivate such habits of mind among the men and women who are publicly exposed to him. To secure these ends is to secure reason and individuality, and to make these the predominant values of a democratic society.[page needed]— C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, page 187
Contemporary American scholar Cornel West argued in his text American Evasion of Philosophy that Mills follows the tradition of pragmatism. Mills shared Dewey's goal of a "creative democracy" and emphasis on the importance of political practice but criticized Dewey for his inattention to the rigidity of power structure in the US. Mills's dissertation was titled Sociology and Pragmatism: The Higher Learning in America, and West categorized him along with pragmatists in his time Sidney Hook and Reinhold Niebuhr as thinkers during pragmatism's "mid-century crisis."
Seeing as though he was a sociologist himself, some may be surprised to learn that Mills was quite critical of the sociological approach during his time. In fact, scholars saw The Sociological Imagination as "Mills' final break with academic sociology." In this work, Mills was critical of specific people, such as Parsons and Paul Lazarsfeld, a member of his department at Columbia. While Mills did have frustrations with Parsons's theories and the Columbia department, his arguments in The Sociological Imagination are based in more than retaliatory remarks. While The Sociological Imagination was and is still sometimes read as "an attack on empirical research" when it is really "a critique of a certain research style." Mills was worried about sociology falling into the traps of normative thinking and ceasing to be a critic of social life. Throughout his academic career, Mills fought with mainstream sociology about different conflicting sociological styles. Mills was primarily worried about social sciences being susceptible to the "power and prestige of normative culture" and veering away from its original objective. It is difficult to say whether or not sociology moved in the direction that Mills feared. However, scholars do know that until his death, Mills fought to maintain what he thought was the integrity of sociology.
Mills had a few core assumptions about society and human nature that greatly contributed to his influential books and papers. Frank Elwell defines Mills's main assumptions in his work "The Sociology of C. Wright Mills". To start, Mills saw human nature as the combination of historical and social structures. Furthermore, humans cannot separate themselves from their historical and social structure because they are the root of our being. Elwell explains Mills's broader claim that "sociocultural systems, in particular the modern nation-state, determine the type of men and women who inhabit the system." Following this assumption, Mills viewed the conflicts between countries and the fight between different forms of leadership (democratic, fascist, and so on) as an issue of "which types of humans will prevail." To elaborate, "Historical transformations within societies, say the decline of agriculture and the rise of small businesses, also affect the predominant character of human beings, their values and ideologies, their beliefs and expectations, their very character." With the clarification of his lens, one can begin to recognize the way in which Mills's many books (listed below) reveal his interpretation of society.
From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1946) was edited and translated in collaboration with Gerth.[page needed] Mills and Gerth had begun collaborating in 1940, selected a few of Weber's original German text, and translated them into English. The preface of the book begins by explaining the disputable difference of meaning that English words give to German writing. The authors attempt to explain their devotion to being as accurate as possible in translating Weber's writing.
The New Men of Power: America's Labor Leaders (1948) studies the "Labor Metaphysic" and the dynamic of labor leaders cooperating with business officials. The book concludes that the labor movement had effectively renounced its traditional oppositional role and become reconciled to life within a capitalist system.
The Puerto Rican Journey (1950) was written in collaboration with Clarence Senior and Rose Kohn Goldsen. It documents a methodological study and does not address a theoretical sociological framework.
White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951) offers a rich historical account of the middle classes in the United States and contends that bureaucracies have overwhelmed middle-class workers, robbing them of all independent thought and turning them into near-automatons, oppressed but cheerful. Mills states there are three types of power within the workplace: coercion or physical force; authority; and manipulation.[page needed] Through this piece, the thoughts of Mills and Weber seem to coincide in their belief that Western Society is trapped within the iron cage of bureaucratic rationality, which would lead society to focus more on rationality and less on reason.[page needed] Mills's fear was that the middle class was becoming "politically emasculated and culturally stultified," which would allow a shift in power from the middle class to the strong social elite.[page needed] Middle-class workers receive an adequate salary but have become alienated from the world because of their inability to affect or change it. Frank W. Elwell describes this work as "an elaboration and update on Weber's bureaucratization process, detailing the effects of the increasing division of labor on the tone and character of American social life."
Character and Social Structure (1953) was co-authored with Gerth. This was considered his most theoretically sophisticated work. Mills later came into conflict with Gerth, though Gerth positively referred to him as, "an excellent operator, a whippersnapper, promising young man on the make, and Texas cowboy à la ride and shoot." Generally speaking, Character and Social Structure combines the social behaviorism and personality structure of pragmatism with the social structure of Weberian sociology. It is centered on roles, how they are interpersonal, and how they are related to institutions.[page needed]
The Power Elite (1956) describes the relationships among the political, military, and economic elites, noting that they share a common world view; that power rests in the centralization of authority within the elites of American society.[page needed] The centralization of authority is made up of the following components: a "military metaphysic", in other words a military definition of reality; "class identity", recognizing themselves as separate from and superior to the rest of society; "interchangeability" (they move within and between the three institutional structures and hold interlocking positions of power therein); cooperation/socialization, in other words, socialization of prospective new members is done based on how well they "clone" themselves socially after already established elites. Mills's view on the power elite is that they represent their own interest, which include maintaining a "permanent war economy" to control the ebbs and flow of American Capitalism and the masking of "a manipulative social and political order through the mass media."[page needed] Additionally, this work can be described as "an exploration of rational-legal bureaucratic authority and its effects on the wielders and subjects of this power."
The Causes of World War Three (1958) and Listen, Yankee (1960) were important works that followed. In both, Mills attempts to create a moral voice for society and make the power elite responsible to the "public".[page needed] Although Listen, Yankee was considered highly controversial, it was an exploration of the Cuban Revolution written from the viewpoint of a Cuban revolutionary and was a very innovative style of writing for that period in American history.[page needed] In his paper on Mills's work, Elwell describes The Causes of World War Three as a jermiad on Weber's ideas. More specifically on his view of "crackpot realism" (" the disjunction between institutional rationality and human reason").
The Sociological Imagination (1959), which is considered Mills's most influential book,[d] describes a mindset for studying sociology, the sociological imagination, that stresses being able to connect individual experiences and societal relationships. Three components form the sociological imagination are history, biography, and social structure. Mills asserts that a critical task for social scientists is to "translate personal troubles into public issues".[page needed] The distinction between troubles and issues is that troubles relate to how a single person feels about something while issues refer to how a society affects groups of people. For instance, a man who cannot find employment is experiencing a trouble, while a city with a massive unemployment rate makes it not just a personal trouble but a public issue. One can interpret Mills's claim in The Sociological Imagination as the difficulty humans have in balancing biography and history, personal challenges and societal issues. Sociologists, then, rightly connect their autobiographical, personal challenges to social institutions. Social scientists should then connect those institutions to social structures and locate them within a historical narrative.
The version of Images of Man: The Classic Tradition in Sociological Thinking (1960) worked on by C. Wright Mills is simply an edited copy with the addition of an introduction written himself.[page needed] Through this work, Mills explains that he believes the use of models is the characteristic of classical sociologists, and that these models are the reason classical sociologists maintain relevance.[page needed]
The Marxists (1962) takes Mills's explanation of sociological models from Images of Man and uses it to criticize modern liberalism and Marxism. He believes that the liberalist model does not work and cannot create an overarching view of society, but rather it is more of an ideology for the entrepreneurial middle class. Marxism, however, may be incorrect in its overall view, but it has a working model for societal structure, the mechanics of the history of society, and the roles of individuals. One of Mills's problems with the Marxist model is that it uses units that are small and autonomous, which he finds too simple to explain capitalism. Mills then provides discussion on Marx as a determinist.[page needed]
Mills has continued to be discussed by academic sociologists in the United States and elsewhere. Stephen Scanlan and Liz Grauerholz touch on the legacy of Mills in their article "50 Years of C. Wright Mills" and "The Sociological Imagination"." Looking at this work, the authors first note how Mills's theory on private troubles and public issues served as a turning point in the way that scholars looked at issues in the world. By showing the intersection of troubles and issues, Mills was able to show how interconnected our world is, and how public problems are a culmination of many private troubles. Another component of his theories in this work was his analysis of how biography and history impact one's trajectory in life. The authors explain how not only did this theory impact scholars writ large, but it also impacted the way they interacted with and taught their students. Scanland and Grauerholz present the example of a professor who had to reorient herself and her teaching style when she moved from "an urban campus in Chicago to a small liberal arts college in rural Maine." Mills's work resulted in a shift in academia, a shift that is still felt today. Scanlan and Grauerholz share that the "International Sociological Association recognized The Sociological Imagination as second on its list of the 'Books of the Century'".
Mills's legacy can be most deeply felt through the printed compilation of his letters and other works called C Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, edited by two of his children, Kathryn and Pamela Mills. In the book's introduction, Dan Wakefield states that Mills's sociological vision of American society is one that transcends the field of sociology. Above all else, Wakefield remembers Mills's character most as being surrounded by controversy:
In that era of cautious professors in gray flannel suits, Mills came roaring into Morningside Heights on his BMW motorcycle, wearing plaid shirts, old jeans, and work boots, carrying his books in a duffel bag strapped across his broad chest .... In the classroom as well as in the pages of his widely read books, Mills was a great teacher. His lectures matched the flamboyance of his personal image, as he managed to make entertaining the heavyweight social theories of Karl Mannheim, Max Weber, and José Ortega y Gasset. He shocked us [students] out of our "silent generation" student torpor by pounding his desk and proclaiming that each man should build his own house (as he did himself) and that, by God, with the proper study, we should each be able to build our own car!
At his memorial service, Hans Gerth (Mills's coauthor and coeditor) referred to Mills as his "alter ego", despite the many disagreements they had. Interestingly, many of Mills's close friends "reminisced about their earlier friendship and later estrangement when Mills mocked them for supporting the status quo and their conservative universities." In addition to the impact Mills left on those in his life, his legacy can also be seen through the prominence of his work after his passing. William Form describes a 2005 survey of the eleven best selling texts and in these Mills was referenced 69 times, far more than any other prominent author. Frank W. Elwell, in his paper "The Sociology of C. Wright Mills" further explains the legacy Mills left as he "writes about issues and problems that matter to people, not just to other sociologists, and he writes about them in a way to further our understanding." His work is not just useful to students of sociology, but the general population as well. Mills tackled relevant topics such as the growth of white collar jobs, the role of bureaucratic power, as well as the Cold War and the spread of communism.
Additionally, In 1964, the Society for the Study of Social Problems established the C. Wright Mills Award for the book that "best exemplifies outstanding social science research and a great mutual understanding of the individual and society in the tradition of the distinguished sociologist, C. Wright Mills." This award has been given to many and serves as a sign that while he is no longer with, the ideas and theories of C. Wright Mills are timeless.
While he is now gone, Mills's ideas and works continue to live on. Mills presented his ideas as a way to keep American society from falling into the trap of what is known as "mass society". Many scholars argue that Mills's ideas sparked the radical movements of the 1960s, which ultimately took place after he died. Not only was his work recognized in the United States but it was also greatly appreciated abroad.
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