The Social Imagination Theory

The sociological imagination is a theoretical framework that was coined by Charles Wright Mills to expound on the human cognitive and creative ability to unravel the mysteries behind the forces operating in the human environment to create various social realities in the society (Scott 179). This critical thinking enhances scholarly and empirical study and explanation of the social phenomena in the human society, their origins, reality and prospects. It is only through this that a sociologist and the affected individuals can be able to develop a response plan and strategy to alter socioeconomic menace in the human society. The paper will make a systematic attempt to integrate the perspectives of sociological figures into this discussion in an effort to bring into bare the conceptualizations of these scholars on unemployment in the human society. Therefore, the ideas of great sociological scholars such as Karl Marx, Talcott Parsons, Erving Goffman, Herbert Marcuse, Max Weber, George Herbert Mead and Thorstein Veblen will be put into perspective with respect to the subject of discussion.

Karl Marx’s Perspective on Unemployment

Karl Marx is recognized as a conflict sociologist who based his writing on the standpoint that human society is structured. This structure creates a society that consists of the minority rich and powerful class that is in constant conflict with the poor weak class that forms the majority of the human population. The original cause of unemployment according to Marx is the development of technology by the rich owners of the means of production (Commons 118). The development of technology led to the laying-off of many employees as they were rendered redundant in terms of the skills needed to operate the machines in the factories. On the same note, Karl Marx notes that the quest for maximization of profit and reduction of costs has led to the closure of some firms and corporations in regions where the cost of labor is considered to be expensive relative to other regions. Thus, as the investors close their firms in some regions in search for a low cost labor, many people have been rendered jobless (Commons 120).

Marx argues that the few proletariats who are employed are overworked and paid meager wages that they cannot invest to create opportunities for the rest who are unemployed (Commons 128). Even if they created the opportunities, they are overworked and left with little time and strength to monitor their own businesses. Marx thus blames unemployment of alienation. Commons (118) noted Marx’s contention that the origin of the whole crisis is the historical injustices to which the working class has been exposed to by employers and owners of capital. This understanding is only possible with exploration of these past exploitative capitalistic and self-centered ideologies of the ruling class against the working class. This mystery calls for a sociological imagination to procedurally and scholarly unravel.

George Herbert Mead’s Perspective on Unemployment

In order to understand the cause of unemployment in a particular society, Mead advocates for devoted effort to unravel the nature of the existing human interactions and relationships of the unemployed with the employer and among the jobless (Turner 331). Mead’s writings on the models of consensus-conflict relation can be used to account for the existence of unemployment in the society. He identified the intra-group consensus, extra-group conflict and the intra-group conflict, extra-group consensus. The first model entails unity among members of a particular group against another group that is considered as a common enemy of all the people belonging to the first group. In such interactions, the rich and powerful and the weak and poor are in a relationship that is characterized by constant conflicts and division (Turner 331). Such relationships imply that either group will often put its interest above the other. The rich and powerful thus create opportunities which they use to only reward themselves and their cronies as the poor become poorer as a result of limited employment opportunities.

Herbert Mead’s second model of human interaction is that of intra-group conflict and extra-group consensus. This involves interactions where individuals react in defiance and opposition to his/her own group. Turner (337) cited that Mead considers unemployment as a socioeconomic phenomenon resulting from intra-group conflict as opposed to consensus. If the unemployed were networked in interactions that are characterized by consensus and harmony, they would develop and create self-employment avenues and ventures without necessarily leaning on the rich owners of capital and means of production to solve their crises. In his postulations, conflicts are the main cause of unemployment because political and economic instabilities that push investment and employment opportunities further into shrinkage come with it (Turner 333).

Talcott Parsons’ Perspective on Unemployment

Parsons is considered to be a great sociologist with a bias towards functionalism. Functionalist perspective of sociology is a school of thought that presupposes that society is structured. Society in the understanding and the sociological imagination of Talcott Parsons is a social system that consists of the employed and the unemployed, the rich and the poor (Scott 188). These sub-groups must and should exist in every society to make it complete and functionally stable. Parsons’ sociology maintains that everything, everybody and every social phenomenon in society, such as unemployment, exist to serve a particular function without which a social disequilibrium would result.

Unemployment in the conceptualization of Parsons is a social phenomenon that plays a significant role in enhancing the stability and functionality of the entire system. For example, Parsons cited that those who are unemployed, though considered as a security threat, can provide free labor in terms of providing security and surveillance of the property of the employed during the times when the rich and powerful are engaged in corporate productive responsibilities and activities. Scott (189-191) cites that in most societies, the unemployed are considered for other labor intensive duties that are very essential to the society, and thus must be performed to enhance the stability of the society. To illustrate this further, the rising rates of unemployment in the developed and the developing countries has led many people to seek higher educational attainments to be able to secure employment opportunities with better wages. As a result, the literacy levels of most societies are rising as a consequence of unemployment (Scott 192). This interconnectedness between unemployment and stability or betterment of the society is only unraveled through a sociologically imaginative mind.

Herbert Marcuse’ Perspective on Unemployment

Herbert Marcuse’ sociological imagination perspective edges towards the Marxists conceptualization of social phenomena. The theoretical underpinnings of this scholar with particular reference to the cause, nature, and prospects of social phenomena in the human society are developed based on his disapproval of capitalism (Kellner 2-3). With particular reference to unemployment, Marcuse contends that this crisis is caused by the evils propagated by the capitalist ideologies. Marcuse submits that capitalism created a stratified society with a few people having access to opportunities against the majority (Kellner 13). Unemployment is thus the creation of the deficits of the capitalistic ideologies that function to the benefit of a few individuals in powerful positions as majority of people remain locked out of employment opportunities that the system creates.

In order to understand the cause and the prospect of unemployment as a social phenomenon Marcuse is rooting for the understanding of the principles upon which capitalism is founded (Kellner 4). Herbert Marcuse advocated for socialism and liberalism as a substitute or alternative to capitalism. In his works, he posits that sociological understanding of the origin of social disequilibrium in the human society, which is the cause of unemployment, must begin with a sociologically imaginative mind that seeks to find a solution to the social crises. He goes on to contend that replacement of capitalism with socialism will lead to the abolition of unemployment which is the creation of historical and socio-economic structures created by capitalism (Kellner 7).

Erving Goffman’s Perspective on Unemployment

Erving Goffman’s sociology focused much on human interactions and networks. In his writings, Goffman postulates that human interactions through symbols and language are responsible for the creation of the social realities in the human society. For example, he argued that human beings are social actors on stage who constantly engage in social performance for the audience (Scott 113). This implies that in the process of these social performances, people create societal structures and relationships that enhance or limit opportunities for their well-being. For example, poor performance by an employee and the consequent dissatisfaction and displeasure of the employer who is the audience may cause retrenchments, demotions or discontinuation of the employment contract. This is thus the cause of unemployment. The employee must, therefore, interact with the employer in such a way that he or she is able to create certain desired impressions that the employer is looking for. Failure to achieve this set and desired impressions is what causes unemployment especially in a capitalistic and competitive society where there are limited opportunities that are being eyed by several people (Scott 112).

Georg Simmel’s Perspective on Unemployment

Writing about the individual and society, Simmel construes the notion that there exists a unique dialectical tension between an individual and his society. In order to understand the cause and prospects of unemployment, Simmel contends that sociological imagination must begin with the understanding that human beings are both within and outside the society (Garner 112). In a bid to free the self from the social forces in the society, people are overwhelmed by the external social structures, culture and techniques of life. As a result, they submit to the structural constraints and in the process suffer from limitations. This is the sociological justification for unemployment in the theory of Georg Simmel.

According to Simmel, unemployment should not be blamed on an individual. Rather, it ought to be considered as the consequence of the failed effort by a person or a group of people to overcome the constraining social structures in the society and operate independent of such forces. The groups of people who are employed are those few individuals who are able to achieve self-fulfillment and a level of integration that is beyond limitation of the societal structural strains (Garner 79). The unemployed are thus the majority of individuals who, as a result of their cultural, political and economic backgrounds are rendered unable to achieve self-fulfillment.

Weberian Perspective on Unemployment

The sociological imagination of Max Weber is founded on his works on bureaucracy and the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (Scaff 137). In his writing, Weber posits that in an ideal bureaucracy, there is a division of labor according to skills and expertise. This has great implications for employment prospects in any given society. For example, those who lack professional and specialized training in an increasingly technical and industrial society will be definitely rendered productively obsolete. The consequence of this is high rates of unemployment as the modern industrial society seeks for replacement of manual and unskilled labor with skilled and technologically efficient production processes (Scaff 138-139).

The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism as espoused by Weber underscores the fact that unemployment could be caused and sustained by the sudden rise in individualistic attitudes towards wealth and its accumulation (Doepke and Zilibotti 756). This attitude is lethal to the aspirations of the poor who look up to getting employment opportunities in the industrial corporate world. The owners of capital and production firms are increasingly looking for ways of cutting down the cost and maximizing profits. In the process, any approach can be applied to achieve this goal; including but not limited to employee lay-offs. In this approach, the end justifies the means. Scaff (140) keenly notes Weber’s position that the long term consequence of capitalism and bureaucracy is the creation of a society where majority are jobless and poor. Therefore, Max Weber’s sociological imagination focused on understanding social phenomena in the context of the modern industrial and capitalistic society.

Thorstein Veblen and Unemployment

Veblen applied his economics and sociological knowledge to analyze employment and unemployment trends in society. His theory of the business cycle explained by the balance between the demand and supply forces in the economy can thus be used in a bid to understand unemployment in any given economy (Mouhammed 219-220). Veblen stated that the difficulty of overproduction can be understood in terms of costs and income. He posits that increase in productivity as a result of application of more capital goods and better technology results into lowered cost of production even as the average supply of goods and services in such an economy increases. In a bid to realize this reduced cost of production per unit, many investors relocate to foreign countries in search for cheap production costs.

Mouhammed (220) cited that the foreign markets are considered to be cheaper points for labor and raw materials while also opening up a wide market for the selling of the proceeds from the factories. This enhances revenue collection and returns on investment as costs of production declines. Consolidated firms will thus employ less number of employees (Mouhammed 221). In the economy that is associated with high costs of production and reduced profits, there is a likelihood that the rate of unemployment will surge as investors seek to cut on costs and improve the returns on investment.

On a general note, Veblen’s understanding of unemployment is that it is caused by a deficiency in the average demand and the rise in the production cost that ends up slowing the economy (Mouhammed 221-222). However, increasing domestic real private and public investments would reverse unemployment trends. This implies that sociologically, unemployment is a status that one finds himself/herself in not as a consequence of self will and preference but as a result of the economic forces of demand and supply. This understanding can not only guide the governments in the affected economies to develop appropriate economic policies but also enable individuals to know how to deal with the crises resulting from the soaring rates of unemployment in the least developed and the developing economies/states. This is the perspective of Veblen in terms of understanding social issues that are interwoven in the economic structures and forces in a given country (Mouhammed 222).


Sociological imagination is a theory that seeks to help the society, its members and the stakeholders of relevant organizations to understand the dynamics of social phenomena in the society. Human problems such as unemployment can only be understood through examination of the interconnectedness between such phenomena and the socioeconomic structures and forces in operation in one’s environment. All the scholars referred to in this work are believers in the interwoven nature of societal issues. Explaining these phenomena must thus begin from a conceptual assumption that human beings are both enhanced and constrained by the socioeconomic structures of a given society. 

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