New Sociological Imaginations

By Ben Carrington, University of Texas at Austin

The letter is carefully written and friendly in tone but it is, undeniably, a 'revise and resubmit'. The editor of the journal writes that it is 'with great reluctance' that the article is being returned but it is 'only fair' that the author be allowed a chance to work on it further, perhaps being mindful to think more carefully about the differences between class configurations in the UK versus the US, with the hope that it could be revised in time for the next issue. The typed letter is dated June 3rd, 1960. It is addressed to a 'Wright Mills' and signed by a 'Stuart Hall'. This correspondence between Mills and Hall is one of the few times that the two scholars would directly engage each other. Indeed it is rare to find scholarly accounts that place C. Wright Mills and Stuart Hall directly in conversation with one another.[i] In some ways this is not surprising as their intellectual lives and backgrounds are, at first glance, quite distinct. Mills was born in Waco, Texas in 1916 and studied sociology as an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin, where I currently teach. Mills would, of course, go on to have a storied academic career and by 1960 was arguably, with the possible exception of Talcott Parsons, the most famous American sociologist of the age, having earlier published a series of key texts such as White Collar: The American Middle Classes in 1951, The Power Elite in 1956 and The Sociological Imagination in 1959. Mills is sometimes described as the rebellious upstart from small-town Texas who ended up as the combative and 'maverick' public intellectual teaching sociology at Columbia University, until his tragically early death in 1962, aged just 45. It’s worth remembering that when Hall sent that 'R&R' to Mills in 1960, as the founding editor of the New Left Review, he was only 28 years old. Hall was born in Jamaica in 1932, and after leaving the Caribbean to study English Literature at Merton College, Oxford University, Hall became a key intellectual in the British New Left circles of the 1960s and a founding figure in the formation of Cultural Studies as a distinct academic field. By the time of his death in 2014, Hall was Britain's leading black public intellectual and one of the most-cited sociologists in the world. Despite their differences, both shared a skepticism towards narrowly empiricist forms of social science research and both sought to challenge the functionalist accounts of society that dominated American sociology for much of the twentieth century. Mills and Hall were also interested in exploring how intellectuals could inform wider publics, beyond the academy, of the hidden dynamics and dimensions of power. A reformulated sociology, for both men, could, and perhaps should, be a project that examines social inequalities with a view to changing those conditions for the common good. Mills' essay was eventually published later in 1960 as 'Letter to the New Left'. As we think through the project and promise of sociology in the current neoliberal conjuncture, an urgent question presents itself: what might be learnt by revisiting the debates that animated the New Left in order to revitalize a New Sociology and a New Sociological Imagination so as to recover and defend the very idea of the social and the related ideal of public goods including the public university?

Ben Carrington and Maggie Tate recently wrote and produced a documentary on Stuart Hall for public radio in the US.  It includes interviews with a number of sociologists like Professor Les Back (Goldsmiths) and a discussion of Hall's time at the Open University.  Listen to Stuart Hall: In Conversations.

Don't miss Ben Carrington's plenary, Publicising the personal, privatising the public: rethinking the social through Mills and Hall, at the BSA Annual Conference on Tuesday, 4 April at 1.30pm.

[i] One notable exception, and my source for Hall's letter to Mills, is Les Back and Maggie Tate's "Telling About Racism: W.E.B. Du Bois, Stuart Hall and Sociology’s Reconstruction", in Wulf Hund and Alana Lentin's edited collection Racism and Sociology (2014, Lit Verlag, Berlin).