taking on big ideas
For the past year I’ve slowly been working my way through Stanley Aronowitz’s Taking it Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals. My slowness in finishing the book isn’t an indicator of how enjoyable or interesting the book really is. This book is fascinating, especially if you’re interested in the intellectual history of sociology. Aronowitz makes the case that Mills’s sociological impact was a direct result of his engagement with the broader intellectual public in an effort to push social change and present ideas that challenged the capitalist status quo. Mills wasn’t a socialist or any of the things typically associated with the Old Left. Rather, Mills was the forerunner of the New Left – a group that believed in the power of ideas to shape equality and freedom in society. He saw himself as a producer of those ideas.
Not long before I began reading this book I had a conversation with a former student at Columbia University when Mills was still a professor there. (Mills died in 1962.) The former student, now an emeritus professor himself, described Mills as a recluse. He had no involvement with the graduate program and showed no interest in training future PhDs. His main involvement with the department was to teach the undergraduate political sociology class. He was rarely, if ever, in his office, and so running into him in the halls was unlikely. At the time of his death, Mills’s impact on the discipline was fairly minimal, largely because he didn’t have an ongoing research agenda that involved PhD training or publishing articles in the top journals (although he had published those types of articles in the past). Merton, Lazarsfeld, and Bell were the stars of the department in the eyes of the students.
But arguably, Mills’s reputation has outlasted those other scholars. This is not to say that Merton and Lazarsfeld haven’t had an important legacy on sociology. One could argue, and I definitely would, that their work with graduate students and subsequent impact this had on the profession has significantly shaped contemporary sociology. But Mills is the name that people remember as offering the big ideas that draw people into sociology. He is remembered every time we invoke the term “sociological imagination.” Although he never considered himself an organizational scholar, per se, anyone who studies organizational elites draws inspiration from Mills. It’s hard to be a sociologist today without invoking the concept of power and influence. His ideas, which were so radical at the time and seemed so contrary to mainstream sociology, now make up the air that sociologists breathe.
Mills didn’t seem to care much about training future generations of scholars, but he did care a great deal about ideas, and I think that it was this commitment to big, radical ideas that has established his lasting impact. As Aronowitz argues in the book, Mills believed in the power of ideas to shape society. At heart he was not a political sociologist but a cultural sociologist. In fact, his early research was about the sociology of knowledge and pragmatism. This evolved into a broader agenda in which he sought to uncover the underlying structure of power behind ideas and explain why certain groups in society controlled and shaped knowledge. He believed passionately that intellectuals ought to care about ideas as potential seeds of change. Progressive change emanated from innovation in ideas. In his “Letter to the New Left” Mills wrote, “It is with this problem of agency in mind that I have been studying, for several years now, the cultural apparatus, the intellectuals – as a possible, immediate, radical agency of change.” Interestingly, Mills wrote this in 1960, just a few years before the radical student movements erupted that would shape that decade and the politics of the Left even today.
Perhaps Mills isolated himself on purpose. It may be that his isolation from his peers and students was anchored in his will to be contrary and to put out ideas that could not easily be co-opted by those around him. He wanted to remain outside power structures. I don’t know, perhaps. Aronowitz seems to take the position that being an outsider, with one foot in sociology, helped him to establish his unique voice:
Like one of his heroes, the eceonomist and social theorists Thorstein Veblen – himself a pariah in his chosen discipline – Mills was, to paraphrase a famous aphorism of Marx, ‘in but not of’ the academy, insofar as he refused the distinction between scholarship and partisanship. But, unlike Veblen, whose alienation from conventional economics was almost total, Mills was in many ways, for most of his professional career, a sociologist in his heart as much as his mind.
It’s a great book. I recommend reading it.