Social Research Glossary


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home


Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


Mills, C. Wright

core definition

C Wright Mills was a social critic who was also highly critical of abstracted empiricism and grand theorising, the dominant modes of social enquiry in the 1950s and 1960s.

explanatory context


Towards the end of the 1950s C Wright Mills reaffirmed the need for a critical sociology. Questioning the nature of contemporary American sociology he couched his insistence on a critical approach as a need to return to the 'sociological imagination' of the 'founders' of sociology, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Veblen.

Mills sums up Sociological Imagination:

'What are the social sciences all about? They ought to be about man and society and sometimes they are. They are attempts to help us understand biography and history, and the connexions of the two in a variety of social structures.' (Mills, [1959] 1973, p. 40)

Mills' view of contemporary American sociology

In the Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills ([1959], 1971) expressed his concern with the current trend of American sociology towards specialisation. He saw this specialisation taking two forms.

Mills was opposed to 'grand theorising', exemplified in the work of Parsons, and to the 'abstracted empiricism' of Lazarsfeld and associates at Columbia.

The 'Grand Theorists', Mills saw as those who manipulate concepts in an attempt to derive a universal social system and who allow ideas to swallow content. Grand theory, he claimed, was so generalised as to be useless as it disengaged theoreticians from observation. It turned sociology into a syntactical exercise and was blind to semantics. Grand theory defined concepts theoretically not operationally and juxtaposed these concepts with no concern for the dynamics of history. Grand theory excluded many structural features, fundamental to the understanding of human society, from its realm of abstract concepts. These monolithic concepts are irrelevant to understanding historical realities. In short, grand theory, in constructing an abstract generalisation reifies the 'American Dream' and disregards historical reality.

Mills opposition to abstracted empiricism was based on its preoccupation with method and its consequent lack of substantive propositions and theories. 'Abstracted Empiricists' undertake microscopic studies in which the content swallows the idea. The approach is extremely prevalent. The approach (usually) is to ask questions, crosstabulate the answers and draw out 'valid' statistical inferences.

Abstracted empiricists, according to Mills, project themselves as scientists, and their approach as akin to the scientific procedures of natural science. This has lead to the fetishism of method, an obsession with 'reliability', and more concern with the philosophy of science than with the social research study itself. They have adopted one philosophy of science, derived pragmatically from one perspective on natural science, which they presuppose to be ’The Scientific Method’. The end result is a methodological inhibition where problems are selected that fit the method.

In an attempt to incorporate the taken-for-granted paradigm of pure science into sociology (as far as is practical) they have glorified the 'Method', which is basically the social survey, and in so doing have restricted what they should look at to those problems that are amenable to their particular methodological approach. The Method dictates the content of the study and the scientism of the accompanying statistical analysis dominates insipid conclusions.

Sociological work hinges on a methodic specialisation detached from content or problem or area of enquiry. This kind of approach fails to adequately interrelate theory and data; the former becomes the 'variables used to interpret statistical findings', the latter are restricted to 'statistically determined facts and relations as are numerous, repeatable, measurable' (Mills, [1959] 1971, p. 77). The end result is a series of independent, ahistorical, non-comparative, psychologistic, small-scale pieces of research that cannot be 'added together' to a significant finding and which ignore historical social structure.

The growing concern with making sociology scientific, expressive 'truths' rather than meanings, and independent of value judgements, has meant that the classical method, with its 'exaggerated historicism' became a less acceptable approach to sociology in America. The thirties was the last era of the great thinkers of American sociology. It was then that Mills was educated and the era in which Veblen achieved his acclaim and success. The second world war and the McCarthyism of the fifties effectively 'Liberalised' most radical thinking in the social sciences, and those rare people who remained true to their critical perspective worked alone.

The new ethos was to specialisation and a 'positive critical' attitude. Students looked for the best in the works of the 'old masters', took the best from their teachers, and attempted to synthesise these extractions without criticism either of what they extracted or of the social system to which they adapted them. The 'Positivist' paradigm demanded value neutrality, which meant accepting the status quo, through abstract concepts as in the work of Parsons, or analysis of a miniscule aspect of the system without any attempt to put it in an historical context as in the work of the Abstracted Empiricists.

Mills calls for a return of the sociological imagination

Mills calls for a return to the classical approach to sociology. He demands intellectual craftsmanship not technical proficiency lacking imagination. He cites Weber, Marx, Mannheim, Durkheim and Veblen (among others) as examples of the sociological tradition of intellectual craftsmanship.

Mills asserted that power is the central problem for social analysis and thus provided the rationale for the fundamental tenets of what has become labelled social criticism.

Mills' approach (and that of social criticism) implies no personal solutions to personal problems, it implies that problems cannot be considered in isolation, in Mills' terms it requires that the sociological project should be the analysis of biography and history and the interaction of the two, the sociological imagination assesses the relationship between the personal troubles of milieux and the public issues of social structure.

Mills wants sociology to employ an historical perspective, this means a critical sociology. The social system must be analysed as a dynamic historical form.

A critical historical perspective grounds views of social structures in empirical reality.

Power and the manipulative model

Mills regards power as central to social science. The issue of power underpinned the core conception of social criticism as embodied in Mills' work. At root the sociological project should be the analysis of biography and history and the interaction of the two.

Of all the substantive problems that the sociological imagination should face up to and analyse, the problem of power is fundamental. Who holds the power and how is it wielded?

Mills was not concerned with a rigorous exploration of the concept of power, rather he considered it in practical terms. Who makes the decisions that affected the social and economic conditions under which we live? How have the powerful achieved their power? How are the decisions made? For what ends are the decisions of power aimed? How far reaching and diffuse are the effects of these decisions?

Mills was not happy with the trend in American sociology that manifested itself in theories that effectively sublimated the problem of power as of little consequence within 'Liberal Democracy'. Expressly opposed to Parsons, Mills says of Parsons' model

'To accept his scheme we are required to read out of the picture the facts of power and indeed of all institutional structures, in particular the economic, the political, the military. In this curious 'general theory' such structures of domination have no place.' (Mills, [1959] 1971, p. 51)

Mills analysis of power clearly showed that, contrary to 'Liberalistic' theories prevalent in America, power was not disseminated, but in the hands of the few.


Mills reviewed Warner's Yankee City and rejected his study of status, along with Burnham's 'managerial revolution' and the idea of increasing managerial power. From his own studies of the American Trade Union movement and white collar groups, Mills was convinced of the political impotence of both type of collective organisation. He thus looked amongst the upper reaches of American society and from this analysis, and in conjunction with his earlier studies, he produced The Power Elite (1956).

In The Power Elite, Mills concluded that power in America was in the hands of an elite comprising three distinct groups: business, the military and the political hierachies; of these, the military were the most important. Although distinct these three groups were far from separate having common interests, whether they be recreational (club membership), family (intermarriage) economic (joint business ventures) or just an interest in maintaining the status quo over which they presided.

In rejecting Burnham's thesis, Mills showed that managers had not succeeded the owning elite in effective control of the corporations. (In this he is in conflict with Galbraith who showed that managers have taken control—but that control alone does not mean that they have a grasp of power). Mills also argued that in opposition to the 'consensus' theories of social control and government, Mills argued, political control, although nominally in the hands of elected politicians, was directed by the men who manipulated the party machines. Many of the manipulators were members of the business elite. Finally, Mills showed that the level at which the economy was run was not necessarily determined by business or consumer public, but rather greatly influenced by the 'war lords'.

This power was manifested primarily through manipulation via the use of the mass media. Mills thus provides us with a 'manipulative model' of advanced societies. This model rejects Parson's normative consensus, Lipset-Bell's model of the working class incorporation into political consensus and Coser's 'balance of power' theory.

Whatever models Mills' analysis of power rejects, it is important to see that it implies a particular model, one of social control via manipulation thanks to a well-founded and firmly entrenched power base. As Mills explains, one cannot assume today that people are, in the last resort, governed by their own consent.

Consent itself is managed and manipulated.


'Authority (power justified by the beliefs of the voluntarily obedient) and manipulation (power wielded unbeknown by the powerless) must also be considered along with coercion [as modes of power].' (Mills, [1959] 1971, p. 50)

Prior to writing the The Power Elite, Mills had developed the implications of immense power concentrated in the hands of the few. In Character and Social Structure (1953) co-written with Hans Gerth, Mills attempted to show how people are socialised into a political society where important decisions are remote but tacitly accepted as inevitably remote. They explored the ‘Bureaucratic Ethos’ and the decline of Liberalism and concluded with the doom-laden prospect of international polarity of power.

They foresaw a trend towards totalitarianism and the tightening of power with international repercussions. What America does effects the world. What America does is determined by the powerful, and although not fully explicated, even [?] in Character and Social Structure, Mills and Gerth suggest that the powerful are a combination of the business, political and military elites. [This is developed in The Power Elite]


Notes on The Power Elite*

Mills obtained a considerable insight and first-hand empirical data from 'several individuals who know at first hand the Federal government, the military, or large corporations' (Mills, 1956, p.364) who at their own request Mills was unable to acknowledge.

His way of working up the text, as he acknowledges, was through deliberating upon three kinds of 'conversations'. These were, first, with himself and imaginary persons; such reflection is underpinned by a second conversation between influential thinkers whose ideas have filtered the mind of the author and of the readers; third is the conversation readers have with themselves in which they relate what they read to their own experiences. The incorporation of the latter two conversations involves reasoning along with the reader and this involves more than merely setting forth views but also clarifying them.

'We neither take the world for granted nor believe it to be a simple fact. Our business is with facts only in so far as we need them to upset or clinch our ideas. Facts and figures are only the beginning of the proper study. Our main interest is in making sense of the facts we know or can readily find out. We do not want merely to take an inventory, we want to discover meanings, for most of our important questions are questions of meaning (Mills, 1956, p. 364).

From the outset of the book, Mills tends to assert his main points and then illustrate them with general, sometimes anecdotal, examples framed as though the content were self-evident.

The personal awareness of the powerful is one of the sources that must be examined critically in order to understand the higher circles. (p.5). Mills argues that such people have theories (if somewhat vague) about their own roles but that these should not be taken at their public face value.

Mills reflects his requirement that history and biography be interrelated as follows. He argues that some people see that contemporary history involves 'big decisions' that are clearly being taken by a powerful elite, they certainly are not being taken by the ordinary person, nor even the elected representative bodies. On the other hand, people who listen carefully to the personal awareness reported by the people involved in the 'big decisions' deny the notion of an elite. Neither approach is satisfactory on its own because it ignores what is behind the events of history and the biographical accounts. Linking the two are the institutions of modern society, the state, economic corporations and the military, which constitute the means to power.

Mills has reflected upon the traditional institutions of power and sees them as impotent in modern society. Anecdotally he illustrates that the family, educational and religious organisations are shaped by the 'big three' (i.e. political,economic and military establishments) and are not autonomous centres of national power. These lesser institutions legitimate the power and decisions of the big three.

Concentration, which he illustrates, within the corporate, political and military spheres has lead to an increase in power of their central executive.

The political economy is integrally linked with the military machine.

The corporate chief executives, the members of the political directorate and the soldier-statesmen clustered around the Joint Chiefs of Staff come together to form the power elite of America.

Mills argues, from the outset, that in America in the mid-20th century important decisions of national importance are made by powerful people independently of any reference to the population or even the democratically elected institutions. There is a class or group who make these decisions which he calls the elite. His enquiry is aimed to finding out who this elite are.

Mills provides a working definition of 'important and continuous' power in the following terms.

'By the powerful we mean, of course, those who are able to realize their will, even if others resist it. Noone, accordingly, can be truly powerful unless he [sic] has access to the command of major institutions, for it is over these institutional means of power that the powerful are, in the first instance, powerful. Higher politicians and key officials of government command such institutional power; so do admirals and generals, and so do the major owners and executives of the larger corporations.' (Mills, 1956, p. 9)

Another area of investigation is the relation of the very wealthy to modern forms of corporate property and the state.

Prestige, status, wealth and power are interrelated and dependent upon access to major institutions independently of individual personality.

Mills intends to investigate whether 'the elite of the command posts' derive from a clear and distinct social class, and whether they are self-consciously members of an upper class, status group or elite (in Pareto's sense). [fn3 & 4 to chap 1]

Emphasising his pragmatic approach Mills says,

'in order to recognise what we intend to investigate, we must note something that all biographies and memoirs of the wealthy and the powerful and the eminent make clear: no matter what else they may be, the people of these higher circles are involved in a set of overlapping 'crowds' and intricately connected 'cliques'.

Nonetheless, Mills talks throughout of the elite.

Mills argues that as far as the elite flourishes as a social class or as a group of 'men at the command posts' it reflects certain moral and psychological elements. And the psychological idea of an elite is embodied in an awareness of impersonal decision making combined with intimate sensibilities shared with other elite members. Thus to examine the elite as a social class Mills argues it is necessary to examine a whole series of 'smaller face-to-face milieux, the most obvious of which, historically, has been the upper-class family, but the most important of which today are the proper secondary school and the metropolitan club.' (Mills, 1956, p. 15)

Mills notes that the taken-for-granted view of the elite as embodied in terms like 'upper class', 'big shot', 'top brass', etc. is confusing and likely not to be seen as a whole. There is a tendency to imagine that there are many and disconnected elites. But that 'what we must realize is that until we do try and see it as whole, perhaps our impression that it may not be is a result merely of our lack of analytic rigor and sociological imagination' (Mills, 1956, p. 366).

Mills takes as generic the idea that the elite is defined by institutional position. This seems to Mills to have the practical advantage of being the most concrete way into the whole problem, not least because a good deal of information is available for sociological reflection about such circles and institutions. More importantly, the institutional or structural definition does not prejudge what is to be investigated. Further, the structural approach underpins the other elements. The institutional positions determine peoples chances to get and to hold selected values, which in large part determines the kinds of psychological beings they become. All of this tends to influence the extent to which they see themselves as part of select social class.

The generic view of elites subsumes three other conceptions that are embodied in statistics of selected values (what they have),clique membership (what they belong to), and the morality of certain personality types (who they really are).

'To say that there are obvious gradations of power and of opportunities to decide within modern society is not to say that the powerful are united, that they fully know what they do, or that they are consciously joined in conspiracy.' (Mills, 1956, p. 18)

'The unity of the power elite ... does not rest solely on psychological similarity and social intermingling, nor entirely on the structural coincidences of commanding positions and interests. At times it is the unity of a more explicit co-ordination.... [This is not to say] that the power elite has emerged as a realization of a plan. But it is to say that as the institutional mechanics of our time have opened up avenues to men pursuing their several interests, many of them have come to see that these several interests could be realized more easily if they worked together, in informal as well as more formal ways, and accordingly they have done so.' (Mills, 1956, pp. 19-20

Mills analysis is historically specific and he is not intending a general theory of history, viz that all historical events are shaped by an omnipotent elite. Nor is his investigation directed at the process of decision making as such but is an attempt to delimit to delimit the social areas within which that process, whatever its character, goes on.

Mills approach reflects his general idea of elaboration, i.e. a series of related sub areas linked to an holistic perspective. So he is to look first at the elements that 'people know best: the new and the old upper classes of local society and the metropolitan 400' (Mills, 1956, p. 27). Then examine the nature of 'celebrity' and the 'national' system of prestige. Then the 'very rich' are examined in relation to corporate wealth. An historical analysis of the 'American statesman' is followed by an assessment of (what was called in the Progressive Era) the 'invisible government' that operates at a higher level than democratic manoeuvring. The historical ascendency of the military is examined and the powerful positions assumed by admirals and generals revealed. Coincident interests with the corporate rich and political directorate are pointed out.

Having provided evidence on these aspects, Mills returns to the 'master problem of the power elite' and its complement, mass society.


He concludes his introduction:

'What I am asserting is that in this epoch a conjunction of historical circumstances has led to the rise of an elite of power; that the men of the circles composing this elite, severally and collectively, now make such key decisions as are made; and that, given the enlargement and centralization of the means of power now available, the decisions that they make and fail to make carry more consequences for more people than has ever been the case in the world history of mankind.

I am also asserting that there has developed on the middle levels of power, a semi-organized stalemate, and that on the bottom level there has come into being a mass-like society which has little resemblance to the image of society in which voluntary associations and classic publics hold the keys to power. The top of the American system of power is much more unified and much more powerful, the bottom is much more fragmented, and in truth, impotent, than is generally supposed by those who are distracted by the middling units of power which neither express such will as exists at the bottom nor determine the decisions at the top. (Mills, 1956, pp. 28–29)

The empirical data Mills makes use of in the study derives from a multitude of sources. Prominent are his own researches, some of which had been previously published. He made considerable use throughout of newspaper and magazine articles in helping him identify powerful Americans and in assessing trends in the shift of power. Extensive literary reviews of scholarly work were undertaken, and official data was also consulted.

In analysing local society, for example, Mills draws mainly from his own researches. This is 'observation and interviews in some dozen middle-sized cities in the Northeast, the Middlewest and the South. Some results of this work had already been published (Mills, 1946, 1946a, 1951). Field notes made in 1945 during 'the course of an intensive study of a city of 60,000 in Illinois' were also used. In addition he used a memorandum (prepared by J. W. Harless) based on a literature search of sixteen local community studies (published between 1929 and 1950). The whole is augmented by literary works on local communities which, Mills claims, reached similar conclusions to sociological analyses. The problem, for him, in both is that there is a tendency to be concerned with status rather than power.

Material on metropolitan 'high society' came from a variety of published sources, the primary one being The Social Register, which since the 1890s had been published listing the top families (with considerable detail of education, etc) in New York, Boston and Philadelphia and this was expanded to include nine other cities by 1910, with each supporting a regular annual volume from 1928.

The celebrated, epitomised by 'cafe society' Mills determined again through literature search, principally, listings in Fortune and by reference to, and further investigation upon, Igor Cassini's 'The New 400' in Esquire, June 1953.

The investigation of the rich Mills acknowledges is tricky because little by way of precise figures on great fortunes is available. On the 19th century he used a few relatively recently published works plus the methodical listings of Moses Yale Beach of the Sun Office in the 1840s and 1850s. Reviewing the dozen or so histories of great fortunes and the biographies of the wealthy, making careful use of data published in newspapers in 1924 and 1925 when a temporary law allowed the reporting of income tax payments, and using share ownership published in the Temporary National Economic Committee's monograph, No. 29, Mills devised a list of all those born since 1800 identified as having $30 million or more. The cut-off figure was guided by pragmatic concerns about available resources, it produced a list of 371 names (no biographical details could be found on 69 who were excluded, Mills reckons that these were transitory fortunes, mainly accumulated in the speculative 1920s). The research was as systematic as the scattered evidence would allow and it was checked as far as possible in the case of those now deceased by reference to probate of will. While the list may not be exhaustive, without doubt, Mills reckons that all those on it are among America's richest people.

Mills own research some of it previously published (Mills, 1945 1948, 1951) was used in his analysis of the chief executives and interconnected directorates supported by other published material including TNEC monographs, Taussig & Joslyn (1932) and Keller's (1954) analysis of Miller (1952).

Official data from the Bureau of the Census and the Treasury Department along with Kuznet's (1953) analysis of tax data, various newspaper articles and TNEC monographs formed the major source of information on the corporate rich.

The generals and admirals selected for detailed study in his analysis of the warlords were taken from official army, airforce and navy registers, augmented by Barbera's dissertation (1954).

Having collected this information, what did Mills do with it? Really the question should be framed the other way round. Mills had planned several angles on the analysis of the powerful in America [see above]. His aim was to identify the powerful, where they came from, what sort of people they were, and what they have. His data provided some clarification on all these points. It showed that power was rooted in corporate, military, and political hierarchies and no longer in local society, family, education or the church. But that alone was inadequate. The real substantive issue was whether these powerful people operated as an elite. Did the three strands of the powerful group coincide and ultimately co-operate ? [How does he show this ?]

Mills develops a working hypothesis of power which he states explicitly in Sociological Imagination. Whatever models Mills' analysis of power rejects, it is important to see that it implies a particular model, one of social control via manipulation thanks to a well founded and firmly entrenched power base. As Mills explains, one cannot assume today that people are, in the last resort, governed by their own consent. Consent itself is managed and manipulated.

'Authority (power justified by the beliefs of the voluntarily obedient) and manipulation (power wielded unbeknown by the powerless) must also be considered along with coercion [as modes of power].' (Mills, [1959] 1971, p. 50)


Criticisms of Mill's approach to power


There has been considerable debate about Mills' interpretation in The Power Elite. It has been claimed that his analysis smacks of conspiracy theory and a 'bourgeois plot'. It seems to some commentators that Mills is almost suggesting that America is run by a group of self-interested, fiendishly clever members of the upper-middle class who sit around a table and map out the economic development of the USA for their own benefit. Such a view would be anathama to Marxists and to Liberal Democrats (from different points of view). Clearly, Mills does not naively presuppose such a state of affairs.

However, whatever the actual constitution of the power elite, whether it be an entire class or the 'executive committee of the bourgeoisie', Mills showed that power was in the hands of the few and that the media was its mode of manipulation.

Swingewood on Mills' The Power Elite

Swingewood, in Marx and Modern Social Theory (pp. 159ff), contextualises and sums up Mills position as follows:

Modern elite theorists emphasise the democratic role which competing elites exercise for a modern complex society—democratic pluralism in which power is scattered through a wide variety of elite occupations so that no one can dominate the others. Government is thus a compromise mediating between the interests of different groups, a situation of balance and equilibrium.

Mills, in The Power Elite opposes this view. In contradistinction to the 'balance of power' of competing groups, Mills argues that U.S. society is dominated by a triangular structure of overlapping elites, economic, military and political that constitute a unified power elite. In this analysis there is no longer any room for an independent middle class of entrepreneurs in America, such a middle class becomes a mass of propertyless white collar workers.

The rise of the power elite is primarily 'caused' by the rise of mass society which is bureaucratised and manipulated by the mass media. Mass society has become ill-informed in as much as it absorbs a single set of information oriented towards a single sublimating ethos.

'Mills vision is of a totalitarian society in which there is no effective countervailing power against the coalition of big businessmen' and the military: the result is a 'managed consensus' in which 'manipulation' not force, 'is a prime way of coercing power'.' (Swingewood, 19++, p. 160)

Defining authority as power rendered explicit and volumtarily obeyed, Mills concludes that U.S. society is dominated by the power elite who operate without 'public legitimation'.

Swingewood's criticism

First, this approach seems to be a conspiracy theory, albeit a fairly subtle version. Swingewood argues that a conspiracy theory is unacceptable because political domination, in a modern society, requires legitimation through ideology and no group can rule for long if it believes only in its own self interests.

Mills, it seems, rejects the classical Marxist theory of a ruling class on the grounds that the power structure is dominated exclusively by a small number of individuals that Mills referred to as 'big economic men'.

Mills had argued [like so many who take a simplistic view of Marxism, particularly prevalent in USA] that Marx was too deterministic, relying too heavily on economics. [This might be a reflection on Mills or the prevailing interpretation of Marx in the 1950s].

Swingewood argued that Mills' own evidence should not lead him to reject the idea of a ruling class, because he clearly demonstrates that recruitment to the three elites is based on certain families, schools, universities, and generally on a class basis. This recruitment is supported by intermarriage and club affiliations. The 'political directorate' and the 'corporate rich' are shown to be closely related and the general make-up and scope of the ruling elite is such that the elite constitutes a fairly unified ruling class.

[Of course, we may have Swingewood trying to get the data to fit a ruling class thesis, which he favours as a self-styled (classical) Marxian.]

Evidence from England and Germany supports the view that the 'power elite' is drawn from the highest class.

Swingewood distinguishes between class and elite:
A dominant class consists of many separated but interrelated layers. E.g. the British aristocracy had 'political influence after economic power had waned, by joining the rising bourgeoisie by marriage and financial ventures. It was only later in the nineteenth century that the political representatives of industry and finance came to dominate political structure.

Elite theory presupposes that fractions within a dominant class become independent (super-) strata divorced from the 'totality of social and economic relations'.

Whether Mills goes this far or not is debateable but whatever the intricacies of the debate, it is clear that an emphasis on power relations moves sociology out of the sterile realm of concept manipulation of ahistorical structures based on Liberalistic notions of consensus theory. It is this very ideological limitation, implicit in academic American sociology that Mills is relating to.

Rex on The Power Elite

Rex argues that Mills' power elite was not quite the 'executive committee' that classical Marxism would posit as at the helm of the capitalist state. Swingewood [and me] would argue that classical Marxism would not propose an executive committee!

Mills' elite was different from the 'Marxist elite' because it had a tight, unrivalled control of power and was irresponsible.

Many commentators have asked what the unifying interests of this diverse elite are? A clear unifying objective is necessary if they are to be seen as a ruling elite.

Rex says that Marxists argue that this elite is tied in with the interests of the capitalist ruling class.


Basis of Mills' approach

As Mills says,

'The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society.' (Mills, [1959] 1973, p. 12)

To do this involves asking the questions:

What is the structure of the society as a whole?

What is the interrelationship of its essential components?

What are its points of difference from other societies?

What is the meaning of any particular feature within it for its continuance or change?

Where does this society stand in human history?

What are the mechanics by which it is changing?

What is its place in the wider context of the whole world?

How is any particular feature affected by its historical period?

What are the essential features of the period, how does it differ from other periods?

What varieties of people prevail in the society?

What varieties are emerging?

How are the non-prevailing men and women repressed?

Thus the classical method, as Mills sees it, requires the analysis of individuals within society, relating the problem of the individual to the larger 'issues' of society. To do this adequately requires an historical comparative approach. It also requires one to be a social scientist, not just a sociologist, and certainly not just a methodical technician with an inadequate sociological appreciation. In Mills view social scientists should be social critics. Substantive issues should be analysed, and no matter how intense the search for detail, the study should always be related critically to the social structure as a whole.


The interrelationship of theory and method

'When we pause in our studies to reflect on theory and method, the greatest yield is a restatement of our problems. Perhaps that is why every working social scientist must be his own methodologist and his own theorist.' (Mills, [1959] 1971, p. 136)

Mills quotes Horkheimer's concern that imaginative thinking is impeded by a concern with 'proof', etc.

'The constant warning against premature conclusions and foggy generalities implies, unless properly qualified, a possible taboo against all thinking. If every thought has to be held in abeyance until it has been completely corroborated, no basic approach seems possible and we limit ourselves to the level of mere symptoms.' (Mills, [1959] 1973, p. 137).

The problem of empirical verification is 'how to get down to facts' yet not get overwhelmed by them; how to anchor ideas to facts but not to sink the ideas. The problem is first what to verify and second how to verify it. (Mills, [1959] 1971, p. 139)

In grand theory, verification is (hopefully) deductive. In abstracted empiricism how is important not what.

The classical approach, conversely, is to decide what seems worth verifying (for inference purposes, etc.) then see how it can be done (if at all).

'The classic craftsman does not usually make up one big design for one big empirical study. His policy is to allow and invite a continual shuttle between macroscopic conceptions and detailed expositions. He does this by designing his work as a series of smaller scale empirical studies, each of which seems to be pivotal to some part or another of the solution he is elaborating. That solution is confirmed, modified, or refuted according to the results of these empirical studies.' (Mills, [1959] 1971, p. 140).

Note: Mills was writing at a time when verification, reliability, validity, etc. were of extreme importance to the (quantitative) social research fraternity in the USA].

Mills' approach reflected critical social research in its lack of apparent concern with empirical verification. He addressed the issue quite explicitly (Mills, [1959] 1973, p. 140) as he was writing at a time when validation techniques were of a high order of priority among much of the social science research fraternity in the United States, especially amongst those engaged in microscopic quantitative research, the prevalent style of the time.

'How to verify statements, propositions, putative facts does not seem to the classic practitioner as difficult as it is often made out by microscopic workers. The classic practitioner verifies a statement by detailed exposition of whatever empirical materials are relevant (sometimes using the precision of statistical enquiry). For other problems and conceptions, our verification will be like that of the historian; it is the problem of evidence.' (Mills, [1959] 1971, p. 140)

'Classic sociology is ... an attempt to improve the chances that our guesses about important matters might be right.' (Mills, [1959] 1971, p. 141)

For Mills, if we have a sense of real problems, as they arise out of history, the question of truth and significance tends to answer itself - we work carefully and as exactly as possible. To confront the important issues one needs to elaborate hypotheses and document them, at key points by more detailed information. This is not rigid, it requires craftsmanship.

Mills' anti-Liberalism

Mills' writings clearly show him as anti-Liberalistic. He claims that, in America, Liberalism has been the political common denominator of virtual social study as well as the source of virtually all rhetoric and ideology. This Liberalism has been of great political use in the social sciences for it is the doctrine of piecemeal reform. It has, Mills argues, informed science attributing causality to many and diverse phenomena, resulting in the slow and steady analysis of one phenomena at a time; changing this and seeing what happens, changing that and then observing once more. Such an approach has its greatest triumph in classical economics. But, as Mills says

'If there is any one line of orientation historically implicit in American social science, surely it is the bias towards scattered studies, towards factual surveys and the accompanying dogma of a pluralistic confusion of causes.' (Mills, [1959] 1971, p. 97)

Mills sees Liberalism as intrinsic to the development of specialised micro-conceptions of social structure. To be 'Liberal' is to be uncritical, to tacitly accept the status quo.

As Mills says:

'if we break society into 'factors', naturally we shall need quite a few of them to account for something and we can never be sure that we have hold of them all. A merely formal emphasis upon the 'organic whole', plus a failure to consider the adequate causes—which are usually structural—plus a compulsion to examine only one situation at a time—such ideas do make it difficult to understand the structure of the status quo. (Mills, [1959] 1971, pp. 97-98)

Mills' radicalism

Mills was a radical not a liberal. However, he made no attempt to prepare recipes for the future. Nor was he a radical in the programmatic sense. He simply aimed to lay bear the nervous system of the social system he lived in.

To ask whether Mills was a Marxist is a sterile question. He was greatly influenced by Marx, but he was also influenced by Weber, Veblen and Mannheim. Certainly he clashes with 'Orthodox Marxism', as in the Power Elite but it would have been impossible for him to have indulged in his style of sociological investigation without the influence of Marxist philosophy. The social critical aspect of his work is imbued with Marxism, and social criticism, as an approach to sociology, is inconceivable without an appreciation of Marxism.

Mills might best be described as a radical pragmatist, if he has to be labelled other than a social critic.


(*Notes from The Power Elite Chapter 1, Notes and Acknowledgements plus cursory reading of rest of book.)

analytical review

associated issues


related areas

See also

new sociology

social criticism


Keller, S.I., 1954, ‘Social origins and career lines of three generations of american business leaders’, PhD, Columbia University.

Kuznets, S. & Jenks, E., 1953, Shares of Upper Income Groups in Income and Savings. New York, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

Miller, W., (Ed.), 1952, Men in Business: Essays in the history of entrpreneurship. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Mills, C.W. and Gerth, H., 1953, Character and Social Structure

Mills, C. W., 1945, ‘The American business elite: a collective portrait’, The Tasks of Economic History, Supplement V to the Journal of Economic History, December.
Mills, C. W. 1948, The New Men of Power. New York, Harcourt, Brace.
Mills, C. W., 1951, White Collar: The American middle classes. New York, Oxford University Press.

Mills, C.W., 1956, The Power Elite. New York, Oxford University Press

Mills, C.W., 1971, The Sociological Imagination. Harmondsworth, Penguin (originally published 1959)

Swingewood, A., 1975, Marx and Modern Social Theory, Basingstoke, Macmillan,

Taussig, F.W. & Joslyn, C.S., 1932, American Business Leaders, Study in Social Origins and Social Stratification, New York, Macmillan.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home