C Wright Mills: Social Structure v Personal Milieu

C Wright Mills had a way of articulating the sociological project. In this sense his writings remain ideal resources for teaching purposes. In the extracts from ‘The Power Elite’ (pp.321-2) below he offers an insight into the concept of social structure as well as into its ‘beneath-the-surface’ causal salience for our everyday ‘on-the-surface’ activities and decision-making.

We may think of it this way. When a handful of men do not have jobs, and do not seek work, we look for the causes in their immediate situation and character. But when twelve million men are unemployed, then we cannot believe that all of them suddenly ‘got lazy’ and turned out to be ‘no good’. Economists call this ‘structural unemployment’ – meaning, for one thing, that the men involved cannot themselves control their job chances. Structural unemployment does not originate in one factory or in one town, nor is it due to anything that one factory or one town does or fails to do. Moreover, there is little or nothing that one ordinary man in one factory in one town can do about it when it sweeps over his personal milieu.

Now, this distinction, between social structure and personal milieu, is one of the most important available in the sociological studies. It offers us a ready understanding of the position of ‘the public’ in America today. In every major area of life, the loss of a sense of structure and the submergence into powerless milieu is the cardinal fact. In the military it is obvious, for here the roles men play are strictly confining: only the command posts at the top afford a view of the structure of the whole, and moreover, this view is a closely guarded official secret. In the division of labour too, the jobs men enact in the economic hierarchies are also more or less narrow milieu and the positions from which a view of the production process as a whole can be had are centralized, as men are alienated not only from the product and the tools of their labour, but from any understanding of the structure and the processes of production. In the political order, in the fragmentation of the lower and in the distracting proliferation of the middle-level organization, men cannot se the whole, cannot see the top, and cannot state the issues that will in fact determine the whole structure in which they live and their place within it …

…On the one hand, there is the increased scale and centralization of the structure of decision; and, on the other, the increasingly narrow sorting out of men into milieu. From both sides, there is the increased dependence upon the formal media of communication, including those of education itself. But the man in the mass does not gain a transcending view from these media; instead he gets his experience stereotyped, and then he gets sunk further by that experience. He cannot detach himself in order to observe, much less to evaluate, what he is experiencing, much less what he is not experiencing. Rather than that internal discussion we call reflection, he is accompanied through his life-experiences with a sort of unconscious, echoing monologue. He has no projects of his own: he fulfils the routines that exist. He does not transcend whatever he is at any moment, because he does not, he cannot, transcend his daily milieu. He is not truly aware of his own daily experience and of its actual standards: he drifts, he fulfils habits, his behaviour is a result of a planless mixture of the confused standards and the uncriticized expectations that he has taken over from others whom he no longer really knows or trusts, if indeed he ever really did’. 

Mills continues in this vein, but his point is surely well made. His explication of his familiar distinction between the power elite – with its military, economic and political wings – and ‘mass society’ in 1950s America retains more than a little relevance today. It encompasses and extends well beyond those I have characterized in a blog using Maggie Archer’s work as ‘vulnerable fractured reflexives’.

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