C. Wright Mills Would Be a Blogger

If C. Wright Mills were alive today, he’d be blogging.  I say that having been thinking about starting this blog at the same time as I happen to be re-reading Mills’ classic work, The Sociological Imagination.  Today, there’s plenty of encouragement to blog from many quarters.  But even though Mills was writing in 1959, his advice, too, can be read as a call to blog.

In particular, Mills’ appendix to The Sociological Imagination, titled “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” is an attempt to explain how he worked. He wasn’t being a snob pontificating on his intellectualism.  To the contrary, he was explaining some of the basic nuts and bolts of writing, including a detailed discussion of note-taking.

Mills was infamous for valuing craftsmanship in all things.  He studied in a Munich BMW plant for a couple of weeks to get a certificate in motorcycle repair so he could maintain his beloved bike–immortalized in the now-famous photo of him riding.  His students at Columbia report that, in an era of gray flannel suits and suitcases, he showed up to class with old jeans, work boots, and a duffel bag–and encouraged them to build their own houses as Mills himself later did.  For Mills, then, intellectual craftsmanship was simply one dimension of a life that involved constant learning and practical creativity–whether with one’s hands or one’s head. As he put it, “…as a scholar you have the exceptional opportunity of designing a way of living which will encourage the habits of good workmanship.  Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career.”  His appendix on craftsmanship was a generous attempt to share some of his techniques with aspiring students.

“On Intellectual Craftsmanship” includes Mill’s advice to keep a file for thoughts and notes because, as he puts it, “…the sociologist’s need for systematic reflection demands it.”  He goes on:

  • “In this file, you, as an intellectual craftsman, will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are experiencing as a person… [Your file] also encourages you to capture ‘fringe-thoughts’: various ideas which may be by-products of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard on the street, or, for that matter, dreams.  Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience.”

  • “By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake.”

  • “The file also helps you build up the habit of writing.  You cannot ‘keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least every week.”

And there you have it; the making of a blog: systematic reflection, capturing “fringe-thoughts,” keeping your inner world awake, and developing the habit of writing regularly.  Mills even encourages the reader to share some  these early thoughts with others.

His work on power and class inequality is as relevant as ever, sparking numerous reflections and intellectual biographiesIt’s not much of leap to see that Mills would be blogging today about these and other topics.  He advocated writing in plain language, engaged with the issues of his day, and committed what we’d call today “public sociology.”

idea file

Mills’ piece has been a favorite of mine ever since I first read it as an undergrad. I’ve assigned it countless times and followed much of its advice, having kept both paper and electronic “ideas” files over the years.  Now I move some of those fringe thoughts here in a public forum, something I suspect Mills’ would have eagerly embraced.  But I do so with his cautionary note in mind:  “To write is to raise a claim for the attention of readers.”  I hope that claim will be justified.

An addendum:  After reading the above post, my colleague Gardner Campbell brought to my attention this eerily parallel post from the late Aaron Swartz, programming and Internet activist.