The Sociological Imagination

Berkeley Connect Sociology students discuss cultivating a sociological perspective

Mentor Angela Fillingim shows the class dis-aggregated data of Asian American incomes 

First coined by C. Wright Mills in 1959, the phrase “sociological imagination” is used to describe a very particular way of thinking. This week, Berkeley Connect Sociology students put on their “sociological hats” to explore everything from tuition hikes to race.

As mentor Angela Fillingim explained, the sociological imagination is the relationship between history and your own life experiences. Using a chart, she showed how issues that affect individuals are also related to communities, institutions, and historical trends. As an example, she brought up the recent tuition hikes. Just as they affected each individual student in the Berkeley Connect group, they also impacted their communities – parents, siblings, friends – as well as specific institutions like the University of California, Berkeley. Recent increases are also related to historical tuition trends.

She then challenged students to come up with more examples. One student suggested the recent death of Michael Brown, the unarmed man shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. He pointed out that although it was an individual confrontation, it reflected the experience of many other African Americans in the Ferguson community, strongly tied to the institution of law enforcement, and was just one instance of a pattern of racial profiling in America.

The group then had a conversation about the prison-industrial complex and its reach, using their sociological imagination. As students explained, the prison-industrial complex is a term often used to describe the monetization of prisons and its effects. Its impact extends beyond just those who are incarcerated, to include their family members and communities. As Angela mentioned, Megan Comfort’s Doing Time Together details how having family members or partners in jail influences the way women live in surprising ways. For example, due to the strict dress codes for those visiting a jail, women with partners in prison often will buy clothes based on what is “prison-appropriate,” which is often up to the discretion of the guards. This is just one way the institution of prison becomes intertwined in the lives of the families and communities of individuals who are incarcerated.

We then watched the recently televised argument between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly on white privilege, and students discussed the emotions and opinions it brought up. One student said that she appreciated Jon Stewart highlighting this issue on mainstream media, but pointed out problematic language even in Stewart’s argument. Another noted that Stewart’s The Daily Show is a great platform because it uses comedy to start serious conversations. As an Asian American, I felt compelled to comment that both O’Reilly and Stewart did not seem to understand the Asian American experience or adequately address it. In the clip, O’Reilly argued that if white privilege exists, so must Asian privilege – citing data that show that Asian Americans are currently the highest-paid. Stewart was unable to fully respond to this argument.

Angela expanded on that issue by showing dis-aggregated data that indicate that Asian Americans are still underpaid in every education level as compared to their white counterparts. She also noted the importance of remembering the refugee experience of many Asian Americans, particularly Southeast Asians, which is not shown in data that primarily focuses on professional East Asian immigrants. Obviously, having a sociological imagination requires careful analysis.

As the session drew to a close, students discussed the difficult conversations about race they’ve had with friends and family. “I always think like a sociologist now,” one student said. “And it makes it difficult sometimes at the dinner table.”

One thing is clear – these students have strong sociological imaginations and it shows!

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant