C. Wright Mills: human motives, social structures, and the place of the personal

thumb-1013968__340Last week I looked at Grauel’s approach to morality, the attractiveness of which lies in the incorporation of the personal (subjective ethical dispositions) and the social (social normativity) in the individual practices of ethical consumption. While, like Grauel, I find Mills’ (1940) idea of “the vocabularies of motives” useful for understanding some of the ways in which consumers negotiate the inconsistencies of their ethical food practices, I find that his emphatic focus on the social nature of human motives comes at the expense of acknowledging subjects’ personal dispositions, values, and concerns. There are several points that I think worth highlighting.

Firstly, the fear of social judgments is not the sole, and arguably not even the primary, motive behind individuals’ efforts to ensure the congruity between their values and practices. As Campbell (2006, p. 222) points out, “individuals have as much need to convince themselves as any observers who may query their conduct”. This argument is echoed by Joe, an ethical consumer from study, with whom we had an extensive discussion about the food temptations and the constant pressure to live up to a certain personal and social image that he experiences as a strict vegan. In response to my question as to whether he could allow himself an occasional non-vegan treat if nobody would be able to know it, he says: “Oh, but I would know. And that would bug me. (…) I would not want to be that type of person, I would not want to be hypocritical in that way”. This example indicates a type of ethical consumer for whom ensuring the consistency of his ethical commitments is a way to preserve the sense of personal integrity rather than to gain social recognition. This is because, as Archer (2000) would remind us, people’s ultimate moral commitments, being an extension of their distinct identities, are the locus of individuals’ self-worth. The consistency and continuity of our identity-defining practices, therefore, is essential for our sense of personal integrity.

Secondly, even when using the vocabularies of motives to justify their supposedly improper conduct, individuals do not only appeal to the socially dominant discourses, but they also bring out their subjective values and beliefs. The effect of personal values on motive attribution is evident in the fact that from a range of socially available vocabularies of motive individuals will only choose a particular one, and different people – even in a similar situation – will not necessarily choose the same. These are not random choices – instead, they are reflections and manifestation of individuals’ subjective values, principles, and beliefs. For any given motive to successfully serve as a justification for one’s conduct, not only does it have to be a part of dominant social discourses, but it also has to “gel” (Archer, 2000, p. 219) with the subject’s inner morality and what she perceives to be a valid excuse for whatever action she seeks to legitimate. As Archer (2000, p. 219) notes, for society’s evaluations to have any affective impact on us we have to first internalise and commit to its norms: “In addition to there being a normative order, we the subjects have to care about it, or at least about some of it”.

Thus, in the process of motive imputation and avowal the personal always intertwines with the social, since human motives are inevitably informed by and appeal to both personal morality and social normativity.


Archer, M. S. (2000). Being human: The problem of agency. Cambridge University Press.

Grauel, J. (2014). Being authentic or being responsible? Food consumption, morality and the presentation of self. Journal of Consumer Culture, 1469540514541880.

Mills, CW. (1940). Situated actions and vocabularies of motive. American Sociological Review, 5(6): 904–913.


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