Paying Homage to the Father: C. Wright Mills and Radical Sociology

Joseph A. Scimecca, The Sociological Quarterly 17 (1976).

Radical sociologists have, in general, failed to produce a substantive social theory out of which their critique of society can be mounted. The only alternative to what is perceived as conservative Structural-Functionalism are diverse forms of Marxism, which as yet have not been synthesized into any cohesive model that can posit an adequate notion of social structure, without, at the same time, sacrificing the active, volitional side of man.

This article attempts to show that there is in C. Wright Mills’ total works a comprehensive model of man, society, and their interrelationship in history; and that this model can provide the structural perspective “radical sociology” currently lacks.

C. WRIGHT Mills is almost universally acknowledged to be the father of what has come to be known as “radical sociology.”‘ His attacks on objectivity and value-free social science (1943:165-180; 1959) as well as his political writings (1956; 1958; 1960a; 1962) signalled the beginnings of this new school in sociology. Yet as is often the case with “founding fathers,” homage is being paid for other than the most important reasons. What seems to be occurring is that Mills is being looked upon more as a romantic hero than as a social theorist. Given the legendary qualities Mills possessed, along with the lack of a heroic tradition among academics, this is quite easily done. Mills’ feuds with other sociologists; the rumors about his sex life; the anecdotes about him as a graduate student at Wisconsin; his riding to his classes at Columbia on a BMW motorcycle; his early death — all have made him something of a Hemingway character, an existential man who was always saying “No, in thunder.”

Unfortunately, however, such a portrait fails to consider that Mills’ cries were based on his being first and foremost a sociologist, and a very good one — that there is in Mills’ total works a comprehensive model of man, society, and their interrelationship in history.2 That Mills worked from a model is even more significant given the fact that those radical sociologists who acclaim Mills have failed to produce a substantive social theory from which their critiques of society can be mounted. The only alternatives to what is perceived as conservative Structural Functionalism are diverse forms of Marxism, which as yet have not been synthesized into any cohesive model that posits an adequate notion of social structure without sacrificing the active, volitional side of man.3

My purpose in this paper, then, is twofold: (1) to explicate this comprehensive model or, as Mills refers to it, his “working model of a social system” —a model which synthesizes Pragmatism’s inadequate conception of social structure and Weber’s deficient notion of personality formation; and (2) to show that this model can provide the structural perspective which “radical sociology” currently lacks.

Before attempting to substantiate my objectives, a delineation of the concepts “model” and “theory” is in order. I will use these constructs in the same manner that Mills himself used them. His clearest statement concerning the use of the two terms is found in The Marxists (1962:36):

A model is a more or less systematic inventory of the elements to which we must pay attention if we are to understand something. It is not true or false, it is useful and adequate to varying degrees. A theory, in contrast, is a statement which can be proved true or false, about the causal weight and the relations of the elements of the model.

Mills used this working model in the same manner as such classical theorists as Comte, Spencer, and Marx did, that is, as a basis upon which theories are constructed. If the theory is found wanting, this does not detract from the model because it may be corrected and made more useful as an analytical tool. Mills’ famous “power elite” thesis, for example, is therefore best understood as a theory of stratification concerning weights and relations of elements of a model.

Functionalism, Conflict, and Varieties of Marxism

Steven Deutsch (1970:90) has written that “radical sociology may well lead to calls for action, but first it will master a perspective which is structural and which calls for basic change, not minor alterations in social structures. . . .” To this I would add that if such a perspective is to be a liberating one it must hold a view of man as free or at least potentially free. In short, I would paraphrase George Gurwitsch’s famous definition of sociology as follows: radical sociology is the study of human freedom and of all the structural obstacles which this freedom encounters and overcomes in part.4 My position then and my reason for writing this article is that the basic models of analysis around which radical sociologists have rallied have not solved the basic dilemma of human volition and structural constraint, and that C. Wright Mills has. I am not interested in Parsonian Funtionalism as having any radical potential; I believe that Functionalism has been a dead horse for many years and was finally given a decent burial by Alvin Gouldner (1970).5 The same can be said of the non-Marxist conflict perspective, which for a time was considered quite radical but no longer holds any appeal for radicals.6 Interestingly enough, two of the more famous advocates of this type of conflict perspective, John Rex and Ralf Dahrendorf, have in their recent works (Rex and Moore, 1967; Dahrendorf, 1968) come to rely so heavily on the deterministic aspects of the concept of role that they have moved away from any view of conflict as a liberating paradigm; instead, they see man simply as a plastic player of roles. In Race, Community and Conflict (1967), a work of Rex’s co-authored with Robert Moore, the individual is envisioned as becoming whatever the social system requires of him. Man is infinitely maleable and manipulable, and the social structure and the concept of role with its assumptions of social- psychological determinism does the defining.7 As for Dahrendorf, witness the following from his essay, “Homo Sociologicus” (1968:56-57):

 To become a part of society and a subject of sociological analysis, man must be socialized, chained to the fact of society and made its creature. By observation, imitation, indoctrination, and conscious learning, he must grow into the forms that society holds in readiness for him as an incumbent of positions. . . . For society and sociology, socialization invariably means depersonalization, the yielding up of man’s absolute individuality and liberty to the constraint and generality of social rules.

What seems to be on the surface a more promising approach, at least in terms of possible support from radical sociologists, is Erving Goffman’s Dramaturgical model. Yet a close reading of Goffman’s theory shows an almost complete lack of a coherent notion of social structure, with a resultant failure on his part to analyze the nature of power and its ramifications. What we have then is a very limited view of how men affect change. Indeed, Goffman has always been much more concerned with how men adapt to social conditions than to how they might be liberated from them (Gouldner, 1970:382). Perhaps Alvin Gouldner (1970:379) has best summed up Goffman’s precarious relationship to the New Left:

Goffman’s avoidance or rejection of conventionalized hierarchicalizations has . . . important ambiguities to it. On the one side, it has an implication of being against the existing hierarchies and hence against those advantaged by it; it is, to this extent, infused with a rebel vision critical of modern society. On the other side, however, Goffman’s rejection of hierarchy often expresses itself as an avoidance of social stratification and of the importance of power differences, even for concerns that are central to him; thus it entails an accommodation to existent power arrangements. Given this ambiguity, response to Goffman’s theories is often made selectively, the viewer focusing on the ambiguity congenial to him, and thus some among the rebellious young may see it as having a “radical potential.”

Basically, then, radical sociology today is Marxist sociology —a sociology with two major branches, Critical and Scientific.8 Advocates of the former adhere to the writings of the young Marx, while the latter embrace the mature Marx’s materialistic and deterministic views. Although there have been attempts at synthesizing the two views, given the disparity of presuppositions among the two schools, it seems highly unlikely that any real reconciliation will take place in the near future.9

Briefly stated, the Critical Marxist position is a nominalistic one. Critical Marxists hold that social relations are the products of men’s minds, and consciousness therefore plays an extremely important role in human affairs. Men are essentially free beings whose awareness can lead at any time to revolutionary change. The Hegelian influence on the young Marx is stressed at the expense of the older more materialistic Marx. Scientific Marxists on the other hand see Marx as a materialist and a determinist. Social relations are determined by the means of social production. Man has no free will and therefore Scientific Marxists rely on historical inevitability to fulfill their revolutionary expectations.10

What we are left with then is a seemingly irreconcilable dilemma between the Critical and Scientific schools of Marxism. The former assumes that man is free but lacks a coherent view of social structure, while the latter postulates a deterministic social structure with individuals seen in behavioristic terms. In a nutshell, then, the fundamental dilemma of radical Marxist sociology is that when it opts for an active, non-passive view of man, it lacks a conception of social structure, and when it posits a notion of social structure, volition is sacrificed. What then is the answer? Do we somehow try to reconcile these two views by stressing the continuities in the work of the young and the mature Marx as the Critical Marxists have done?'” Or do we accept the notion that there is a quantum leap between the humanism of the 1844 Manuscripts and the political economics of Capital—that for all intents and purposes there are “two Marxisms?”‘2 My answer leans toward the latter. I believe that these two schools of Marxism are irreconcilable, but more important, even if they are not, Marx’s model of society has been overturned by historical events. I, here, agree with C. Wright Mills (1962:180) who stated:

The model as Marx left it is inadequate. One can use it only with great intellectual clumsiness and wasted sophistication, and often only with double talk.

What is necessary is not a synthesis of divergent views of Marxism but a going beyond Marx. Marx’s work should only be a beginning point, not a finished view of the world (Mills, 1962:130). What is needed is a more comprehensive model, an historical social-psychological one that analyzes the interplay between personality formation and social structures. Marxism, whatever its variety, assumes a simplistic, rationalistic psychological theory within a system shaped by the primacy of economic interests. The answer to the problem of the divergent views of Critical and Scientific Marxism is a model that shows that economic variables are only one means of power and may very well be determined by political and military aims and interests in different historical epochs (Mills, 1962:129) — a model that can account satisfactorily for the origin of mind at the same time showing how meanings are built into the human organism.

As I will show in the second part of this article, C. Wright Mills constructed such a model. Whether or not this model is still in the Marxist tradition is inconsequential given that it is a radical structural model. Call it what you will, “Neo-Marxist,” “Plain-Marxist” or “Non-Marxist” —even to debate such a question is counterproductive. What is important is Mills’ shift away from pure economic determinism along with the addition of a non-passive theory of personality formation. By coming to radicalism from a different perspective than that of traditional Marxism13 — that of American Pragmatism and Weberian Sociology —Mills was able to construct a view of man, perhaps not struggling against himself, as the anthropologist Ernest Becker (1964) calls for, but one where man struggles against an oppressive social structure.

C. Wright Mills’ Model of a Social System

Although Mills’ “working model” is implicit in almost all of his works, his most precise articulation of the model is found in Character and Social Structure (1953), written with Hans Gerth,14 and in The Sociological Imagination (1959). In Character and Social Structure Mills grafted a conception of social structure as an articulation of institutional orders onto Pragmatism’s social structureless notion of personality formation. Mills’ primary emphasis was upon the roles individuals played in various institutions, how personality was molded by these various institutional orders, and how these various institutional orders were combined in any given society to form historical types of social structures. The Sociological Imagination is essentially a reformulation of the framework worked out in Character and Social Structure. The major difference between the two works is that The Sociological Imagination is more action-oriented, has a greater emphasis on the historical location of particular social structures, and a lesser emphasis upon personality formation.

Content that he had worked out a viable system of personality formation in Character and Social Structure, Mills, in his subsequent works, could concentrate more on objective factors, what he referred to as “the main drift” of those historical and structural forces that were often impersonal and unrecognized by those who suffered their impact.

At the core of Mills’ working model is a modified version of social behaviorism (Scimecca, forthcoming: Chaps. III and IV). Briefly stated, Mills saw the development of personality in terms of four key concepts: organism, psychic structure, person, and character structure. The human organism refers to man as a biological entity and invites attention to structural mechanisms and undefined impulses. Psychic structure refers to the integration of feeling, sensation, and impulse. These elements are anchored in the organism, but their specific integration into emotions, perceptions, and purpose can only be understood by focusing upon the person. Person refers to man as a player of roles. He is a social actor and should be analyzed in terms of his social actions. In this view of man, behavior is to be understood in terms of motives rather than explained in terms of stimuli and response. Character structure, the fourth concept, is the most inclusive term for the individual as a whole entity. It refers to the relatively stabilized integration of psychic structure and social role. Basically, those differences found among men are attributable to the constitution of their organisms, to the specific role-configurations incorporated in their person, and to the idiosyncratic integration of their perceptions, feelings, and will within a psychic structure. This idiosyncratic integration represents purposeful action on the part of the individual. In order to have a will, an individual strives against something— man encounters resistence and in this manner orders his experiences. Mills here adumbrates the social constructionist view of reality (Berger and Luckman, 1966), which would become popular in the 1960s. Witness the following passage:

The world we experience is in no small degree determined by our past experiences and future expectations, which form a “frame of reference” or “apperceptive mass,” as it has been called. Because of this, man cannot be said to receive passively the world of sensations; he is an active determiner of what he perceives and experiences. For not only his sense organs but his apperceptive mass, with its social organization of feelings and impulses, is part of his perception. In this sense, man as a person constructs the world that he perceives, and this construction is a social act (Gerth and Mills, 1964:70).

An adequate portrayal of an individual’s personality formation thus involves the analysis of four concepts within the institutional confines of a specific social structure, and most importantly as mediated by an active, volitional self.

In order to link the individual to a conception of social structure, Mills incorporates Weber’s notion of “social relationship.” A social relationship exists, according to Weber, when “the behavior of a plurality of actors in so far as, in its meaningful content, the action of each takes account of that of the others and is oriented in these terms” (1947:118). Weber could then look at social structure as the probability that there will be some form of social action. Accepting a nominalist position, the closest Weber could come to an objective social structure was one that dealt in objective probabilities. The Weberian social structure is, then, one of probable patterns of behavior. Social behavior is patterned because the individual expects that others will act in a certain way and adjusts his own behavior to these expectations accordingly. As long as there is a probability that his behavior will meet with expected reactions and vice versa, a social structure exists. Social behavior thus develops and gives rise to patterned actions which “are oriented by the actors to a belief (vorstellung) in the existence of a legitimate order (Weber, 1947:370). An order exists when the subjective meaning of a social relationship is oriented to certain determinate maxims or rules, and there is an implicit recognition that they are binding on the individual. Weber thus starts out with the idea of probability and shows how social conduct develops and gives rise to other action subsequently furnishing the basis for political, economic, religious, and other organizations (Freund, 1968:119).

The bridge between the individual and this Weberian notion of social structure and the central concept of Mills’ working model approach is that of role. Roles are by definition interpersonal, that is, they are oriented to the expectations of others (Gerth and Mills, 1964:10-22). These others are also playing roles, and our mutual expectations set up patterns of social conduct. The individual’s psychological functions are thus shaped by specific configurations of roles which he has incorporated from his society. The most important aspect of personality is, of course, the individual’s concept of self, or “his idea of what kind of person he is” (Gerth and Mills, 1964:22). The image of self which one holds is formulated through an interpersonal context by taking into account what people think of us. “Their attitudes of approval and of disapproval guide us in learning to play the roles we are assigned or which we assume. By internalizing these attitudes of others toward us and our conduct, we not only gain new roles, but in time an image of ourselves” (Gerth and Mills, 1964:22). The roles one plays and the image one holds of one’s self are thus entrenched in the social context. The psychology of an individual and the controls of a society are linked by the concept of role to institution. An institution is defined as “(1) an organization of roles, (2) one or more of which is understood to serve the maintenance of the total set of roles” (Gerth and Mills, 1964:13). The roles to be analyzed are selected according to two criteria: (1) they must be of pivotal significance in the maintenance and transformation of given types of institutional orders; and (2) they should represent the polar or extreme types within given institutional orders. A major focus of the model is upon the type of person selected and formed by the enactment and internalization of those roles chosen. In the process an individual both chooses and is shaped by roles.

Institutional orders in Mills’ working model are defined according to function, that is, an institutional order consists of all those institutions which have similar consequences and ends or which serve similar functions. Five major institutional orders form the skeletal structure of the total society: the political, the economic, the military, the kinship, and the religious orders. There are also several spheres of conduct which characterize all of the institutional orders. Mills considered symbols, technology, status, and education to be the four main spheres. They are called spheres because they are “rarely or never autonomous as to the ends they serve and because any of them may be used within any of our five orders” (Gerth and Mills, 1964:29).

A social structure is, therefore, composed of institutional orders and spheres; its unity depends upon the relative importance of each institutional order and sphere, and their relation to each other. (See below a diagram of Mills’ working model.)


A major concern of Mills was the integration of total social structures. He postulated four ideal type models of integration: (1) correspondence (several institutional orders develop in accordance with a common principle); (2) coincidence (various institutional developments lead to similar resultant ends); (3) co-ordination (one or more institutional orders becomes dominant over the others and manages them) and (4) convergence (in their development, one or more institutional orders blend) (Gerth and Mills, 1964:370). Correspondence is best exemplified by the classic liberal society which prevailed in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. An example of coincidence is the Calvinistic society described by Max Weber in his treatise on Protestantism and Capitalism (1958). America at mid-century typifies co-ordination. And the American 19th-century frontier, according to Mills, is an example of convergence.

Now that Mills’ “working model of a social system” has been explicated, the question raised earlier as to its similarity to Parsonian Functionalism can be treated. Briefly stated, the two models are seen as similar because both Parsons and Mills assume that society is made up of institutions, institutions of roles, and roles of mutual expectation (Selznick, 1954:485-486). In short, because both men are deeply indebted to Weber, they seek to understand personality systems and society in terms of the interrelationship of institutions. On close inspection, however, these similarities become pale by comparison to the essential differences between the two frameworks. Rather than restate the now old questions about whether or not Functionalism can or cannot explain change-is it inherently Conservative?; does it stress harmony and stability at the expense of conflict, etc?’ —I will deal only with how Parsons’ and Mills’ models differ concerning the central points of this paper, that is, volition, social structure, and their concomitant ramifications for liberation.

The role of freedom in a structurally determined society is a problem that Parsons does not solve. In Parsons’ system voluntarism and morality are the equivalents of “free-will.” For Parsons, voluntarism implies that man’s efforts count because if they are realized successfully things will turn out differently (Gouldner, 1970:190). This difference is then justified as anti-determinism. This view of freedom does not add anything to the age old question of freedom and determinism because as Alvin Gouldner (1970:194) brilliantly points out:

Parsons . . . provides no basis on which men’s actions can achieve their goals or realize their hopes. Voluntarism gives men the freedom to make things ‘different’ from what they might have been, but neither the freedom nor the power to get what they want. In extolling men’s creativity, energy and will, Parsons reassures men that their efforts make a “difference”; but if this does not mean that they can more fully achieve their purposes, what difference does this make? In extolling men’s creative initiative without giving them hope of fulfillment, in extolling their striving despite its slim success, Parsons, in effect, extols the striving of the blind, who might indeed do better and be safer if they strived less.

Mills offers us, on the other hand, a model that is liberating, while still possessing an adequate conception of social structure-one that does not sacrifice the volitional, active nature of man. Mills points out a path toward freedom. Because of his early training in Pragmatism, Mills never gave up the notion of the autonomous individual who could use his reason to gain and secure his freedom. Like Marx, Mills believed man was alienated given the society he lived in, but where Marx saw alienation as a result of their rationality of production, Mills saw it coming from man’s perception of and adaptation to a society which results from blind drift. In order to be free the individual had to make the connection between “private troubles” and “public issues.” He had to be aware that structural problems were the key to his malaise. Only by seeing the interconnection of biography and history could man begin to gauge the limits of his potential. This was the fundamental message of The Sociological Imagination, and it is explicit in Mills’ working model approach. The social scientist must look at the structure of society as a whole, and at the ways in which the institutions which comprise it shape the character of individuals. But more than this, Mills argued, he must “study the structural limits of human decision in an attempt to find points of effective intervention, in order to know what can and what must be structurally changed if the role of explicit decision in history-making is to be enlarged” (Mills, 1959: 174). The possessor of the sociological imagination should study historical structures in order to find ways which can insure the freedom of individuals. Beyond this locating of where the structure could best be changed lay the political problem of decision-making and the intellectual problem of discerning the structural limits of man’s basic nature.

Mills’ working model approach enables the social scientist to transcend the realm of private troubles, to see that structural problems are at the root of man’s alienation. Reason could lead to freedom when and if the individual became aware that “rationally organized arrangements . . . often … are a means of tyranny and manipulation” (Mills, 1959:169). It is for the social scientist to point out how man can be free in his society —to try to insure this freedom by intervening to make the structure of society less repressive.

Mills offers a picture of man as free, but constrained by power relations. In this view some men are freer than others and are thereby responsible for their acts. History is made behind most men’s backs, not behind all men’s backs. There are varying degrees of freedom. Through the use of the model, power and those in positions of power, not necessarily economic elites, can be located. Who they are, as well as why they are powerful, is a problem for investigation by the sociologist. What we have in Mills’ model is not an “invidious doctrine” of free-will which can be used to justify punishment and repression when men are perceived as responsible for their actions, as a Scientific Marxist might say,”16 but a doctrine of moral responsibility in the face of societal constraint. Man is free, but some men are freer than others.

Mills’ Working Model of a Social System and His Later Works

The model developed in Character and Social Structure is readily apparent in Mills’ later work, indeed the bulk of his writing can be seen as either applications or refinements of the model. This is true even of White Collar (1951) which was published two years before Character and Social Structure.

White Collar

In White Collar (1951) Mills’ general model approach underlies his analysis of the massive changes that had taken place in the class structure of the United States since the nineteenth century. All that the sociologist had to do to locate these changes was to look at the related consequences of these changes upon the social roles of the individual. This could best be done by sketching the relation of the white collar worker to the changing institutions. In White Collar, Mills sought to discern the typical motivations required by individuals as necessary and sufficient for the enactment of these roles: and to show how the central ideas and beliefs of a society, its communication and symbols, contribute to the formation, maintenance, and effectiveness of these motivations.

White Collar is a social-psychological study of how the bureaucratization of the economic institutional order affects the social biographies of those individuals who act out social roles within this order. The best way to focus on this trend is to use Weber’s three dimensions of stratification, class, status, and power along with a fourth dimension, occupation.17 This Weberian notion of stratification formed the basis for Hans Gerth’s famous social stratification course given at the University of Wisconsin and is incorporated into Mills’ model. The four dimensions of stratification are used in White Collar to analyze the middle class and the bureaucratization that shapes the lives of those who comprise this strata.

The portrait Mills painted in White Collar was a bleak one. White-collar workers were not free within the economic institution, and this lack of freedom became more and more of a dominant trait in their character structure as they habitually submitted to the will of others. Their only hope lay in their attempt to build a life outside the realm of work; their salvation rested with their leisure time. The individual was seen by Mills as trapped by the drift of modern capitalism. The “new middle-class” had arisen out of an occupational shift from independent entrepreneurs to white-collar workers. Class lines were blurred between blue-collar and white-collar workers. The general result was the formation of a powerless social type cast adrift in a society that was fast becoming a mass society. The “new middle-class” had defaulted in the struggle for power. The locus of power resided in the hierarchies of large-scale institutions. The white-collar worker had inherited a world of alienation from power, from work, and from self. The middle- class was so divorced from power that alienation, anxiety, and insecurity had become general psychological traits. The middle-class person was confused, unfocused, and discontinuous in his actions. He literally had nowhere to go. His alienation from his work in the economic order extended to the political order. The mass media reinforced this alienation and the result was political indifference. In mass communication, formula replaced form. The mass media as the common denominator of the American experience presented an essentially empty one.

On balance, White Collar is a fine book and, in the opinion of many, Mills’ finest.18 The reason for this is that in White Collar Mills began to put together his synthesis of Pragmatism and Weberian sociology. The Weberian notion of the bureaucratization of society is imposed upon the personality structure of those who live and work within the large-scale institutions. Mills analyzed the structural changes in American society and their impact upon the psychology of the individuals in that society. He gave us an analysis based on the beginnings of a working model of a social system. The personalities of the white-collar workers, through similarities in occupation, class, status, and powerlessness brought about by the trend toward a bureaucratized society, tended to manifest similarities in alienation, lack of class consciousness, and political indifference. The character of individual men and women as shaped by their particular social structure forms the content of White Collar. Mills was well on his way to formulating his model. In The Power Elite we can see it in its completed form.

The Power Elite

In order to understand The Power Elite fully, one must view it as an application of Mills’ working model of a social system. The Power Elite is a theory of stratification based upon a conception of the institutional integration of society. Implicit in this theory is an intricate elaboration of Mills’ three-part conception of power as coercion, authority, and manipulation (Mills, 1964:23-38). Power is but one dimension of stratification, the most important one to be sure, but in order to be adequately understood it must be seen in interrelationship with occupation, class, and status.

Mills’ analysis, then, is again essentially a social-psychological one-a study of social types-similar to that of White Collar. He sought to relate the psychology of the individual to his social structure via the intermediary of stratification. Mills carefully avoided the term ruling class because that would indicate a purely economic analysis. His view was more comprehensive, opting for Weber over Marx. He sought to understand how American society was ruled, and came to the conclusion that a ruling stratum, or a power elite, was in charge. American society was integrated through an interlocking domination of the political, economic, and military institutional orders. Power was therefore located in the top positions of these three institutional orders and was both authoritative and manipulative. In Mills’ scheme status always followed power as did class and occupation. Those in the ruling stratum, the power elite, would thus have similar psychological traits, would in essence  be similar social types. Mills was, therefore, basically interested in two things: (1) how American society at mid-century was integrated; and (2) how the individual was shaped by institutional orders in light of this integration. His theory of stratification and his concept of power are the bridges that connect the individual to his society. In short, in The Power Elite Mills attempted to show that the power elite was a fairly homogeneous stratum with respect to power, class, occupation, and status. In line with Mills’ theory of stratification there is a high probability that those who comprised this stratum would manifest a similar mentality and ideology, would possess a class consciousness. This, as he had shown in previous works, was not attributable to the middle and lower classes.19 The Power Elite is thereby an attempt to document this conception of the power elite in terms of individuals who perform similar social roles and are thereby similar social types.

Mills followed The Power Elite with The Causes of World War III (1958), and the latter is essentially an extension of the former’s thesis. His major concern in The Causes of World War III was to show that the power elite was leading the United States into a total and absurd war. He was by then convinced of his own general thesis that the United States no longer consisted of a self-contained economy, a self-contained political order, and a subservient military. The power elite had to be understood in connection with the development of a permanent war establishment, alongside a privately incorporated economy, and inside a virtual political vacuum. Mills was careful, here, to show that the power elite had not emerged as the realization of any plot—that the idea of a power elite is merely an interpretation based upon an analysis of structural trends.

Power and political responsibility lay with those members of the upper stratum. Their consciousness and their views of reality were shaped by their position in society. They had their own viewpoints, their own codes of honor, and these factors were leading the United States toward World War III.

The Sociological Imagination

The sociological imagination as Mills used the term, represented the sociologist’s dealing with the individual’s biography and its relation to his society, or in terms of the model, with the character of the individual and his relationship to social structure. Mills’ sociology in The Sociological Imagination is clearly the same as in Character and Social Structure. The basic emphasis in both is upon social structure as the basic working unit. This lends itself to an analysis of power because social structures are usually organized under political states. Problems such as stratification, political power, economic policy, etc. cannot be adequately formulated without reference to a national framework.

The sociologist who possesses the sociological imagination must also do comparative work. The example of this is of course Weber’s comparative historical studies. Mills himself had begun such an endeavor of his own in the late 1950s. Unfortunately, what was to be his magnum opus, Comparative Sociology, a five-volume work at minimum, in which Mills would analyze the social structure of different countries (living in each for a while, doing “on the spot sociology” as he called it) was never completed.

This emphasis upon the comparative method led to a definite historical approach. The questions that need to be asked lend themselves to such a method, because otherwise all investigation would be limited to mere description. Mills was of the opinion that ahistorical studies tended to be static or at best very short term studies of limited milieux. The only way to relate smaller milieux to larger causes required the sociologist to use historical materials. Although the institutional formations and the resultant model or ideal type personalities produced are unique for each social structure, this did not preclude the comparison of social structures. The sociologist had to grasp the particular mechanisms that led to the integration of social structures. The biographies of men and women, the types of individuals who came to prevail in a specific period, in short, were defined by the social structure of the period.

Along with this emphasis upon the historical grounding of social structure, Mills also reiterated the psychological base or more explicitly the social psychology of his model. Indeed, in The Sociological Imagination (p. 161:fn.) Mills refers the reader to Character and Social Structure for a more detailed discussion of the implications of social psychology for the sociological imagination. In both works Mills is concerned not with academic psychology, but with a kind of psychoanalytical approach to institutional behavior. Mills wanted an expansion of the type of analysis done by psychoanalysts on the nature of the family’s impact upon personality to one which would do the same for all institutions. The psychological concerns of the “new” social science which Mills envisioned would encompass biography, social roles, institutions, and their interrelationship. Mills’ expanded general model would enable him not only to locate the individual within his historical milieu, but also to deal with his psychological reactions to it.

In The Sociological Imagination Mills also used his working model approach to criticize American sociologists. The weakness of “Grand Theory” and “Abstracted Empiricism” had to do with the notion of a general model. Parsons assumes that there is one answer to the question of what holds a social structure together —his is a universalistic model. The “Abstracted Empiricists,” on the other hand, had no model to speak of —they were more concerned with scientific methods than with social theory.

After the Sociological Imagination

In the three years between the publication of The Sociological Imagination and Mills’ death in 1962, he published three books. Mills edited a collection of essays of the founding fathers of sociology, entitled Images of Man (1960b), and followed this with Listen, Yankee and The Marxists (1962).

In Images of Man, Mills explained why he chose the selections he did, and what he believed was the characteristic in the thought of the classical sociologists. It was, of course, their use of “models” (Mills, 1960b).

In The Marxists Mills carried this use of a model further, using it as a basis for a critique of both liberalism and Marxism. Liberalism implied an inability to see the whole structure of society; it had no grasp of history. To Mills, liberalism was the ideology of the entrepreneurial middle class. In short, liberalism lacked a working model of the social system in which it was ensconced. Marxism, on the other hand, did have an underlying working model, but according to Mills, it was an inadequate one. Yet Mills was quick to point out that Marx, while somewhat mistaken in his overall view, had constructed a model that still presented a master scheme for viewing: “(1) the structure of society; (2) the mechanics of the history of that society; and (3) the roles of individuals in all their psychological nuances” (Mills, 1962:28-29).

Though he considered Marx the political thinker of the nineteenth century, that thinker whom social scientists had to be familiar with to be even considered social scientists, this did not preclude his offering of a trenchant criticism of Marx. Marx, like the “Grand Theorists,” postulated a universal model. Given Mills’ own working model approach, this was an inadequate construction. Mills, though he believed one had to come to grips with Marxism, never fully accepted Marxism as a total world view. Given his own background in Pragmatism and its emphasis upon the freedom of the individual, Mills could never accept the determinism of Marx. He stated explicitly in The Marxists that he believed Marx to be a determinist (Mills, 1962:91-93).21 To the pragmatically trained Mills, any form of determinism was anathema. Only his own working model, his synthesis of Pragmatism and Weberian sociology, could take the problem of freedom and choice into consideration. Mills’ final conclusion regarding Marxism was that the general trend of history had rendered much of Marxist theory inadequate. The Marxian model was something that the social scientist must contend with; it was a part of his homework. As an adequate conceptual scheme, however, it left much to be desired. In short, Mills tried to go beyond Marxism by opting for his own working model over that of Marx.

Concluding Remarks

My position, quite simply, is that Mills’ “working model of a social system” is one of the most important theoretical frameworks developed by a contemporary American sociologist. While it is in no way as grand an undertaking as the system of Parsons, it may very well be, because of its limited scope, a viable alternative to the Parsonian trans-historical theory of man and society.

C. Wright Mills provided a working model of a social system which enables its users to analyze just how much the individual is constrained by his social structure. In doing so Mills left a cohesive, systematic, historical sociology  — a model that can provide the structural perspective radical sociology currently lacks. At present, radical sociologists who see themselves working in the tradition of C. Wright Mills, in spite of their criticisms of “establishment” sociology,22 have produced little, if any, important critique of American society, and no substantive social theory for doing such. Instead of paying homage to Mills for his actions, it is now time to honor him for his intellect as well. Mills left us a sociological map in the form of a general model of a social system, a model that offers a viable notion of social structure without sacrificing the active, volitional side of man. It is now up to those who consider themselves as working in the tradition of C. Wright Mills to come to grips with Mills’ sociological legacy. It is up to them to look at his general model, to use it; to modify it, perhaps even ultimately to discard it, in much the same manner that students of Parsons have done. In this way, we can truly begin to pay homage to the father of radical sociology.


1 For a description of what constitutes “radical sociology” see Colfax and Roach (1971) and Deutsch and Howard (1970).

2 For an elaboration of how the model relates to Mills’ total works see Scimecca (forthcoming).

3 For possible exceptions which seem to be heading in this direction see the recent works of “The Frankfurt School,” in particular, its leading theorist Jurgen Habermas (1971; 1972; 1974; 1975). For an introduction to the Frankfurt School see Schroyer (1970). For an American sociologist in this tradition see Quinney (1974).

4 Gurwitsch’s definition reads: “Sociology is the science of human freedom and all of the obstacles which this freedom encounters and overcomes in part” (quoted in Filmer et al., 1973:124n).

5 I will, however, deal with Parsonian Functionalism in a later part of this paper because numerous critics (see in particular Selznick. 1954; Fallding, 1961) have pointed to certain similarities in Mills’ and Parsons’ use of such basic sociological concepts of role and institutions. I intend to show that these similarities are at best superficial.

6 See for example, Coser (1956).

7 For an analysis of this phenomena in the works of conflict theorists in general see Atkinson (1971).

8 The terms are taken from Gouldner (1973:425-462). Yet, other terms, such as Phenomenological and Structural, could just as easily be used.

9 See for example, Marcuse (1969:3-34); and Paci (1972).

10 For a recent statement of the two positions among radical Marxist sociologists see Pozzuto (1973) and Szymanski (1973a, 1973b).

11 For an extremely ambitious (though, I would argue), unsuccessful attempt see Paci (1972).

12 Gouldner (1973:425-462) provides an excellent and concise summary of the problem of the “two Marxisms.”

13 During the 1930s, Mills was a student in Texas and by his own admission was more interested in philosophy than in politics. Mills’ first wife, Mrs. Alan James, has stated that Mills read Marx much later (see Gillam, 1966:38).

14 The model was first presented in Gerth and Mills (1953). For the purposes of clarity, only Mills will be referred to in relation to the model. This is in no way to imply that Gerth’s contribution to Character and Social Structure is less than Mills’. Indeed, it is usually next to impossible to assess the relative contributions of a co-author to a particular work. It is only because I am primarily concerned with Mills that I refer to him alone in connection with Character and Social Structure (subsequent page citations are from the 1964 edition).

15 For a concise, well argued critique of Parsonian Structural Functionalism see Zeitlin (1973:3-50) .

16 For example, Szymanski (1973b:62n) takes this position:

Free-will implies that men are morally responsible and, hence, that punishment is justified. Prisons are based on this doctrine, together with that of rationality. If men are responsible for their actions, the punishment makes sense. On the other hand, if men are forced to do what they do by the logic of an oppressive society, then punishment and guilt make no sense. The invidious doctrine of free-will is used to justify the most horrendous of human actions against other men in the name of “justice.” The understanding that men are products of their society is eminently humane in its implications. The worst murderers (such as the ones portrayed in the outstanding Chilean film El Cliacal de Naueltoro) are not “guilty.” Criminals are not responsible for their actions and it makes absolutely no sense to punish them. They are products of their society. In order to free society of their crime, we must change society.

17 Weber, although he never fully developed “occupation” as a dimension of stratification, defined it as “the mode of specialization, specification, and combination of the functions of an individual so far as it constitutes for him the basis of a continual opportunity for income or for profit” (1947:250).

18 Mills himself considered White Collar to be his best book.

19 In The New Man of Power (1948), Mills came to the conclusion that labor and the working classes would never be the revolutionary agent of change Marx had predicted.

20 It is my contention that Listen, Yankee (1960a) is a political polemic and inconsequential to an overall understanding of Mills’ sociological theory.

21 While it would be interesting to speculate how Mills might have reacted to the recent publications of the young, humanistic Marx, the fact, nevertheless, remains that Mills while he was alive considered Marx to be an economic determinist.


Atkinson, Dick 1971 Orthodox Consensus and Radical Alternative. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Becker, Ernest 1964 “Mills’ social psychology and the great historical convergence on the problem of alienation.” Pp. 108-133 in Irving Louis Horowitz (ed.), The New Sociology: Essays in Social Science and Social Theory in Honor of C. Wright Mills. New York. Oxford University Press.

Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann 1966 The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday.

Coser, Lewis 1956 The Function of Social Conflict. Glencoe: The Free Press.

Colfax, J. David and Jack L. Roach (eds.) 1971 Radical Sociology. New York: Basic Books.

Dahrendorf, Ralf 1968 Essays in the Theory of Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Deutsch, S. E. 1970 “The radical perspective in sociology.” Sociological Inquiry 40 (Winter) :85-93.

Deutsch, Steven E. and John R. Howard (eds.) 1970 Where It’s At: Radical Perspectives in Sociology. New York: Harper and Row.

Fallding, H. 1961 “Toward a reconciliation of Mills with Parsons.” American Sociological Review 26 (October) :778-780.

Filmer, Paul, Michael Phillipson, David Silverman, and David Walsh 1973 New Directions in Sociological Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Freund, Julien 1968 The Sociology of Max Weber. New York: Pantheon Books.

Gerth, Hans and C. Wright Mills 1964 Character and Social Structure. New York: Harbinger Books.

1958 “The man and his work.” Pp. 3-74, Introduction to From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gillam, Richard 1966 “The intellectual as rebel: C. Wright Mills, 1916-1946.” Columbia University: Unpublished Master’s Thesis.

Gouldner, Alvin W. 1973 For Sociology. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

—1970 The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Habermas, Jurgen 1975 Legitimation Crisis. Boston: Beacon Press.

—1974 Theory and Practice. Boston: Beacon Press.

—1972 Knowledge and Human Interest.Boston: Beacon Press.

—1971 Toward a Rational Society. Boston:Beacon Press.

Marcuse, Herbert 1969 “Contributions to a phenomenology of historical materialism.” Telos 4 (Fall) :3-34. 22 See Sociological Inquiry (1970) for a whole issue devoted to radical sociology.

Mills, C. Wright 1964 “The structure of power in American Society.” Pp. 23-38 in Irving Louis Horowitz (ed.), Power, Politics and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills. New York: Ballantine Books.

—1962 The Marxists. New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc.

—1960a Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba. New York: Ballantine Books.

—1960b Images of Man. (ed.) New York: George Braziller, Inc.

—1959 The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

—1958 The Causes of World War III. New York: Simon and Schuster.

—1956 The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

—1951 White Collar. New York: Oxford University Press.

—1948 The New Men of Power. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

—1943 “The professional ideology of social pathologists.” American Journal of Sociology 49 (September) :165-180.

Paci, Enzo 1972 The Function of the Sciences and the Meaning of Man. Evanston: North-western University Press.

Pozzuto, Richard 1973 “Pre-Marxian Marxism: a critique of Szymanski’s ‘Marxism and Science.'” Insurgent Sociologist 3 (Summer): 48-55.

Quinney, Richard 1974 Critique of Legal Order. Boston: Little, Brown.

Rex, John and Robert Moore 1967 Race, Community and Conflict. London: Oxford University Press.

Ryan, William 1971 Blaming the Victim. New York: Vintage Books.

Schroyer, Trent 1970 “Toward a critical theory for advanced industrial society.” Pp. 210-234 in Hans Peter Dreitzel (ed.), Recent Sociology, no. 2. New York: MacMillan.

Scimecca, Joseph A. Forthcoming The Sociological Theory of C. Wright Mills. Port Washington New York: Kennikat Press.

Selznick, Philip 1954 “Re vie w of Character and Social Structure.” American Sociological Review 19 (August) :485-486.

Sociological Inquiry 1970 “Some Radical Perspectives in Sociology.” 40 (Winter) .

Szymanski, Al 1973a “Marxism and science.” Insurgent Sociologist 3 (Spring) :25-38.

—1973b “Marxism or liberalism: a reply to Pozzuto.” Insurgent Sociologist 4 (Summer) :56-62.

Walsh, David 1973 “Sociology and the social world.” Pp. 15-35 in Paul Filmer et al., New Directions in Sociological Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Weber, Max 1958 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

—1947 The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Talcott Parsons (ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Zeitlin, Irving M. 1973 Rethinking Sociology. New York:- Meredith Corporation.

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