Quote: C. Wright Mills on unemployment

In 1959 the sociologist C. Wright Mills released The Sociological Imagination, a seminal piece of work that is required reading for the field. Mills defined the sociological imagination as the ability to “understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals.” A part of exercising this understanding involves distinguishing between troubles and issues: the former concerning the individual and the latter important for matters that transcend any one person.

Here is how he describes this principle in regard to unemployment (emphasis mine):

In these terms, consider unemployment. When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for it’s relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to finds its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.

To my eye this perspective excludes approaching issues, such as mass unemployment, with the idea that aggregate outcomes are the result of millions of people choosing to be lazy. Which is another way of simply acknowledging that there are influential aspects of society that happen to be greater than any one person. Maybe our proposed solutions shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

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4 responses to “Quote: C. Wright Mills on unemployment

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