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COMMENTARY: COVID-19 And The Sociological Imagination

Thomas Hawk
Flickr Creative Commons

The Southwest Ohio Council on Higher Education estimates that more than 90 percent of the Miami Valley’s college students switched to online learning in early March. That means that approximately 135,000 students are not in the classrooms of local colleges and universities. Danielle Rhubart is a lecturer at the University of Dayton.  She’s teaching 140 students this semester, and she’s noticed a lot about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting them.

One of my favorite classes to teach is Principles of Sociology. At the beginning of each semester we cover a concept called - the Sociological Imagination. It was developed in the 1960s, by a sociologist named C. Wright Mills. Mills argued that each of us needs to have this thing, called a sociological imagination. Having this would allow us to see how history and bigger events in society impact our personal lives, and the lives of others. 

Being able to see how, broader macro level structures and events shape lives, made sense for Mills. After all, he had lived through some profound societal changes: two world wars, a depression, women’s suffrage, and the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. Each of these were moments in history that shaped lives, families, and communities in lasting ways.

Now, it can be hard for us to take on the sociological imagination. After all, don’t we like to believe that each of us is responsible for our own fate? America was founded and raised on beliefs of individualism and a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap mentality. This culture – this individualist culture we live in – can make it challenging to open minds in the classroom to the sociological imagination. To the idea, that events and forces outside of ourselves can fundamentally shape who we are, and the challenges or opportunities we face.

But now – now things are different. Now we are living in a COVID-19 world.

As I continue to teach Principles of Sociology this semester, students are sharing how they are personally experiencing the impacts of a virus that is much bigger than themselves. Lost financial stability. Lost opportunities. Lost plans. Lost relationships. Lost life. And subsequently, grief.

As their instructor, when I read their discussion board posts and reflection papers, I find myself feeling proud of how each of their sociological imaginations have grown. But I also find myself feeling sad, that it is through these circumstances that the sociological imagination has become most alive for them. From the abstract theories and in class examples to the intimately real, personal and tangible experiences of the pandemic - this is how the sociological imagination has come alive for them - for all of us.

But the fact is, the sociological imagination wasn’t meant to leave us feeling powerless. It was actually meant to empower us. Mills saw the sociological imagination as an essential tool for social responsibility. When we choose to be part of social movements and collective action, when we give of ourselves to others, and when we demand basic rights for others - others who may be in more challenging circumstances than ourselves. When we do these things - we can in turn impact individual lives in positive ways, too.

It is here that we can find empowerment. It is here where we can creatively turn back toward each other – albeit from a distance – to be part of something bigger. Something bigger that can also impact individual lives for good.

It is here where we can organize and create. It is here where we can reach out. It is here where we can give voice to those who have been denied voice. It is here where we can be part of a social force that helps push back on all of the types of loss and grief, that this pandemic presents us with. 

And it is here, where students – where all of us – can find not just meaning from the sociological imagination, but also hope. 

Dr. Danielle Rhubart, is a lecturer at the University of Dayton.