Mills, C. Wright 1916-1963
The American sociologist Charles Wright Mills wrote about the growth in the size and scope of bureaucracies in the modern era. The resulting concentration of authority, he maintained, has dramatic effects upon such institutions as family, democratic government, science, education, and the economy. It also profoundly affects individuals, both those who wield the power and those who are subject to it. Mills forcefully chastised his colleagues about the proper role of social science in exploring and clarifying these and other central issues of the time.
EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION
Mills was born on August 28, 1916, in Waco, Texas. His father was an insurance salesman and his mother a homemaker. From the age of seven the family began moving around Texas, and Mills experienced what he later described as a childhood of loneliness and isolation. He attended Texas A&M University in 1934–1935, but found the required regimentation and demands for deference toward professors and upperclassmen to be intolerable. In later years, Mills reflected on how these childhood and adolescent experiences caused him to focus on work as his “salvation,” taught him to demand intellectual and social independence, and gave him both a tolerance and a preference for being a loner.
After a disastrous freshman year Mills transferred to the University of Texas, where he received a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in philosophy in 1939. He then went on to the University of Wisconsin, where he received his doctorate in sociology. By all accounts he was a brilliant though difficult student. His relations with his professors were often stormy; he was looked upon as arrogant and exceedingly ambitious. When defending his dissertation he refused to make revisions demanded by his committee; the dissertation was later quietly accepted without formal committee approval.
In 1941 Mills accepted his first academic appointment at the University of Maryland. It was here that Mills finished his dissertation on American pragmatism and collaborated with Hans Gerth, one of his professors at Wisconsin, on From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1946). This book has since become a classic, interpreting the German sociologist Max Weber as far more of a radical conflict theorist than the prevailing American view of the time. In 1945 Mills joined Columbia University where he taught and wrote for the remainder of his career.
In all of his writings, Mills interpreted the world through a theoretical perspective very much influenced by Weber. Like Weber, Mills’s vision comprised a holistic view of entire sociocultural systems. His main body of work centers upon the theme of rationalization, the practical application of knowledge to achieve a desired end. Rationalization is a method of thought focused on total coordination and control over processes needed to attain whatever goal the individual or organization has set. It is the thought process behind the application of science, observation, and reason in the development of technology Page 182 | Top of Articleto manipulate the environment. It is the thought process behind bureaucracy, social organizations specifically designed for the attainment of goals. It was Mills’s contention that rationalization was increasing with modernity. Mills believed that because the social system is interdependent, the rationalization process has profound effects on human behavior, values, and thought.
Mills’s first breakthrough came with the publication of White Collar: The American Middle Classes in 1951. According to Mills, the rise of white-collar work was due to the era’s growth in bureaucracy caused by technological change and the increasing need to market the goods and services of an industrial society. The central characteristic of white-collar workers is that they are unorganized and dependent upon large bureaucracies for their existence. By their mass existence and dependence, Mills maintained, they have changed the character and feel of American life.
With the automation of the office and the increase in the division of labor, the number of routine jobs is increased, while authority and job autonomy become attributes of only the top positions. There is an ever greater distinction made in terms of power, prestige, and income between managers and staff. The routinized worker is discouraged from using his or her own independent judgment; decision making is in accordance with strict rules handed down by others. Job performance and promotion become based on following the bureaucratic rules and dictates of others, not on critical intelligence. The aim of schooling shifts from the creation of the “good citizen” to one of creating the “successful specialist.”
In white collar society there is also a shift of social power from force and coercion to authority and manipulation. This form of power is founded upon the ever more sophisticated methods of control given elites by mass communication and the social sciences. This shift is from the overt to the covert, from the obvious to the subtle. Exploitation becomes the rule, depriving the oppressed from identifying the oppressor. This form of power effectively removes the check of reason and conscience of the ruled on the ruler.
THE POWER ELITE
In The Power Elite (1956) Mills demonstrated that the bureaucracies of state, corporations, and military have become enlarged and centralized, and are a means of power never before equaled in human history. These hierarchies of power, Mills argued, are the key to understanding modern industrial societies. Major national power resides almost exclusively at the top of these bureaucracies; all other institutions have diminished in scope and been pushed to the side of modern history or made subordinate to the big three.
The elite who run these organizations are closely related through intermarriage. Some of their coordination comes from an interchange of personnel between the three elite hierarchies, but a good deal of coordination also comes from a growing structural integration of the dominant institutions. As each of the elite domains becomes larger, its integration with the other spheres becomes more pronounced. But the major source of unity of the elite, Mills stated, is their common background—they are all from the upper social class, they attended the same preparatory schools and Ivy League universities, and belong to the same exclusive clubs and organizations.
The positions of the elite give them access to power that make their decisions (as well as their failure to act) extremely consequential. Mills believed these leaders are acting (or failing to act) with irresponsibility, thus leading the nation and the world to disaster. But this does not always need to be so; the enlargement and concentration of power into so few hands now makes it imperative to hold these men responsible for the course of events.
Mills believed it is the task of social scientists to address how the concentration of power, and the resulting structural and historical issues, affect human values and behaviors. Mills’s Sociological Imagination (1959) was a call to arms for social scientists to focus upon these substantive problems, to bring reason to bear on human affairs.
In this work, like Weber before him, Mills cautioned that a society dominated by rational social organization is not based on reason, intelligence, and good will toward all. Further, it is through rational social organization that modern-day tyrants (as well as more mundane bureaucratic managers) exercise their authority and manipulation, often denying the opportunity to their subjects to exercise their own judgment. One then has “rationality without reason. Such rationality is not commensurate with freedom,” Mills said, “but the destroyer of it” (1976, p. 170).
Because of his abrasive personality, his insistence upon writing polemics for a broader audience, and his increasingly strident and critical views of the status quo and of the work of his colleagues, Mills became increasingly isolated as a sociologist. His personal manners and dress were far removed from the buttoned-down professional academics of Columbia. In 1963 Mills died of heart disease at the age of forty-five, virtually excommunicated from the mainstream of his profession. However, over the years his reputation has grown among those who take a critical view of modernity and its drift.
Horowitz, Irving L. 1983. C. Wright Mills: An American Utopian. New York: Free Press.
Mills, C. Wright.  1956. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mills, C. Wright.  1970. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mills, C. Wright. 1958. The Causes of World War Three. London: Secker and Warburg.
Mills, C. Wright.  1976. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mills, C. Wright.  1967. Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills. Ed. Irving L. Horowitz. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mills, C. Wright. 2000. Letters and Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Kathryn Mills with Pamela Mills. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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