C. Wright Mills

From New World Encyclopedia

Charles Wright Mills (August 28, 1916 – March 20, 1962) was an American sociologist. His writings addressed the responsibilities of intellectuals in post-World War II society and advocated relevance and engagement over disinterested academic observation. Influenced by Marxist ideas and the theories of Max Weber, Mills was highly critical of capitalism, bureaucracies, and elite social classes, particularly in the United States.

Even though he recognized that there is an inter-relationship between the individual person and their society as a whole that must be understood in the context of history and the nature of the people involved, Mills was unable to find viable solutions and methods of bringing about the social changes he saw as necessary to overcome the inequalities in human society. Lacking a spiritual component in his analysis, Mills could only observe individual and social behavior from an external viewpoint, which is insufficient in bringing about the true "revolution" necessary to develop a peaceful, harmonious world.


Charles Wright Mills was born in Waco, Texas in 1916. His father worked in the insurance industry and his mother was a housewife. Mills had a lonely childhood, as continuous friendships were difficult due to his family's moving often.[1]

Mills married his first wife, Dorothy Smith-Freya, in 1937. Tensions developed in the relationship as she asserted her intellectual individuality.[1] Mills received both a bachelor's (in sociology) and a master's degree (in philosophy) from the University of Texas at Austin. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1941.

High blood pressure earned Mills a deferment from the draft, and enabled him to begin his career in academia at the University of Maryland in 1942. Mills and his wife had a daughter, Pamela, in 1943. In 1946, he took a faculty position at Columbia University. In 1947, Mills was divorced, and he married his second wife, Ruth Harper, who had been his research assistant. They had a daughter, Kathryn, in 1955.

Mills was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright scholarship, lecturing at the University of Copenhagen in 1956. He divorced his second wife in 1959. Later in 1959, Mills married his third wife, Yaroslava Surmach, and had a son, Nikolas. Mills died of a heart attack on March 20, 1962, at his home in West Nyack, New York.


According to the basic shape of any intellectual portrait of C. Wright Mills, his essays—as published in his anthology The Sociological Imagination (1961)—are of particular interest. The appendix "On Intellectual Craftsmanship" gives an insight into what a sociologist as a social scientist whenever working creatively, like an artist, is able to accomplish.

Mills was heavily influenced by Marxist thought:

  • He echoed the idea of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that "It is not the consciousness determinating the everyday life but it is the very life [pre] determinating the consciousness." [2]
  • He was against any individualistic, reductionist, and obscure images of what constitutes society. This concept channels the Marxist idea that "any society does not consist of individuals but expresses the sum of relationships [and] conditions that the individual actor is forming." ("Gesellschaft besteht nicht aus Individuen, sondern drückt die Summe der Beziehungen, Verhältnisse aus, worin diese Individuen zueinander stehn") [3]

Mills shared with Marxist sociology and elite theorists the view that society is divided rather sharply and horizontally between the powerful and powerless. He also shared their concerns for alienation, the effects of social structure on the personality, and the manipulation of people by the mass media. At the same time, however, Mills did not regard property (economic power) as the main source of conflict in society.

Mills argued that micro and macro levels of analysis can be linked together by the "sociological imagination," which enables its possessor to understand the large historical sense in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. Individuals can only understand their own experiences fully if they locate themselves within their period of history. The key factor is the combination of private troubles with public issues: the combination of troubles that occur within the individual’s immediate milieu and relations with other people with matters that have to do with institutions of an historical society as a whole.

Mills thought it was possible to create a good society on the basis of knowledge, and that people of knowledge must take responsibility for its absence.

Major Works

The New Men of Power

The New Men of Power: America's Labor Leaders (1948) analyzed the "labor metaphysic," which is the traditionally held belief that labor movements drive social consciousness towards advancement. Mills looked at the dynamic of labor leaders cooperating with business officials. He concluded that labor movements are appeased by simple concessions and that labor leaders and businessmen are actually part of the same system of capitalism.

White Collar

White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951) describes the forming of a "new class," the white-collar workers. A major study of social alienation in the modern world of advanced capitalism, where cities are dominated by "salesmanship mentality," it contended that bureaucracies have overwhelmed the individual city worker, robbing him or her of all independent thought and turning him into an oppressed, yet cheerful, "robot." He or she receives a salary, but becomes alienated from the world because of his or her inability to affect or change it. Mills included a discussion of the "typical American," which has evolved from a frontiersman to the white-collar life of today.

The issues in this book were close to Mills' own background: His father was an insurance agent and he himself, at that time, worked as a white-collar research worker in a bureaucratic organization, at Paul Lazarsfeld's Bureau for Social Research at Columbia University.

Together with The Lonely Crowd, the 1950 sociological analysis written by Mills' friend and colleague David Riesman, White Collar is considered a landmark study of American character.

The Power Elite

The Power Elite (1956) described the relationship between the political, military, and economic elite in America. Mills noted that these people share a common worldview:

  1. the "military metaphysic": a military definition of reality
  2. possess "class identity": recognizing themselves separate and superior to the rest of society
  3. have interchangeability: i.e. the ability to move within and between the three institutional structures and hold interlocking directorates
  4. co-optation: socialization of prospective new members is done based on how well they "clone" themselves socially after such elites.

These elites in the "big three" institutional orders have an alliance based upon their "community of interests" driven by the military metaphysic, which has transformed the economy into a "permanent war economy." Dwight Eisenhower’s election as president gave a clear image of the entwinement of these bases of power in the military-industrial complex. This book is particularly relevant in consideration of America's post-9/11 "War on Terror."

The Sociological Imagination

The Sociological Imagination (1959) described a mindset (the "sociological imagination") for doing sociology that stresses being able to connect individual experiences and societal relationships. The three components that form the sociological imagination are:

  1. History: how a society came to be, how it is changing, and how history is being made in it
  2. Biography: the nature of "human nature" in a society; what kinds of people inhabit a particular society
  3. Social Structure: how the various institutional orders in a society operate, which ones are dominant, how are they held together, and how they might be changing, etc.

"Sociological imagination" gives the one possessing it the ability to look beyond their local environment and personality to wider social structures and a relationship between history, biography, and social structure. Mills criticized other schools of sociology including the grand theory of Talcott Parsons, which he believed was rarely based in reality. Mills also spoke out against overuse of statistics, which he said could only be afforded by large bureaucracies and therefore would lead to the bureaucratization of academia.

Mills' other works include: The Causes of World War Three (1958), Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba (1960), The Marxists (1962), and From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1948), a widely used translation of Max Weber's works.


While many academics were unwilling to tackle controversial subjects or form strong opinions, Mills eagerly did both. He criticized others for their unwillingness to take a stand, which contributed to his reputation as brash. These harsh criticisms and his commitment to social change placed Mills outside of mainstream academia. [4]

Mills also drew the ire of his contemporaries for offering support to Cuban president, Fidel Castro. Ideas critical of the administration such as those found in The Power Elite, along with support of the communists in Cuba, which Mills saw as a possible "third way" between Soviet communism and American capitalism, were particularly bold considering the blacklisting of suspected American communists that occurred in Mills' lifetime.

Nevertheless, Mills' legacy can be found in his introduction of Weber's thought into American sociology. Mills' own work drew heavily on Weber's ideas, applying them to the American social and political situation. Additionally, his outspoken opinion that social scientists should not only be observers of society, but should also take responsibility to act for the betterment of society based on their findings, stimulated others to act in this way.


  • Mills, C. Wright. 1983. C. Wright Mills, an American Utopian. Irving Louis Horowitz. ISBN 0029150108
  • Mills, C. Wright. 2000. C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings. ISBN 0520232097
  • Mills, C. Wright. 1948. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. ISBN 0710032544
  • Mills, C. Wright. 1948. The New Men of Power: America's Labor Leaders. ISBN 025206948X
  • Mills, C. Wright. 1951. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. ISBN 0195157087
  • Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. ISBN 0195133544
  • Mills, C. Wright. 1958. The Causes of World War III. ISBN 0873323572
  • Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. ISBN 0195133730
  • Mills, C. Wright. 1960. Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba.
  • Mills, C. Wright. 1962. The Marxists.


  1. 1.0 1.1 John R. Shook, (ed.), "C. Wright Mills" The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers (Thoemmes, 2005. ISBN 1843710374).
  2. Marx, Karl and F. Engels, The German Ideology, 1st part, on Ludwig Feuerbach.
  3. Karl Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie/Rohentwurf, 1857/1858.
  4. Mark K. Smith, C. Wright Mills: power, craftsmanship, and personal troubles and private issues The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education (1999, 2009). Retrieved October 9, 2019.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Horowitz, Irving Lewis. C Wright Mills: An American Utopian. Free Press, 1985. ISBN 0029150108
  • Shook, John R. (ed.). The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers. Thoemmes, 2005. ISBN 1843710374
  • Summers, John H. (ed.). The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills. Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN 0195343042
  • Trevino, A. Javier. The Social Thought of C. Wright Mills. SAGE Publications, Inc, 2011. ISBN 1412993938

External links

All links retrieved November 24, 2023.


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