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C. Wright Mills
American sociologist

C. Wright Mills

C. Wright Mills
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American sociologist
A.K.A. Charles Wright Mills
Was Sociologist
From United States of America
Field Social science
Gender male
Birth 28 August 1916, Waco, McLennan County, Texas, U.S.A.
Death 20 March 1962, Nyack, Rockland County, New York, U.S.A. (aged 45 years)
The details (from wikipedia)


Charles Wright Mills (August 28, 1916 – March 20, 1962) was an American sociologist, and a professor of sociology at Columbia University from 1946 until his death in 1962. Mills was published widely in popular and intellectual journals, and is remembered for several books such as The Power Elite, which introduced that term and describes the relationships and class alliances among the US political, military, and economic elites; White Collar: The American Middle Classes, on the American middle class; and The Sociological Imagination, which presents a model of analysis for the interdependence of subjective experiences within a person's biography, the general social structure, and historical development.

Mills was concerned with the responsibilities of intellectuals in post-World War II society, and he advocated public and political engagement over disinterested observation. Mills' biographer, Daniel Geary, writes that Mills' writings had a "particularly significant impact on New Left social movements of the 1960s." It was Mills who popularized the term "New Left" in the U.S. in a 1960 open letter, Letter to the New Left.

Early life

Mills was born in Waco, Texas on August 28, 1916. He lived in Texas until he was 23. His father, Charles Grover Mills, worked as an insurance salesman, while his mother, Frances Wright Mills, stayed at home as a housewife. His father moved to Texas from his home state of Florida, and his mother and maternal grandparents were all born and raised in Texas. His family moved constantly when he was growing up and as a result, he lived a relatively isolated life with few continuous relationships. Mills spent time living in the following cities (in order): Waco, Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Sherman, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. He graduated from Dallas Technical High School in 1934.

College years

Mills initially attended Texas A&M University but left after his first year and subsequently graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1939 with a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's degree in philosophy. By the time that he graduated, Mills had already been published in the two leading sociology journals in the US: the American Sociological Review and the American Journal of Sociology.

While studying at Texas, Mills met his first wife, Dorothy Helen Smith, who was also a student there seeking a master's degree in sociology. She had previously attended Oklahoma College for Women, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in commerce. They were married in October 1937. After their marriage Dorothy Helen, or "Freya," worked as a staff member of the director of the Women’s Residence Hall at the University of Texas io support the couple while Mills completed his graduate work; she typed and copy edited much of his work, including his Ph.D. dissertation. There, he met Hans Gerth, a professor in the Department of Sociology, who became a mentor and friend although Mills did not take any classes with Gerth. In August 1940, Freya divorced Mills, but the couple remarried in March 1941. Their daughter, Pamela, was born on January 15, 1943.

Mills received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1942. His dissertation was entitled "A Sociological Account of Pragmatism: An Essay on the Sociology of Knowledge." Mills refused to revise his dissertation while it was reviewed. It was later accepted without approval from the review committee. Mills left Wisconsin in early 1942 once he had been appointed Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Early career

During his work as an Associate Professor of Sociology from 1941 until 1945 at the University of Maryland, College Park, Mills’ awareness and involvement in American politics grew. Mills became friends with historians, Richard Hofstadter, Frank Freidel, and Ken Stampp during World War II. The four academics collaborated on many topics and so each wrote about many contemporary issues surrounding the war and how it affected American society.

In the mid-1940s while he was still at Maryland, Mills began contributing 'journalistic sociology' and opinion pieces to intellectual journals such as The New Republic, The New Leader, and politics, the journal established by his friend Dwight Macdonald in 1944.

In 1945, Mills moved to New York after securing a research associate position at Columbia University's Bureau of Applied Social Research. Mills separated from Freya with the move, and the couple divorced in 1947. Mills was appointed Assistant Professor in the University's sociology department in 1946. Mills received a grant of $2,500 from the Guggenheim Foundation in April, 1945 to fund his research in 1946. During that time, he wrote White Collar which was finally published in 1951.

In 1946, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, a translation of Weber's essays co-authored with Hans Gerth, was published. In 1953, the two published a second work, Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions.

In 1947, Mills married his second wife, Ruth Harper, a Bureau of Applied Social Research statistician who worked with Mills on New Men of Power (1948), White Collar (1951), and The Power Elite (1956). In 1949, Mills and Harper went to Chicago so that Mills could serve as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago; Mills returned to teaching at Columbia after a semester at the University of Chicago and was promoted to Associate Professor of Sociology on July 1, 1950. Their daughter, Kathryn, was born on July 14, 1955. Mills was promoted to Professor of Sociology at Columbia on July 1, 1956. From 1956 to 1957, the family moved to Copenhagen, where Mills acted as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Copenhagen. Mills and Harper separated in December 1957, when Mills returned from Copenhagen alone, and he divorced in 1959.

Later years

Mills married his third wife, Yaroslava Surmach, an American artist of Ukrainian descent, and settled in Rockland County, New York in 1959. Their son, Nikolas Charles, was born on June 19, 1960.

In August 1960, Mills spent time in Cuba where he worked on developing his text Listen, Yankee. He spent some of his time in Cuba interviewing Fidel Castro, who claimed to having read and studied Mills' The Power Elite.

Mills was described as a man in a hurry, and aside from his hurried nature, he was largely known for his combativeness. Both his private life, with three marriages, a child from each, and several affairs, and his professional life, which involved challenging and criticizing many of his professors and coworkers, have been characterized as "tumultuous". He wrote a fairly obvious, though slightly veiled, essay in criticism of the former chairman of the Wisconsin department, and he called the senior theorist there, Howard P. Becker, a "real fool". On one special occasion, when Mills was honored during a visit to the Soviet Union as a major critic of American society, he criticized censorship in the Soviet Union through his toast to an early Soviet leader who was "purged and murdered by the Stalinists." He said, "To the day when the complete works of Leon Trotsky are published in the Soviet Union!"

In one of Mills' biographies written by Irving Louis Horowitz, the author writes about Mills' acute awareness of his heart condition and speculates that it affected the way he lived his adult life. Mills was described as someone who worked fast, yet efficiently. That is argued to be a result of his knowing that he would not live long due to his heart health. Horowitz describes Mills as “a man in search of his destiny”.

Mills suffered from a series of heart attacks throughout his life and his fourth attack led to his death on March 20, 1962.


C. Wright Mills was heavily influenced by pragmatism, specifically the works of George Herbert Mead, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James. The social structure aspects of Mills' works is largely shaped by Max Weber and the writing of Karl Mannheim, who followed Weber's work closely. Mills also acknowledged a general influence of Marxism; he noted that Marxism had become an essential tool for sociologists and therefore all must naturally be educated on the subject; any Marxist influence was then a result of sufficient education. Neo-Freudianism also helped shape Mills' work.

Mills was an intense student of philosophy before he became a sociologist and his vision of radical, egalitarian democracy was a direct result of the influence of ideas from Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, and Mead.

During his time at the University of Wisconsin, Mills was heavily influenced by Hans Gerth, a Sociology Professor from Germany. Mills gained an insight into European learning and sociological theory from Gerth.


From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1946) was edited and translated in collaboration with Gerth. Mills and Gerth had begun began collaborating in 1940, and they selected a few of Weber’s original German text and translated them into English. The preface of the book begins by explaining the disputable difference of meaning that English words give to German writing. The authors attempt to explain their devotion to being as accurate as possible in translating Weber's writing.

The New Men of Power: America's Labor Leaders (1948) studies the "Labor Metaphysic" and the dynamic of labor leaders cooperating with business officials. The book concludes that the labor movement had effectively renounced its traditional oppositional role and become reconciled to life within a capitalist system. Appeased by "bread and butter" economic policies, unions had adopted a pliant and subordinate role in the new structure of American power.

The Puerto Rican Journey (1950) was written in collaboration with Clarence Senior and Rose Kohn Goldsen. It documents a methodological study and does not address theoretical sociological framework.

White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951) offers a rich historical account of the middle classes in the United States and contends that bureaucracies have overwhelmed middle-class workers, robbing them of all independent thought and turning them into near-automatons, oppressed but cheerful. Mills states there are three types of power within the workplace: coercion or physical force; authority; and manipulation. Through this piece, the thoughts of Mills and Weber seem to coincide in their belief that Western Society is trapped within the iron cage of bureaucratic rationality, which would lead society to focus more on rationality and less on reason. Mills' fear was that the middle class was becoming "politically emasculated and culturally stultified," which would allow a shift in power from the middle class to the strong social elite. Middle-class workers receive an adequate salary but have become alienated from the world because of their inability to affect or change it.

Character and Social Structure (1953) was co-authored with Gerth. This was considered his most theoretically sophisticated work. Mills later came into conflict with Gerth, though Gerth positively referred to him as, "an excellent operator, a whippersnapper, promising young man on the make, and Texas cowboy à la ride and shoot." Generally speaking, Character and Social Structure combines the social behaviorism and personality structure of pragmatism with the social structure of Weberian sociology. It is centered on roles, how they are interpersonal, and how they are related to institutions.

The Power Elite (1956) describes the relationships among the political, military, and economic elites, noting that they share a common world view; that power rests in the centralization of authority within the elites of society. The centralization of authority is made up of the following components: a "military metaphysic," in other words a military definition of reality; "class identity," recognizing themselves as separate from and superior to the rest of society; "interchangeability" (they move within and between the three institutional structures and hold interlocking positions of power therein); cooperation/socialization, in other words, socialization of prospective new members is done based on how well they "clone" themselves socially after already established elites. Mills' view on the power elite is that they represent their own interest, which include maintaining a "permanent war economy" to control the ebbs and flow of American Capitalism and the masking of "a manipulative social and political order through the mass media."

The Causes of World War Three (1958) and Listen, Yankee (1960) were important works that followed. In both, Mills attempts to create a moral voice for society and make the power elite responsible to the "public." Although Listen, Yankee was considered highly controversial, it was an exploration of the Cuban Revolutionwritten from the viewpoint of a Cuban revolutionary andwas a very innovative style of writing for that period in American history.

The Sociological Imagination (1959), which is considered Mills' most influential book, describes a mindset for studying sociology, the sociological imagination, that stresses being able to connect individual experiences and societal relationships. Three components that form the sociological imagination:

  1. History: why society is what it is and how it has been changing for a long time and how history is being made in it
  2. Biography: the nature of "human nature" in a society and what kinds of people inhabit a particular society
  3. Social Structure: how the various institutional orders in a society function, which ones are dominant, how they are kept together, how they might be changing too, etc.

Mills asserts that a critical task for social scientists is to "translate private troubles into public issues". The distinction between troubles and issues is that troubles relate to a single person while issues refers to a group of people. For instance, man who cannot find employment is experiencing a trouble while a city with a massive unemployment rate is experiencing an issue. Sociologists, then, rightly connect their autobiographical, personal challenges to social institutions. Social scientists should then connect those institutions to social structure(s) and locate them within a historical narrative.

The version of Images of Man: The Classic Tradition in Sociological Thinking (1960) worked on by C. Wright Mills is simply an edited copy with the addition of an introduction written himself. Through this work, Mills explains that he believes the use of models is the characteristic of classical sociologists, and that these models are the reason classical sociologists maintain relevance.

The Marxists (1962) takes Mills' explanation of sociological models from Images of Man and uses it to criticize liberalism and Marxism. He believes that the liberalist model does not work and cannot create an overarching view of society, but rather it is more of an ideology for the entrepreneurial middle class. Marxism, however, may be incorrect in its overall view, but it has a working model for societal structure, the mechanics of the history of society, and the roles of individuals. One of Mills' problems with the Marxist model is that it uses units that are small and autonomous, which he finds too simple to explain capitalism. Mills then provides discussion on Marx as a determinist.


Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes dedicated his novel The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962) to Mills and called him the "true voice of North America, friend and companion in the struggle of Latin America." Fuentes was a fan of Mills' Listen, Yankee and appreciated Mills' insight into what he believed Cubans were experiencing as citizens of a country undergoing revolutionary change.

Mills' legacy can be most deeply felt through the printed compilation of his letters and other works called C Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, edited by two of his children, Kathryn and Pamela Mills. In the book's introduction, Dan Wakefield states that Mills' sociological vision of American society is one that transcends the field of sociology. Mills presented his ideas as a way to keep American society from falling into the trap of what is known as "mass society." Many scholars argue that Mills’ ideas sparked the radical movements of the 1960s, which took place after he died. His work was recognized in the United States and was also greatly appreciated abroad, having appeared in 23 languages.

Above all, Wakefield remembers Mills' character most as being surrounded by controversy:

In 1964, the Society for the Study of Social Problems established the C. Wright Mills Award for the book that "best exemplifies outstanding social science research and a great understanding the individual and society in the tradition of the distinguished sociologist, C. Wright Mills."


There has long been debate over Mills' intellectual outlook. Mills is often seen as a "closet Marxist" because of his emphasis on social classes and their roles in historical progress and attempt to keep Marxist traditions alive in social theory. Just as often however, others argue that Mills more closely identified with the work of Max Weber, whom many sociologists interpret as an exemplar of sophisticated (and intellectually adequate) anti-Marxism and modern liberalism. However, Mills clearly gives precedence to social structure described by the political, economic and military institutions and not culture, which is presented in its massified form as means to ends sought by the power elite, which puts him firmly in the Marxist and not Weberian camp, so much that in his collection of classical essays, Weber's Protestant Ethic is not included. Weber's idea of bureaucracy as internalized social control was embraced by Mills as was the historicity of his method, but far from liberalism (being its critic), Mills was a radical who was culturally forced to distance himself from Marx while being "near" him.

While Mills never embraced the "Marxist" label, he told his closest associates that he felt much closer to what he saw as the best currents of a flexible humanist Marxism than to its alternatives. He considered himself as a "plain Marxist" working in the spirit of young Marx as he claims in his collected essays: "Power, Politics and People" (Oxford University Press, 1963). In a November 1956 letter to his friends Bette and Harvey Swados, Mills declared "[i]n the meantime, let's not forget that there's more [that's] still useful in even the Sweezy kind of Marxism than in all the routineers of J. S. Mill put together."

There is an important quotation from Letters to Tovarich (an autobiographical essay) dated Fall 1957 titled "On Who I Might Be and How I Got That Way":

These two quotations are the ones chosen by Kathryn Mills for the better acknowledgement of his nuanced thinking.

It appears that Mills understood his position as being much closer to Marx than to Weber but influenced by both, as Stanley Aronowitz argued in A Mills Revival?.

Mills argues that micro and macro levels of analysis can be linked together by the sociological imagination, which enables its possessor to understand the large historical sense in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. Individuals can only understand their own experiences fully if they locate themselves within their period of history. The key factor is the combination of private problems with public issues: the combination of troubles that occur within the individual’s immediate milieu and relations with other people with matters that have to do with institutions of an historical society as a whole.

Mills shares with Marxist sociology and other "conflict theorists" the view that American society is sharply divided and systematically shaped by the relationship between the powerful and powerless. He also shares their concerns for alienation, the effects of social structure on the personality, and the manipulation of people by elites and the mass media. Mills combined such conventional Marxian concerns with careful attention to the dynamics of personal meaning and small-group motivations, topics for which Weberian scholars are more noted.

Mills had a very combative outlook regarding and towards many parts of his life, the people in it, and his works. In that way, he was a self-proclaimed outsider.

C. Wright Mills gave considerable study to the Soviet Union. Invited there, where he was acknowledged for his criticism of American society, Mills used the opportunity to attack Soviet censorship. He did hold the controversial notion that the US and the Soviet Union were ruled by similar bureaucratic power elites and thus were convergent rather than divergent societies.

Above all, Mills understood sociology, when properly approached, as an inherently political endeavor and a servant of the democratic process. In The Sociological Imagination, Mills wrote:

Contemporary American scholar Cornel West argued in his text American Evasion of Philosophy that Mills follows the tradition of pragmatism. Mills shared Dewey's goal of a "creative democracy" and emphasis on the importance of political practice but criticized Dewey for his inattention to the rigidity of power structure in the US. Mills' dissertation was titled Sociology and Pragmatism: The Higher Learning in America, and West categorized him along with pragmatists in his time Sidney Hook and Reinhold Niebuhr as thinkers during pragmatism's "mid-century crisis."

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