Professional Sociology: The Case of C. Wright Mills


The Story of C. Wright Mills

Mills’ famous dictum holds that personal troubles are public problems. What seem to be the private troubles of a single person are the result, at the individual level, of the working out of the problems of the society that person lives in. Being without a job is a terrible personal trouble, but it is neither the result nor the fault of anything the unemployed have done. Rather, it is the working out, for them, of society's inability or unwillingness to provide full employment.

Mills' dictum was never more true than in  his own case. His professional problems were the outcome, on the personal level, of the general directions and troubles of American sociology during his lifetime. Using his dictum as an analytic research tool, we can inspect Mills' professional life and intellectual career to see what it reveals about the public (or, better put, the institutional and organizational) problems of sociology (and, especially, American sociology) in the middle of the 20th century. This is the fruitful perspective from which Irving Louis Horowitz approached Mills’ life; this essay is an appreciation and retelling of Horowitz's analysis.

As Horowitz tells the story, in C.Wright Mills: An American Utopian —any quick summary must necessarily do an injustice to his massively detailed, heavily documented, and insightful biography—Mills was always an intensely American sociologist, steeped in the perspective of philosophical pragmatism from his college days at the University of Texas onward, and holding that point of view, in one form or another, throughout his short, eventful, troubled life. Almost always in conflict with colleagues and bosses, he produced a body of work—especially the trilogy on stratification (The New Men of Power, White Collar, and The Power Elite ) and the handbook of sociological practice he called The Sociological Imagination —which still excites sociologists, professionals and students alike.

Mills’ professional troubles reflected a fork in the road of sociology’s disciplinary development. It had once been possible for an American sociologist, as it had been for sociologists in other countries at other times and is for some even today, to be admired by colleagues for serious professional work and simultaneously be a voice in the major political and cultural dialogues of the day. Max Weber did it, producing works that were scholarly to a fare-thee-well and also speaking out on such contemporary German political problems as nationalism. Raymond Aron did it, with scholarly works on politics and regular political writing in such major Parisian papers as Figaro and l’Express.. But no American sociologist had pulled this off in a long time (we might have to go as far back as E. A. Ross to find anything similar) and those who had tried it (e.g., David Riesman) were often unfairly criticized by colleagues as “popularizers.”

But that was what Mills wanted to do. He wanted to be a respected professional, in a field in which professionalism was coming to be defined in a narrowly disciplinary way, and a speaker on the big contemporary issues, at a time when success with those narrow disciplinary concerns disqualified you as such a speaker, almost by definition.

Mills thus had a double dilemma. On the one hand, he wanted to be more than just another political thinker. Although he admired the New York intellectuals associated with the influential journals of opinion of the day, he wanted to be something they were not and did not want to be, a social scientist. He could not be satisfied to be just another Dwight McDonald writing essays, however insightful, in the pages of Politics.. He wanted to bring something special to this kind of engaged political writing: the fruits of the historical tradition of social science, as that tradition was personified by Max Weber and other classical sociological thinkers.

It is implicit in Mills’s understanding of the relation between public issues and private troubles that society changes continuously and that, therefore, people’s personal problems will change as the society around them changes. This thought can be applied to the problem of a scholarly and political career of the kind Mills wanted. George Kubler, the art historian, has suggested—the idea converges nicely with Mills’s—that an artist’s (substitute thinker or social scientist) reputation and professional fate are a function of when in the development of an institutionalized sequence of thought and work that person appears. Appearing at the beginning of a sequence of work in a certain line, for instance, has great advantages, for you will not be held responsible for the same things someone who appears in the middle or at the end must attend to.

Mills appeared at the height of the “professionalizing” of sociology and his problems are thus the problems of someone trying to put together things that could have gone together easily earlier, and might well go together later,  but not when he tried it.

Theory, Contemporary Problems, and Professionalism

Scientists always conceive of their disciplines  as universal; they would not like to think that French chemistry deals with the same questions differently, and produces different answers to them, than Russian or German chemistry. Similarly, social scientists want social science to deal with universal problems, to produce universally accepted propositions. Only by so doing, they typically think, can they achieve a true science. Since social science is an international enterprise, social scientists everywhere try to keep in touch with the universal concerns of their disciplines.

But social science, because its most general concerns are embodied in particular cases, necessarily deals with problems of serious and immediate concern to the members of the societies in which it develops. So, as sociology has developed in different countries, it has inevitably taken on a national character, devoting itself to the historically specific problems of each country. Those problems are not universal, though they have family resemblances.

American sociology, in its beginnings, thus devoted itself to the problems of its own society, the rapidly expanding America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The problems it addressed included integrating the immigrants who were then flooding the country, teaching them to be “good Americans”; the racial problems which began with slavery and took a new turn with Emancipation; and the massive dislocations and reorganizations created by urbanization. Indeed, Robert E. Park, one of the architects of the new discipline, defined the major problem of the modern world in terms he had learned by observing the quintessentially American city of Chicago: “All the world now either lives in the city or is on its way there.”

Brazilian social science, to take a case described in detail by Mariza Peirano, reflected a different set of concerns. Because social science developed in international metropolitan centers (for Brazil until after World War II the preferred center was Paris), it dealt with issues that, relevant to the concerns of those centers, were not germane to Brazilian national concerns. Brazilians, intellectuals and lay people alike, wanted answers to such questions as: What is a Brazilian (as opposed to a European or, later, a North American?) How should they conceptualize the mixture of the three races—white, black, and Indian—which made up Brazil’s population? Was that mixture an advantage in the contest for international recognition or a disgrace to be apologized for and overcome? In our own time, Brazilian social scientists asked a question of great national import: how to overcome the relation with Europe and America which resulted in underdevelopment.  What they came to want was what they called a sociologia-feita-no-Brasil, a sociology-made-in-Brazil, relevant to their problems, not to those of France, Germany, or the United States.

National sociologies also develop distinctive emphases, in part, because their makers want what they do to appear different from dominant trends in the discipline seen internationally. Thus, according to Jean—Michel Chapoulie, French sociologists, after World War II, shaped their work in part to make clear that it was different from the sociology made in the United States (partly, too, to situate themselves vis-à-vis the workers' movement and the associated political debates).

So national sociologies oscillate between a concern with national problems and national emphases, a sociology-made-in-Brazil or France or wherever, taking its shape from those distinctive nationally based concerns, and a concern with the development of a style of thought that is “universal,” or at least trans—national, capable of dealing with and being relevant to the concerns of all the particular countries in which it develops. This can take the form of an abstract theoretical concern with problems defined, at least on the surface, wholly within the discipline, in the manner described by Thomas Kuhn as characteristic of the development of any scientific discipline. System builders like Talcott Parsons exemplified this tack. The impulse to universality at other times takes the form of a history of the world cast in sociological terms, which to some seems to offer the possibility of satisfying both the demand for generality and the need to deal with specific problems, which can be seen to embody general trends in world history.

When social scientists concern themselves with contemporary questions, their disciplines become less autonomous and self—contained, more responsive to people who are not professional colleagues, less “universal,” more attuned to broader intellectual currents in their own society. They confront other currents of thought, other theoretical stances, other styles of work which are very often not respectful of sociology and its autonomy.

Horowitz, always attentive to the international character of social science, nevertheless does not put such comparisons at the center of his analysis of the case of Mills, a case we can perhaps understand better by considering it comparatively. American sociology, when Mills entered the picture, was moving away from “problems” and toward a more automous and “professional” orientation, away from the concern with contemporary politics that so attracted him and toward an esoteric body of questions that signified, to its developers, the achievement of truly professional status. And that vision drew him too.

How many hours a day?

Horowitz has distinguished between occupationalism and professionalism in mainstream  sociological work—between those who want to tie the discipline to established institutions and those who, letting it develop according to its own logic, are quite happy to see in it a critique of existing institutions, He identified Mills as an occupationalist, and cited The Sociological Imagination as a classic exposition of that point of view. But these categories do not do justice to his later analysis of Mills' career. (In fact, toward the end of his career, Mills certainly approached the ideal type Horowitz calls the antisociologist, who "owes a functional allegiance . . . to a set of ideas that is outside the control system of sociology." )

Although Horowitz has never published the concept I'm about to quote now, I distinctly remember the conversation in which he distinguished between eight, sixteen, and twenty-four hour a day sociologists (a temporal rather than a spatial distinction). He did not mean simply to make a quantitative distinction, to count the number of hours a day a person devoted to professional work and use that number as a “variable” which might predict something else about people who so spent their time. He meant, more imaginatively, to distinguish between different orientations to the organized profession of sociology, different ways of letting it invade and take over one’s life or, conversely, ways of keeping the potentially corrosive effects of sociological thinking within limts. That is: when people take up a line of work, one aspect of the “taking up” is deciding how far to allow its demands to intrude on your life. Perhaps very little: members of some occupations (prison convicts are a good example) try hard to keep their work from invading their personalities and constricting their lives. Other kinds of work, however, make more substantial invasions , whether or not they are welcome. Work may fill your time, as the families of doctors and lawyers, with good reason, complain. More to the point of Horowitz's distinction, work can become the major focus of your attention, taking over emotions, fantasies, dreams, providing the metaphors which shape your view of the world.

Work fills the consciousness of many scholars and thinkers, dominating their inner lives. That is what interests Horowitz: Does your intellectual work shape your waking thoughts? Does it take over your dreams? Does it become the way you see the world? Do you use its language to describe events and people? Some sociologists see sociologically, filtering everything through that lens. Others stop seeing that way at five o’clock. And some, a few, are possessed totally —their reflexes and dreams are sociological.

Thinking about Mills turns us away from Horowitz's spatial metaphor, and its identification of Mills as an occupationalist, and toward his temporal metaphor. Mills is perhaps better described as a twenty-four hour a day sociologist, one who thought sociologically, saw the world sociologically, dreamed sociologically.

Being such a person in a time of professional change creates distinctive problems. There is a strong sense in which the twenty-four a day sociologist is too sociological for the organized discipline. Interpreting the events of daily life in a university department or research institute as sociological phenomena is not palatable to people who run such institutions or to those who live by them and profit from them for, like all institutions, universities and institutes have sacred myths and beliefs which their members do not want subjected to the skeptical sociological view. So the institutional settings a twenty-four hour a day sociologist finds himself in will not be, as for Mills they certainly were not, hospitable to his version.

Mills: professional manqué/Big Thinker

Mills wanted very much to be a professional (not in the specialized sense Horowitz delineates but in the looser, commonsense version), to be part of the everyday, ongoing business of the discipline. He made great efforts to do what it took to reap the rewards of being a well—integrated professional: the reputation, the good position in a great university, the salary that went with it. He even worked, in a way that only Horowitz’s revealing dissection of his motives and actiivities could make intelligible, on Paul Lazarsfeld’s projects, trying to run large—scale survey operations and produce the reports to sponsors that they required. That style of work was not congenial to Mills. He chafed under the discipline and the responsibility to outsiders it entailed. But he did it, with the help of some devoted assistants; Horowitz singles out Rose Goldsen, especially, as someone who made it possible for Mills to survive in this kind of work as long as he did.

Perhaps as a result of his ambivalence about whether to be an engaged political thinker or a professional sociologist, Mills never did what he would have had to do to make the sociological world accept him as a topnotch professional. His research, even in such major works as White Collar  and The Power Elite, not even in his most conventionally sociological research monograph, The New Men of Power, seldom displayed the tight coupling of assertion and evidence the sociological world of his time required of “real research.” Horowitz’s analyses of these works makes clear how cavalier Mills could be in putting together empirical reality and his own ideas. He was often led, by the prospect of rhetorical flourish or a fine—sounding phrase, to assert what the materials he had at hand did not warrant.

Nor did he refrain from doing the things that kept that world from accepting him fully. Temperamentally a smartass and “difficult,” he didn’t do what the people who controlled the rewards he so much wanted required of him. For a long time he got away with it. Even though he mouthed off to his professors as an undergraduate, they all wrote strong recommendations on his behalf so that he could get into the graduate program at Wisconsin. He refused to make the changes his dissertation committee insisted on, but they finally gave him his degree anyway. He missed deadlines for research reports and did not do the research Lazarsfeld had contracted for and then put him in charge of, but he managed to keep his job at Columbia.

As sociology evolved and became more and more “professional,” it focused increasingly on its own autonomously defined and, in the strict sense, esoteric questions, questions which arose in the context of the history of the discipline rather than that of the questions of the day. And one of the worst of Mills’s sins, from the perspective of the scientifically mobile profession, was that he did not deal with those questions, or not very much. He dealt with the questions he thought were important. It is a token of his intellectual power that he could make such a mark on the sociology of his day when its leaders found his concerns so uncongenial.

We can return to the question: in Horowitz’s hours-a-day typology, which kind of professional was Mills? Though I guessed just above that he was a twenty-four hour sociologist, it’s not so clear. And here is where an ambiguity perhaps arises in Horowitz’s analysis. Mills was certainly a sixteen hour sociologist—one who took the New York Times apart with a scissors every day in order to file the resulting confetti in appropriate sociological categories. But his case suggests another typological dimension, not fully accounted for in An American Utopian (though perhaps captured in the notion of the antisociologist), in which the desire to be a Big Thinker, to look the part and be recognized as one by other Big Thinkers, became a major focus of his effort. (Capitalizing the phrase has a somewhat satiric overtone, as I mean it to. There was an element of posturing in Mills’ activity which Horowitz makes clear and which, at this remove, makes you wonder how he could have been so naive and unself-conscious about it.)

The Big Thinkers for Mills, the men (and his heroes were, of course, all men, thus reflecting the times as well as his own undoubtedmachismo) he wanted to be like or surpass, took on the Big Questions: the direction of history, the deep fractures of class and ideology that gave an age its distinctive character. His heroes were, preeminently, Max Weber and Karl Marx, as they so often are for people who want their names inscribed in the history of intellect and ideas. This tendency in Mills’ thought went off the deep end in the last years of his life, when he planned gigantic, undoable comparative sociologies of the entire world.

The Big Thinker dimension is, perhaps, orthogonal to the hours-a-day dimension. One doesn’t preclude the other. (We might think of Robert E. Park as someone who had somewhat similar desires, though he kept them to more modest dimensions, thinking of the sociologist not so much as a Big Thinker as a Big Reporter, someone who studied the major trends of modern society.) But the desire to play the part, to be that kind of person, certainly interacts with the hours-a-day style. Wanting to be recognized as a Big Thinker makes one sensitive to the opinions of non-professionals, which in turn makes it imperative or at least desirable to think in short-run terms. Professional Big Thinkers have to respond to the events of the day, the news, with opinions and analyses. They have to Know What It All Means and have an opinion on every subject. A Big Thinker can never say, as a social scientist might, “I don’t know” or “That’s out of my field.”

Professional Big Thinkers of this kind are, in effect, newspaper or magazine columnists, whose readers look to them for direction. A successful contgemporary practitioner of the style is, I suppose, Garry Wills, who manages a highly successful scholarly career, is well—respected by historians, political scientists, and literary scholars, and yet deals with current events routinely in a syndicated column (and does not affect the Big Thinker style personally). Mills never found so successful an accomodation.

Mills: Man at the intellectual heart of things

In an odd way, Mills’ view of the organization of intellectual life coincided with that of Edward Shils, whose thinking was otherwise so different from his and whose review of The Sociological Imagination in Encounter was one of the most vicious denunciations in the history of the discipline of one of the best books the discipline ever produced. What the two agreed on—and it is one of the signs of Mills’ closet elitism which Horowitz brings to the surface, though he doesn’t remark on it—was the importance of the “center,” as opposed to what Shils called the “periphery” (though it has always been clear that what he really meant was the provinces). For Shils, the center is the place where major social values are concentrated, where legitimate authority resides. the place to which the provinces look for guidance, the place with a numinous aura of the holy. In his hands, the emphasis on the center is, as he would no doubt proudly insist, profoundly conservative.

For Mills, the emphasis is somewhat different and, of course, not conservative. For him, the center is where it’s happening, where the Big Ideas come from, where the major advances in thought and culture are made. The center is where you must be if you want to take part in the important intellectual debates of your time. If you want to be an intellectual somebody, you must have access to the center, must be there.

For Mills, the center was New York, which perhaps it might have seemed to someone coming from a small city in Texas, and as it mostly did to serious intellectuals of his generation, wherever they came from. In fairness, this view, which in the face of the institutional and geographical changes in America in the last forty years, now seems only quaint, still had some truth left in it during the years of Mills’ active career. Major magazines were published in New York, it was the center of serious book publishing, a somewhat incestuous intellectual world operated from there, Broadway had not yet lost its place as the center of American theater.

One of the oddities of Mills’ professional life, which can only be accounted for by his firm belief that you had to be in New York to be an important intellectual, was that, though he was treated badly, even shabbily, at Columbia, though he was not allowed to teach graduate students, even at the height of his reputation—nevertheless he would not leave New York, so deep was his belief in the myth of New York as the center of American culture, his belief that you had to be there to be in touch with the main currents of intellectual, political and cultural life. He seems to have thought that to move, say, to Chicago, where he had friends (Milton Singer, who had known him in Texas, and perhaps David Riesman, who might well have thought him a perfect recruit for the faculty of the University of Chicago College’s innovative multidisciplinary program in social science) would have left him outside the magic circle. And so he thought of himself as wronged, because he could not get the one university job he really wanted, which was to be a “real” professor at Columbia.

He looked to the circle around the left intellectual magazines of the day (Dissent, Commentary, Politics, The New Leader) centered in New York for an intellectual world to belong to, a world which would validate his claim to be an important intellectual. This world seemed to him far removed from the university world, though it was not all that removed, as the eventual settling of so many of its major figures in professorships demonstrated. Still, it is the looking to this world which most marks him as partaking in some part of the antisociologist.

What was perhaps saddest about Mills’s belief in the center and disdain for the provinces was that, even as he lived and worked, the whole thing was breaking down. Though, as I said, there was a time when the myth was more or less true, from the Fifties on the cultural and intellectual life of the country became far less centralized. Shifts in population, the westward tilt that made Los Angeles and San Francisco major financial, intellectual, and artistic centers, the rapidly increasing ease of communication via long-distance phones, more rapid mail, and the increasing dependence on the airplane for the movement of people and things—all these made it increasingly easy for people to be important cultural actors whether or not they lived and worked in New York.

So it became less and less true that New York, or any other single place, was “the center,” in the sense that Shils had described. What replaced such a center was a network of regional communities of intellect and art. The network itself was the “center,” or as much of a center as there was, rather than any of its nodes. To take an example I am familiar with, as late as 1950, American theater was as centralized in New York as it still is in London or Paris: to make a career as an actor, director, or designer, you went to New York. If you wanted the play you had written to be a hit you went there to find a producer who would make your dream come true by producing your play on Broadway.

Since the Fifties, however, the major development in American theater has been the growth of regional theater. The major developments have not happened in New York, but in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle, and a network of smaller, active, urban theater worlds. The three major American playwrights of the Seventies and Eighties have been David Mamet (who got his start in Chicago), Sam Shepard (much of whose major work was written and premiered in San Francisco), and August Wilson (who became known when he worked in Minneapolis-St. Paul and later moved and continued to work in Seattle).

Once there is no center, only a network, you can no longer situate yourself in the center, because there is no center to do that in. It is not just that you needn’t live in New York to be a central figure in the intellectual world. Rather, living in New York no longer has anything to do with being central. It is a major irony of Mills’ life that he did not foresee that he could have taken the jobs offered to him outside New York and sacrificed nothing in centrality.

Further, the intellectual center he wanted to be part of was, from the point of view of the world of professional sociology to which, remember, he also wanted to belong, not the center. For many years, the unquestioned center of American sociology was at 1126 E. 59th Street, the social science building of the University of Chicago. That unique dominance ended with World War II. Among the claimants to the succession were Columbia (the wagon Mills hitched his star to), but it was only one of eight or ten (Harvard, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Berkeley, among others, had as good a claim as Columbia) and only a claimant, never the actual successor to Chicago—the position of undisputed leader no longer existed to occupy.

Mills: Personal Troubles and Institutional Change

Mills’ troubles were the personal side of a shift, in the field he had taken as his own, to a professionalism and scientism that had no room for the kind of work and career he wanted to do and have. American sociology went, for a while, down the road laid out by the pioneers who produced The American Soldier and similar works that purported to turn sociology, finally, into a real science. It turned its back, for a while, on the road of Weber and Marx. These pioneers didn’t succeed in their venture. The results that such real science ought to produce still elude their successors, and Marx and Weber and the big thinking that they exemplified is stronger than ever. But the pioneers did succeed in turning the part of sociology Mills wanted to inhabit into a place he could not live in, though he could not leave it either.

In the same way, he wanted to be at the center of a world that was coming to have no center of the kind in which he envisioned being a major actor. The breakdown of New York as the intellectual center of the country produced that irony.

So Mills’ unhappy career and the wrecked personal life that accompanied it, as Irving Louis Horowitz has laid them out in An American Utopian, embody his own dictum. It is one of the many virtues of the Horowitz biography to keep both elements—the personal and the institutional—in focus throughout.




Irving Louie Horowitz, C. Wright Mills: An American Utopian (New York: The Free Press, 1983).

C. Wright Mills. The New Men of Power: America’s Labor Leaders (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1948); White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951); and The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956).

  C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959).

Horowitz has dealt with the professionalization of sociology in a number of places. See, for instance, “Establishment  Sociology: The Value of Being Value-Free,” pp. 159-167 in his Professing Sociology(Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1968), and other essays in that book.

  George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), pp. 87-88.

  Her ideas are laid out in Mariza G. S. Peirano, “The Anthropology of Anthropology: The Brazilian Case,” (unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1981, and in several of the essays in her Uma Antropologia no Plural: Três Experiências Contemporâneas (Brasília: Editora Universidade de Brasília, 1992).

Jean-Michel Chapoulie, "La seconde fondation de la sociologie française, les Etats-Unis et las classe ouvriére," Revue Française de Sociologie 32 (1991), pp. 321-364. Chapoulie's argument is considerably more complex and sophisticated than the simple summary I have made of it.

  Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), pp. 35 ff.

Irving Louis Horowitz, "Mainliners and Marginals," pp. 195-220 in his Professing Sociology, op. cit. The reference to The Sociological Imagination is on p. 216.

See the description of the antisociologist in "Mainliners and Marginals," pp. 212-14. Mills fits the description quite well.

Horowitz, when I consulted him for a citation to this idea, thought that it was in the essay just cited, but couldn't find it there. In fact, there is one sentence in which it is mentioned: "The mainline members of a scientific community embrace both those who believe in sociology as an 8-hour a day profession and those who believe in it as a 24-hour a day occupation." (206) But the point is not developed.

  Horowitz, C. Wright Mills, op. cit., pp. 80 ff.

  Edward Shils, “Imaginary Sociology,” Encounter(June, 1960), pp. 77-80.

 Edward Shils, Center and Periphery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), passim.

The world of regional theater is described in Howard S. Becker, Michal McCall, and Lori Morris, “Theatre and Communities: Three Scenes,” Social Problems 26 (April, 1989), pp. 93-112.