Society – sociology’s fundamental object of analysis – is not only in constant flux, its contours changing with place and time, but is also comprised of a multiplicity of complex and continuously shifting sets of systems, institutions, groups, and power relationships. As such, a sociologist’s field of study is never stable and self-defined, but generates an almost infinite number of possible objects of analysis. Each object of analysis – be it mass media, globalisation or crime – can also be approached from a variety of perspectives, a number of levels (local, national, regional, global), and using multiple qualitative or quantitative research methods.
It is for these reasons that C.W. Mills (1959) thought it best to describe sociology not by its objects or methods of analysis but by the competency possessed by a sociologist: that of the sociological imagination. The sociological imagination lets us ‘understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals’; it enables us to understand the connections between our individual lives and the global and historical processes and phenomena that seem otherwise removed from our daily experiences.
The sociological imagination, therefore, is the perspective that enables us to understand the relationships between ourselves and the social, economic, and cultural structures in which we are embedded; between our own personal biographies and grand historical processes and transformations; in short, between ourselves and the world. In doing so, it also provides us with the skills and tools necessary to imagine and effect change, should we desire to do so.
For Peter Berger (1963), the sociologist is one ‘intensively, endlessly, shamelessly interested in the doings of men’, as enchanted by moments of tragedy and grandeur as by the commonplace. A curiosity ‘grips any sociologist in front of a closed door behind which there are human voices.’ A good sociologist ‘will want to open that door, to understand those voices’. Sociology is a passion. Yet no passion is without dangers. As Berger suggests, those ‘who like to avoid shocking discoveries…should stay away from sociology’.