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Introduction to Sociology

Ron Hammond, Paul Cheney, Raewyn Pearsey

Chapter 02 - Sociological Imagination

Seeing the Social World In A New Light: Personal & Larger Social

The average person lives too narrow a life to get a clear and concise understanding of today’s complex social world. Our daily lives are spent among friends and family; at work and at play. We spend many hours watching TV and surfing the Internet. No way can one person grasp the big picture from their relatively isolated lives. There are thousands of communities, millions of interpersonal interactions, billions of Internet information sources, and countless trends that transpire without many of us even knowing they exist. What can we do to make sense of it all?

When I learned of the sociological imagination by Mills, I realized that it gives us a framework for understanding our social world that far surpasses any common sense notion we might derive from our limited social experiences. C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) was a contemporary sociologist who brought tremendous insight into the daily lives of society’s members. Mills stated that "neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both" (Mills, C. W. 1959. The Sociological Imagination page ii; Oxford U. Press). Mills identified "Troubles" (personal challenges) and "Issues" (Larger social challenges) that are key principles for providing us with a framework for really wrapping our minds around many of the hidden social processes that transpire in an almost invisible manner in today’s societies. Before we discuss personal troubles and larger social issues, lets define a social fact.

Social Facts are social processes rooted in society rather than in the individual. Émile Durkheim (1858-1917, France) studied the "science of social facts" in an effort to identify social correlations and ultimately social laws designed to make sense of how modern societies worked given that they became increasingly diverse and complex (see Émile Durkheim, The Rules of the Sociological Method, (Edited by Steven Lukes; translated by W.D. Halls). New York: Free Press, 1982, pp. 50-59). See the Sociological Imagination diagram below.

The national cost of a gallon of gas, the War in the Middle East, the repressed economy, the trend of having too few females in the 18-24 year old singles market, and the ever-increasing demand for plastic surgery are just a few of the social facts at play today. Social facts are typically outside of the control of average people. They occur in the complexities of modern society and impact us, but we rarely find a way to significantly impact them back. This is because, as Mills taught, we live much of our lives on the personal level and much of society happens at the larger social level. Without knowledge of the larger social and personal levels of social experiences, we live in what Mills called a False Social Conscious which is an ignorance of social facts and the larger social picture.

Personal troubles are private problems experienced within the character of the individual and the range of their immediate relation to others. Mills identified the fact that we function in our personal lives as actors and actresses who make choices about our friends, family, groups, work, school, and other issues within our control. A college student who parties 4 nights out of 7, who rarely attends class, and who never does his homework has a personal trouble that interferes with his odds of success in college. On the other hand, when 50 percent of all college students in the country never graduate, we call that a larger social issue.

Larger Social Issues are those that lie beyond one's personal control and the range of one's inner life. These pertain to society's organizations and processes. These are rooted in society rather than in the individual. Nationwide, students come to college as freshmen ill-prepared to understand the rigors of college life. They haven’t often been challenged enough in high school to make the necessary adjustments required to succeed as college students. Nationwide, the average teenager text messages, surfs the net, plays video or online games, hangs out at the mall, watches TV and movies, spends hours each day with friends, and works at least part-time. Where and when would he or she get experience focusing attention on college studies and the rigors of self-discipline required to transition into college credits, a quarter or a semester, studying, papers, projects, field trips, group work, or test taking.

Figure 1. Diagram of the Seven Social Institutions and the Sociological Imagination.
The Sociological Imagination
© 2005 Ron J. Hammond, Ph.D.

The National Center for Education Statistics regularly reports on academic performance. Figure 2 shows the dropout rates and completion rates for the US between 1972-2009. The High school completion rate has been steadily rising over the last30+ years. Not only that, the percent in college by age 25 has also been steadily increasing while the dropout rate has declined.

Figure 2. US Ages 16-24: Status High School Dropout1 and Completion1 & Percent in College Rate2 between 1972-2009 (NCES)
1Chapman, C., Laird, J., Ifill, N., and Kewal Ramani, A. (2011). Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972–2009 (NCES 2012-006). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved August 25th 2014 SOURCE . Table 2 2Retrieved from Internet 26 March 2013 SOURCE Education Digest Table 209. Recent high school completers and their enrollment in 2-year and 4-year collages, by sex 1960-2010.

The worst possible scenario in terms of work and lifestyle is to drop out of high school. And millions drop out each year in the US. Table 1 shows the dropout rates by racial classification for the US. In 2010-2011 for the total of all combined racial groups the overall dropout rate was 21 percent. By far, Asian/Pacific Islander Americans dropped out the least at only 13 percent, followed closely by Whites at 16 percent. Hispanics (29%), the economically disadvantaged (30%); Black/African American (33%); American Indian/Native American (35%); students with disabilities (41%); then students who have limited English speaking proficiency (43%) had the worst dropout rates—all that income lost; all that lifestyle forfeit; and all those other benefits of higher education missed.

Table 1: Dropout Rates by Racial Classification in the United States 2010-20113
Group Percent Dropout (not graduated in cohort)
Asian/Pacific Islander 13%
White (non-Hispanic) 16%
Hispanic 29%
Economically Disadvantaged 30%
Black (African Am.) 33%
AM. Indian (Native Am.) 35%
Students with Disabilities 41%
Limited English Proficiency 43%
3U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). Stetser, M., and Stillwell, R. (2014). Public High School Four-Year On-Time Graduation Rates and Event Dropout Rates: School Years 2010–11 and 2011–12. First Look (NCES 2014-391). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved 11 June 2014 SOURCE

The majority of college first year students drop out, because nationwide we have a deficit in the preparation and readiness of Freshmen attending college and a real disconnect in their ability to connect to college in such a way that they feel they belong to it. In fact, college dropouts are an example of both a larger social issue and personal trouble. Thousands of studies and millions of dollars have been spent on how to increase a Freshman student’s odds of success in college (graduating with a 4-year degree). There are millions of dollars worth of grant money awarded each year to help retain college students. Interestingly, almost all of the grants are targeted in such a way that a specific college can create a specific program to help each individual student stay in college and graduate.

The real power of the sociological imagination is found in how you and I learn to distinguish between the personal and social levels in our own lives. Once we do, we can make personal choices that serve us best, given the larger social forces that we face. In 1991, I graduated with my Ph.D. and found myself in a very competitive job market for University professor/researcher positions. With hundreds of my own job applications out there, I kept finishing second or third and was losing out to 10 year veteran professors who applied for entry level jobs. I looked carefully at the job market, keeping in mind my deep interest in teaching, the struggling economy, and my sense of urgency in obtaining a salary and benefits. I came to the decision to switch my job search focus from university research to college teaching positions. Again, the competition was intense. On my 301st job application (that’s not an exaggeration), I interviewed and beat out 47 other candidates for my current position. In this case, knowing and seeing the larger social troubles that impacted my success or failure helped in finding a position. Because of the Sociological Imagination, I was empowered because I understood the larger social job market, and was able to best situate myself within it.

Making Sense of Divorce Using the Sociological Imagination

Let's apply the sociological imagination to something most students are deeply concerned about—divorce. Are there larger social and personal factors that will impact your own risk of divorce? Yes. In spite of the fact that over 200 million people are married in the U.S., divorce continues to be a very common occurrence SOURCE. What’s in the larger social picture? Estimates for the U.S. suggest that 85 percent of us will marry (Retrieved 19 May, 2014 SOURCE) Yet, so many of us feel tremendous anxiety about marriage. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts annual surveys of the U.S. population and publishes them as the Current Population Surveys. As of 2011 the U.S. Family Types indicated 123 million married; 14 million widowed; 24 million divorced; 5.5 million separated; and nearly 79 million never married. (retrieved 30 May 2014 from Table A1. Marital Status of People 15 Years and Over, by Age, Sex, Personal Earnings, Race, and Hispanic Origin/1, 2011 SOURCE ) There has also been a marked increase of non-married cohabiting couples over the last few decades. There were also 7,845,000 million heterosexual cohabiters and about 687,000 same-sex cohabiters (retrieved 6 June 2014 SOURCE America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012, P20-570, Tables 3 & 7).

Now take a look at Figure 3 below to see the U.S. trend of actual numbers in millions of family types between the years 1950-2013. It shows that the most common type of family in the U.S. has always been marrieds, and the second most common has always been never marrieds. The number of divorced families overtook the widowed category in the 1970s and has been higher ever since. Why are the trends upward? Simply put, these are numbers and not rates nor percentages. The population has grown and therefore the population size has been steadily increasing.

Figure 3. United States 1950-2013 Men’s and Women’s Marital Status (15 and over)
Men’s Marital Status: 1950-2013
Women’s Marital Status: 1950-2013
*Taken from United States Census Bureau on 23 May 2014 from Table MS-1a and MS-1b. Marital Status of the Population 15 Years Old and over, by Sex and Race: 1950 to Present

You may already be seeing the wisdom of analysis found in sociology and especially in C. Wright Mills’ sociological imagination. It provides personal and larger social insight into what we can do to have a good marriage and avoid divorce. However; before we discuss these, lets set the record straight. There never was a 1 in 2 chance of getting divorced in the U.S. (see the National Marriage Project, 2004 "The State of Our Unions" or Kalman Heller "The Myth of the High Rate of Divorce taken from Internet 16 May, 2014 SOURCE).


Divorce rates peaked in the 1980’s and have steadily declined since then (See Figure 4 below). Even though all married people are at risk of divorce, most of them will not face this reality. Many studies have consistently shown exactly how our personal choices and behaviors can actually minimize our chances of divorce. Here’s a brief summary: -Wait to marry until you reach your mid-20’s. Teens who marry have the highest risk of divorce (see Center for Disease Control "First Marriage Dissolution, Divorce, and Remarriage: United States taken from Internet 16 May, 2014 SOURCE ).

-Avoid cohabitation if you plan to ever marry. While cohabitation is on the rise in the U.S., it is still associated with higher risks of divorce once one is married. Numerous studies have rigorously researched the impact of having cohabited on the odds of marital success. (see Lisa Mincieli and Kristin Moore, "The Relationship Context of Births Outside of Marriage: The Rise of Cohabitation," Child Trends Research Brief 2007-13 (May 2007); or Matthew D. Bramlett and William D. Mosher, Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the United States, National Center for Health Statistics, Vital and Health Statistics, 23 (22), 2002; Or Larry Bumpass and Hsien-Hen Lu, "Trends in Cohabitation and Implications for Children’s Family Contexts in the U. S.," Population Studies 54 (2000): 29-41; or Jay Teachman, "Premarital Sex, Premarital Cohabitation, and the Risk of Subsequent Marital Disruption among Women," Journal of Marriage and the Family 65 (2003): 444-455.

-Finish college. Dropouts are much more likely than their peers who graduate to be unemployed, living in poverty, receiving public assistance, in prison, on death row, unhealthy, divorced, and be single parents (SOURCE).

-Be aware of the three-strike issue: Strike 1, you are poor; Strike 2, you are a teenager when you marry; and Strike 3, you are pregnant when you marry. These issues could prove to be a terminal combination of risk factors as far as staying married is concerned. These three in combination with others listed below may increase your risk of divorce.

-Know which factors you can control that will likely impact your marital success odds. Other scientifically identified divorce risk factors include: high personal debt; falling out of love; not proactively maintaining your marital relationship; marrying someone who has little in common with you; infidelity; remaining mentally "on the marriage market…waiting for someone better to come along," having parents who divorced; neither preparing for nor managing the stresses that come with raising children, and divorcing because the marriage appears unhappy and hopeless in terms of resolving negative issues (see Glenn, N. 1991 "Recent trends in Marital Success in the US" May, J. of Marriage and the Family, pages 261-270). Often couples on the fringe of divorce later emerge from those states of unhappiness and hopelessness with renewed happiness and hope, by simply enduring the difficult years together.

In all of these factors listed above you can decide how to best situate yourself to deal with the certain issues before divorce becomes the ultimate outcome. But, as Mills taught, you must consider both personal and larger social issues simultaneously to fully benefit from the sociological imagination. It is true that divorce is still very common in the U.S. Notice the peak on this figure found in the 1980s, and the trend (at least up to the most recent 2010 data) shows a slightly decreased pattern since then. Figure 4 shows the divorce rate in the US from 1920-2010. This particular rate is the number of divorces per year per 1,000 people. Over the last 30 years, the overall divorce rate has declined steadily.

Figure 4. US Number of Divorces Per 1,000 Population Members 1920-2010
Divorces per 1,000
*US. Bureau of the Census Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Bicentennial Edition, Part 2; Washington, D.C., 1975, Series B 216-220 "Divorce 1920-1970 and Statistical Abstracts of the United States 2001 Page 87 Table 117 and 2002 Page 88 Table 111. Retrieved from 18 June 2014 various tables and Editions Of Statistical Abstracts

What are some of the larger social factors that have historically contributed to these patterns of divorce? You’ll notice a brief spike in divorce after World War II. The post-war year, 1946, was a true anomaly as far as rates measuring the family are concerned. It was the highest rate of marriages, highest rate of births (The Baby Boom began in 1946), and the lowest median age at marriage in U.S. history. Divorce rates surged in 1946 as all the soldiers returned home having been changed by the trauma, isolation from their families, and challenges of the war. They were probably less compatible with their wives once they came back. Divorces tended to follow wars for marriages where one spouse is deployed into combat (WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Korea, Kuwait, and Iraq).

Other factors influencing this divorce pattern have to do with the economy, marriage market, and other factors. Divorces continue to be high during economic prosperity and often decline during economic hardships. Divorces tend to be higher if there is an abundance of single women in the society. And divorces tend to be more common in: urban rather than rural areas; the Western US than in the Eastern; among the poor, less educated, remarried, less religiously devout, and children of divorce. Please note that recession, war, secularism, and western US cultures don’t cause divorce. Scientists have never identified a "cause" for divorce. But, they have clearly identified risk factors.

Could there be larger social factors pressuring your marriage right now? Yes, but you are probably not enslaved to those forces. They still impact you, and you can follow Mill’s ideas and manage as best you can within your power concerning consequences of these forces. What can you do about it? Well, if you are single, you’d best situate yourself in terms of marital success by waiting to marry until you are in your 20’s, finishing and graduating from college, paying careful attention to finding the right person (especially one with common values similar to your own), and doing some sort of self-analysis to assess working proactively to nurture your marriage relationship on an ongoing basis. Finding counseling to help mediate the influence of your parents' divorce on your current marital relationship can also be helpful. If you are married and things appear to hit a wall, consider counseling, consulting with other couples, and reading self-help books. Often the insurmountable walls that couples face in marriage slowly collapse with time and concerted effort.

Years ago, a colleague and I wrote a self-assessment to help students identify the personal divorce risks so that they could strategize what to do when faced with those risks. Take 10 minutes and learn what you can about your own divorce risks. (also take the time to watch another example of the Sociological Imagination in the case of W. E. B. Du Bois below). Divorce Risks Assessment Questionnaire PDF (link to actual pdfonline)

One last note about the Sociological Imagination. One of my personal heroes is W.E.B. Du Bois. He was the first black Harvard Graduate, the first to scientifically analyze U.S. blacks (see The Philadelphia Negro), and one of the most prolific Sociological writers ever. Watch my short lecture video on how the Sociological Imagination helps us to understand the personal lives of this hero, and think about the tragedy that could have been had he grown up in the U.S. Southern states instead of in Massachusetts. A cool video on W. E. B. Du Bois.

Additional Reading

NARME National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education
CYFERNet provides practical, research-based information for children, youth, parents and families. Fantastic resource. One of the most extensive sites on the Internet. For marriage information, click on "Parent and Family" then search down to marriage listed under the subtitle of partners.
USDA My Plate
Divorce Busting
Michele Weiner Davis, M.S.W. is a therapist specializing in a revolutionary approach that helps couples make their relationships better than ever. This is an excellent resource for obtaining books/tapes about saving your marriage.
National Institute of Relationship Enhancement (NIRE) is the developer of the successful Relationship Enhancement (RE). RE works in a variety of settings and helps various circumstances including pre-marital and martial enrichment.
The Pairs Foundation This website reveals practical application of intimate relationship skills.

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