Social Research Glossary


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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


New sociology

core definition

The New Sociology was a term applied to an approach to sociology in the United States that derived, in the main, from the social criticism of C. Wright Mills.

explanatory context

The basic characteristics of the New Sociology are as follows:

1. the social scientist should accommodate history

2. the social scientist should adopt an holistic approach

3. there should be an attempt to relate biographical detail to the wider sweep of history

4. the social scientist should be concerned with substantive social issues

5. the social scientist should be conceptually imaginative

6. thus the social scientist should not deal in idealised uncritical social constructs, that is, should not reify 'bourgeois' social values, norms or social structures.

7. consequently the approach is a critical one.


This view of the new sociology is encapsulated in C. Wright Mills' Sociological Imagination. New Sociology is usually characterised as radical sociology.


Some commentators see it as a form of neo-Marxism, others as peudo-Marxism, and others deny its Marxist credentials altogether. As an approach it adopts some elements of (the various) Marxist approaches, but tends to less clearly identify with revolutionary praxis, avoid explicit dialectical analysis, and is ambiguous about class analysis. Marx is only one of its points of reference, Veblen, Weber and other classical sociologists are also identified as inspirational.


In essence, the approach developed as a reaction to the sterility of structural functionalism in the 1950s and argued for a return to the inventive and broader perspective on sociology of the 'founding fathers'.

analytical review

The abstract to Kon's (1965) reassessment of the book in honour of C. Wright Mills is:

"One can hardly doubt that the school dominant in American sociology over the past two decades (1940-1960) has brought that discipline to a dead end," writes the editor of the book under review, Irving Louis Horowitz, in his introduction (p. 3). The dominance of petty empiricism, descriptiveness, the separation of sociological theory from the most important social problems - all this induces alarm and disillusionment among the best American sociologists. In an effort to escape this situation they naturally turn to the progressive tradition in American sociology, whose most vivid spokesman was C. Wright Mills. His works contained a profound and striking critique of social and political life in the United States and of the present state of capitalist sociology. Among the American intelligentsia, the name of Mills became a sort of symbol of intellectual independence and boldness. But in conservative academic circles his writings were subjected to hysterical criticism, which did not cease even after his death. The book under review, put together by Horowitz, a like-minded person who was also a friend of Mills, has the purpose not only of honoring the late scholar but of reviving his intellectual tradition of "sociological criticism."

Ossewaarde (2007) states:

This essay is a reading of the 'new sociology' that has flourished during the past 40 years. This new sociology finds its origins in the works of C. Wright Mills (Horowitz, 1964; Levine, 2005) and sets itself the mission of retriev- ing and reviving the public social face of sociology, to shape a 'democratic soci- ety of publics'. It criticizes the 'old sociology' – namely, the sociological establishment or 'academic sociology' (Gouldner, 1971) – for having elided this public face with the private values of ethical neutrality. It blames the old sociol- ogy, which it identifies with sociologists like Talcott Parsons, Samuel Stouffer, William Ogburn, Elton Mayo, Neil Smelser and James Coleman, for having failed in its responsibility to the maintenance of a democratic society – where 'truth and justice will somehow come out of society as a great apparatus of free discussion' (Mills, 1956: 299).

This article argues that the conflict between the new and the old sociology is ultimately a struggle between the 'sociology of the citoyen' and the 'sociology of the bourgeois'. From the new sociological viewpoint, the old sociology is a 'bour- geois science' (Gouldner, 1985: 193), 'bureaucratic social science' (Mills, 1959: 101), or 'administrative sociology' (Gouldner, 1971: 475). The old sociology is committed to bourgeois social values such as autonomy, meritocracy, instrumen- tal rationality, utility, technocracy, comfort and money. In contrast, the new soci- ology sets itself the task of being a 'public sociology' (Burawoy, 2005a, 2005b) that is committed to the classical values of citizenship, namely, liberty, human dig- nity, Socratic reason, democracy and moral virtue (Mills, 1959; Simon, 1995: 31).

The new sociology blames the old sociology for not having been careful and responsible with its creative power to shape society, and hence for not hav- ing sought public norms to guide its activities. According to the new sociology, the old sociology has implicitly contributed towards the shaping of a 'bourgeois public' (Gouldner, 1976: 139; Habermas, 2001: 27; Mills, 1956: 303). This is a consequence of its commitment to a general theory of society and unified methodology represented as the scientific method (Mills, 1959: 57) or 'com- parative method' (Nisbet, 1986: 55–6) and defined by new sociologists as 'abstracted empiricism' (Mills, 1959) or 'mindless empiricism' (Gouldner, 1976: 11). In the old sociology, the (bourgeois) public consists of workers, con- sumers and clients, rather than citizens who are able to transcend their own interests and needs (c.f. Gouldner, 1973: 67; Habermas, 2001: 249; Mills, 1956: 303–4). By contrast, a real democratic public means that

(1) Virtually as many people express opinions as receive them. (2) Public communi- cations are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public. Opinion formed by such discussion (3) read- ily finds an outlet in effective action, even against – if necessary – the prevailing sys- tem of authority. And (4) authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations. (Mills, 1956: 303–4; also cited by Habermas, 2001: 249)

associated issues


related areas

See also

C. Wright Mills

social criticism

Researching the Real World Section

Critical Social Research Section 1.5

Critical Social Research Section 2.4 for an analysis of Mill's Power Elite


Kon, I., 1965, '"The New Sociology: Essays in Social Science and Social Theory in Honor of C. Wright Mills"', Soviet Sociology, 4(1) pp. 51–54.

Ossewaarde, M., 2007, 'Sociology back to the publics', Sociology, 41(5), pp. 719–812, available at, accessed 11 June 2019.


copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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