The White House


Viewing the Election with a Sociological Imagination

Why are some people crying while others are joyful over the 2016 presidential election? Wondering how to understand the range of reactions to this election? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how using your sociological imagination can help you understand the responses to the results. 

Did you vote in the 2016 US Presidential election? I did. Did you stay up late to watch the results? I did not. I went to bed not knowing which candidate had won. And then I woke up the next morning and checked the results. I will not describe my personal reaction, but instead point out the range of reactions Americans had (and are still having) to the results. Some people were overcome with grief. Others were elated. Still others defensive, confused, or unsure. Some folks felt validated and others became (more) fearful for their personal safety and that of their loved ones. And some continued not to care at all.

Why all of these different responses? Are we really all so different? Did the presidential election drive a greater wedge between Americans? Perhaps our reactions to a presidential election are not all that new (2012, 2004) but instead our differences are just amplified due to social media and a 24-hour news cycle littered with pundits and talking heads instead of trained journalists. Those are questions for another day.

Regardless, you might be a bit perplexed by how people are responding to the results (whether they are insulting one another on social media or protesting in the streets). It is challenging to understand why people vote differently from ourselves and why they might respond to the results differently, too. Sociology helps me figure all of this out–especially when I use the sociological imagination.

In 1959, C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination, a classic text assigned in many sociology courses, was published. I encourage you to find a copy of the book and at least read the first chapter, “The Promise.” Mills began The Sociological Imagination with this:

  • “Nowadays people often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles [emphasis added], and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: What ordinary people are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieux, they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel.”

I’ll leave that first paragraph of his alone for you to think about and consider how this applies to our present situation.

Mills went on to distinguish betweenprivate troubles (mentioned above) and public issues. Mills (1959:8) wrote:

  • Troubles occur within the character of the individual and within the range of his or her immediate relations with others; they have to do with his [sic] self and with those limited areas of social life of which he [sic] is directly and personally aware.” So, troubles are challenges that happen to you, you are aware of them, and they are of your own doing rather than society’s doing. … Issues have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the range of his [sic] inner life.” Sociologists tend to refer to issues as social problems.”

For example, if only one person in my neighborhood is unemployed, they can chalk that up to their own ineptitude (lacking skills, not a hard worker, unreliable, and so on). Unemployment remains that individual’s personal trouble. If several people in my neighborhood are unemployed, then it is an issue (or a social problem).

There is wide agreement that problems exist in America. Trump exploited that sentiment to great effect (read more). Disagreement, however, remains over which problems are most pressing and how we should as a nation address them.

Going back to Mills, we see that the public is also divided over which problems are public issues and which are private troubles. To some, racism is a personal trouble; something that can be dealt with at the individual level. To others, racism is a public issue; something that can only be addressed through systematic interventions. Using our sociological imaginations we can see that people not only disagree about what America’s problems are and how to solve them, but they also disagree about which problems are primarily individual troubles and which are social issues.

Dig Deeper: 

  1. What are troubles and what are issues? How would you explain these concepts to a friend who has never taken a sociology class using a different example than the one in this post?
  2. If you voted in the 2016 presidential election, explain why someone else may have voted for an opposing candidate. If you did not vote, choose one of the candidates and explain why a person may have voted for him or her. Unacceptable answers involve name-calling.
  3. Select one social problem. Research how Trump intends to address that problem and research alternative means of addressing the problem. Compare and contrast your findings. What do you think should be done about your selected social problem.
  4. Summarize how the sociological imagination can help someone understand the responses to the presidential election. Sum it up in 250 or characters or less, so that if you want, you can share it with your instructor or friends on social media. You can even share your responses with me @learnsociology.

Image by Tom Lohdan via Flickr.