May-June 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 5

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ASA Forum

50th Anniversary of
The Sociological Imagination

asa_forum.gifGiven that Mills’ book was voted by the ISA as the second most influential book for sociologists published during the 20th century (Weber’s Economy and Society was first), many will delight that Teaching Sociology is coming out with a special issue on the significance of the book. Yet, despite this influence, I believe sociology has failed to build on Mills’ book. Instead of the breadth of his vision of "the sociological imagination"—to which we continue to give lip service—we have achieved 46 ASA Sections that chop up our discipline, with specialists rarely communicating across them. Compare Mills’ emotional commitment with what occurs in our journals, our meetings, or in Footnotes: We appear to have moved backward rather than forward, opting for advancing a profession rather than moving toward what Mills called "the promise of sociology."

I will quote from the article that I submitted to Teaching Sociology:

"Mills was a Moses who took social scientists to the Promised Land yet was unable to enter it himself. Yet here we are, next to that Promised Land, or ‘the promise of sociology.’ I am convinced that our failure to move into it at this time in history may well decide the future of the human race. Do we have the guts, the understanding and the ability to change what is required to enter that land? Can we come to see ourselves as the only individuals on earth who have already developed the basis for providing leadership in moving toward fulfilling the promise of sociology?"

These are of course vague words, although they do share Mills’ optimism and commitment. On a more specific note, I suggest that we celebrate The Sociological Imagination by reading a book by 11 philosophers of science: Value-Free Science? Ideals and Illusions (2007). According to the authors, a value-neutral stance is neither possible nor desirable for the advancement of science:

"If the content of science—not just its application—can and must involve values, then presenting scientific results as entirely neutral is deceptive. It means ignoring the value assumptions that go into science and the value implications of scientific results. Important value assumptions will be hidden behind a cloak of neutrality in public debates over policy and morality" (p. 4).

I should reveal that I am the founder of the Sociological Imagination Group, and am concerned with escalating world problems. I am someone convinced that we sociologists are able at this time in history to move decisively toward fulfilling "the promise of sociology." I urge readers to visit, participate in the meetings of the Sociological Imagination Group (July 31-August 1), or participate on these matters at the Association for Humanist Sociology meeting (November 6-9). What these times call for is nothing less than a movement throughout the social sciences of individuals as deeply committed as Mills was to developing a more profound understanding of world problems, and to counter the invisibility of our discipline throughout the media by making their voices heard as public social scientists.

Bernard Phillips

More on the ASA Trip to China

Like Leslie Irvine (Footnotes, July/August 2007), I think it is regrettable that the American Sociological Association has decided to sponsor a trip to China, led by our ASA President. My concern stems from the fact that China’s human rights situation remains deplorable.

According to the report on human rights in China posted by the U.S. State Department (, China "is an authoritarian state" in which "the government’s human rights record remained poor, and in certain areas deteriorated." It goes on to say, academic freedom, freedom of speech, of press, of religion, of use of the Internet, of assembly and association, of movement within and outside the country, and workers’ rights are all curtailed; "government] corruption remained an endemic problem"; and "trafficking in persons remained a serious problem."

China leads the world in executions of prisoners. China probably leads the world in harvesting organs from executed prisoners. For half a century, China has engaged in cultural genocide in Tibet. Members of the Falun Gong continue to be persecuted.

This is an incomplete list of China’s human rights shortcomings.

Anyone is free to visit China. But, why is the ASA—an organization with some commitment to human rights (Footnotes, November 2005)—sponsoring a trip to China? A careful reading of the eight-page brochure available on the ASA website reveals that the trip is essentially upscale tourism, with little serious academic content. The itinerary shows that the group will “meet with representatives of the Institute of Sociology at the China Academy of Sciences” on the first (and most-jet-lagged day). This is one of two events before lunch. Near the end of the trip, the group will "meet with professors and students of the sociology department" at Fudan University. In between, and quoting the brochure, the "itinerary includes all the expected highlights: In Beijing, the Great Wall and Forbidden City; the famed Terracotta Warriors; tranquil gardens and temples; a special Peking duck banquet; the Temple of Heaven, one of the finest creations of the Ming Dynasty; a banquet at [an] elegant … Restaurant; a Dumpling Banquet, featuring 20 varieties of traditional Chinese dumplings; the Han Emperor’s Tomb; and the lovely Su Causeway, made famous by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi. During the 10-day trip, the group will explore magnificent private gardens; stroll through bamboo groves, and enjoy a memorable farewell banquet.

The brochure states, "China is a land of history and refinement unparalleled in the world." I wonder if Tibetan Buddhists, members of Falun Gong, and relatives of prisoners whose organs have been harvested for sale would agree?

Ted Fuller, Virginia Tech

More on High School Sociology

As a faculty member who has supervised high school teachers for 15 years and presented/ published papers on high school sociology, I add my observations to the recent debate on high school sociology. While valid problem areas have been cited, there are also possible solutions.

Why are so few sociology courses offered? Reasons suggest Boards of Education do not recognize sociology’s value to a student’s education. They feel the concepts are irrelevant or too controversial. Also, teachers who initiate such courses must ensure adequate enrollment. Unfortunately in today’s world, “The stake is too high for students and society to not provide opportunities for students to develop their sociological imagination, to see the structures behind the façade or beneath the surface of the social world” (Nyugen). The solution is to raise the publics’ perception of sociology. Locally, this can be accomplished by faculty working directly with teachers and pre-service teachers. Also, as the North Central Sociological Association has done, state Associations can develop specialized workshops. Nationally, there are the ASA High School Affiliate and State Representative programs.

Why are sociology courses often of poor quality? With the nationwide stress on high school math and science courses, we may find that "…sociology and other elective subjects are increasingly squeezed out of the high school curriculum." What is tested is taught. Since sociology isn’t tested, the form and content of courses vary. The solution is found at the state level. In North Carolina, the Department of Public Instruction has standards for high school sociology; this is not the case nationwide. Locally, I have worked with colleagues to write a supplemental workbook for high school sociology aligned with our state standards.

Why are teachers often unprepared to teach sociology? This is a result of their pre-teaching experience. Weaknesses include: a) differing university guidelines for teaching certification, b) Social Science Methods often taught in the College of Education, not in Sociology, and c) student teaching is usually done in history. This results in inadequate training in sociology. The solution requires local initiatives. Sociology faculty need to become part of the certification process. Or, according to the NC High School representatives, present workshops on teaching sociology at social studies conferences.

Another reason is that there is little contact between teachers and university faculty. Faculty work in teaching is often not valued or rewarded due to the "…perceived divergence between the ‘research’ oriented track of the university and the ‘teaching’ focus in primary and secondary schools…" (Luhr). But, as Noguera (1998) notes: "If public education is indeed in ‘crisis’…then one might expect that universities, as centers of research and advanced learning, would be both a logical and appropriate resource for assistance. To the extent that this is not occurring, we must also ask ourselves why."

A solution I participate in is the ASU-Public School Partnership. This consortium of eight school districts works in disciplinary groups, suggesting and implementing changes in teacher training, curriculum alignment and testing.

Thus, there are problems with solutions. While the ASA can deal with issues of general disciplinary concern, better high school sociology results from local initiatives. green_small


Luhr, Eileen. 2004. "Lessons in U.S. History Help Build High School-University Partnerships." Organization of American Historians. OAH Newsletter, November.

Nguyen, T. 2008. "Another Take on AP or Not AP." Footnotes, January, p. 9.

Noguera, P. 1998. "Toward the Development of School and University Partnerships Based Upon Mutual Benefit and Respect." Retrieved 2/5/2008. (

Persell, C. 2007. "Response to DeCesare’s ‘AP or Not AP: That Is the Question.’ Footnotes, December, p.7.


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