Exercising Our SI Muscles

Do you have a vroom-vroom? No?
Guess you're not as cool as sociologists.

The term “sociological imagination” (SI) comes from C. Wright Mills’ 1959 book by the same name. “Sociological imagination” is, essentially, locating personal issues within their social contexts in order to further analyze them. Sociologists frequently reference Mills and the SI, not only because the concept encourages us to engage more critically with our social and cultural worlds but because Mills rode a motorcycle and made nerdy sociologists look slightly cooler.

Sounds fun, right? (The SI, not the motorcycle.) Here’s the snag: We live in the U.S., which is an incredibly individualistic nation. Individual freedoms? Personal determinism? Emphasizing the rights of individuals above those of the masses? Tic, tac, and toe! As a result, we tend to address our social worlds solely in terms of individual rights and choices. If someone is in dire straits, it must be because they screwed up, right? What kind of dismal childhood did they have, anyway? How might we exorcise their personal weaknesses and replace them with the iron rods of self-reliance and -determination? These questions illustrate some of the many reasons why thinking sociologically – in other words, putting people within their cultural and global contexts – remains such a Sisyphean task.

That said, shall we try? Below is a list of sociological questions you might wish to ask yourself every second of every encounter of every day. Ever. Or at least whenever your sociology instructor asks you to think critically.

·         Description: What are some underlying social issues behind this?, How might someone in another place, nation, or historical time discuss or describe this?
·         Historical analysis: How has this social issue manifested before now? How has it been addressed, historically speaking?, What current factors make us discuss in the ways we do now?
·         Geography: What does this say about our community?, Why did this manifest this way?, Does this issue look the same in other regional contexts?, How does this situation reflect national or global events?
·         Culture: What norms does this reflect?, How do media portray this issue, and how does that affect this situation?, How do American rituals and values play into this?, How might others talk about this situation, and what does that say about their political and personal identities?
·         Identities and groups: How might identities (e.g., race, class, gender, sexuality, dis/abilities, looks, age, religion, immigration status, etc.) play a part in how this developed and appears?, How might this situation change if it occurred to someone who is a member of a different identity set?, How might members of other identities perceive this?, How does this situation affect others based on their identity/group membership?

Let’s do a couple of exercises to limber up our sociological imaginations.

Exercise 1: The Case of Sororal Sorrows

Your sister, who works at Subway for minimum wage, calls you up and asks for a small loan so she can pay her bills. Your first thought goes something like, “Get a better job! I work hard for my money!” Then, the light of sociology gleams down upon you, and you decide to reference your handy-dandy list of sociological questions and ask yourself the following: 1. How might one describe your sister’s job situation?, 2. Who is unemployed and underemployed in the U.S. right now? Why is this?, 3. What does it mean to be impoverished? Who is poor, and why?, 4. How might her identities (gender, race, age, etc.) factor in?

Knowing stats like these is one of the main reasons
sociologists rarely get invited back to parties.
We all know what unemployed is, but what about underemployed? This is when a person works fewer hours and for lower wages than they want. It’s also used to describe those who don’t get paid what they deserve according to their education and experience.[i] In this economy, a huge chunk of people are underemployed[ii]; it’s kind of hard to compete with outsourced labor, so wages remain depressed while cost of living has inched ever-upward.[iii] Didn’t you read in one of your Soc classes that the underemployment rate in 2009 was something like 14% for White folks and around 25% for Latinos and African Americans?[iv] You also heard on the news last night that most of the job growth over the past few years has been in low-wage jobs.[v] Sheesh! Is everyone having a hard time paying their rent?

Okay, so a lot of people, including your sister, are underemployed. Maybe she and others could get some, you know, governmental assistance or something. Although she is technically impoverished (around $11,000 a year or less for a family of one[vi]), she doesn’t have a kid, so she doesn’t qualify for social assistance. Strike one. Maybe she could move back in with your mom? Oh, that’s right – your mother is (barely) subsisting on social security right now. Strike two. Finally, you remember something you heard your brilliant sociology instructor say about women experiencing higher rates of unemployment and underemployment in the U.S.[vii] And besides, don’t women get paid something like 77 cents on every male dollar?[viii] Strike three, sister.

So, perhaps your sister isn’t just a drain on society and your patience. Maybe she’s a symptom of several larger issues. Given our economy and your sister’s sex, it’s no wonder she’s one of millions of Americans experiencing economic hardships.

In the end, you can’t lend her the money, anyway, because you’re broke, too, but at least you can commiserate with, rather than lecture, her.

Exercise 2: Attack on Our Wallets by the Killer Fat People!

Ugh! Fat people are driving up our healthcare costs! Don’t you have enough financial woes to deal with, what with the prices of gas and your newfound awareness of the stagnation of wages over the past few decades? Annoyed at the effects their portliness have on your wallet, you glare at random fat people on your way to work.

Then inspiration strikes. Why not ask some of those fun sociology questions and get to the bottom of this social issue? 1. How do we define “fat” in the U.S., and what does this say about us?, 2. How long has fatness been considered a social problem?, 3. Heck, is it even true that fatness drives up healthcare costs?, 4. Culturally speaking, how do we talk about fatness?, and 5. Who in the U.S. is fat?

You journey to the Internet like any good sociologist and immediately research how we define “fat.” What is this “Body Mass Index (BMI)” thingy[ix], and how accurate can it be when it defines everyone from Mo’Nique to Arnold Schwarzenegger as “obese”?[x] Fatness hasn’t always been considered a social problem, your research tells you; our cultural obsession with it seems to have blossomed in the 20th century as Westerners moved from defining fatness as a biological (hormonal, genetic) to a psychological (fat as “protection,” mommy issues) “problem.”[xi] Whoa! Your research reveals the “fat people = higher healthcare costs” equation is simplistic at best and a myth at worst.[xii],[xiii]

If we were really concerned about healthcare, you muse during a brief break, wouldn’t we be equally furious at people who don’t handle stress well (heart problems, anyone?), who don’t use sunscreen (hello, cancer!), and who don’t put those anti-slip seashell foot-gripper thingies in their showers (cracked skull, here we come!)? After all, no one has started a “War on Shower Slipping.”

The more you research, the more you start thinking the whole fat issue has recently become a moral panic, turning normally-rational human beings into frothing lunatics who seem willing to blame fat people for everything from global warming[xiv] to higher airplane fares.[xv] Why the passion over a different body type? Why do large numbers of Americans say they would rather walk away from their marriage or become an alcoholic than be fat?[xvi] Why the constant cultural devaluation of anything to do with fatness? You discover more people of color[xvii] and working class folks[xviii] are fat. Might these facts have something to do with how we discuss fatness, or does this moral panic stem from more technological and economic factors?

Your brain is about to explode from all the questions and all the dark corners you could investigate with the flashlight of critical social research; however, you’re tired and decide to continue your research tomorrow. On your way to school the next day, you smile brightly at fat people, sorry you ever believed the silly cultural hype about them draining our system. Luckily for you, they smile back.

Notice how the application of the sociological imagination brought you and your sister closer and turned your fat-aimed frown upside down? Embrace how much better you feel now that you’re contextualizing every personal issue and questioning, well, everything. It’s kind of freeing, don’t you think, to escape the pressure of weighing individuals’ “good” and “bad” choices in favor of regarding them as colors and lines within much larger, cultural and historical murals. Heck, if nothing else, applying the sociological imagination will make you feel a little nicer.

Plus, and let’s be honest – the SI brings us all this much closer to motorcycle-riding, sunglass-wearing coolness.


[i] The Free Dictionary. “Underemployed.” Retrieved October 20, 2012 (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/underemployed).

[ii] Marlar, J. 2012. “U.S. Unadjusted Unemployment Rate at 7.9% in September.” Gallup Economy. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (http://www.gallup.com/poll/157871/unadjusted-unemployment-rate-september.aspx).

[iii] Mishel, L. and H. Shierholz. 2011. “The Sad but True Story of Wages in America.” Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (http://www.epi.org/publication/the_sad_but_true_story_of_wages_in_america/).
[iv] Edwards, K.A. 2009. “Minorities, Less Educated Workers See Staggering Rates of Underemployment.” Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (http://www.epi.org/publication/minorities_less-educated_workers_see_staggering_rates_of_underemployment/).
[v] Data brief. 2012. “The Low Wage Recovery and Growing Inequality.” National Employment Law Project. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (http://www.nelp.org/page/-/Job_Creation/LowWageRecovery2012.pdf?nocdn=1).
[vi] HHS. 2012. “2012 HHS Poverty Guidelines.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/12poverty.shtml).
[vii] APA. 2012. “Psychological Effects of Unemployment and Underemployment.” American Psychological Association. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (http://www.apa.org/about/gr/issues/socioeconomic/unemployment.aspx).
[viii] Macionis, J. 2012. Social Problems, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
[ix] CDC. 2011. “About BMI for Adults.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/adult_bmi/index.html).
[x] Campos, Paul. 2005. The Diet Myth. New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc.
[xi] Schwartz, H. 1986. Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat. New York, NY: The Free Press.
[xii] Durazo-Arvizu, R., D.L. McGee, R.S. Cooper, Y. Liao, and A. Luke. 1998. “Mortality and Optimal Body Mass Index in a Sample of the US population.” American Journal of Epidemiology 147:739-749.
[xiii] Flegal, K.M., B.I. Graubard, D.F. Williamson, and M.H. Gail. 2005. “Excess Deaths Associated with Underweight, Overweight, and Obesity.” Journal of the American Medical Association 293(15):1861-7.
[xiv] Hill, C. 2009. Scientists: “Fat People Make Global Warming a Lot Worse.” New York Daily News. Retrieved October 21, 2012 (http://articles.nydailynews.com/2009-04-21/news/17919504_1_global-warming-fat-people-emissions).
[xv] DiCarlos, L. 2002. “Why Airlines Can’t Cut the Fat.” Forbes. Retrieved October 21, 2012 (http://www.forbes.com/2002/10/24/cx_ld_1024obese.html).
[xvi] Schwartz, M. 2006. “Some People Would Give Life or Limb Not to be Fat.” Yale News. Retrieved October 21, 2012 (http://news.yale.edu/2006/05/16/some-people-would-give-life-or-limb-not-be-fat).
[xviii] FRAC. 2010. “Relationship between Poverty and Overweight and Obesity.” Food Research and Action Center. Retrieved October 21, 2012 (http://frac.org/initiatives/hunger-and-obesity/are-low-income-people-at-greater-risk-for-overweight-or-obesity/).


  1. I thought this was SOOo inspiring and enlightening. Your posts always amaze me! It really is no wonder your students think you're the best instructor -- you make things so easy to understand and digest, while giving tons of cold-hard-facts wrapped in excitement and fun! :-D

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks, Krissers, for being my teaching assistant and fierce advocate! :)

  2. SING IT! SING SING SING IT! Woooooo hooooooooooo!

    Now make all your classes read it!

    1. Thank you, LJ. I'm so glad you find this compelling. And yep, I plan on making my students read it, esp my first-years.


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