I have decided to travel back in time to our first week of class, where we discussed C. Wright Mills’ idea of the sociological imagination. I had read excerpts of this work before while I studied abroad, and after reading it again this semester, decided to apply Mills’ social science ideas to my first BGS paper. Ever since my first reading of it, I was fascinated and captivated by its brilliance. However, I must admit that it took me a while to really grasp onto what Mills’ was communicating. At its most basic level, the sociological imagination is a quality of mind in which the intersection between biography and history is understood. Those who possess the sociological imagination are able to understand the individual in addition to how the individual fits into a larger historical and social context.
I preformed a cited reference search on Google Scholar for C. Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination and came across an interesting article entitled “Michael Jordan Meet C. Wright Mills: Illustrating the Sociological Imagination with Objects from Everyday Life” written by Peter Kaufman. What caught my attention from this title was twofold: for starters, Michael Jordan is one of the most widely known global symbols for Nike, so I thought this article might have even more connection to our class beyond the sociological imagination connection. Furthermore, I was drawn to the title because it tells the reader that the sociological imagination is going to be explained with relevant and everyday life examples. Seeing as I struggled so much with comprehending Mills’ theory in the first place, I wanted to see what Kaufman’s article had to offer.
The article presents an exercise for students to perform in order to understand the sociological imagination. The central object in the exercise is a pair of Nike Air Jordan sneakers. First, the students must describe the object. Next, the students must analyze what this object means in the context of their social reality. This analysis answers questions such as how does the object relate to other aspects of social life? How is it bought and sold? Who benefits from it? Who suffers because of it?
While the answers to the first step of the exercise were quite generic and similar, the answers to the second step of the exercise were very diverse and more telling of individualistic experience and perceptions. For example, students answered, “first expensive item I purchased on my own,” “not everyone can afford them,” and “Nike and Michael Jordan are making a ton of money.” In regard to the sociological imagination, the goal of the first step is to understand the Air Jordans in the concept of their personal biographies.
The next step in the exercise is to apply a global analysis and consider the perspective of the shoe from other countries and cultures. This broadens to conceptualization of the Air Jordan’s for students to consider them in a context that they most likely have never thought about. This step received responses such as “Air Jordans are a symbol of American culture” and “They are a form of cultural imperialism.” Many students also commented on the exploitation of third-world laborers. This step aims to address the connotations of the shoe in a global landscape.
The fourth nd final step is to apply a historical analysis. Students answer questions about their meaning in the present, what has changed as a result of this product, and will the product’s meaning change in the future. This is the culmination of the exercise as it finally establishes the intersection between history and biography. Student responses to this analysis were “Air Jordans helped to legitimize the black male athlete” and “In 7 to 10 years no one will even be wearing these anymore.”
Although the exercise may seem a bit trivial, I thought it was a great way to apply the sociological imagination to something real and tangible. Our minds are so prone to isolating events, but having a mindset more consistent with the sociological imagination broadens that mindset and expands the types of questions we have about the world. Even if you did not find the responses to the above exercise that fruitful, what is important is how you yourself would respond to some of these exercises and how your response would most likely differ in some way from everyone around you. If you have time, take any object – a water bottle, an iPhone, a pencil – and see what you come up with.
Kind of going a bit off topic here…but my inclusion of the pencil above prompted my memory of a YouTube video I watched a while back in which Adam Braun, founder of Pencils of Promise, describes how he came up with the idea for his organization in the first place. Braun went on Semester at Sea while he was in college, and when traveling all around the world, he decided to ask children in all of these different countries what they wanted most in the world. Some said they wanted to dance, one boy in Hong Kong said magic. When Braun got to India, he asked a young boy begging on the streets what he wanted most in the world, and the boy responded: a pencil. Adam had a pencil on him, so he gave it to the boy who immediately lit up. For me, this story enlightened me and provided an incredibly broadened perspective. Think about how much your conception and perspective of such a simple object differs from this impoverished boy in India.