What is the Sociological Imagination?

A brief summary of, and elaboration on Anthony Giddens’ take on what the sociological imagination involves… 

Learning to think sociologically means cultivating the sociological imagination.  Studying sociology cannot be just a routine process of acquiring knowledge.  A sociologist is someone who is able to break free from the immediacy of personal circumstances and put things in a wider context.  Sociological work depends on what the American author C. Wright Mills, in a famous phrase, called the sociological imagination (Mills 1970).

The sociological imagination requires us, above all, to ‘think ourselves away’ from the familiar routines of our daily lives in order to look at them anew.  The best way to illustrate what this involves is take a simple act which millions of people do every day, such as drinking a cup of coffee. A sociological investigation of coffee reveals that there are many social processes associated with the act.

First, coffee is not just a refreshing drink but it has symbolic value as part of our day to day social activities. Often the rituals associated with coffee drinking are more important than consuming the drink itself. For example, the morning cup of coffee is, for many people, the central part of their morning routine, an essential part of starting the day, while ‘meeting someone for coffee’ is typically not just about drinking coffee, but forms the basis for socialising and social interaction, which offer a rich vein of subject matter for sociologists to investigate.

Second, coffee contains caffeine, a drug which stimulates certain parts of the brain. As such, people drink coffee to aid concentration, or simply ‘give them a lift’. Coffee is a habit-forming substance, and such many people feel as if they cannot get through a typical day without their daily coffee injections. Coffee, like alcohol in the United Kingdom, is a legal drug, and yet other mind-altering drugs such as cannabis and cocaine are illegal. Other societies have different rules pertaining to mind altering, addictive drugs – and the question of why such rules come about and why they differ from culture to culture is of interest to sociologists.

Third, when we drink a cup of coffee, we are caught up in a complex set of global social and economic interactions which link us to millions of other people in other countries. There is a huge global production chain associated with coffee – it is grown in Asia, Africa and Latin America, typically by quite poor farmers, then bought in bulk by local distributors, and then typically shipped to Europe where it is roasted and ground, and also packaged and branded. If you add on the processes which go in a coffee shop, there are 6 chains from coffee farmer to consumer.

Fourth – historically, the production and consumption of coffee is tied up with the history of colonialism – a period in which European powers invaded Asia, Africa and Latin America and set up colonies which specialised in particular crops (such as tea, coffee, sugar and bananas) for export back to the ‘mother countries’ – the fact that coffee is grown in huge quantities in countries such as Colombia and Indonesia is a legacy of the colonial era.

Fifth – drinking coffee ties us into relations with some of the world’s largest Corporations – such as Nestle and Starbucks – many of these corporations have been accused of exploiting coffee pickers by paying very little for the coffee they buy in order to maximise their profits, thus ‘coffee as usual’ perpetuates global capitalism. Of course, there is now ‘fair trade coffee’, so purchasing coffee involves making ethical choices about whether you go for the cheapest cup or pay extra to give the farmers a chance of a decent wage.

Sixth – there have been recent concerns about the environmental impact of growing coffee – when any product is ‘factory farmed’, it depletes the soil and reduces biodiversity in a local area – not to mention to pollution associated with shipping the product several thousand miles around the globe.

Try cultivating your own sociological imagination: 

Take any product and ask yourself the following in relation to it:

  1. What social rituals are associated with consuming the product?
  2. What norms and rules exist which limit the use of the product or similar product?
  3. How does the product connect you to global economic and social processes?
  4. What is the history of the product?
  5. What Corporations are typically involved in the manufacture and distribution of the product. Are there any ethical concerns about the companies involved, are there any ethical alternatives?
  6. Does the use of the product harm the environment?

Products this might work well with:

  • Footwear – flip flops, trainers, high-heels. 
  • Mobile phones.
  • Chocolate.\

I usually use this as part of an introductory module for A-level sociology.

To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com

Sources use to write this post

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

Giddens – What is Sociology?

A summary of Giddens’ ‘Sociology’ (2017): The Introduction

‘The world we live in today can feel liberating and exciting but, at the same time confusing and worrying. Global communications and friendships across national boundaries are in many ways easier to sustain than in previous times, yet we also see violent crime, international terrorism, emerging wars and persistent economic and social inequality.

Global terrorism.jpg
Giddens: the global world is full opportunities, but also high consequence risks

The modern world presents us with many opportunities and possibilities, but it is also fraught with high-consequence risks, most notably the damaging impact of our high-consumption lifestyle on the environment.

Most people within the relatively rich countries are materially better off than ever before, but in other parts of the world many millions live in situations of poverty where children die for the lack of fundamental things such as food, safe water supplies and basic healthcare. How can this be, when humanity as a whole has the capability to control its own destiny that would have been unimaginable to previous generations’?

Global Inequalities.jpg
Why is there so much inequality in the world?


  • How did this world come about?
  • Why are the conditions of life today so different from those of the past?
  • Why is there so much inequality in the world?
  • Where are today’s societies heading in the future?

These ‘big questions’, among many others, are the prime concerns of sociology, and if you have ever asked yourself any of the above big questions, then you can consider yourself a novice sociologist.

Sociology can be simply defined as ‘the scientific study of human life, social groups, whole societies and the human world as such… Its subject matter is our own behaviour as social beings in relationship with many other people. ‘

The scope of sociology is extremely wide, ranging from the analysis of passing encounters between individuals on the street to the investigation of crime, international relations and global forms of terrorism.

Most of us see the world in terms of familiar features, through our friends, families and working-lives, but sociology insists that we take a broader view in order to understand why we act in the way that we do.

Sociology teaches us that much of what we regard as natural, inevitable,  good and true may not be so, and that the basic worldview we have is simply a result of the historical context in which we live and the social processes which frame our daily lives.

Understanding the subtle yet complex and profound ways in which our individual lives reflect the contexts of our social experience is basic to the sociologist’s outlook.

The rest of Giddens’ introductory chapter covers the following:

  • An introduction to sociology as a way of thinking – ‘the sociological imagination’.
  • How sociology came into existence – introducing some of the ideas of the founders of sociology – Auguste Comte, Emile Durkhiem, Karl Marx and Max Weber , and the ‘neglected founders’ of sociology.
  • The three basic sociological traditions – Functionalism, conflict perspectives, and symbolic interactionism.
  • What sociology might be used for – should it public (political) or private?

A few thoughts on this introduction

  • What isn’t clear from this section (although Giddens does make it clear later on) is that There are some sociologists who would reject aspects of his definition of sociology – there are those who do not think sociology should be a science, for example and there are those who think sociology should be much more focused on micro processes – Giddens has a very global (verging on futuristic IMO) approach to sociology.
  • For those studying A-level sociology, this isn’t an A-level text book, and YES, the restraints of the A-level syllabus means you won’t be spending much time focusing on interesting issues such as global warming or terrorism, you’re much more likely to be focusing on turgid sociology from the 1970s and 80s, because that’s what’s on the spec, and so you could be assessed on it, and your teachers can’t risk not teaching it!

Related Posts

 You might like to read my summary of Bauman and May’s take on the same question: ‘what is sociology’?

If you want to check out one of Giddens’ major contributions to sociology – have a look at my summary of his 1991 classic ‘Modernity and Self-identity’ – a great read, but it helps if you’ve already studied both sociology and psychology.

Sources used to write this post

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

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