C Wright Mills

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Mills, C. Wright 1916-1963






The American sociologist Charles Wright Mills wrote about the growth in the size and scope of bureaucracies in the modern era. The resulting concentration of authority, he maintained, has dramatic effects upon such institutions as family, democratic government, science, education, and the economy. It also profoundly affects individuals, both those who wield the power and those who are subject to it. Mills forcefully chastised his colleagues about the proper role of social science in exploring and clarifying these and other central issues of the time.


Mills was born on August 28, 1916, in Waco, Texas. His father was an insurance salesman and his mother a homemaker. From the age of seven the family began moving around Texas, and Mills experienced what he later described as a childhood of loneliness and isolation. He attended Texas A&M University in 19341935, but found the required regimentation and demands for deference toward professors and upperclassmen to be intolerable. In later years, Mills reflected on how these childhood and adolescent experiences caused him to focus on work as his salvation, taught him to demand intellectual and social independence, and gave him both a tolerance and a preference for being a loner.

After a disastrous freshman year Mills transferred to the University of Texas, where he received a bachelors degree in sociology and a masters degree in philosophy in 1939. He then went on to the University of Wisconsin, where he received his doctorate in sociology. By all accounts he was a brilliant though difficult student. His relations with his professors were often stormy; he was looked upon as arrogant and exceedingly ambitious. When defending his dissertation he refused to make revisions demanded by his committee; the dissertation was later quietly accepted without formal committee approval.

In 1941 Mills accepted his first academic appointment at the University of Maryland. It was here that Mills finished his dissertation on American pragmatism and collaborated with Hans Gerth, one of his professors at Wisconsin, on From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1946). This book has since become a classic, interpreting the German sociologist Max Weber as far more of a radical conflict theorist than the prevailing American view of the time. In 1945 Mills joined Columbia University where he taught and wrote for the remainder of his career.

In all of his writings, Mills interpreted the world through a theoretical perspective very much influenced by Weber. Like Weber, Millss vision comprised a holistic view of entire sociocultural systems. His main body of work centers upon the theme of rationalization, the practical application of knowledge to achieve a desired end. Rationalization is a method of thought focused on total coordination and control over processes needed to attain whatever goal the individual or organization has set. It is the thought process behind the application of science, observation, and reason in the development of technology to manipulate the environment. It is the thought process behind bureaucracy, social organizations specifically designed for the attainment of goals. It was Millss contention that rationalization was increasing with modernity. Mills believed that because the social system is interdependent, the rationalization process has profound effects on human behavior, values, and thought.


Millss first breakthrough came with the publication of White Collar: The American Middle Classes in 1951. According to Mills, the rise of white-collar work was due to the eras growth in bureaucracy caused by technological change and the increasing need to market the goods and services of an industrial society. The central characteristic of white-collar workers is that they are unorganized and dependent upon large bureaucracies for their existence. By their mass existence and dependence, Mills maintained, they have changed the character and feel of American life.

With the automation of the office and the increase in the division of labor, the number of routine jobs is increased, while authority and job autonomy become attributes of only the top positions. There is an ever greater distinction made in terms of power, prestige, and income between managers and staff. The routinized worker is discouraged from using his or her own independent judgment; decision making is in accordance with strict rules handed down by others. Job performance and promotion become based on following the bureaucratic rules and dictates of others, not on critical intelligence. The aim of schooling shifts from the creation of the good citizen to one of creating the successful specialist.

In white collar society there is also a shift of social power from force and coercion to authority and manipulation. This form of power is founded upon the ever more sophisticated methods of control given elites by mass communication and the social sciences. This shift is from the overt to the covert, from the obvious to the subtle. Exploitation becomes the rule, depriving the oppressed from identifying the oppressor. This form of power effectively removes the check of reason and conscience of the ruled on the ruler.


In The Power Elite (1956) Mills demonstrated that the bureaucracies of state, corporations, and military have become enlarged and centralized, and are a means of power never before equaled in human history. These hierarchies of power, Mills argued, are the key to understanding modern industrial societies. Major national power resides almost exclusively at the top of these bureaucracies; all other institutions have diminished in scope and been pushed to the side of modern history or made subordinate to the big three.

The elite who run these organizations are closely related through intermarriage. Some of their coordination comes from an interchange of personnel between the three elite hierarchies, but a good deal of coordination also comes from a growing structural integration of the dominant institutions. As each of the elite domains becomes larger, its integration with the other spheres becomes more pronounced. But the major source of unity of the elite, Mills stated, is their common backgroundthey are all from the upper social class, they attended the same preparatory schools and Ivy League universities, and belong to the same exclusive clubs and organizations.

The positions of the elite give them access to power that make their decisions (as well as their failure to act) extremely consequential. Mills believed these leaders are acting (or failing to act) with irresponsibility, thus leading the nation and the world to disaster. But this does not always need to be so; the enlargement and concentration of power into so few hands now makes it imperative to hold these men responsible for the course of events.


Mills believed it is the task of social scientists to address how the concentration of power, and the resulting structural and historical issues, affect human values and behaviors. Millss Sociological Imagination (1959) was a call to arms for social scientists to focus upon these substantive problems, to bring reason to bear on human affairs.

In this work, like Weber before him, Mills cautioned that a society dominated by rational social organization is not based on reason, intelligence, and good will toward all. Further, it is through rational social organization that modern-day tyrants (as well as more mundane bureaucratic managers) exercise their authority and manipulation, often denying the opportunity to their subjects to exercise their own judgment. One then has rationality without reason. Such rationality is not commensurate with freedom, Mills said, but the destroyer of it (1976, p. 170).

Because of his abrasive personality, his insistence upon writing polemics for a broader audience, and his increasingly strident and critical views of the status quo and of the work of his colleagues, Mills became increasingly isolated as a sociologist. His personal manners and dress were far removed from the buttoned-down professional academics of Columbia. In 1963 Mills died of heart disease at the age of forty-five, virtually excommunicated from the mainstream of his profession. However, over the years his reputation has grown among those who take a critical view of modernity and its drift.

SEE ALSO Blue Collar and White Collar; Bureaucracy; Bureaucrat; Military-Industrial Complex; Power; Power Elite


Horowitz, Irving L. 1983. C. Wright Mills: An American Utopian. New York: Free Press.

Mills, C. Wright. [1951] 1956. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. Wright. [1956] 1970. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. Wright. 1958. The Causes of World War Three. London: Secker and Warburg.

Mills, C. Wright. [1959] 1976. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. Wright. [1963] 1967. Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills. Ed. Irving L. Horowitz. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. Wright. 2000. Letters and Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Kathryn Mills with Pamela Mills. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Frank Elwell

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Mills, C. Wright



C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) was at his death professor of sociology at Columbia University and one of the most controversial figures in American social science. He considered himself and was considered by his peers something of a rebel against the social science “establishment,” and he attracted both admirers and critics for this role.

Shortly after his death, a series of essays, The New Sociology, was published in his honor. A central theme of these essays was the notion that Mills exemplified that spirit of social concern which he himself saw as the fundamental duty of the modern intellectual, in particular the social scientist—a duty, be it said, which he felt was not fulfilled by the majority of contemporary American social scientists (Horowitz 1964). His writings represented an attempt to open up paths of inquiry and analysis that would enable men to combat what he called the “main drift” of modern society to “rationality without reason,” that is, the use of rational means in the service of substantively irrational ends. He found Marx and Weber to be the most helpful classical theorists, but he wanted to go “beyond” both of them to a new comparative world sociology that would seek to understand our time in terms of its historical specificity and by so doing renew the possibility of achieving human freedom. He thus set himself a large task, requiring research on the whole canvas of human (and particularly modern) history, but he died before he could present a full synthesis of his ideas.

He saw the present as a transition from the modern age to a postmodern period which he called the Fourth Epoch. If throughout his work there is a current of ultimate hope, it is equally suffused with pessimism about the more immediate future. He spoke of the “moral uneasiness of our time,” a consequence throughout the Western world (including the Soviet Union) of what he called the “higher immorality,” immorality encrusted in the structures and norms of the society, which he saw as particularly prevalent in the United States.

The basic problem of this era was that, unlike the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, rationality no longer produced freedom, and since the two central ideologies which were developed in the modern West, liberalism and Marxism, assumed that it did, they no longer sufficed to explain and thus to control social change. Liberalism, being more heavily dependent on this assumption, was, he said, now irrelevant, and Marxism was inadequate.

What was even more unsettling to Mills was the “default” or “defeat” of the free intellectuals, especially deplorable at a time when the power of the intellectual had become potentially very great. His emphasis on the role of the intellectuals, on their failure, derived from his basic assumption that there is a great difference between the range of action possible to what he called “elites” and the range of action possible to the “masses.” Men make their own history, but some are freer to do so than others. If the relatively free intellectuals fail to assert their moral leadership, other members of the elite, less qualified and less disinterested, will inevitably do so in their stead. This is in fact what had happened, according to Mills.

This failure is indicated by the nature of the problems studied by social scientists, and even more by the inadequate theory and methodology that underlie their work, an inadequacy he attributed to their deliberate abdication of social responsibility. Social theory, to be usable for Mills, had to deal in categories whose level of abstraction was not so high as to deprive them of all historical content or relevance. It should involve the search for causes of specific historical sequences and thereby explain shifts in the importance of and relations between the various “institutional orders” (politics, economics, the military, religion, and kinship). Mills took a strong stand against “principled monism or pluralism” and stated that the simple view of economic determinism must be “elaborated” by political and military determinism.

But more than theory was involved. Mills felt that the way in which the theory is used—the methodology of social research—is central to the results. He was not opposed to empirical research (indeed, he conducted a considerable amount of it), but he was against “abstracted empiricism,” to which he contrasted the ideal of “craftsmanship.” Craftsmanship is at once an ethos and an ideal which is only possible in a “properly developing society” but which also brings such a society into being. While Mills constantly called for such a conception of the role of the intellectual, he preferred to exemplify the skill rather than give an operational definition of it. It is perhaps as a result of this lack of definition that discussion of Mills’s criticisms of his colleagues sometimes resembles a theological debate.

Mills’s intellectual fathers in macrosociological theory were clearly Marx and Weber, as he himself acknowledged, and Freud and Mead in social psychology. It is sometimes said that he was the heir of Veblen. But while he called Veblen “the best social scientist America has produced,” he was clearly critical of him, even in the introduction he wrote to The Theory of the Leisure Class (see Mills 1953). Mills called Veblen’s views “over-simple” and “inadequate” and found the substance of his work less useful than the style. It is indeed in style and populist bias that Mills most resembles Veblen.

In his own research, he was more concerned with restating and advancing the Marx-Weber tradition than the Freud-Mead one. He accepted what he considered to be Weber’s two most important revisions of Marx—the broadening of the concept of economic determinism to a wider social determinism and the “sophisticating” of the idea of class by the addition of the category of status or prestige. Mills thought that Marx’s major political expectation about advanced capitalist societies—the progressive role of the proletariat—had “collapsed,” and he railed against a “labor metaphysic,” a faith in the progressive role of the working class (1960a), although an early monograph of his, The New Men of Power (1948), may be thought to exhibit this very view.

The shift in focus and methodology of Mills’s empirical work over his life reflected his increasing discomfort with his peers in American sociology. The New Men of Power and The Puerto Rican Journey (Mills et al. 1950) rely in large part on survey data, especially the latter. They were both done under the aegis of the Bureau of Applied Social Research of Columbia University and under the methodological influence of Paul Lazarsfeld. Nonetheless, even in these works Mills used the data to deal with problems of social change of the larger society, the United States; this was a feature of all his books, whatever their particular problems. In White Collar (1951), interview data became minor and government statistical data more important; he explicitly sought to locate the problems of the individual (in this case, the “new middle class”) within the trends of the epoch, thus illustrating a methodological orientation he was later to insist upon in The Sociological Imagination (1959). The Power Elite (1956) represented a further evolution of this trend. The problem here was to explain the over-all power structure of the United States, not the role of out-groups that are relatively more accessible to being studied (labor leaders, migrants, white-collar workers). In this task, Mills asserted, national surveys are useless, and he relied upon “reasoning together.” The data were largely historical, and the objective of the research was to explain the “moral uneasiness of our time.”

In the three books that followed, The Causes of World War Three (1958), The Sociological Imagination (1959), and Listen, Yankee (1960b), Mills had moved one stage further. There was no question here of survey methods. There was even little question, as there still was in The Power Elite, of the systematic collection of data or the use of a research design and a research organization. These three books were historical interpretations—of the contemporary world system, of the evolution of the social sciences in the United States, of social revolution in Cuba—in the form of polemical essays. By then, Mills seemed to feel that methodological rigor was a trap which would prevent him or other scholars from dealing with significant problems. Thus, despite his critical view of Marxian theory, he grew more and more interested in Marxism as a “method of work,” as his last published volume, The Marxists (1962), indicates. This was undoubtedly largely because he grew more and more unhappy with what he regarded as the ideological uses other scholars made of the Weberian critique—to defend an established order. And he came to fear the emphasis on science less as an illusion than as a diversion.

Mills ended as he began, a moralist preaching to his peers, the community of social scientists, throughout the world but especially in the United States. While he continued to accept the fundamentals of the Weberian modifications of Marx, he refused to accept Weber’s “pessimistic world of a classic liberal.” He thought the dominant apolitical or “value-free” bias of contemporary American sociology was an ideological mask, hiding value preferences which he did not share. In a basic sense, he was a Utopian reformer. He thought that knowledge properly used could bring about the good society, and that if the good society was not yet here, it was primarily the fault of men of knowledge.

Immanuel Wallerstein

[See alsoAssimilation; Elites; Knowledge, sociology of; Leadership, article onsociological aspects; Marxist sociology; Political sociology; Power; Social problems; and the biographies ofFreud; Marx; Mead; Veblen; Weber, Max.]


1948 The New Men of Power: America’s Labor Leaders. New York: Harcourt.

1950 Mills, C. Wright; Senior, C.; and Goldsen, R. K. The Puerto Rican Journey: New York’s Newest Migrants. New York: Harper.

1951 White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1956.

1953 Introduction. In Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. New York: New American Library.

1953 Gerth, Hans; and Mills, C. WrightCharacter and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions. New York: Harcourt.

1956 The Power Elite. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

1958 The Causes of World War Three. New York: Simon & Schuster.

1959 The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

1960a Mills, C. Wright (editor) Images of Man: The Classic Tradition in Sociological Thinking. New York: Braziller.

1960b Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba. New York: McGraw-Hill.

1962 The Marxists. New York: Dell.

Power, Politics and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills. Edited and with an introduction by Irving Louis Horowitz. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1963.


Aptheker, Herbert 1960 The World of C. Wright Mills. New York: Marzani & Munsell.

Horowitz, Irving Louis (editor) 1964 The New Sociology: Essays in Social Science and Social Theory, in Honor of C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Weber, Max (1906-1924) 1946 From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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C. Wright Mills

American sociologist and political polemicist C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) argued that the academic elite has a moral duty to lead the way to a better society by actively indoctrinating the masses with values.

On Aug. 28, 1916, C. Wright Mills was born in Waco, Tex. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Texas and his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in 1941. Subsequently, he taught sociology at the University of Maryland and Columbia University and during his academic career received a Guggenheim fellowship and a Fulbright grant. At his death, Mills was professor of sociology at Columbia.

Mills has been described as a "volcanic eminence" in the academic world and as "one of the most controversial figures in American social science." He considered himself, and was so considered by his colleagues, as a rebel against the "academic establishment." Mills was probably influenced very much in his rebellious attitude by the treatment his doctoral mentor, Edward Allsworth Ross, had received at Stanford. Ross was fired from Stanford in 1900, largely, it is thought, because he urged immigration laws against bringing Chinese coolies into America to work on railroad building. (Stanford was funded primarily by monies from a railroad which employed such labor.) The firing of Ross spurred the movement for academic freedom in the United States under the leadership of E.R.A. Seligman of Columbia University. Ross then went on to Wisconsin, where, together with John R. Gillin, he built up one of the broadest sociology departments in the nation and where Mills was one of his early doctoral students.

Mills emerged as an acid critic of the so-called military-industrial complex and was one of the earliest leaders of the New Left political movement of the 1960s. Against the overwhelming number of academic studies, Mills insisted—and this is the central thesis of virtually all of his works—that there is a concentration of political power in the hands of a small group of military and business leaders which he termed the "power elite." Essentially, what he proposes as a cure for this immoral situation is that this power be transferred to an academic elite, a group of social scientists who think as Mills does.

As to how the power is to be transferred, Mills is not too clear, as he died before he was able to complete a final synthesis of his thought. In general, he maintains that the academic elite already wields the power but that it is subservient to a corrupt military-industrial complex which it unthinkingly serves simply because it is the going system, the establishment. The task, then, is to convert the academic elite through moral suasion or a kind of "theological preaching," as one sympathetic critic has commented. A major reason why the academic elite unwittingly serves this complex is the elite's behavioral approach, its commitment to value-free social science. In the past, conservatives have attacked the academic intelligentsia on the same grounds, that it has been immoral not to inculcate moral values.

Now Mills and the New Left made the same criticism, although in the interest of rather different moral values. Mills and his followers argued that the so-called value-free commitment to analyze "what is," that is, the existing system, automatically buttresses that system and—since the system is wrong—is thus immoral. In a sense, then, as one commentator has observed, what Mills's program amounts to is: "Intellectuals of the world, unite!"

Mills's analysis of political influence has received a much more favorable response. Mills, like a number of other, earlier writers, as far back as Plato and as recent as Walter Lippmann, perceptively pointed out that eminence in one field is quickly transformed into political influence, especially in a democracy, where public opinion is so crucial. Thus, movie stars, sports stars, and famous doctors use their fame to secure elections or political followings. However, there is no rational basis for this, since competence is related to function. If one functions as a film actor or doctor, that does not mean that he has political wisdom. Mills thus advocated his social science elite to replace such corrupt manifestations of the existing system, thereby calling into question many of the fundamental assumptions of democracy. He advocated a community of social scientists, similar to Plato's philosopher-kings, throughout the world, but especially in the United States, and this elite would wield power through knowledge.

Further Reading

For a sympathetic assessment of Mills see the work by the American Marxist theoretician Herbert Aptheker, The World of C. Wright Mills (1960), and Irving L. Horowitz, ed., The New Sociology: Essays in the Social Science and Social Theory in Honor of C. Wright Mills (1964). Criticism of Mills is in Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology (1960; new rev. ed. 1961); various works by Robert Dahl, particularly Who Governs? (1961); and Raymond A. Bauer and others, American Business and Public Policy: The Politics of Foreign Trade (1963). □

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C. Wright Mills, 1916–62, American sociologist, b. Waco, Tex. He studied at the Univ. of Texas (A.B., M.A., 1939) and the Univ. of Wisconsin (Ph.D., 1942) and spent his academic career (1946–62) as a professor at Columbia Univ. A controversial figure, Mills advocated a comparative world sociology and criticized intellectuals for not using their freedom responsibly by working for social change. He was an advocate of an economic determinism heavily influenced by Karl Marx and Max Weber. His best-known book is The Power Elite (1956), in which he explained the power structure of postwar American society in terms of a ruling militarized corporate-capitalist oligarchy. Mills's other books include White Collar (1951), in which he discussed the propertyless middle-class workers who provided a vast staff for the ruling elite, The Sociological Imagination (1959), Listen, Yankee (1960), and The Marxists (1962).

See biography by I. L. Horowitz (1983); K. Mills and P. Mills, eds., C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings (2000).

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Mills, C. (Charles) Wright (1916–62) US sociologist. His research was in the areas of social psychology and political sociology. Among his many books are From Max Weber (1946), edited with Hans Gerth, The Power Elite (1956), The Sociological Imagination (1959), and Listen Yankee (1960).