Thinking Sociologically III

Using theory to untangle complex realities

Thinking Sociologically

You may not use theory to understand your reality, but theory certainly uses you.

Whether you are a teacher, principal, lecturer, student or simply curious, in this short EDDi section Dr Stephen Whitehead answers common questions related to sociological theory.

All of the answers were originally published on Quora.

We offer them (in revised form) via EDDi in the hope that you will acquire some sociological insights into the 21st century.

Treat these articles as a healthy, and heavier, counter-point to all the lighter fluff which gets posted on social media.

Question: What are the advantages and disadvantages of a sociological imagination?

C. Wright Mills (2000) is arguing for sociologists (especially ‘grand theorists’) not to occupy ‘useless heights’; not to posit ‘grand theories’ which purport to solve/resolve all of the conundrums surrounding individual/social existence; and not to pretend neutrality.

‘Sociological Imagination’ was first published in 1959 and Mills was especially critical of the then prominent sociologist, Talcott Parsons and his grand theory of structural functionalism.

Since then, while grand theories still exist, they have become less likely to receive such distinction. Moreover, the move from quantitative research methods to qualitative, especially notable in feminist theory and postmodernism, has gathered momentum.

Back in Mills’ day quantitative ruled.

Now not. Thankfully.

Interestingly, Mills’ suggested we were at the end of the ‘Modern Age’, and that was some decades before postmodernity became prominent in sociology. The Sociological Imagination was prescient in so many ways. It really is a book that any budding sociologist should read before embarking on a study of the human condition.

The strength of the sociological imagination is that it reminds all theorists that they too are a product of what they study, and should never forget that. There is no final objectivity in sociology. As Michael Kimmel put it, “we often cannot smell our own ideology”.

Then there is the strength of actually having a sociological imagination:

the ability to theorise the everyday, to critically examine what we see, what we hear, and who we are.

Any sociologist who stays with the discipline for any length of time does, I believe, get to that point.

Which brings us to the disadvantage of the sociological imagination. It seems inevitable almost that engaging in such a deep and complex study will have an adverse effect on the sociologist’s ability to engage with the everyday world in a free and uncomplicated manner.

One can end up on a mountain top with just the clouds for company.


Mills, Wright, C. (2000) The Sociological Imagination (40th Anniversary Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dr Stephen Whitehead

Since 2017, Dr Stephen Whitehead has answered over 10,500 Quora questions, mostly on relationships, education, sociology, life and living, and philosophy. To date, his answers have received approximately 3.2 million views increasing at the rate 60,000 views a month. He has nearly 1000 followers.

Stephen’s latest book (International Schooling: The Teacher’s Guide) is available via: