Charles Wright Mills – Profile, Theories and Contribution to Sociology

Charles Wright Mills was born on August 28, 1916, in Waco, Texas. He was an American sociologist known for his critiques of contemporary power structures.
Charles Wright Mills sociology

Charles Wright Mills

Early History of C.W. Mills

Charles Wright Mills was born on August 28, 1916, in Waco, Texas. He was an American sociologist known for his critiques of contemporary power structures. His popular discourses were on sociologists and their academic professionalization, the way sociologists should study social problems and perform in society. He wrote several books highlighting the relationships between the American elite and the commoners during the post-World War II period.

Mills started his career at the University of Maryland, where he joined as an Associate Professor of Sociology in 1941. While teaching, he practiced public sociology by writing articles in journals like ‘The New Leader’, ‘The New Republic’, and ‘Politics’. After Maryland, Mills joined Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research as a research associate. A year after he joined, he was promoted to Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and by 1956 he had become a Professor. 

Mills completed both his bachelor’s in sociology and master’s in philosophy from the University of Texas. Mills got his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1941 and then joined Columbia University as a Professor of Sociology in 1946. He taught there till his death in 1962.


Ideology of Charles Wright Mills 

Mills was very popular for his political views. He is known for his insightful, yet harsh, critiques of the power structure in American society in the mid-20th century. His major focus was on social inequality, the shrinking middle class, the power and control of the elites, individuals’ relationships with the society, and the significance of historical perspective as part of sociological thinking.

He was deeply affected by the ethics of his fellow social scientists. At Columbia University, Mills advocated that social scientists do not affirm their moral leadership and give up their social responsibility, thus letting less qualified people take positions of leadership. He also emphasized that social scientists should assert their social responsibility.

Similarly, Mills was also bothered about the responsibilities of intellectuals in America after World War II. He encouraged political and public engagement over disinterested observations and pushed intellectuals to stand up against the government and keep them in check. 

Mills was inspired by Weber’s explanation of stratification and political systems using differentiation between the impacts of power, status, and class. He popularized Weber’s theories in America. Throughout his research Mills established a significant connection between the ‘elite’ and their decisions and the impact they had on the rest of the population. 

Mills was also inspired by Karl Manheim’s theories of sociology of knowledge, which he applied to political thought and behavior. 


Charles Wright Mills Works 

Mills’ analysis of power and class in American society was published in his most popular work The Power Elite (1956). His other works The New Men of Power, America’s Labor Leaders (1948), and White Collar (1951) also examined the major social strata in the United States.

The Sociological Imagination, Mills’ most influential work, gives a clear and convincing articulation of a sociologist’s perspective. 

Other key works by Mills include From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1946), The New Men of Power (1948), White Collar (1951), Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social (1953), The Causes of World War Three (1958), and Listen, Yankee (1960).


The Sociological Imagination 

Mills’ most popular work, The Sociological Imagination, explains how it is important to see the connections between individuals and everyday life and the social forces that constitute and progress through society. It also highlights the importance of historical context in understanding our current lives and social structure. People reside in small groups all their lives and thus have a limited view and understanding of society. But when these small groups come together, they form a society, and everyone within this society has access to more knowledge. 

Mills stated that sociological imagination is important for a society to learn and survive. At the core of sociological imagination is questioning the structural conditions that influence an individual’s life. Social change should always keep happening so that society improves.

The Power Elite 

The Power Elite is a very important contribution by Mills, particularly in terms of contemporary social theory and critical analysis. Mills, like other critical theorists of his time, was bothered by the rise of techno-rationality and intensified bureaucratization in the World War II era.

In this book, Mills highlighted the concept of the ‘elite’ – the ruling class that created a significant impact on the rest of the society with its actions and decisions. According to him, the ‘elite’ could be found among military leaders and in the government and business/corporate. The Power Elite is a compelling account of how these elites created and maintained a power structure that was tightly interlocked and how they were controlling the society to their benefit.


‘Personal Problems’ and ‘Public Issues’  

Mills believed that people should reflect that some of their ‘personal problems’ could be ‘public issues’. He wanted the public to understand that their everyday issues could be analyzed and tracked for public purposes.

In The Sociological Imagination, Mills distinguished between ‘personal problems’ and ‘public issues. The idea of ‘issue’ originates from an individual’s character that is restricted to the limited areas in the individual’s life. For example, unemployment could be a personal problem that could become a public issue. One way to handle these problems is to understand them and find their point of origin. These public issues are matters that surpass the local environment of the individual and become a crisis arising in institutional settings.


White Collar: The New Middle Class 

Charles Wright Mills strongly believed that the labor class was a strong force that could destroy the domination of the corporate capitalist. He emphasized that mass society and culture were required to bring about a change in the systems governing the society. A mass society is when communities come together to form a mass in public. 

In his book White Collar, Mills described a new category called ‘new middle class’ – they included people in white-collar jobs with respectable salaries. Mills foresaw that the work culture in America would see a change, from a preference for white-collar jobs to a more corporate setting. Mills argued that society would be divided and governed by entrepreneurs and workers. In the same book, Mills highlighted the rise of mass society and the power of corporate society. 

The Conflict Theory of Charles Wright Mills

Charles Wright Mills is considered the father of modern conflict theory. He believes that society is a dynamic entity constantly experiencing change due to competition for scarce resources. Most of Mills’ ideas about the conflict theory were inspired by Marx and his theory on social sciences and sociology in the specification. The theory focuses on the distribution of resources and power and talks about life competitions. Mills asserted that social structures are formed because of the conflicts arising between differing interests. 

Individuals are directly influenced by the established social structures and the differences happen because of the power struggle between the ‘elite’ and the ‘others’. 

The New Left 

As mentioned, Charles Wright Mills was concerned about the responsibilities of intellectuals in the post-World War II society. He propagated the term ‘New Left’ in America in 1960 in an open letter titled Letter to the New Left. The political ideology of the ‘New Left’ included campaigning for social issues such as feminism, gay rights, civil and political rights, gender roles, abortion rights, and drug policy reforms.

Mills argued that the proletariat or the working class (as called by Marx) was not the revolutionary force any more, but the young intellectuals were the new agents of change. He moved away from the conventional ‘Old Left’ that focused on labor issues towards a broader focus on issues like authoritarianism, opposing alienation and anomie. 


The social problems in American society 

Charles Wright Mills recognized five predominant social problems in American society: 1) Alienation; 2) Moral insensibility; 3) Threats to democracy; 4) Threats to human freedom, and 5) Conflict between human reason and bureaucratic rationality. Mills, like Marx, also viewed the problem of alienation as a characteristic of modern society. He believed that this problem of alienation is deeply rooted in the character of work. Unlike Marx, Mills does not blame only capitalism for alienation. Though he agrees that most of the alienation is because of ownership of means of production, he emphasizes that modern division of labor is a significant cause. 


Death of Charles Wright Mills

Mills was known to work very fast. This was probably because he had already suffered three heart attacks and he knew he would not live long. In 1962, he succumbed to his fourth heart attack and passed away on March 20 in New York. In 1964, Mills was honored by the Society for the Study of Social Problems with the establishment of the annual C. Wright Mills Award.



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