Mills, C. Wright (1916–1962)

Charles Wright Mills was born on August 28, 1916, in Waco, Texas. He attended the University of Texas in Austin, where he received a B.A. in sociology and an M.A. in philosophy, both in 1939. Mills continued his studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he earned a Ph.D. in sociology with a dissertation on pragmatism in 1941. Because of chronic hypertension, he was exempted from military service in World War II. After a short appointment at the University of Maryland, he moved to Columbia University in 1945, which housed one of the leading academic programs in sociology. Mills first worked as a research associate in the Bureau of Applied Social Research and then joined the department of sociology as an assistant professor. Over the next 15 years, he led an extremely productive scholarly life—making major contributions to the study of social stratification, publishing a variety of critical works in academic and popular venues, and lecturing throughout the United States, Latin America, and Europe. Despite disagreements with colleagues over sociological methodology and professional demeanor, Mills was promoted to full professor and remained at Columbia until his untimely death from a heart attack on March 20, 1962.

Many scholarly profiles on Mills's contributions to American sociology and public life have strong hagiographic impulses that continue to dwell on his powerful personal aura. Described variously as a “native radical” (Tilman) or a “postmodern cowboy” (Kerr), Mills was a complex and enigmatic individual, who intentionally cultivated the image of an intellectual rebel. With his Texas drawl, BMW motorcycle, and blue-collar attire, he not only attacked the pretentiousness of life in the ivory tower but also—in keeping with his motto to “take it big!”—unleashed a no-holds-barred critique of misplaced American triumphalism during the Cold War.

During his university studies, Mills's intellectual horizon was expanded by thinkers working in both the classical tradition of sociology and a number of codisciplinary subjects: the American pragmatists John Dewey, G. H. Mead, and C. S. Pierce; the institutional economist Thorstein Veblen; and the great European masters such as Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. Through his relationship with Hans Gerth, an émigré professor from Nazi Germany at Wisconsin, Mills was greatly influenced by Weber's methodological orientation in the social sciences. He was particularly struck by Weber's call to explore how larger historical changes shaped human ideas, behaviors, and institutions and to link social phenomena to the daily meanings of ordinary people.

While still remaining a patriot citizen-scholar, Mills undertook—from the late 1940s to the late 1950s—his intensely critical assessment of American society by combining pragmatic approaches, scientific methodologies, and radical social theories. This project resulted in a powerful trilogy of books that addressed the alienation of the masses and the dangerous concentration of political power in contemporary life. The first book, The New Men of Power (1948), explored the working class; the second, White Collar (1951), the new middle class; and the third, The Power Elite (1956), the ruling class. The second book established Mills's national reputation as a social critic, and the third gained him worldwide attention and acclaim. All of these books were contrary to the largely uncritical stance of mainstream sociology with respect to American liberalism.

Mills forwarded two complementary arguments in his trilogy of American social stratification. First, the continued bureaucratic organization of postwar life—prompted by the modern division of labor and accelerated by capitalist consumption and mass medial saturation—caused citizens to become increasingly alienated from themselves. People became resigned to their status as mere cogs in the state-corporate machine, forfeiting the need for autonomous and independent thought or individual and collective responsibility. Second, this increase in mass bureaucratization resulted in a society dominated by the deliberate concentration of power in the hands of the “power elite,” a small group of political, business, and military leaders. This process involved the centralization of political power not only in the executive branch but also in close partnerships between the federal government, large national corporations, and the military industry. Mills believed that these relationships were a serious threat to democracy by undermining the active participation of the U.S. citizenry in everyday public life. This critique foreshadowed President Dwight Eisenhower's own ominous warning of the “military-industrial-congressional complex” in his farewell address of 1961.

Mirko M. Hall

See also: “The Elite” ; Veblen, Thorstein (1857–1929)


Geary, Daniel. Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, The Left, and American Social Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Hayden, Tom. Radical Nomad: C. Wright Mills and His Times. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2006.

Horowitz, Irving Louis. C. Wright Mills: An American Utopian. New York: Free Press, 1982.

Kerr, Keith. Postmodern Cowboy: C. Wright Mills and a New 21st-Century Sociology. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2009.

Tilman, Rick. C. Wright Mills: A Native Radical and His American Intellectual Roots. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1984.

Treviño, A. Javier. The Social Thought of C. Wright Mills. Thousand Oaks, CA: Fine Forge Press, 2012.