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What C. Wright Mills called the ‘sociological imagination' is the recognition that what happens in an individual's life and may appear purely personal has social consequences that actually reflect much wider public issues. Human behaviour and biography shapes society, and vise-versa and one cannot be properly understood without the other. If a sociologist was trying to understand two friends having coffee for example then they would examine it as social interaction, as acceptable drug taking, and as part of a complex mix of social and economic processes. They might also assess the fact that coffee is produced by the poor but drunk mainly by the better off, they would examine the history of coffee drinking. (Giddens, 2001).
The sociological imagination gives a reflective view, of what is happening in society and explains the relationship of an individual in a society. It adds value to the study of social life by being able to critique taken for granted assumptions and asks questions to view these assumptions in a new way. The use of applying sociological imagination can be seen in the study of everyday life and increases the understanding of an individual's placement in society.
A reflexive process between personal troubles and the public issues is the main defining feature of the sociological imagination. Showing how individuals are placed in a society and how that society simultaneously affects the individual, helps in the understanding of the formation of social structure. Mills stated that, personal troubles become public issues, needing attention from political and economic organizations not just personal judgements but from the individual (Mills: 1959, p14). He saw this as the main characteristic of a sociological imagination. A personal trouble, such as divorce, affects the individual on a personal level causing grief and stress. Divorce rates become an issue when increased, affecting political and economic aspects of society and directly affecting individuals through policies and laws, in which they must obey. This idea is a reflexive process, meaning that one cannot occur without the other. Willis (1999, p20) illustrates that acting reflexively is important in the search for a sociological imagination, adding value to the study of social life by giving a broader view of how the individual relates to society. This relationship can be observed by examining the reflexive connections of biography, history and society in more depth.
Using the sociological imagination is an important tool when studying social life. It enables the sociologist to view the world from outside subjective ideas Giddens (1997, P3) described this as to “think ourselves” away from the familiar routines of daily life in order to look at them anew”. This is useful as it helps give an objective view into personal troubles, public issues and the reflexivity of biography, history and society and it forms a new consciousness to understand social processes. This also helps expand the areas studied, by looking at aspects of these issues which may normally be over looked. Here new conclusions and ideas may be found about that certain issue, revealed by taking an objective standpoint. Bias is therefore reduced, by giving equal importance to the examination of every aspect, thereby increasing the development of knowledge about the society (Willis 1999: p31). This critical ananlyis breaks down the taken-for-granted assumptions and adds to the rebuilding of new ideas from a fresh viewpoint (Pavlich & Hird: 2003 pp1-11) and can be demonstrated by looking at divorce in more detail.
Marital divorce demonstrates how using a sociological imagination can expand the picture of the individual in society, which adds value to the study of social life. Divorce is a personal problem affecting the individual on many levels. It evokes emotions of sadness, distress, hurt and anger, which can have huge short-term effects on the individual. Financial and asset divisions affect the individual by reducing the gross income and wealth of each divorcee. The division of loyalties between friends, families and children adds another dimension to the distress felt by the individual. When divorce rates increase these individual problems affect social structure by becoming public issues. Affecting the government, as new policies and law must be made to accommodate for fair division of assets and property. Custody laws also need to be developed. The economics of society are affected by new requirements placed on the welfare system. Single parents often need monetary support for their dependent children relating back to society as this comes out of tax payers money. Job opportunities are created by the increase in demand for skilled workers to direct and mediate these changes.
The sociological imagination integrates the idea of personal trouble becoming a public issue and how the connections between biography and history becoming a public issue and how the connections between biography and history play a major part in social structure. These interconnections are used to critique taken-for-granted assumptions, in order to develop a broader view of how social life and society work. The value that this has on studying social life has been demonstrated by investigating the issue of divorce. Critically analyzing issues is important in ensuring that all areas of society are seen and given equal attention, thereby influencing the development of our communities. Without being able to see outside the parameters of an individual's life, it is difficult for society to recognize other reasons for social change and therefore move into the future. Thus, demonstrating the significance and value of a using a sociological imagination in the investigation of everyday life.