What is the relationship between thinking conceptually and developing a sociological imagination?

This essay was part of the course work for Sociology 1A 2015-16, University of Glasgow 

Thinking sociologically means to “broaden our horizons of understanding” by not being satisfied with “exclusivity and completeness” that goes along with individual interpretations (Bauman and May, 2001:181). So thinking sociologically is an invitation to be critical and observant but, as C. Wright Mills points out, social scientists also need to treat sociology as a “practice of a craft” (Mills, 2000:195). It is in context of this that thinking conceptually becomes particularly important as it allows to express observations, assess them, and critically analyse the social world. This essay explores how thinking conceptually and exercising the sociological imagination are related by first introducing the concept of the sociological imagination and then presenting the use and purpose of concepts. It will illustrate this relationship by looking at two closely related concepts, namely Erving Goffman’s ‘impression management’ (Goffman, 1956:8) and Arlie Hochschild’s ‘emotional labour’ (Hochschild, 2003:x).

C Wright Mills (2000), who is attributed with coining the term ‘sociological imagination’, observed that those who had been imaginatively aware consistently asked three types of questions:

  1. What is the structure of this particular society as a whole?
  2. Where does this society stand in history?
  3. What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and period?

By posing these questions and possibly breaking them down in even more detailed questions the social scientist seeks to learn from the biographies of people and make the connection to the historical and structural background in which they live (Mills, 2000:6). Ultimately, this allows the social scientist to make the link between micro and macro levels in society (Mills, 2000:8–9). For John Brewer (2004) Mills’ approach gives social reality a three dimensional quality. Firstly social reality is simultaneously microscopic and macroscopic, secondly it is concurrently historical and contemporary and thirdly it is simultaneously social and political since society is deeply impacted by how powers operate at any level. The process of interrelating the micro and the macro levels of society allows us to find the root causes of sociological problems and then develop solutions (Brewer, 2004). So to be sociological imaginative is to look for structures, to explore places and spaces of social life, to understand social actions and meaning, to interrogate the material world, to be aware of time, history, and biographies, and subsequently also to consider contingency and the ongoing changes and flow (Plummer, 2010:98–124). The sociological imagination further also includes to accept complexities and contradictions in society and to look at power and the structures of inequalities (Plummer, 2010:98–124).

Thus, sociologists become investigators of society and social life and their task is to make links between their observations (Stones, 2008:30). The challenge they face is then to describe the ordinary without being ordinary and to ‘exile common sense’ (Bauman et al., 2013:85–86). It is here where concepts become most useful. Generally, concepts are the ‘building blocks’ of theories and through abstraction they allow communication about them so that they can be assessed and scrutinized (Watt and Berg, 1995:11–13). Equally important they can be linked and compared with other concepts (Watt and Berg, 1995:11–13). Concepts further limit ideas to a level where social scientists can then give a full and coherent account of their thinking (Allan, 2013:12–13) by building different models with different functions while being well aware none can perfectly reflect reality of human behaviour (Bauman et al., 2013:85–86).

Concepts enable reflection and communication. Concepts can also evolve into new concepts or be subjected to new interpretations. These processes can be observed within Erving Goffman’s ‘impression management’ itself and in Arlie Hochschild’s ‘emotional labour’ which is a concept evolved from Goffman’s work (Hochschild, 2003:x). Both of these social scientists did start their work from evaluating existing concepts first and both of them are focussed on symbolic interactionism, the branch of sociology which is concerned with language and meaning and in which words and gestures manifest symbols (Giddens and Sutton, 2013:22; 310).

Goffman was inspired in his work by Emile Durkheim and Georg Simmel (Goffman, 1956:46), who both viewed individual persons as ‘social constructs’ (Williams, 2008:185–186). In his book ‘The presentation of self in everyday life’ (1956) Goffman presented the concept of ‘impression management’ and explained that whenever one person appears in the presence of another person or persons then he/she will usually put an effort to deliver an impression of himself to others which serves his own interests (Goffman, 1956:3). To illustrate this abstract concept Goffman used the analogy of a theatre where every individual is an actor who stages a performance to other individuals who are categorized as audiences or co-participants (Goffman, 1956:8). Once Goffman had set up this concept as a frame work he was then able to explore human interactions more and to describe his observations in a structured and clear way. In case of the ‘impression management’ he further conceptualised ‘region behaviour’, that is people behaving differently in different settings, and ‘audience segregation’, that is people taking care that certain performances are exclusive to certain audiences (Tseelon, 1992). Goffman’s concept then allowed him to describe and analyse what for example happens if people fail to adhere to a role or if audiences mingle unexpectedly.

Goffman put his focus on the micro level of social life and on how people present themselves but he also acknowledged that there is a cost to this ‘impression management’ as it may involve the suppression of immediate heartfelt feelings to present oneself in an acceptable way (Goffman, 1956:4). While Goffman did not elaborate on this aspect of impression management it did catch the attention of Arlie Hochschild.

In her preface to ‘The Managed Heart’, which presents a study on air hostesses and how the emotional requirements of that job impact them,  Hochschild described how she “loved” Goffman’s work but felt that there was “something missing” in his concepts (Hochschild, 2003:x). Her particular interest was on the emotional component of human interaction and in particular what happens when ‘impression management’ is not a matter of private management but rather a demand put on persons (Hochschild, 2003:x). Hochschild defined emotions as having a signal function and if these functions are not only subject to private management but also social engineering, then these functions are impaired (Hochschild, 2003:x). She calls this malfunction ‘transmutation’ (Hochschild, 2003:19). Her focus was on how emotions are socially engineered in a work environment and she developed the concept of  ‘emotional labour’, that is when a worker is not only required to perform physical or mental work but also is required to display certain emotions to please the customer and to present the employing company and their product well (Hochschild, 2003:6–7). In contrast to Goffman, Hochschild did not employ an analogy from everyday life to illustrate her concept but rather employed well established and known concepts such as Marx’ concept of alienation (Hochschild, 2003:7). She then based her research of the air hostesses on the concept she introduced.

Clearly, Goffman and Hochschild both demonstrated high levels of a sociological imagination but they could not have developed it or exercised it without the help of concepts. However, concepts are not without issues, as they can never be perfect (Bauman et al., 2013:85–86) and by design limit ideas (Allan, 2013:12–13). There is also always a danger that concepts are not received or developed further in their original intent, Goffman’s ‘impression management’ had been rather amoral by design but subsequent researchers often particularly focused on the immoral aspect of ‘impression management’ (Tseelon, 1992). Since their inception Goffman’s and Hochschild’s concepts have not only been adopted but also widely been criticised. For example Bolton and Boyd (2003:290) suggested that Hochschild’s concept was too absolutist as it assumes that social engineering of emotion management will ultimately lead to damaging effects for the worker. They then engineered an alternative and more layered typology where they divided emotion management into pecuniar, presentational, prescriptive and philanthropic (Bolton and Boyd, 2003:291). Others found Hochschild’s concept useful and applied it in their own research, as for example Chalen Westaby did in her analysis of emotional labour of immigration solicitors (Westaby, 2010).

In conclusion, the relationship between the development of a sociological imagination and conceptual thinking is that the first cannot exist without the later. Existing concepts offer starting points for the development of a sociological imagination as social scientists critically assess them. Further, concepts are essential to express and communicate ideas and subsequently the critical analysis of existing concepts often leads to the emergence of new concepts or re-development and extension of existing concepts. This has been illustrated by the given examples of Goffman’s ‘impression management’, which presented a new approach on previous concepts, and Hochschild’s ‘emotional labour’, which presented an extended approach on an existing concept. Neither Goffman nor Hochschild could have conducted their work successfully without the ‘tool’ of concepts which first helped them to learn the sociological approach and then made them question and explore concepts further. Ultimately, sociological imagination and conceptual thinking can possibly be described best as two sides of the same coin.


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