Sociological Imaginations in the 21st Century (2012)


A Lecture for the Sociology Conference for A level students: Ken Plummer    Essex University: 29th March 2012

Lecture Handout and Work Sheet


Things are not what they seem.    Peter Berger. Invitation to Sociology
The sociologist is a destroyer of myths.   Norbert Elias. What is Sociology?
Defamiliarise the familiar..Zygmunt Bauman,  Thinking Sociologically


Sociology at AS level is usually seen as a series of topics like family, health, media, religion, education, power, social stratification and differentiation, crime and deviance, culture and identity, theory and methods. But the bigger picture claims that sociology is also a critical way of seeing  and it raises the significance of social theory as a tool for making sense of our disparate social realities. Sociology covers all of social life – from the BIG issues (capitalism, genocides, war, terrorism, disasters, poverty) to the smaller issues (tomatoes, toilets and telephones). Sociology is actually not really a neat series of topics – it can truly study anything. At heart, it is a critical discipline that generates systematic, critical and imaginative thinking about social relations while engaging directly with the empirical world we live in. At its best, it creates thinking citizens who want to make the world a better place for all. Sociology has a two hundred year long history, and is guided by its legion of past thinkers including Marx (capitalism and inequality), Weber (rationalization and religion) and Durkheim (the social bond. Updated, they remain key themes for today’s world. What is under question is the human construction of the social worlds we dwell within.

Warning: Sociology can/will change your life:

 We can mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of one of its key early thinkers – C.Wright Mills (1916-1962) and his much celebrated introductory text: The Sociological Imagination (1959)  by examining a critical. In doing sociology, Mills suggests we should always remember:

“Always keep your eyes open to the image of man – the generic notion of ..human nature – which by your work you are assuming and implying; and also to the image of history – your notion of how history is being made. In a word, continually work out and revise your views of the problems of history, the problems of biography, and the problems of a social structure in which biography and history intersect. Keep your eyes open to the varieties of individuality, and to the modes of epochal change. Use what you see and what you imagine as the clues to your study of the human variety . . . know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues – and in terms of the problems of history making. Know that the human meaning of public issues must be revealed by relating them to personal troubles and to the problems of individual life. Know that the problems of social science, when adequately formulated, must include both troubles and issues, both biography and history, and the range of their intricate relations. Within that range the life of the individual and the making of societies occur; and within that range the sociological imagination has its chance to make a difference in the quality of human life in our time. (Mills, 1967: 3–5, 225–6; orig. 1957).


In this short lecture, I want to suggest three crucial ways of thinking about social life in the twenty first century. You can bring these ideas to all the topics of your current A level studies and it will give them a very contemporary relevance. The old topics and themes must and will surely continue. But new themes and issues constantly appear as the world changes: that is sociology’s challenge for it is the nature of society to change and hence sociology must keep changing too. So consider each of the ‘topics’ you study at AS level (e.g education, family) and now try to:

  1. 1.    Think Globally!
  2. 2.    Think Intersecting Inequalities!
  3. 3.    Think Media (and digital)!

And maybe: Think Mobilities – and multiplicities!


1.Think Globally (and even cosmically)!

It is no longer possible, if it wever was, to study social things in isolation – we need to see how they connect and bridge across countries around the world (and maybe sometimes even sense their location in the wider cosmic order of things). Consider: How does the local go global and the global come local? Can you study the family, religion, education or media in isolation in one country now?


Human Rights, the internet, ‘globalization’ and the Kyoto Protocol –all products of the last quarter of the previous century- have opened a new horizon of understanding and social action i.e.humankind and its world. While we go on being, say, Chinese or Americans, Muslims or Hindus, workers or bankers, African women or European men, young or old, we have also become members of a common humankind and stakeholders in the same planet’. Göran Therborn : The World 2010 p1

Think of your AS topics and make them global: McDonalds in China, Disneyland in Paris, Gay Muslims, Global Music, United Nations, Hip Hop in Japan, Disasters in Japan, War in Syria. Look at You Tube:  A Life in a Day  (Dir: Ridley Scott, 2011).


2. Thinking Intersecting Inequalities   … and human rights?

Social difference and social class have long been at the heart of sociological analysis. But nowadays, these differences are seen through a diverse interconnecting range of lenses. These include:  class, ethnicity, gender, age, health and disability, sexuality and nation. They are intensely global – the majority world (with little) and the minority world (with much). We can now see a full spectrum of human suffering through inequalities and differences that link to social processes of exploitation, discrimination, exclusion, genocide and dehumanisation.  And how might this link up with issues of justice and human rights…..?


Think how your As topics suggest intersecting inequalities and life opportunities

  Social Orders (Channels of opportunities) Supporting ideas
1 CLASS order Classism
2 GENDER order Sexism and patriarchy
3 ETHNICITY order Racism and racialiastion
4 AGE AND GENERATION order Ageism and generational bias
5 NATION order Nationalism
6 SEXUAL order Heterosexism, homophobia, heteronormativity
7 DISABILITY/HEALTH order Sickness  and disablement ideologies

Source: Ken Plummer : Sociology- The Basics. 2010 p165


3. Think Media and Digital

 We expect more from technology and less from each other:  Sherry Turkle  2011 Alone together


The Spot Survey: Consider:


P C or lap top

I Pod

I pad

I phone or Mulberry


Second Life

Face Book etc


You Tube


E bay


 There is no getting away from it. The world has been radically reorganised over the past twenty five years through the new information technologies. You are the first generation that has come to take them for granted. Sociology has been a bit slow in recognising just how central these new technologies have become across the world. We now need a digital- sociology both about society and for doing research. Every topic you study has been touched by – often radically transformed by- the new media and information technologies. How?

 Traditional topics of sociological study develop new areas of interest: a sample

Families and Personal Life                   Bonding on the mobile; new friendship networks, on line dating, cyber-sex; web sites for donor and new reproductive technologies, new cyberselves?
Religion                                               Mega churches and cyber-churches
Education                                            Digital books ( spindle), the ‘e-revolution’, white boards,
Health                                                  Cyber-health

Inequalities                                          The ‘digital divide.
Economies                                           international finance markets,  teleworking,

Leisure                                                            The Disneyization of the World

Crime                                                 The surveillance society, identity theft
Politics                                                             on-line social movements, digital democracies
Media                                                  digitalization, I pods, you tubes, Baudrillard
Organizations                                      new networks and networking,

Maybe see Manuel Castells: The Information Age – three volumes.
David Bell: The Cyberculture Theorists ( Haraway and Castells)


(and maybe to conclude: Think Multiplicities and Mobilities
Everything changes and nothing remains still.. you cannot step into the same stream twice’ Heraclitus (c535-475BCE). The increasing mobilization of the world –accelerating carbon based movements of people, goods, services , ideas and information- affects the ways in which lives are lived, experienced and understood: see: Anthony Elliott & John Urry : Mobile Lives(2010)px

Contemporary sociology has become very aware that there is no one simple unified story of everything – and that everything in the world is always changing and on the move. These processes have moved under various names – Mobilities and  Multiplicities…..




Link the lecture themes to topics studied?



Personal life

Deviance and crime        




The overall goal of sociology is to help us all act as critical citizens in a world we never made but every day help to re-create. It does its work with a firm eye on making the world a better place for all in a hugely unequal world.  The challenge is on for each generation to leave behind a better place for subsequent generations.
Ken Plummer: Sociology: The Basics 2010  p203


Some possible books for your college library?
Göran Therborn                                  The World: A Beginner’s Guide  2011: Polity Press

Anthony Elliott & John Urry                Mobile Lives  2010 Polity

John Macionis and Ken Plummer        Sociology: A Global Introduction 5th ed 2011 Pearson
Ken Plummer                                       Sociology: The Basics 2010

C.Wright Mills                                     The Sociological Imagination (1959/ 1961) Oxford

R. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett              The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better (2009) Allen Lane

Gregor McLennan                                The Story of Sociology (2011) Bloomsbury Academic.


YOUR OPENING LECTURER IS Ken Plummer who taught at Essex from 1975-2006 and is now Emeritus Professor. He ran the introductory first year sociology course for 18 years, and has written ten books and over 100 articles. Most recently he has published on rights, symbolic interactionism, life stories, intimacies, global inequalities, humanism, queer theory, studies of sexualities, masculinity and the body.  The fifth edition of his undergraduate textbook is: John Macionis and Ken Plummer. Sociology: A Global Introduction. (2011)Pearson. His introductory book is Sociology: the Basics  (2010).

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