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Basics of Mills' Sociological Imagination: Analytical Essay

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Mills sociological imagination requires each of us to combine our personal experiences with historical context and social factors, rather than just focusing on our own personal experiences. I have a special personal experience, that is, I have experienced a whole decade of exam-oriented education in China, among which the process of preparing for the college entrance examination had the greatest impact on me. The personal issue brought by the college entrance examination is the pressure and inequality. In such an education system, every college student will have his or her own goal to pursue and try his or her best for it. In this paper, after introducing Mills' sociological imagination, I will briefly describe my personal experience. Then, on the basis of sociological imagination, I will first analyze how the exam-oriented system in China today is affected by historical factors. Next, I will analyze the influence of social aspect on China's current college entrance examination system from two sociological perspectives. By referring to concepts of sociology, the first point is the McDonaldization of the college entrance examination system, and the second one is the seemingly equal system may also lead to social inequality.

Our personal experience is the product of both the historical context and the social trend. We should have the ability to find connections between personal troubles and public issues, and by tracing the roots of our problems, we may better understand the interplay of individuals and society, so that we are possible to solve them. Apart from that, if we can connect our personal experience to the larger forces of history, we are likely to know “the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history” (Mills, 1959).

I have been preparing for the college entrance examination since primary school. No matter it is every exam or the mock exam before the college entrance examination, I worked so hard to prepare for it. At the same time, almost everyone around me is like this. In class, I listened to the teacher explaining knowledge in the mountains of books. When class was over, I continued to work on the previous exam questions without rest. During those years, we would extremely spend 16 hours studying each day, six days a week. Although studying in the system of exam-oriented education was really hard and boring, through the college entrance examination, I successfully obtained relatively high-quality resources, perhaps this is only one good point of the college entrance examination.

Our personal experience is being influenced by historical context according to Mills. Different historical events have shaped modern society as a whole and each individual within it (“Sociological imagination,” 2019). Ancient China attached great importance to the imperial examination system, which was the predecessor of the college entrance examination system. In the past, the imperial examination was usually held in the city center, and only those who passed the imperial examination system could become officials or have a chance to work for government. At that time, education was the only way out, and it continues to this day and affects the current high school education system. Students can only pass the college entrance examination and get high scores, then they will have a good university, and then through hard work, they will have a wide range of contacts and career opportunities, which will influence the future. So, the better you do in the college entrance examination, the more choices you have, the greater the positive impact. This shows how important the college entrance examination system is to Chinese people. As one parent put it. The college entrance exam is like crossing a single-entry bridge. If you do, you are more likely to succeed. But if you fail the college entrance examination, which only has one chance, your bad college entrance examination will be the beginning of a lifetime of hardships.

In light of McDonaldization, the key part should be rationality. Here, four elements of rationality are efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. First, efficiency means achieving the best results with the least cost for the purpose of the optimisation of resources. For instance, in some high schools, there are more than 60, 70 or 80 students in one class. however, such class size is inefficient. Schools ask teachers to teach such a large number of students in the meantime, and there are too many students studying in crowded classrooms, which limit students’ access to good educational resources, including booking a one-to-one conversation with teachers. In this case, when students have psychological pressure, it is almost impossible for them to find teachers for help. And teachers excessive to emphasize the students have to spend more time on study, then the teacher may ignore students' psychological problems, mental health problems, which puts pressure on students. Teachers encourage students to spend a lot of time on study, causing too much pressure for students but teachers don't have much time to care for students. Class size is too large, and teachers require students to spend too much time on study.

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Calculability refers to emphasis on what can be counted or measured. Many high schools emphasize the enrollment rate which as a number that can be easily measured and counted. the children's academic achievements are quantified as corresponding scores. However, due to the unreasonable calculability, people tend to focus more on quantity rather than quality. Students' learning is quantified as numbers that may reflect the quality of their learning, but not always. Under exam-oriented education system, getting a high score may only mean great exam skills or vast memory, which cannot prove good learning ability completely. In addition, because the system places too much emphasis on students' scores, most of them are required to take extracurricular courses, so they spend little time on their hobbies. The pressure on students arises because the system places too much emphasis on quantity rather than the quality of students' learning. Their personal experience are largely determined by the society.

Predictability means you can know what's going to happen, because it has been planned already. Students’ course schedules, the content of each course and even the focus of the future exam could be predicted. Every year there's a predictability in exams, students can ask their seniors or buy exam materials so that they will know what knowledge is going to be included. But students’ innovative ability may not be trained. Because of this, they learned little through high schools. One of the skills they learned was test-taking skills. Secondly, students are required to memorize as much knowledge as possible and brush as many questions as possible in such a spoon-fed education system, so their innovation ability is not well improved. This also leads to many students’ inadaptability after entering the university or the society. Because there's a lot of unpredictability which makes them all at sea.

Control means replacing humans with nonhuman technology. As Ritzer (2001) states, due to human’s unpredictability, control becomes inevitable, then “substitution of nonhuman for human technology” is needed. When non-human technology comes to high school, like monitoring and online teaching tools, students may get anxious. Most of the time monitors installed in schools are used to check students for fraud during exams, however, but sometimes they can be used to monitor students' learning. With such control, students' privacy may be invaded, and they lose freedom, which shows that students' physical and mental health are affected by the McDonaldization. What is more, advanced teaching tools on the one hand can be used to improve teaching, but they may cause the loss of a connection between students and teachers. Which can be seen that after marking the exam paper, teachers only put evaluation of students on the Internet, instead of finding a time to talk with them in person about their exam paper as before.

“While the gaokao was originally hailed as a meritocratic system that could, in theory, equalize opportunity across socioeconomic levels, it has come to be criticized as having the opposite effect” (“Institutionalized Inequality,” n.d.). The purpose of the college entrance examination was to give every child a chance to fight for better resources. As mentioned earlier, students can influence their future success through the success of this exam. But it also led to social inequality in another way. The children of rich families can enjoy good educational resources from birth to high school. In contrast, poor families or rural children, they do not have such conditions, they do not have the money to buy quality teaching resources and spend a long time to go to school every day. In this way, under the open system, children from families with high economic status can concentrate on their studies, while poor children have to prepare for the college entrance examination and solve life problems, which makes them less likely to succeed.

By analyzing our personal experience from two perspective, history background and social context, we can know that in most cases, individuals are part of the society, and they are being influenced by it. Although we know it is unlikely to change history and society which caused our current problem, at least we know what real elements lie behind the problem, and if all people who have the same experience, they can unite as a group to ask for changes in such system.


  1. Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Institutionalized Inequality: The Gaokao Exam and the Urban-Rural Divide. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2019, from China-US Focus website:
  3. Sociological imagination. (2019). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from
  4. Ritzer, G. (2000). The mcdonaldization of society (New Century ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Pine Forge Press.
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