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A Look at Crime Through C.Wright Mills' Concept of the Sociological Imagination

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According to C. Wright Mills (1959), the sociological imagination refers to the ability to understand that one’s own issues are not merely caused by one’s owns beliefs and thoughts, but by society and its structures. An issue that many people, including myself, face and are affected by daily is crime. According to the Oxford Dictionary (2019), crime is an action that is viewed as an offence and results in punishment by the law. According to Bhorat, Lilenstein, Monnakgotla, Thornton and Van der Zee (2017), South Africa holds some of the highest reported crime statistics in the world and according to Bhorat et al. (2017), four important factors contributing to high statistics of crime in South Africa include unemployment, prevailing inequality, differing income levels and education.

Mills (1959) notes that the life of an individual cannot be understood without understanding the history of their society. He notes that the sociological imagination allows its owner to understand the greater historical scene and what it means for their inner life as well as the outer position of many other individuals (Mills, 1959). According to Draper, M et al. (2016), the sociological imagination observes the relations between what appear to be the personal and private problems of the individual, and larger social issues. Mills (1959) calls this the distinction between troubles and issues, and further considers it an important tool of the sociological imagination. Most importantly, he refers to issues as ‘the public issues of social structure’ (Mills 1959, pp. 4), highlighting the importance of social structures and institutions.

As previously mentioned, Mills (1959) refers to issues as ‘public’. He notes that issues have to do with matters that surpass an individual’s personal control and the range of their inner life, and are concerning society’s organizations and processes (Mills, 1959). Crime is an example of an issue, and unemployment in South Africa specifically is one of the major factors contributing to crime. According to Bhorat et al. (2017), South Africa has some of the highest rates of unemployment in the world. These high levels of unemployment decrease the possibility of earning a legal income, and strain theorists argue that people commit crimes due to the frustration of not being able to achieve their goals through legitimate means, Bhorat et al. (2017) further note.

Langa, a township in the Western Cape where I stay, for example, is a high crime area. A large proportion of the people who commit the crime are young people, who, according to Stats SA (2019), “are the most vulnerable in the South African labour market as the unemployment rate among this age group was 55,2% in the 1st quarter of 2019”. Stats SA (2019) also notes that the graduate unemployment rate stays lower than the rate amid those with other levels of education. However, most of the youth in Langa do not go on to university, or better yet finish their secondary education.

According to Mauli and Ross (2018), while education has been identified as a way out of poverty, for many, black South Africans, lack of resources and the lingering effects of apartheid often interfere with equal opportunities and quality tertiary education. Therefore, with the difficulty of obtaining employment and lessened opportunities of tertiary education for the young black child in South Africa, it is more likely that he will commit crime due to the frustration of not being able to achieve his life goals via legitimate means, as strain theorists pointed out. As previously mentioned, the lingering legacy of apartheid means the hindering of equal opportunity, which is inequality.

According to Bhorat et al. (2016), South Africa also has extremely high inequality according to global standards. According to Scott (2019), even though democracy has afforded freedom to all South Africans, not much has changed for those living in the country’s vast townships. The World Bank (2018) adds that South Africa stays the most economically unequal country in the world in spite of 25 years of democracy, while Scott (2019) states that the rainbow nation is currently divided even more than it was in 1994. She adds that in countless ways, the legacy of Apartheid continues. Previously disadvantaged South Africans possess fewer assets, fewer skills, earn lower wages and are still more likely to be unemployed, found World Bank (2018).

According to Scott, the black population in South Africa holds the highest poverty levels, followed by the coloured population. Settings and Nattrass (2005) point out that state policies during Apartheid in South Africa influenced inequality by limiting the opportunities available to black people. Business opportunities were restricted for black people and they entered the job market with big disadvantages due to discriminatory expenditure on education, according to Settings and Nattrass (2005). The ‘colour bar’ inhibited them from getting jobs that paid them better, despite them having the appropriate skills and experience (Settings and Nattrass, 2005). Black people were also stripped of their property and given inferior health care, according to Settings and Nattrass (2005).

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The results of such inequality are still prevalent in South Africa no surprise that the black and poor are often the most vulnerable to look to crime due to the frustration of living in poverty and lessened access to opportunities that will enable them to better their lives. This phenomenon explains the high levels of crime in Western Cape’s townships such as mine, Langa, where the majority is previously disadvantaged and endures the effects of apartheid, such as poverty and so looks to other opportunities open to them to improve their conditions, such as crime. Bhorat et al. (2017) note that people are more likely to commit a crime in the face of poverty, frustration and other criminogenic influences, such as income differences.

With inequality and unemployment subsequently being the results of income differences respectively, Bhorat et al. (2017) heed that incomes are extremely low for most South Africans. Bhorat et al. (2017) consider that, for example, statistics in 2010 showed that almost more than half of South African households live below the upper-level poverty line, while more than a third lives below the lower level poverty line. Furthermore, according to Bhorat et al. (2017), there are major differences in poverty levels between racial groups, with a large majority of black people living below the poverty line, followed by Coloureds. Therefore, according to Bhorat et al. (2017), a large number of people struggle to meet their basic survival needs in South Africa.

The National Income Dynamics Study (2019) heeds that White South Africans earn almost three times more than the average wage of black people in South Africa. According to Seekings and Nattrass (2005), South Africa was marked by racial discrimination in the job market for nearly the whole of the twentieth century. This racial discrimination, according to Seekings and Nattrass (2005), included numerous measures to produce a supply of cheap African labour as well as restrict the occupational flexibility of black people. Through the colour bar, skilled jobs were reserved for white people, and white workers were allowed to control the industrial wage-setting machinery.

Today, black South Africans are still the most affected by the structures of unequal job opportunities designed by the apartheid government. In Langa, where I live, most people have many skills such as woodwork, gardening and other handjobs. Most of them did not go on to university but instead went on to colleges such as Northlink to specialize in careers such as woodwork or were just encouraged to finish school so that they could enter the informal job market immediately afterwards. Such jobs are cheap labour and pay them the minimum wage or just below it, which may lead them to also pursue crime to cover their full expenses or take care of their families, as the expected payoff from crime can be much higher, according to Bhorat et al. (2017).

According to Bhorat et al. (2017), education is listed as another determinant of crime in the literature. Bhorat et al. (2017) noted that Jonck and others (2015) observed that individuals are more likely to commit a crime if they drop out of school before completing their formal education. They add that the number of people with an incomplete secondary school in prison exceeds the number of people without completed secondary education in the general population. As Stats SA (2019) suggested as well, unemployment continues to affect the youth the most but affects graduates the least compared to those with lower educational levels.

According to Seekings and Nattrass (2005), education for black children under apartheid was of poor quality and was poorly funded. The average amount spent on education for the black majority was far less than the average amount spent on the white minority, according to Seekings and Nattrass (2005). According to Maila and Ross (2018), via the policies of Bantu education, black people were provided with an inferior education to sustain their inferior and marginalized position in the country. The results of such an educational system are still observable today, as the PIRLS reported that South Africans displayed the lowest reading literacy levels of 40 countries studied. (Mullis, Martin, Kennedy & Foy, 2007, cited in Maila and Ross, 2018).

According to Rohleder et al., 2008, cited in Maila and Ross (2018), disadvantaged rural and township communities are still left to experience inferior and limited services. Therefore, with the poor quality education that decreases their affordance of going to university or getting a lucrative job, most black children in the townships especially, Langa where I stay being an example, fall into the trap of crime and gangsterism as a result. This may be due to the demotivation of not finding a job at all or finding one adequate to pay the bills, boredom, hungriness and many other factors a child is exposed to in the township once when they stop school.

Crime, as Mills (1959) pointed out, is a public issue of social structure. It has to do with matters that surpass an individual’s control and are concerning society’s organizations and processes. It cannot be understood without understanding the vulnerable society’s history and instead has to be considered as an issue that has several determinants of it, such as unemployment, inequality, unequal income levels as a result, and unequal education.

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A Look at Crime Through C.Wright Mills’ Concept of the Sociological Imagination. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from
“A Look at Crime Through C.Wright Mills’ Concept of the Sociological Imagination.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
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A Look at Crime Through C.Wright Mills’ Concept of the Sociological Imagination [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2023 Jan 31]. Available from:
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