4 What is the criminological imagination?
The term ‘criminological imagination’ was inspired by the work of the famous American sociologist Charles Wright Mills and his influential book The Sociological Imagination. First published in 1959, it has never been out of print.
Mills summarises the sociological imagination (which is relevant for the development of the criminological imagination) as ‘connecting private troubles with public issues’. In this context, a ‘trouble’ is a private matter that emerges from the personal experiences of the individual and affects their immediate relationships and social world. An ‘issue’, on the other hand, is a public matter, which should be understood through an analysis of the political and economic structures of a given society.
It might be said that everyone has a kind of ‘criminological imagination’. That is, whenever a crime story or other shocking or harmful event is featured in the news, people often immediately begin to imagine the circumstances that may have led to the event, how the victims and their families may feel, or what should be done in response to what has happened.
In The Sociological Imagination (1959), Mills states that the sociological imagination includes ‘a quality of mind’ that offers ‘an understanding of the intimate realities of ourselves in connection with larger social realities’ (p. 15). ‘The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society’ (p. 6). This means situating an individual (biography) within both their own past and also of the society in which they live (history).
Mills discusses the sociological imagination as a way to take account of the issues faced by individuals. He sets this not only in the context of their daily experiences and social positions, but also within a society that has social divisions and inequalities.
Mills (1959) coined the phrase ‘the sociological imagination’ because he was a sociologist and needed an over-arching term that indicated he was exploring ideas from other sociologists. However, he is clear that the term the ‘sociological imagination’ matters ‘less than the idea’ (p. 19) itself. Mills notes that political theorists call the idea the ‘political imagination’ and anthropologists (those who study small-scale human societies) the ‘anthropological imagination’. It comes as no surprise, then, that when criminologists talk of this idea, they call it the ‘criminological imagination’.
The next section invites you to begin to explore your own criminological imagination.