I lacked what C. Wright Mills called the "sociological imagination."

I thought that hard work and good ol' Yankee know-how would be enough.

I ended up, though, being just another gringo—nice enough, but not much use to the people of La Unión.


Summer/Fall 2001

End Notes
Developing a
Sociological Imagination

The barrier to understanding one's social environment is not youth, but lack of experience and the opportunity to exercise one's sociological imagination. This former Peace Corps worker is giving his Wabash students plenty of practice exercising both.

by Andrew Schlewitz
Visiting Assistant Professor of Politcal Science

When I interviewed for the political science position at Wabash last year, what I saw of Crawfordsville reminded me of me my hometown, Albany, Oregon, as I remember it from 1960 through 1980. Like Albany, Crawfordsville's livelihood rests on a mix of industry, farming, and a small college (though Crawfordsville escaped my town's nickname: "Armpit of the Willamette Valley"). Though smaller than Albany, Crawfordsville likewise has the imposing courthouse set in a struggling downtown, with lively commercial strips on the outskirts, post-WW II subdivisions bounding turn-of-the-century homes, along with an overwhelmingly white population.

After moving here, another similarity struck me: a small but visible Hispanic population. Why, I wondered, would Hispanics be moving to what-in my unknowledgeable mind-was a remote part of the U.S. heartland? Asking around, I found out that there had been an influx of Latin American migrants in recent years, largely Mexican. Most were working in for Crawfordsville's largest employer, R. R. Donnelly & Sons. But I wanted to know more.

I decided to investigate this local demographic shift and drag some students along with me to help. I taught a course in the fall entitled "Latin American Migration to Crawfordsville." We explored the causes and consequences of Latin American migration to Crawfordsville through observations, interviews, and demographic data. I followed this up the next semester with a course called "Ethnicity and US Politics: Past and Present." Using the same research methods, along with archival research, we compared the current Latin American migration to Crawfordsville with past waves of Irish and German immigration in the 19th century, and the African American experience in the 1960s-1970s.

As I experimented with these student-faculty research courses on Latin American migration, and as I worked with these young men, a series of questions confronted me. What did I remember of Hispanics as I grew up in Albany? What was my mind like when I was the age of my students? What did I know, and what was I capable of knowing at their age? What experiences and which teachers contributed the most to my knowledge and understanding of the world?

The answer to the first question was that I do not remember a whole lot, which troubles me. I picked strawberries and beans every summer until I was 15. I recall seeing what I assumed to be Mexicans showing up at the fields, whole families emerging from dusty, beat up station wagons and trucks. While I messed around, throwing rotten berries at my sister and so on, they would be working quickly and quietly. I remember adults talking about Mexican families living in East Albany, the poorer, rougher side of town. There were Hispanics in my high school, but I cannot remember even talking with them. Another of my few recollections is seeing three of them, leaning against the lockers, each with one leg raised and bent back, foot flat against the locker for balance (a common male pose I would see in Mexico and Central America, not to mention U.S. cigarette ads).

Thinking back on my high school years, I am struck by how little I knew of the social terrain in which I lived. Sure, I knew my place in school and its class structure. I was not up there with the Socs and Jocks, nor down there with the Hoods and Nerds. I had no chance of dating a cheerleader, but I didn't go cruising for chicks on the boulevard. If I knew I was strictly middle class, I still didn't know what that really meant. I did not think much about who had wealth, prestige, and power, and who didn't, or why.

I lacked what C. Wright Mills called the "sociological imagination." That is, I did not see the larger social picture outside my immediate school environment, nor give it much thought. Since I did not ponder this picture, I did not know where I stood in it. I could not conceive of myself as fitting into larger patterns that made up the picture, nor realize how this picture shaped my beliefs and actions. I saw only what was familiar to me, and when I did witness something unfamiliar, I saw it as irrelevant, weird, or wrong. I did not question my assumptions about how the world does or should work.

Some experiences after high school began to pry me out of complacency and provoke my sociological imagination. A calamitous period in a fundamentalist megachurch that sent me scrambling back to my staid Lutheran roots was one. Another was marriage to a very smart, adventurous woman who permitted no ruts in life, nor tolerated sloppy thinking. Though largely uninspiring, my undergraduate education at Oregon State had its moments. Having both a conservative ROTC cadet and a radical activist as friends did wonders for my obliviousness.

Three years of Peace Corps work in Guatemala was another powerful, mind-shaking experience. In 1986, my wife and I were working in a western highlands village called San Francisco La Unión. Vinicio Cerezo had just been inaugurated president of Guatemala, the first freely elected leader in over forty years. Foreign aid money was rolling in to support the democratizing regime, and the Cerezo administration was sharing it with local governments. Since I was the head of the local agricultural extension office, town leaders invited me to participate in deciding how to spend this money.

The meeting quickly divided into two camps, reflecting the split in Guatemala between Mayan Indians and Ladinos. The Mayan mayor, town officials, and representatives of various cantones (sort of like a rural ward) wanted to use the money to build a community salón in the town center for public meetings, dances, and other events. The Mayan representative of the canton of Chuistancia, along with Ladino teachers and administrators, wanted to build a new school in Chuistancia. Two young Ladino men representing the Cerezo government were there to present the terms of the grant and arbitrate the decisionmaking. Though ostensibly neutral, they were clearly siding with other Ladinos in this dispute.
I was not so blind that I could not see the ethnic division in this debate, nor did I miss how the Ladino government officials smirked when the Mayan town leaders argued their case in limited Spanish (their birth language was Mayan Quiché).

Still, I knew that Chuistancia's school was a crumbling adobe wreck, and a school seemed more important than a community salon, so I voted with the Ladinos.

What I did not know—what I did not bother to investigate prior to the meeting— was how this issue played out within the context of local politics and social relations. Later I would find out that this meeting was one in a string of battles between Mayan town leaders and Ladino schoolteachers. There also was an ongoing feud between the town center and Chuistancia, where separatist sentiments had long simmered. In hindsight, I also suspect the mayor was seeking not only to leave something for the town to remember him by, but to make the town more independent of a large Christian Children's Fund school, which served as the La Unión's junior high, community center, and principal source of welfare money.

Whatever the reason for the Mayor's insistence on a community salon, I was never invited to a town meeting again, and lost important allies as I pursued my extension work and efforts to start a community library. In fact, I unwittingly alienated a number of groups as I blundered through the town's social terrain without studying it.

I did not even think to examine more closely the town's political alignments, social structure, and history before acting. I did not carefully consider how the cultural and historical baggage I brought with me would shape my work and relations with the La Uniontecos. The "sociological imagination" was outside my ken. I guess I thought that hard work and good ol' Yankee know-how would be enough. I ended up, though, being just another gringo, nice enough, but not much use to the people of La Unión.

I visited these memories of teen years and Peace Corps many times while working on my PhD. Teaching this past year at Wabash has made them more insistent. My student-faculty research courses with Wabash students made me realize that the barrier to a "sociological imagination" is not so much youth as it lack of experience and opportunity to practice it. My students dove with enthusiasm into the task of mapping the social terrain of Crawfordsville and its new Latin American population. They challenged me to keep working hard on my own imagination-always a work-in-progress. I look forward to more such collaborations in the years to come.



Return to the table of contents