This final post explores Mills’ chapter on The Uses of History. It first looks at Mills’ definition of history, before explaining why sociologists need history to contextualise events and protect society’s collective memory. It then expands on the truth/trust theme from the previous post, before summarising the elements of a ‘Sociological Imagination’.
Mills on History
Mills’ insights on history are relevant in the Post Truth era, “where the very nature of facts are more contested than ever” (Salgado 2018, p.321). History according to Mills, represents the everchanging and malleable memory of mankind, made of the facts collected and interpreted by historians (Mills, pp.143-144). Prophetically, Mills stated history is constantly at risk of being distorted in an Orwellian manner, to suit malicious agendas (Mills, p.145). To keep our memory safe, Mills urged sociologist and historians to work together, to write the “present as history” and capture the multiple experiences of the actors who create the historical and social (Mills, p.145).
Historical Variety and Memory
To write the present as history, Mills stated researchers should identify the “historical variety” of phenomena, by examining them in different contexts to avoid “flat description” (Mills, p.147). Mills referred to the propensity of some researchers to imply an Issue or Trouble is homogenous across different societies. Instead, Mills urged us to compare and contrast phenomena, to identify the essential conditions that enable them exist across societies (Mills, p.147). This prevents Post-Truth actors manipulating our memory to undermine narratives. For example, detractors of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement claim it is a recent American phenomenon, that has no place in British society. However, BLM started as an American movement in 2013 in response to police brutality, building on deep mistrust of legal institutions caused by unique historical experiences. Ongoing protests challenge American institutional symbols that act as sources of unity for certain milieux, such as the narrative of Christian nationalism, or the police as a morally just institution (Perry, et al, 2018, p.140). The British BLM movement shares a similar but contextually different experience of police brutality, whilst criticising the nation’s historical amnesia on empire and its role in slavery (Nasar, 2020). This is why the toppling of statues in both countries share the same objective (challenging norms, values and symbols that are viewed as racially oppressive), but have vastly different socio-historical contexts (Borysovych & Karpova, 2020). By employing a ‘Sociological Imagination’ it is possible to understand how events interrelate, but identify their essential conditions.
The Essential Condition of the Post-Truth era
Mills’ second insight pulls together the findings from past posts, to show how an awareness of history allows researchers to tie together issues of biography and structure (Mills, p.148). This is vital in the Post-Truth era, as understanding how and why individuals construct meaning is essential for building trust across milieux, and creating more inclusive institutions.
As discussed in previous posts, peoples’ conception of their social environment has historically been limited by their milieux, technologies and the institutions and structures that dominate their lives. The essential condition that makes the Post-Truth era unique, is the unprecedented amount of information provided by current digital technologies, that empowers individuals to feel informed (Dalgren, 2017, p.23). In response to so much conflicting information, the individual become the arbiter of truth guided by emotions, rather than “educated elites”, experts or traditional spokespeople (Peters, 2019, p.362). This is because the endless flow of information creates an “epistemic cacophony”, where basic social realities are constantly refuted or unrecognised (Dalgren, p.25). As such, attempts to produce counterarguments often fail, as they do not match an individuals’ or milieuxs’ perspective, even if that perspective is premised on false information (Mills, p.162).
From reading Mills through the Post-Truth lens, building trust is central to countering the Post-Truth epistemic crisis. To do this, Mills asks us to remember that the subjective emotional perspectives of individuals are valid, born out of historical experiences, yet often rationalised through misguided attempts to understand the social world (Mills, p.158). To employ a ‘Sociological Imagination’ requires researchers to consider, rather than dismiss as many of these perspectives as possible (Mills, p.214). Quite often, researchers will find themselves “thinking against something”, but shifting from one perspective to another allows researchers to build up an adequate view of society and its components (Mill, pp.211-214). This requires researchers to understand individual troubles in terms of public issues, and as the problems of history-making (Mill, p.226). This subsequently allows the researcher to relate public issues to personal troubles, creating narratives that resonate and build trust across milieux (Mills, p.226).
Borysovych, O. V., Chaiuk, T. A., & Karpova, K. S. (2020) Black Lives Matter: Race Discourse and the Semiotics of History Reconstruction, Journal of History Culture and Art Research, 9(3), 325-340. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.7596/taksad.v9i3.2768
Dahlgren, P. (2018) Media, Knowledge and Trust: The Deepening EpistemicCrisis of Democracy, Javnost – The Public, 25:1-2, 20-27, DOI: 10.1080/13183222.2018.1418819
Michael A. Peters (2019) Anti-intellectualism is a virus, Educational Philosophyand Theory, 51:4, 357-363, DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2018.1462946
Nasar, S (2020) Remembering Edward Colston: histories of slavery, memory, and black globality, Women’s History Review, 29:7, 1218-1225, DOI: 10.1080/09612025.2020.1812815
Perry, S. L., Whitehead, A. L. and Davis, J. T. (2019) ‘God’s Country in Black and Blue: How Christian Nationalism Shapes Americans’ Views about Police (Mis)treatment of Blacks’, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 5(1), pp. 130–146. doi: 10.1177/2332649218790983.
Salgado, S. (2018). ‘Online media impact on politics: Views on post-truth politics and post post modernism’, International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics,14, pp.317-331. doi: https://doi.org/10.1386/macp.14.3.317_1.
Wright Mills, C, (2000), The Sociological Imagination. 14th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.