The main argument Mills made in the first chapter of “Sociological Imagination” is the connection between individual experiences in daily life and changes in social structure. The sociological imagination is a mental ability that enables us to see this connection. Mills also suggests that seeing the distinction “between ‘the personal troubles of milieu’ and ‘the public issues of social structure” is the essential tool of the sociological imagination. Only when we clearly distinguish personal troubles and public issues can we see the connection between individuals’ experiences and social structures. Personal troubles are private problems that can be explained by personal characteristics; public issues are problems of collective concern. Mills used unemployment as an example to illustrate the differences between the two. He said, “In a city of 100,000, only one is unemployed, that is his personal trouble…in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million people are unemployed, that is an issue” (Mills, 1959). We may feel empathy when we read this example as we are experiencing an economic recession.
Last Friday’s headline story of New York Times (“Jobless Rate Hits 7.2%, a 16-Year High”) reports the unemployment rate rapidly increased from 2007 to 2008, from 4.9% to 7.2%. The number of unemployed people increased to 11.1 million at the end of 2008. This news story interprets the recent unemployment crisis as a public issue, as do most other observers. Politicians, economists, and citizens all have called for public policies to resolve the crisis. If politicians, economists, CEOs, and citizens all recognize unemployment as a public issue, does it mean that they possess a sociological imagination? If not, what is the difference between all of them and people who have a sociological imagination, such as sociologists?
The report suggests a consensus that the recent problems with unemployment are something more than personal troubles. How, then, might we interpret about other problems related to unemployment, for example, alcohol abuse and mental disorders? Do we think these are personal troubles or public issues? Some may argue that alcohol abuse and mental disorders result from personal or psychological traits. Before we make this conclusion, here is a study (“Unemployment and Mental Health: Understanding the Interactions Among Gender, Family Roles, and Social Class”*) at which we may like to take a look. Artazcoz et al. (2004) use data from the 1994 Catalonian Health Survey to study the relationships between unemployment and mental health consequences. (The Catalonian Health Survey is a cross-sectional survey conducted in a region in northeastern of Spain called Catalonia.) Their study shows that unemployment impacts negatively on peoples’ mental health. The study also found that gender, family roles, and social class mediate the effect of unemployment on mental health. The findings should match our common sense. We may not be too surprised hearing that an unemployed person experiences depression, mental disorders or abuses alcohol. Then, how does the sociological imagination help us to understand this phenomenon? The sociological imagination enables us to see what social structures impact an issue. Can we imagine what social structures may be related to the issue of negative mental health consequence of unemployment? Can we see the connection between individual suffering and social changes?
The headline story I mentioned above is based on the newly released employment summary from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are some interesting results not included in the news story. For example, the summary reports that the unemployment rate for adult men was 7.2 percent; adult women 5.9 percent; whites 6.6 percent; blacks 11.9 percent; Hispanics 9.2 percent; and Asians 5.1 percent in December 2008. Why are these rates different for different ethno-racial and gender groups?
Facing the economic recession and labor market contraction, we can start to use our sociological imagination to understand things happening around us.
Please read the following reports and article to gain more and detailed information.
- Employment Situation Summary:http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm
* Artazcoz, Lucía et al. 2004. “Unemployment and Mental Health: Understanding the Interactions Among Gender, Family Roles, and Social Class.” American Journal of Public Health 94 (1) Pp.82-88. (You can access this article via VU library website: http://www.library.vanderbilt.edu/heard/artdb.shtml)