Mills C.Wright

Mills C.Wright

(1916-62) US sociologist and prominent critic of the two orthodoxies of American sociology in the 1950s: Parsonian functionalism and social survey research. The former he castigated as vacuous ‘grand theory ’ and the latter as ‘ABSTRACTED EMPIRICISM’. In Mills’ eyes these forms of sociology had ceased to raise truly significant questions about society. In his own sociology he sought to relate ‘private ills’ to ‘public issues’. He was critical above all of the ‘intellectual default’ which he believed existed in modern sociology and modern society, i.e. the failure to intervene effectively in history As the editor and translator (with Hans Gerth) of selections from Max Weber (From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology 1946) Mills argued for a sociological method grounded in historical understanding. Influenced also by SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM, in Character and Social Structure (1953) he also advocated a sociology which would interrelate ‘character structure’ with ‘social structure’. The Sociological Imagination (1959) provides the most general summary statement of Mills’ overall approach and attitudes.

Of his more substantive studies, two in particular attracted wide attention: White Collar (1951) and The Power Élite (1956). In the first of these Mills charted the declining importance and loss of public role of the ‘old’ independent ‘middle class’, whom he saw as being increasingly replaced by a ‘new middle class’, made up of bureaucratized office workers, salesmen, and the like. These were ‘cheerful robots’ according to Mills, with little control over their own lives. In Power Élite, Mills’ more general thesis was that power in modern America was becoming more concentrated. Characteristically, three interrelated and overlapping groups of pivotal powerholders were identified by Mills: ‘corporation chieftains’, ‘military warlords’, and ‘political bosses’, all of whom Mills suggested could be comfortably accommodated in a medium-sized suburban cinema (see also ÉLITE THEORY). Although by their occupation of the commanding heights of American society, the members of this power élite have the potential to given a moral direction to society, in practice, according to Mills, their actions were often such as to constitute a ‘higher immorality’, e.g. a drift to World War III.

Critics of Mills’ work have concentrated on two aspects: first, its relatively speculative empirical base and its populist tone, and secondly, its failure to relate systematically to other general theories of modern society including PLURAL ÉLITISM and modern Marxism. However, Mills was an important and provocative voice in postwar American sociology, contributing to the development of a more critical stance.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000