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On Intellectual Craftsmanship, C Wright Mills

This is the last chapter of sociologist C Wright Mills’s book The Sociological Imagination. You can find the entire chapter online here.

I created a detailed outline below. You can also download it as a PDF. Hopefully it will inspire you to create your own, “intellectual file.”

Purpose of Chapter

Explain how social scientists do their work

How?

Maintain an intellectual file:

American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916 – 1962), 1960. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

“You will have often noticed how carefully accomplished thinkers treat their own minds, how closely they observe their development and organize their experience. The reason they treasure their smallest experiences is that, in the course of a lifetime, modern man has so very little personal experience and yet experience is so important as a source of original intellectual work. To be able to trust yet to be skeptical of your own experience, I have come to believe, is one mark of the mature workman. This ambiguous confidence is indispensable to originality in any intellectual pursuit, and the file is one way by which you can develop and justify such confidence.

By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications… The file also helps you build up the habit of writing…”

Six sections:

  1. Build a highly organized “intellectual file” throughout your day and life.

Don’t separate your work as a sociologist from your personal life.

The intellectual file includes:

  • Personal experience
  • Professional activities
  • Studies under way
  • Studies planned
  • Records of whenever you felt strongly
  • Outlines of books
  • Notes after browsing (e.g. 50 open tabs after a night of reading many items)
  • Facts
  • Figures
  • Theories
  • Evidence for theories
  • Bibliographies

Organize by project (and sub-project):

  • Ideas
  • Personal notes
  • Excerpts from books
  • Bibliographic items
  • Outlines of projects

Benefits:

  • “Checks repetitious work”
  • Aids systematic reflection
  • Capture fringe thoughts (e.g. conversations, dreams)
  • Keep your inner world awake. personal experience is an importance source of original intellectual work but is rare in modern man
  • Helps you trust and yet be skeptical of your own experience
  • This leads to warranted confidence
  • Build up the habit of writing

Essential to write something at least every week.

Periodically review “the state of my problems and plans”

Keep a special file: list of projects — potential and in progress

Keep a special file: master agenda for yourself and close friends. Review it carefully and purposefully occasionally.

Social scientists should discuss, occasionally, with other social scientists about:

  • Problems
  • Method
  • Theory

Giving a name to an experience invites you to explain it

He has two types of notes:

  • Thorough – for very important books. grasp structure of author’s argument
  • Bits  – notes on what’s relevant to your interests in the book
  1. Maintaining this intellectual file is intellectual production.

“But how is this file — which so far must seem to you more like a curious sor of ‘literary’ journal — used in intellectual production? The maintenance of such a file is intellectual production.”

Balzac in the 40s tried to cover, “all the major classes and types in the society of the era he wished to make his own.”

“…books are simply organized releases from the continuous work that goes into [my files]…” 200, 201

When working on a project, he immerses himself in a new, relevant environment — intellectual and social. E.g. He surrounds himself with a circle of people who will listen and talk (sometimes imaginary people)

Gives two page example of his digest of a book. It’s not an overly ordered outline but an X-ray summary, with his questions and points for further thinking and research mixed in.

  1. Plan empirical studies, even if you never execute them.

After exhausting relevant books on your topic of research translate them into empirical studies.

Warns about actually carrying out this empirical research (and maintaining a staff). The studies are useful for settling disagreements and getting at agreed upon facts. Reasoning is the real value here.

Still, important to design empirical studies (on paper). [His opinion of them reminds me of business plans. You probably won’t follow it, but researching it helps you think through important details.]

Gives requirements for such studies, including being efficiently designed.

Gives detailed example of planned empirical study (on the elite)

Gives example of short descriptions of other “projects” he could work on one day — there are 35 related to his topic (the elite).

  1. How to stimulate the sociological imagination (conditions and techniques).

“Since one can be _trained_ only in what is already known, training sometimes incapacitates one from learning new ways; it makes one rebel against what is bound to be at first loose and even sloppy. But you must cling to such vague images and notions, if they are yours, and you must work them out. For it is in such forms that original ideas, if any, almost always first appear.”

[“See the excellent articles on insight and creative endeavor by Hutchinson (?) in Study of Interpersonal Relations, edited by Patrick Mullahy, New York, Nelson, 1949]

How to stimulate the sociological imagination?

  • Playfulness (often lacked by technicians)
  • Fierce determination to make sense of the world
  • Often requires great deal of routine work

7 ways to stimulate the sociological imagination:

1) Rearrange your file. Be relaxed, but keep in mind some problems you’re working on. Look for unforeseen connections.

2) Play with the language defining key terms.

TECHNIQUE: Look up synonyms (in dictionaries and “technical books”) for each key term. Understand: why one word and not the other? Also helps one to be more precise.

TECHNIQUE: Remove and add qualifying words — moving up and down in generality — to probe and search for clarified meaning clarify meaning. For example:

  • Dogs are man’s best friend.
  • ALL dogs are man’s best friend.
  • Dogs are ALL men’s best friends.
  • SOME dogs are ALL men’s best friends.

3) Classify general ideas into types. Look for causes, conditions, consequences, common denominators, differentiating factors, range, relationships.

Play with charts, tables, and diagrams to generate deeper insights (beyond common sense classifications).

The criteria of classification should be explicit.

This activity is to sociology what sentence-diagrams are to a grammarian.

Helps you think in terms of extremes (e.g. yes / no) and not magnitudes or frequencies.

“[In] the past fifteen years… I have [not] written more than a dozen pages first-draft without… [diagrams, even though I don’t usually publish them].”

For example:

 Movement Institutions
Enlightenment Science, government
Counter-Enlightenment Churches, arts, politics

4) Consider extremes, like opposites.

Aristotle is a great example when he analyzes character traits in his Ethics (e.g. liberality and miserliness).

This helps you:

  • Build statistical models. The opposites are often “polar types” along dimensions
  • Consider different viewpoints. If you know the major arguments — as well as their proponents and friends — you are “soaked in the literature.”
  • Write dialogues. Another way to understand viewpoints.

5) Play with proportions.

He does this before he ever counts or measures anything.

What if small ELEMENTS were actually gigantic? For example, what if diamonds weren’t scarce? Or human lifespans were only a week long? Or Presidents served for life?

What if necessary CONDITIONS weren’t actually relevant? For example, what if cars drove themselves, weather predicted itself, or war occurred on a regular cycle?

What if CONSEQUENCES were very different in type or amount? For example, what if complimenting a woman actually aggravated her? Or if God rewarded us for questioning and heresy? Or if we earned $1,000,000 for working one day?

6) Find historical comparisons in other civilizations and historical periods.

For example, if you are studying church attendance in 21st century America, compare it to church attendance in 20th or 19th century America. What about England? Or synagogue and mosque attendance?

Sometimes this helps you identify trends or phases.

7) Understand the difference between themes and topics.

A topics is a subject, like “moon landings,” “the growth of pet supply stores,” “English speaking yeshivas,” or “adoptions in America.” Each can usually be explained in a single chapter or part of a chapter.

A theme is a general idea, like rationality, freedom, growth, conflict, or clarity. Themes keep, “insisting to be dragged into all sorts of topics.” Often you have 2 or 3, but maybe as much as 6 or 7. State them clearly in your writing, usually up front, then cross-classify them with each of your topics. It might even be useful to explain how the themes relate to one another.

  1. Write clearly.

Sociologists are famous for writing poorly because they want to:

  • Imitate physical sciences
  • Establish (faulty) academic claims to the reader
  • Make up for lack of prestige in academia and wider society
  • Follow the established norm in the field

Goals:

  • Precision – the quality, condition, or fact of being exact and accurate; marked by or adapted for accuracy and exactness.
  • Economy – careful management of available resources; sparing or careful use of something; (of a product) offering the best value for the money
  • Clarity – the quality of coherence and intelligibility; the quality of being easy to see or hear; sharpness of image or sound.

How to write clearly?

Answer these clearly:

1) How difficult and complex is my subject?

Probably not so difficult (95% of sociology books can be translated into English). Technical terms may be necessary, but jargon is never necessary.

2) When I write, what status am I claiming for myself?

Two ways of presenting one’s work: with a voice (good) or without a voice (bad). With a voice, he is a definite human with experience and reasoning. He discovered something and wants to tell the reader. Without a voice, the writing is impersonal jargon, pretentious and manufactured noise like a government bulletin.

3) For whom am I trying to write?

Take Lionel Trilling’s advice: imagine you have been asked to give a lecture to an audience of students, community members, and teachers from all departments. “Assume that such an audience is before you and that they have a right to know; assume that you want to let them know. Now write.”

Common combinations:

Has a voice Doesn’t have a voice
Speaking to public Readable prose Boring or cult-like
Not speaking to public Unintelligible ravings Meaningless sound in empty hall (like a Kafka novel)

Beginnings feel great, but we must not consent ourselves with apparent profundity and instead seek finished results.

Think of yourself as a representative of a truly great language. Expect and demand greatness from yourself.

Process:

  • Present ideas first to yourself (aka “thinking clearly”)
  • Present these ideas to others.
  • Modify its form and content to communicate more clearly.

Writing with for a specific public (what he calls writing in a “context of presentation”)

Resources:

  • The Reader Over Your Shoulder, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge
  • The Modern Researcher, Jacques Barzun and Graff
  • A Writer’s Notes on His Trade, G. E. Montague
  • Modern Prose Style, Bonamy Dobree
  1. Summary.

1) Be a good intellectual craftsman.

2) Write clearly. Be confident: make judgements on your subject and enable your readers to judge your work.

3) Define historical reality. Don’t get lost in trans-historical constructions, minutiae, theories, models, relations. Stay grounded. “Never write more than three pages without at least having in mind a solid example.

4) Provide context. Study a milieu, but also study the larger social structure. If you report the details of a moment in history, like journalist, also locate it within, “the weeks, years, epochs” of human history.

5) Don’t be limited by academic specialization. Use the perspectives, materials, ideas, and methods of all studies of man and society. Don’t let them by others and locked under jargon and pretensions of expertise.

6) Stay focused on the basics — human nature, nature of history, and how these intersect to create social structure.

7) Try to understand man as actors in history and society — not as isolated fragments. Relate everything you read to this larger picture.

8) Maintain your moral and political autonomy. Don’t let others define what you study. For example, question how issues are officially formulated. Personal troubles can be understand in terms public issues and history making. Explore the relations between the particular and the general, between a particular trouble and the wider historical issue.