Friday, April 10, 2009

Sociological imagination

Unruly Ones, here is an article that I know you will find interesting. It is published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 10. I urge you to consider how YOU would use YOUR sociological imagination to analyze the anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, anti-Native beliefs that are prevalent in our community. In addition, consider how the sociological imagination is more important now than ever before, with otherwise right-thinking people looking for scapegoats upon which to heap the blame for failures of all sorts, especially economic and educational failures.


Private Troubles and Public Issues in the Classroom

I teach sociology at a small college in Suffolk County, on Long Island. Most of my students were born and raised here, and many of them are the first in their families to attend college. They live at home and commute to the campus each day by car. Products of the standardized test-taking ushered in by the No Child Left Behind mandate, they have learned to compartmentalize the knowledge they learn in class, memorizing definitions long enough to pass exams and discarding information not directly related to their intended careers. In other words, they are a tough crowd for a social-science professor.

To introduce them to the field of sociology and the concept of collective human interests, I always begin the course with a reading of C. Wright Mills's essay "The Promise," the introductory chapter of his 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination. He addresses a discipline he feels has become dominated by an "abstracted empiricism" that fetishizes facts and calculations and preaches value-neutrality and political disengagement in its attempt to secure scientific legitimacy. He urges readers to develop "the sociological imagination," which, he explains, allows them to recognize the relationship between private troubles and public issues — between biography and history — and to understand that the problems of individuals cannot be accounted for solely on the level of the personal. Without the sociological imagination, Mills says, people became trapped in their familiar worlds, incapable of understanding the social and structural dimensions of their own predicaments.

Recently I had the opportunity to bring the sociological imagination to life for my students in a way that I hope will bear fruit for them in the real world. Last November seven Suffolk County high-school students attacked and killed 37-year-old Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant, in Patchogue, N.Y., about a mile from my college. Jeffrey Conroy, leader of the pack and the teenager who inflicted the fatal knife wound, was a popular student and star athlete at the local high school.

According to newspaper articles, Conroy and his friends had planned to go out drinking and find a Mexican to beat up that evening. Apparently that is not an unusual form of recreation for male high-school students in this county, where anti-immigrant sentiments run deep. By the late 1990s, about 1,500 Mexican workers had moved to the mostly white, middle-class town of Farmingville, pulled there by employment opportunities in the landscaping, restaurant, and construction industries that served the wealthier Long Island communities to the east.

A particularly vocal group of residents had organized Sachem Quality of Life — part vigilante group, part neighborhood association. SQL took a hard line on illegal immigrants and blamed the state and federal governments for failing to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into their community. They picketed and harassed laborers who gathered outside a local 7-Eleven waiting for potential employers. Group members complained of immigrants' living in crowded quarters, noise, stalled traffic, and feelings of discomfort when walking past large groups of Mexican men outside the 7-Eleven. They also feared that undocumented workers might commit crimes and then flee the community. The group rejected accusations of racism, but in 2001 it organized a Day of Truth, to which several speakers with strong ties to white-supremacist organizations were invited.

It is not surprising that Conroy and his friends, born and raised in this atmosphere of tension, developed anti-immigrant sentiments. But despite the community's history of hostility toward Latinos, and despite Conroy's status at his high school, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy explained that the attack on Mr. Lucero "wasn't a question of any county policy or legislation; it was a question of bad people doing horrific things" (emphasis mine).

As this horrible story unfolded, I invited my students, many of whom had personal ties to the perpetrators and their families, to practice the sociological imagination. Was this crime, I asked them, a public issue or a personal problem of the perpetrators? Could it be explained by the twisted psyche of a sociopath, or were history, community, and social structure at play?

To be sure, the students condemned the crime and agreed that Conroy's hostility toward immigrants must have been learned at home. But the sociological imagination required that we probe further, and so I pushed them. School authorities and families knew that high-school students occasionally harassed immigrants for entertainment, didn't they? Didn't the fact that those behaviors and attitudes were tolerated, if not condoned, by local adults undermine Levy's contention that the boys responsible for the murder were just bad seeds?

Teaching the sociological imagination is difficult. Many students have trouble understanding the connection between things like social mobility, crime, divorce, and unemployment and the larger social structure. That conceptual block is not surprising. The myth that individual motivation, talent, hard work, and a little bit of luck conquer all odds is central to American values and culture. Virtually all of what sociologists call the "agencies of socialization" tell us that wealth, fame, and power are within one's grasp if only one plays the game right (cheating is allowed). Part of playing the game right is to renounce the social impulse in favor of individual interests. Indeed, to many of my students, descended from Irish and Italian immigrants who achieved the American dream through the sweat of their brows, the myth looks real. The circumstances that gave white, working-class people upward mobility through low-cost suburban housing and jobs in manufacturing are occluded by the narrative of heroic individualism that frames their success as a personal rather than historical achievement.

The students were eager to talk. The sociological imagination seemed to function for them as a kind of social therapy. One woman said she felt uncomfortable walking past groups of Mexican men. Another student challenged her, asking if she would feel nervous if the men were white. Upon reflection, she admitted that she would not. Others insisted that they objected to the immigrant workers on the grounds that they were "illegal." When I pointed out that many of these "illegal" workers had fled north because of dismal conditions in their own countries resulting from trade policies that benefited U.S. businesses at the expense of workers in Mexico, we discussed the difference between "legal" and "ethical."

We also explored immigration from the perspective of culture and loss. What must it be like, some students wondered, to leave your country, family, language, and culture for a community in which you are treated as less than human? "Things must have been pretty bad at home to do that," one student observed.

From our class discussion of Lucero's death, I moved on to a more conventional lecture on issues such as institutional racism, theories of prejudice and scapegoating, and the centrality of immigrant labor in the global economy. The students seemed more attentive, probably because they could now see how abstract sociological concepts related to their everyday world. As a class, we were able to bring private trouble into the light of public analysis.

C. Wright Mills believed that the promise of sociology could not be fulfilled through academic exercise. The sense of anger and powerlessness that our failing economy will continue to bring to large swaths of our population may result in a rise in hate crimes, scapegoating, and other forms of social chaos. Teaching the next generation how to practice the sociological imagination is more crucial now than ever.

Julia Rothenberg is an assistant professor of sociology at St. Joseph's College, in Patchogue, N.Y.
Chronicle of Higher Education, April 10, 2009
photo of C. Wright Mills from
photo of Marcelo Lucero's funeral procession from
photo of Sachem Quality of Life demonstration from
photo of Jose Lucero, the victim's brother, and friend


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I had struggled to understand what the books were talking about during my early years as sociology major. But ever since I understood the idea of the “sociological imagination”, the problems I had with understanding the concepts had just gone in a sudden. Sociology is the study of the group action; one can never fully understand human actions from simply the personal level.

    The society we live in is a machine that contains many parts which are glued together in orders by rules, policies, and norms. The problems that people between Suffolk County and the immigrants have been in place for a time period that is long enough for the dominate groups to create rules, laws, images, and stereotypes to control/oppress the immigrants. They see the immigrants as someone who will share their resources; therefore they need to protect themselves against them. High school students can harass the immigrants just to “entertain themselves” and this kind of behavior is not encouraged but certainly not strictly stopped by the school, the family, and the society. The “agencies of socialization” play important roles here. We say that people are socialized by the society, but we often fail to specify the agencies through which we are socialized.

    The article points out that many of the students are descents from immigrants who have achieved the “American Dream”, which means part of the population in the county descents from the immigrants. How can they turn back and point their fingers to those new immigrants who are just taking the same path?

    One other thing that caught my eyes is the difference between “legal” and “ethical”. When we question whether the status of the immigrants is legal or not, we often ignore the reason why they immigrate here in to America. Sure there are people who come here for study and experience, or just for whatever reasons (like me), but the majority of the immigrants come to America for a better life. If one ever had the experience of living in another culture (especially coming from the “third world countries” to the “industrialized countries”); one would understand the difficulties. The unequal trade policies, the polluted living conditions, and many other reasons that we can count have driven the waves of immigration through history. One fact is that certain groups have gained profit behind all these actions.

  3. I think that many of the points that this author makes are fantastic. C. Wright Mills is a genius in my mind, especially when he speaks about sociology not achieving its "promise through academic exercise". This article is a perfect example of this statement, and it resonated with me as to why I wanted to study sociology to begin with. I kept thinking as I was reading this article about how people ask me, "well what are you going to do with sociology?" and I always think, "well what do I do that DOESN'T use sociology?" . On some level, everything we do everyday can be analyzed and understood better by using the sociological imagination Mills coined. The sociological imagination allows us to personally connect to social situations better and understand each other more fully. The problem discussed in this article is one that is present in many communities today across the nation- it needs to be discussed and dissected by people who can make changes at the grassroots, human-to-human level.
    I liked how the author really took apart the current social setting for her students and showed them, essentially, where the problems were really coming from and who was creating them. I bet they left with a better understanding of how the violence and victim-blaming were being socially generated, tolerated and normalized. The whole discussion of the sociological imagination as social therapy was very accurate in my opinion. It is reinforcing the idea that sociology is about "doing" and critical thinking rather than simply memorizing facts and statistics in an academic setting.

  4. Ithink subterranean.homesick.blues66 makes a good point about when people ask "what are you going to do with a Sociology degree"? And i never really thought about Subterraneans thinking process "well what do I do that DOESN'T use sociology?" This is soo true! People do not general realize what sociology is and that they are daily involved in it.
    "Many students have trouble understanding the connection between things like social mobility, crime, divorce, and unemployment and the larger social structure. That conceptual block is not surprising. The myth that individual motivation, talent, hard work, and a little bit of luck conquer all odds is central to American values and culture." Before coming to College and finding my major in Sociology, i was one of these students who thought this and believed these myths. Most of it was a result of the society i grew up in. However after learning about Sociological Imagination as well as other sociological terms and theories, just like in the article when the students could see the bigger picture after the teacher pushed them to explore the situation further.... thats what happened to me!........... Did anyone else experience this?
    ----Dont get me wrong, i still get confused sometimes, but hey thats why i go to school! :)

  5. I was actually surprised to see how far away from a political agenda this article was. There was no mention of the right side or the left side and I read it as if it were including all sides of any type of society.

    Except for Dr. Sine Anahita's comment on the right thinking people looking for scapegoats. This insert wasn't sociological IMHO.

  6. In Fairbanks, there is much anti-Native and immigrant sentiment that is perpetuated even though most of the citizens are immigrants themselves. Americans are all immigrants in that their families have originated from outside of the continent, whether they willingly migrated from Europe, were forcibly placed here for slave labor, or walked across a land bridge from Asia in search of food.

    The historical mindset of those who conquer new lands is one that is just that: conquering and “civilizing” the area and its original inhabitants. Although Alaska Natives are the original inhabitants of this state, historically, dominant and powerful non-Natives have imposed their false superiority of their ideology, religion, and culture upon the disempowered indigenous to “benefit” and “civilize” them. Because many fail to acknowledge this view of Native/non-Native history, the racist sentiments and stereotypes of centuries ago are still able to be perpetuated. The sociological imagination allows us to view the relationship between whites and Alaska Natives through a historically specific standpoint that explains how power-relations shape and influence cultural, social, and economic change.

    This article reinforces my previous ideas that sociological concepts should be integrated into academic curricula at the elementary, middle and high school levels in order to offer a viewpoint that is different from the neo-liberal, objective, individualist standpoint.


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