How to Develop Your Sociological Imagination for Empathy and Social Justice
Connecting the dots between daily life and social structures is a necessary requirement for empathy and social justice
Photo Credit: UnSplash
The other day I had the honor of having breakfast with my one of my favorite Graduate School professors. Our daughters were talking about books and games they liked to play and I was amazed.
I said, “I just do not have that kind of imagination!”
My professor said, “You have a Sociological Imagination.”
And that, indeed, I do have. If only it involved the occasional fairy, mischievous elf, or talking animals.
The Sociological Imagination is something that is a blessing and a curse.
Now, I would not trade it for anything. I would not give it up or exchange it. But wow, seeing the world as it is — in all of its connections to systems and structures and things that are vastly powerful due to historical and institutional protection and enshrinement, — it’s a lot to deal with on the daily.
When we know that things we are facing, or that people we know are facing, or that people everywhere are facing, are actually connected to massive institutions — namely, the three predominant causes of all issues in our society, Capitalism, Patriarchy, and White Supremacy, — this can give us insight into:
a) how to talk about the social problems using the right language and,
b) how to go after the actual root cause of the social problem, not just scramble after the symptoms as we usually do in this nation.
c) how we can have empathy, solidarity, and connection with those struggling against the same massive social forces now that we are aware that this is in fact, the case.
What do I mean by this? Let’s read on.
Photo Credit: UnSplash
What is the Sociological Imagination?
If you want the solid, beautiful, late 1950’s quote, — and I hope you do, — the Sociological Imagination is, as defined by C. Wright Mills, “ the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and the world (Mills, 1959: 4).
The Sociological Imagination is the insight to connect personal troubles — things that are maybe going wrong in your life, or that are causing some strife or negativity, — and social issues, public issues, or, social structure. To trace things back to their root causes and take note that what is happening to you, your own life, your own biography, is also shaped by, rooted in, taking place in, and given its constraints and freedoms, if any, by that of the current time and trajectory of history, society, culture, and the political, economic, environmental larger context.
Some common examples include the issue of unemployment. If one guy or a handful of guys are unemployed, then maybe we can say, hmmm, what’s up with these guys. They must have done something wrong, it has to be on them. But, if as is always the case, thousands upon thousands of people are unemployed, or, in our new economic system, working two or more jobs but still in poverty, — well, then we can say, hmmm, this has got to be a bigger problem, with bigger causes. All of these people are not doing the same thing or even different things “wrong” or to deserve this particular form of woe and oppression. It has to be rooted in and perhaps, dare I say, a feature of and a requirement of, the system, the system of Neoliberal Capitalism, circa 2019 edition.
Does this make sense? I hope so. If not, enjoy a few nerdy Sociology teacher lecture slides, maybe that will help a bit?
Photo Credit: My Soc 101 Lecture Slides
Photo Credit: My Soc 101 Lecture Slides
How Will Having a Sociological Imagination Help You?
Speaking from personal experience, and as a Sociology instructor, the Sociological Imagination is a life-changing way of seeing the world. Knowing that you are not alone, — that things like gender roles and expectations, economic shifts and restructuring, educational policies, globalization, — have the power to shape and infiltrate what you are able to do, who you are able to be, where you are able to go, and in all other ways either constrain or encourage your action or interpretation of events — is empowering.
One of the profound insights of being able to turn on and apply your Sociological Imagination is to make the connection and have the epiphany that you are not alone. That others are facing these same issues. That in fact, many issues are connected and intertwined at their root causes.
So, when you are stressing out over student loan debt, the price of rent, the cost of food, the fears about global warming and the realities of life in the gig economy, — the knowledge that all of these things are not just impacting you, or rather, that what is happening to you is not actually a fault of your own brings some degree of comfort and also some potential for channeling your fears and rage into collective actions.
Because newsflash: life in 2019 USA/Planet Earth is very difficult for so many of us. Historical, institutional, deeply entrenched and protected structures of power have caused these things to exist the way that they do. And these structures can be challenged, confronted, changed, and created anew.
However, most of our society, from media to magazines to political rhetoric, ignores the realities of structure and places every single issue on the individual. And when we see this with our Sociological Imagination, we can start to call it out and to trace it back to it’s actual intent and purpose: to make sure no one joins together and comes after the people benefiting from the systems of inequity, injustice, and indifference.
Photo Credit: UnSplash
How Will Having a Sociological Imagination Hurt You?
The only actual hurt caused by putting on and practicing your Sociological Imagination is that it is depressing at times. Because again, as mentioned, we live in a society that would rather we not see things for how they are. We live in a society where a lot of conversations and spaces do not take structure into account at all.
People would rather talk about anecdotal stories, and would rather believe that people cause their own problems via lack of “personal responsibility” or some other individual default. This way, many folks are able to set aside the idea that structural things could come for them, or have indeed come for them already, and see it as “someone else’s problem.”
So, for example,- racism. A lot of people in this nation like to think racism is something that just exists when people of color are present. Like people of color carry it with them and then, ope, stuff happens. When in fact, racism is structural, institutional, historical, and pervasive and it is a dynamic of power and oppression.
Meaning that it only happens one way, — this is where I always get into trouble because so many white people want to believe that racism is an anything goes random happening, when, here’s the reality: racism is an oppression rooted in historical institutional power, and at our founding, — at our societal foundations, — is the realities of White Supremacy, or White Privilege, if you will.
Meaning, here goes, the part where people get mad: Only White People can be Racist. Because that’s where all of that historical and institutional power went, and is, — people of color can be prejudiced, and can act out internalized racism, but, they do not have the social, historical, institutional, deeply rooted power to oppress white people.
Please please please say this makes sense and actually sit with it a minute. Ok? Because realizing this is the first step towards actually changing anything for the better.
This means that things were set up, long ago, and intended to last it out, — and have indeed found ways to consistently last it out, — so that white people counted as more human and more citizen than Black people and all other non-white people.
I won’t go into it all here, that’s like 100 other articles, and believe me, I have the time. But this is an example of depression and also just being too woke to deal with most conversations happening — be it friend groups, social media, random strangers, your own family. Sometimes, to conclude, having a Sociological Imagination is intellectually and emotionally exhausting.
When you have the insight — the wisdom, — to trace every single issue today back to its roots in the social structure, — it’s gonna cause a bit of pain. But, it is going to be worth it if you are brave and can stay strong, if you can tell the truth to power, and if you can bring a few others with you.
Photo Credit: The Equality Institute
Bravery in the Face of Ignorance
Our culture loves ignorance. Our society thrives on it. Sorry to spill the beans like this, but if you made it this far, then I am guessing you already knew this little secret. It is very difficult to have meaningful, intellectual, factual, smart, and deep conversations in most spaces and places in our cultural landscape. The media does not encourage it, the powerful do not want it.
Our school systems do not have the time to actually encourage and support critical thought because — trace it back — structurally they have been left for dead via the forces of turning children into consumers and education into a product and putting everything to do with learning up to the decisions of the market. So, textbooks are warped, teachers are underpaid and exploited, schools are crowded and segregated by race and class, and things that science knows lead to smarter, better, happier, people are cut at the first chance by governments at every level (things like recess, healthy food, smaller class sizes, mindfulness education, restorative justice attempts, actual decent books).
So, I say all this to let you know that it takes bravery to speak out, to call things out, to say you see the connections and here’s how they happen, and here’s how this works, and to try to get others to see this all too. It takes bravery. It takes vulnerability. It requires you to full on Brene Brown your life, in other words.
You have to be strong — and being vulnerable and willing to fight for what’s right no matter how isolated it might make you in some settings, no matter who many laugh reacts you will get on Facebook for talking about misogyny, no matter how difficult things like parties and social gatherings might be.
You are setting the example by actually caring, by not being able to sit silently anymore now that you have turned on your Sociological Imagination. And you have stepped out of your comfort zone. Which is what is required for any positive growth. And by doing this, you make some others uncomfortable at times. But, do you want them to maybe experience growth too?
If this is too much for you, right now, — then maybe find spaces and people who are aware, who give you solidarity, who appreciate the potential for individual and collective social change.
Photo Credit: Unsplash
Conclusion: The Sociological Imagination is Empathy and Ethics on the Collective Scale
I am a firm believer in knowledge over ignorance, in empathy over apathy, and in morality and ethics over …well, whatever it is we have no dominating the course of our society and world. I am a firm believer in walking the walk, in honoring the spiritual demand that we actually must love thy neighbor, we actually must be driven by kindness, compassion, and the highest of human virtue. We do have a choice. Yes structure is real. Yes systems are real. Power is real. Oppression is real. But also, these things are social constructions, created by people, for purposes that were not altogether great.
So, as social constructions we can change them.
We can work to get it right. Make it better. And we can do this via using our Sociological Imagination to fuel empathy and intelligence driven social justice in our daily lives and in the system. We can work locally and connect it up to the national and global levels.
Making changes in how we see ourselves, how we treat others in our lives, how we speak about others and about social problems like homelessness, poverty, food insecurity, police brutality, and environmental destruction, — will bring about changes to the system because once we accurately see something for what it is, for what is causing it at the root level, — we can name it, we can expose it, and we can begin to dismantle it, together.
Jenny Justice is a mom, Sociology instructor, reading/writing tutor, and writer. You can follow her on Medium for more insightful articles, essays on empathy and introversion, and all other things nerdy, kind, spiritual, and informative when it comes to education, parenting, kids, culture, and social justice.