Review of “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” (1952) by C. Wright Mills

In “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” (1952), C. Wright Mills talks about his methods for note taking, thinking, and analysis in what he calls “sociological imagination”. This is a sociologists’ framing of their own research and analysis practice and thus bears a sociological related name. While he talks more about the thinking, outlining, and writing process rather than the mechanical portion of how he takes notes or what he uses, he’s extending significantly on the ideas and methods that Sönke Ahrens describes in How to Take Smart Notes (2017), though obviously he’s doing it 65 years earlier. It would seem obvious that the specific methods (using either files, note cards, notebooks, etc.) were a bit more commonplace for his time and context, so he spent more of his time on the finer and tougher portions of the note making and thinking processes which are often the more difficult parts once one is past the “easy” mechanics.

While Mills doesn’t delineate the steps or materials of his method of note taking the way Beatrice Webb, Langlois & Seignobos, Johannes Erich Heyde, Antonin Sertillanges, or many others have done before or Umberto Eco, Gerald Weinberg, Robert Greene/Ryan Holiday, Sönke Ahrens, or Dan Allosso since, he does focus more on the softer portions of his thinking methods and their desired outcomes and provides personal examples of how it works and what his expected outcomes are. Much like Niklas Luhmann describes in Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen (VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 1981), Mills is focusing on the thinking processes and outcomes, but in a more accessible way and with some additional depth.

Because the paper is rather short, but specific in its ideas and methods, those who finish the broad strokes of Ahrens’ book and methods and find themselves somewhat confused will more than profit from the discussion here in Mills. Those looking for a stronger “crash course” might find that the first seven chapters of Allosso (2022) along with this discussion in Mills is a straighter and shorter path.

While Mills doesn’t delineate his specific method in terms of physical materials, he does broadly refer to “files” which can be thought of as in the zettelkasten (slip box) or card index traditions. Scant evidence in the piece indicates that he’s talking about physical file folders and sheets of paper rather than slips or index cards, but this is generally irrelevant to the broader process of thinking or writing. Once can easily replace the instances of the English word “file” with the German concept of zettelkasten and not be confused.

One will note that this paper was written as a manuscript in April 1952 and was later distributed for classroom use in 1955, meaning that some of these methods were being distributed directly from professors to students. The piece was later revised and included as an appendix to Mill’s text The Sociological Imagination which was first published in 1959.

Because there aren’t specifics about Mills’ note structure indicated here, we can’t determine if his system was like that of Niklas Luhmann, but given the historical record one could suppose that it was closer to the commonplace tradition using slips or sheets. One thing becomes more clear however that between the popularity of Webb’s work and this (which was reprinted in 2000 with a 40th anniversary edition), these methods were widespread in the mid-twentieth century and specifically in the field of sociology.

Above and beyond most of these sorts of treatises on note taking method, Mills does spend more time on the thinking portions of the practice and delineates eleven different practices that one can focus on as they actively read/think and take notes as well as afterwards for creating content or writing.


My full notes on the article can be found at https://hypothes.is/users/chrisaldrich?q=url%3Aurn%3Ax-pdf%3A0138200b4bfcde2757a137d61cd65cb8

Annotated a tweet by Matty Illustration (@MN_illustration) (Twitter)

Y’all, imagine Spielberg’s Sailor Moon pic.twitter.com/xZ1DEsbLTy

— Matty Illustration (@MN_illustration) June 30, 2022
The trending topics on Twitter can be used as a form of juxtaposition of random ideas which could be brought together to make new and interesting things.

Here’s but one example of someone practicing just this:

Editor’s note: The now missing image attached to the tweet was of the Twitter trending topics sidebar that showed Sailor Moon trending just above Steven Spielberg

cc: @marshallk