The sociological imagination is the holy grail of soc 101 (and all undergraduate sociology). When asked, “what do your students gain from your soc 101 course?” the answer is almost always a sociological imagination. But I challenge you to stop reading this and answer the following questions:

  1. What are the component skills that a person with a sociological imagination employs?

  2. How do these component skills have to be integrated to use the sociological imagination?

  3. When do you know it’s appropriate to apply the sociological imagination?

I found answering these questions harder than I anticipated, how ’bout you? I think many sociologists treat the sociological imagination like Justice Potter Stewart treated obscenity, “you just know it when you see it”. Thinking back the way I was taught the sociological imagination was through repetition. Almost every class I took featured a prof explaining how situation after situation could be understood from a sociological perspective. As an undergrad I tacitly picked it up through watching my profs use theirs.

Most 101 textbooks aren’t much better; almost all of them quote Mills and then provide 4–5 sentences of analysis from the author. Undergraduates can’t learn the sociological imagination by reading Mill’s quotes! The sociological imagination is a skill. No one picks up a skill simply by reading the quotes from a practitioner.

In How Learning Works Ambrose et al. (2010) discuss the science on skill/knowledge acquisition and mastery.

“To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned” (Ambrose et al. 2010: 95).

Reading this set my hair on fire and I knew I had to break down the sociological imagination. I searched Teaching Sociology and found a number of studies that discussed pedagogical interventions and assignments that would encourage students to use their sociological imagination, but I couldn’t find anything that generalized the sociological imagination.[1] So I set off to do it myself. So far, I’ve got the component skills mapped out.

The Component Skills of the Sociological Imagination

I broke up the sociological imagination into 3 main component skills.

  1. The ability to identify social contexts
  2. The ability to identify historical contexts
  3. The ability to understand the interplay between agency and structure

To help my students see each of these I put together a mind map.

Click on Mind Map For Larger Image
Click on Mind Map For Larger Image

This is far from perfect. First, the skills aren’t mutually exclusive; social contexts overlaps with many social structures is just one example. Second, there is a Russian doll issue in that each of these component skills are themselves comprised of component skills. Third, it’s hard to model all of the interplay between every piece/node on the mind map. Lastly, I sense I’ve left off a few component skills and I know I’m missing pieces. For instance, I’ve left off some forms of social hierarchy.

Two Takeaways

  1. We need more SoTL research on the Sociological Imagination as a skill and more resources for helping our students master it.
  2. If we struggle to put into words the skill that we call the sociological imagination, we should have no trouble finding empathy for our students as they work toward mastering it.

  1. Please don’t read this as a knock on Teaching Sociology. I simply could not have more respect for a journal. Not to mention, I may have missed it; I gave up searching after only 30 minutes.  ↩