In order to better appreciate the "sociological imagination" I'd like you to first read, and then think about, C. Wright Mills' notion that "neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both."
Next, I'd like you to get away from your computer and into the more tangible world that surrounds you. GO TALK TO SOMEONE RIGHT NOW! You can choose a family member, friend, co-worker, or whomever you think will give you an honest, straightforward answer to this question: "WHAT IS ONE PROBLEM YOU HAD TODAY?" I'd like you to ask this question without any pre-conditioning, so don't tell this person why you are asking the question. Write down their answer and then return to this activity on your computer. Go ahead, go now, it will only take a moment. Seriously, go!.........
When I got to this activity last night, the only person around was my roommate, so I asked her, 'What was a problem you had today?' After a little thought she replied, 'getting my thoughts in order.'
My roommate is also a first term college student, and is taking three classes in addition to working. She has been out of school for a couple years, and is having trouble getting her brain back into gear. This is a problem because she has a lot of reading and writing to do for her classes!
Personal troubles are usually limited to an individual or a small group of individuals where public issues affect a much larger portion of loosely related people. This is not to say that personal troubles do not affect the larger society, in fact they most certainly do, just as public issues in turn affect personal issues. I believe Mills spoke of personal troubles as 'biographical' and public troubles as 'historical.' I believe that these words succinctly underline the meaning behind these two types of issues. There are billions of humans on this globe, and we all fall into groups, cultures, categories which when our personal troubles are taken together, they aggregate into a public trouble. In other words, when one person has trouble finding a parking space, it is a personal trouble, but when almost everyone in a certain group (racial, geographical, religious, etc) has trouble finding a parking space it becomes a public trouble, and the sociologist should start looking for the cause.
My roommate's personal trouble of being unable to study is a latent function of certain public troubles (and some of these 'troubles' are viewed as facts of our culture rather than as a deficiency). My roommate has been out of school for six years, and because of the way our culture currently exists, there is little room to practice reading non-fiction or writing essays outside of school. As everyone should know, what we do not practice becomes rusty from disuse. I would consider the general public's lack of the ability to think critically or logically or to retain pertinent information to be attributed to this 'public trouble' of having no convenient or necessary way to practice the skills that they learn in high school. I would also consider that once we all leave college, unless we take a job where these skills are used, they will again fall into disuse and we will be unable to easily "collect our thoughts and put them in order."
It is important to find the underlying social causes of personal problems because it helps us see that it is impossible to truly solve our personal problems without first solving the underlying problems of society. One of my roommate's favorite phrases when someone is complaining to her about a problem they are having is to say, 'that sounds like a personal problem!' And, I believe that it is also important to be able to recognize when a problem really DOES stem from your own personal choices and actions rather than blaming it on others (parents, neighbors, teachers, etc.)
Another reason it is important to understand how larger social structures affect the individual is because of cause and effect. Knowing that when a government or corporation or religion makes a decree or a decision or a new law that there will be consequences for the common citizen puts some of the responsibility for those problems into the moral realm of these larger entities. But, whether or not they accept that responsibility is another story altogether!