A few years ago I was having dinner with some friends when a familiar truism flopped onto the other side of the table:
‘Imagination is greater than knowledge.’
The words hit the mark and faded, as nodding heads filled with new things to talk about. My head, however, wasn’t nodding. It was stuck. I had heard this old piece of Einstein so many times that I had come to take it for granted as ever more wise words. That is, it had become common sense. But now, at the dinner table, amid talk of how artists tend more toward mental illnesses and the terrible treatment of chickens, common sense was no longer enough.
‘Do these people understand what they are referring to by imagination and knowledge so well that they can pit the two against each other and decide on a winner?’
‘Does it deserve more nods and less scrutiny because Einstein said it?’
‘Because the host said it?’
‘Because someone else nodded?’
‘Where do I figure into all this?’
The sociological imagination encourages us (rather than ‘allows us’ – arguably, that’s all you) to see the interconnectedness between individuals, symbols, social structures, institutions and the various (often conflicting) kinds of ‘rationality’ we use to make sense of and navigate through it all. While the example given above is quite micro (think of a microscope), focusing on a few people at a table, the sociological imagination can be used to consider things as massive (macro) as countries, race relations, sex relations, interracial sex relations, social systems and institutions like the law and the family, and the knowledge/habits that we draw on to negotiate these things (you don’t need to know what ‘justice’ is to have a sense of justice, same goes for power).
(If I may project) At this point you’re probably thinking ‘that just sounds like critical thinking’. And you’re right, it is critical thinking. But it’s critical thinking of particular kind. This kind of critical thinking is characterised by certain quirks just enough to warrant its own field. For example, the strong arm alchemist of sociology, C Wright Mills, who wrote a book by the same title of this post (a relation as distant as blood to ocean), more or less argued that the more we take for granted as ‘common sense’ the duller we become. Thus, as another sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, put it in ‘Thinking Sociologically’ (1990, 15):
‘Familiarity is the staunchest enemy of inquisitiveness and criticism –
and thus also of innovation and the courage to change. In an encounter
with that familiar world ruled by habits and reciprocally reasserting
beliefs, sociology acts as a meddlesome and often irritating stranger.
… Suddenly, the daily way of life must come under scrutiny. It now
appears to be just one of the possible ways, not the one and only, not
the “natural”, way of life.’
Once this ‘defamiliarisation’ is underway, what was once opaque (and, for that matter, invisible) becomes that little bit more clear and apparent. This is especially useful when it comes to seeing the interconnections between things, for instance: “you say that X is on the news instead of Y because it appeals to Z, but you only brought that up because you’d rather talk about A than B, because your training in D restricted your ability to consider E, which, it is perfectly reasonable to assume, may well have been related to X all along!” – feel free to repeat that sequence multiple times, perhaps switching between the voices of Kevin Spacey and Jerry Seinfeld each time with growing indignation.
These techniques are not strictly unique to sociology (Mills forgive me, the fields, they touch!). It is not philosophy (I am not a philosopher). It is not social studies. It is a lens through which we can look at society as a series of strange interconnecting rituals and habits that often don’t make sense but seem to kick on nonetheless. I call this lens the sociological imagination. To give an idea of why I appreciate this lens enough to infuse a blog with it, pursue post grad research using it and inevitably sit my children by the fire to confusedly gibber about it, consider the mundane and entirely ordinary situation discussed at the beginning of this post, with the following addition tacked onto the end:
“Oh my! How interesting!”