Writing and the Sociological Imagination

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Sociology has a lot of treasures for writers of fantasy and science fiction. One of the most useful, helping with building both worlds and characters, is the way of looking at things known as the sociological imagination.

Students of sociology encounter the idea of the sociological imagination on day one. In his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination, US sociologist C. Wright Mills asserted that sociology concerned all the ways in which humans lived in the world and therefore needed to focus more acutely on how history and social institutions impacted the daily reality of lived human experience (Dillon, 2013, p. 228). The sociological imagination was simply a way for sociologists to see and critically assess the world to help achieve this focus. In contrast to psychological approaches, which might attribute a person’s problems to behaviours originating in their mind, the sociological imagination makes an explicit link between personal problems and social structures (Eckstein, Schoenike, & Delaney, 1995, p. 335)

The sociological imagination sees a person with a problem and wonders what social structures or institutions, what histories, constrained their ability to act in order to bring them to their current straits.

A criminal might be in prison because they’re inherently criminal, because it’s the way the are. Or maybe poverty limited their legitimate opportunities. Maybe discrimination did. Maybe poor nutrition compromised their physical or mental development. Maybe they were raised with a cultural imperative to risky behaviour. The sociological imagination poses complicating questions about situations and then guides sociologists in discovering answers that illuminate the human social world.

It’s a perspective which can just as easily complicate a fantasy or science fiction writer’s worldbuilding, in a good way.

When populating a created world with social institutions—and in this context a social institution is any reasonably persistent element of social organisation that meets some need of the society, such ast family, the education system, or the system of government—the sociological imagination reminds that these institutions have context and inter-relate. It prompts you to look at your awesome invented society and ask how did things get this way? What keeps them this way? Who resists and how? A good example in fantasy is Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The War of the Ring is greatly complicated by distrust between the races. And Tolkien’s world has a long and detailed history of betrayals, moral falls, wars— usually mediated by the treachery of Morgoth or Sauron—which gave rise to racial distrust. Gimli’s distress at being asked to enter Lothlorien blindfolded is a personal problem with roots in the First Age.

Societies tend to be self-maintaining. That is, their institutions support and perpetuate their belief systems. In Western society, the education system is prone to making students fit for employment. This is actually one of the ways that pervasive capitalism reproduces itself. Truly pervasive beliefs tend to fade into the background, becoming “common sense.” Victorian determination to separate the spheres of home and work put women in the home but by the 1950s they belonged there and always had. The social imagination makes common sense visible and subjects it to critical scrutiny, often revealing its role in enforcing normality. When worldbuilding, it can be useful to ask yourself what invisible, common sense normality your social institutions are selling and who in your society is most struggling to buy in, how they resist, and how the institutions apply pressure to quell resistance. Doing so can create a richer and more internally consistent world and identify areas of natural conflict that your characters need to confront.

Sociological imagination also provides a path to work backwards from some aspect of your character to the construction of a more detailed world.

If your character is ejected from society and must become a rebel, this can be considered their personal problem. Sociological imagination suggests asking, What structural issue explains this personal problem? After all, why a rebel? There are plenty of outsiders who eke out a non-rebellious existence within their community. Perhaps something disrupts the possibility of peaceful existence for your character? If the government regularly raids poor neighbourhoods to press gang idle young people into military service and if your character refuses to fight for a government they hate, then fleeing to the rebellion makes sense. Your world will grow as you determine why the government conducts these raids, how the social institution carrying them out functions and perpetuates itself, and what “common sense” beliefs makes this acceptable to most citizens.

Sociological imagination exists to shine a light on the way individuals and the social world relate. Used to develop worlds and characters for fiction, it helps to identify your world’s naturally plot-worthy characters and to ensure that they and their conflicts become real products of their milieu.
Dillon, M. (2013). Introduction to sociological theory: Theorists, concepts, and their applicability to the twenty-first century (2nd;Second;2; ed.). Hoboken: Wiley.

Eckstein, R., Schoenike, R., & Delaney, K. (1995). The voice of sociology: Obstacles to teaching and learning the sociological imagination. Teaching Sociology, 23(4), 353–363.

McCartan, L., & Gunnison, E. (2004). The IQ/crime relationship: An extension and replication of previous research. Journal of Crime and Justice, 27(1), 61-86.

2 thoughts on “Writing and the Sociological Imagination

  1. Great way of using the work of Mills to other areas of knowledge. Some time ago I wrote about the sociological imagination, but it was intended to be more of an opinion piece. The crux of my argument is that very few people in America ever considers this to be an issue worth discussing, let alone thinking about.

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  2. Thank you. I admit I often feel public discourse in the West could use a healthy dose of the sociological imagination. Too often, issues are raised in a climate of moral panic where the focus is on individualized blame and simple, deterrence-based solutions–whether the issue is crime, drug-use, obesity, poverty. Heck, in the era of “fake news,” the critical questioning aspects of the sociological imagination seem more universally applicable than ever…

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