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Choosing The Sociological Imagination

The journey of studying sociology always begins with the concept of the “sociological imagination”, a term coined by C. Wright Mills. This concept is challenging when it is first presented, but by using the film, The Matrix, Kim Cochran Kiesewetter explores the concept of developing a sociological imagination and the decision all students must make in a sociology class at some point during the semester: do you take the red pill or the blue one?

The camera pans across the dark, dank-looking room where two men sit, facing each other, after pacing pointedly around the space. The man in the dark sunglasses, Morpheus, is talking in a deep, calm voice to Neo, “…Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I am talking about?” Neo does, indeed, know of this feeling that Morpheus speaks of.

Morpheus then presents a question as he holds out two pills to Neo – one red, one blue. “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

The Sociological Imagination: What Is It?

The Matrix came out long before I even knew what sociology was, but I remember watching it again in college at some point and being struck by the whole movie in relation to the sociological imagination. The sociological imagination is a fancy term for the ability to connect and individual to their larger social institutions that invisibly influence their behaviors and opportunities. So many of us experience our own personal life story as something we are totally in control of and solely responsible for, but this is not the whole story. Throughout your entire life your individual actions and choices were heavily influenced by the people and institutions around you.

Furthermore, your life has been profoundly affected by the moment in history you live in. Had you been born in the 1700s you would not have experienced the world in the same way. Heck, if you were even 10 years younger than you are now, your experiences would have been dramatically different. C. Wright Mill’s idea with the sociological imagination is that to understand a person’s biography we must also understand their place in history and their place within larger social structures.

There is a common saying, “I wouldn’t have believed it, if I hadn’t seen it.” But this also works in reverse, “I wouldn’t have seen it, if I hadn’t believed it.” Those with the sociological imagination have the eyes to see a more accurate version of reality. They can see beyond the individual to the larger social forces at play. The sociological imagination allows its bearer to look at groups of people, from a single church congregation to a entire society, and see the patterns of behavior that exists between them. Put simply, to have the sociological imagination is to have the eyes to see the social forces that are hiding in plain sight.

Down The Rabbit Hole

The scene from the Matrix described above, however jumped out at me. C. Wright Mills, the famous sociologist who wrote The Sociological Imagination, writes in his book about how the root of thinking sociologically is making a decision that can result in a lesson. A lesson, that Mills says, can be both terrible and magnificent. You may be asking yourself, “But how can something be both terrible and magnificent?” The scene from The Matrix is a perfect parallel to this paradox.

In The Matrix, everyone is living in a simulated world – nothing is real. The world looks like the world we live in now, but humans are actually essentially asleep, plugged into machines that are harvesting their energy. Neo uncovers clues that the world isn’t what it seems, which is what leads him to Morpheus and the conversation just described where Morpheus offers him a choice: take the blue pill and live in a comfortable world you already know, or take the red pill and have everything you know ripped away to reveal a truth that may be terrifying but that will give you a new knowledge to make real change.

Developing a sociological imagination is much like making the decision to take the red pill. It’s scary. Most of us have lived life with the belief that things are what they seem and because of this we don’t question the status quo. Taking a sociology course, though, takes those beliefs and turns them on their heads. It can be a messy and confusing process that, in the words of Mills, is a terrible lesson. However, once we have started digging deeper and our sociological imaginations start growing, light bulbs start going off. Little “feelings” we may have had about the world around us are formulated into real ideas and theories with research to confirm them. This terrible lesson can also provide us with a magnificent one: we are not alone. The camaraderie and comfort that happens when we realize we aren’t unique to certain experiences can then inspire us to change both ourselves and the world around us.

As a sociology teacher, a lot of times, I feel like Morpheus while my students feel like both willing and unwilling Neos. From day one of class, I have to present to each student with a choice: do you want to take the red pill or the blue pill? It’s a decision each person is going to have to make over and over again with each new topic we discuss – gender, race, religion, social class, etc. Do you take the blue pill and keep the views you’ve always had? Or do you take the red pill and go on a crazy, adventure down the rabbit hole with me? An adventure that can be terrible at times, but always magnificent

Hint, hint:

Dig Deeper:

  1. The sociological imagination requires that we consider how social structures affect our individual lives. Think about your decision to attend college. What are social factors/institutions that influenced this seemingly individual decision?
  2. Consider how, had other social factors been in place, your decision to go to college might have been different. What are examples of current social factors that might have prevented you going to college (e.g., money, the school you graduated from, etc.)?
  3. Part of the sociological imagination is to also understand how history affects your opportunities. Do some research on historical trends as to who attended college. If you were attending college in the United States in 1900, how likely would you have been to attend college based on your gender, race, and social class?
  4. How can considering both social and historical influences on college attendance be both a “terrible” lesson, and a “magnificent” lesson to consider?