At the beginning of his book, The Sociological Imagination, American sociologist C Wright Mills characterises the experience of modern life as analogous to a series of traps. Mills suggest that people are 'bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighbourhood; in other milieu, they move vicariously and remain spectators.' Far from being experts in our own lives, Mills suggests, we are spectators, caught up in the web of history, imprisoned by the expectations of others. Though published in 1959, the book is still a stirring sociological manifesto and statement about the promise and potential of sociology. The task of sociology, for Mills, is to identify the larger social forces that lie behind our apparently most intimate personal troubles, to translate the 'personal troubles' of biography into 'public issues' of history and society. Only then can something be done about them. Essential to the process is the renewal of the 'the capacity for astonishment', especially about those things we think of as banal or don't notice at all. We can use this astonishment at the ordinary to realise that the order of things is not a product of nature but rather of history. That things do not have to be as they are.

I think there is still a place for Mills in the sociology of the 21st century, if we can adapt his ideas to the different scale of the world we all now inhabit.

Rather than a narrow national or continental sense of shared life, we need to expand our sense of the public and the political to account for the emergence of global space. We can't understand Mills' traps without understanding the wider, now global, political forces that structure the movement of people as well as definitions of citizenship and belonging. In a world where there is increasing global interconnection in technology and movement of information, there are ever more complex traps. In order to make sense of this we need to develop a global sociological imagination subtle enough to prise open the public issues in private troubles. The task is to make explicit the ways in which some of the seemingly insignificant aspects of our lives like the music we listen to, the things we touch, wear and eat connect us to social relationships with others across the globe. Equally it is to make the world relevant to our local concerns. The increasing complexities, quantities and speed of movement of commodities and information have intensified what we might call cultural politics in the 21st century. We have become more aware of other people and other places.

Globalisation ' the shorthand term we use to name these cultural, economic and political connections ' has both fractured the local and remade relations between places. It has produced an unprecedented movement of people. It is estimated that some 145 million people are living outside their countries of birth, up from 85 million in 1975. The global economic and political elites are able to move across borders at will ' yet, there are profound forms of anxiety about the global movement of persons. As Zygmunt Bauman has put it: 'the riches are global, the misery is local.' While there has been huge panic about asylum seekers and refugees in the west, the primary burden of forced migration is shouldered by the poor in the south. According to the UN Refugee Agency seven out of ten of the world's refugees are offered asylum by the world's poorest countries. The panic of the west, and the very real social tensions which arise through displacement, must be set alongside these hidden facts; personal experience connected to the hidden ley lines of geo-politics.

Among the most compelling examples of this kind of thinking has been the sociological thinking of British academic Stuart Hall, who advised us to examine what was most intimate and taken for granted ' like the sugar in our tea ' for what it revealed about global power relations. Hall revealed the brutal, but concealed, structure of colonialism which brought Jamaican sugar cane to tea shops in Tunbridge Wells. In his work on the historical connections across 'The Black Atlantic' Paul Gilroy makes creative use of the image of the ship ' the primary technology of Atlantic trade, ferrying stolen people from Africa to the New World, raw materials from the Caribbean to the factories of the north, and commodities back to Africa. Their modern equivalent, the clippers of globalisation, are aeroplanes. 90 million passengers pass annually through London's two major airports ' Heathrow and Gatwick. Where once air travel was remarkable and exotic it has become banal. The airborne attacks of 11 September 2001 seemed once more to imbue aeroplanes with a strangeness and exoticism, this time sinister, but it is remarkable how quickly this impression has faded. How many of us, chilled by the images, felt we could not fly again; how few of us feel the same now, as air travel has been renormalised, folded back into the reality of our daily global lives.

Images of doom aside, the jets passing over our heads invite other kinds of sociological response. Aeroplanes contain, by and large, the beneficiaries of globalisation, holidaymakers and the global managerial elite, following the newly carved channels of global capital. But they can also have a hidden cargo of reckless stowaways willing to risk death to gain access to the riches of the west. In the summer of 2001 a young Pakistani called Mohammed Ayaz sprinted through the darkness of Bahrain airport and hauled himself up into the undercarriage bay of a Boeing 777 bound for London. He fell from the sky when the undercarriage was lowered for landing at Heathrow, landing in a Homebase car park in suburban Richmond, West London. He was long dead before he hit the ground, probably dying from hypothermia at 13,000 feet. Seventeen-year old Alberto Vazquez Rodreiguez and 16-year old Michael Fonseca from Cuba similarly fell from the undercarriage of an airplane to their death in a Surrey field just outside of Gatwick. In the summer of 2002 a driver on the M25 motorway close to Gatwick saw a human figure fall from the sky. This time no body was ever found. In the global world a life can disappear without leaving a trace. A global sociology can't bring these desperate kids back, but it can work to connect their plight to more apparently local concerns.

The jets containing the bodies of these tragic cases would have passed almost directly over the offices of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) at Lunar and Apollo House in Croydon, South London. These austere buildings, whose names reference the heady optimism of the 'space age', are where the daily pressure of the asylum system, and political panic about asylum, are felt. Every scare-mongering headline about immigration translates into political pressure inside Lunar House. This pressure is increasing despite the fact that level of deportations has doubled since 1997, and asylum applications are dropping.

Lunar House is Croydon's largest employer with over 6,000 workers. It is not a happy place to work. Pressure to process asylum claims quickly results in frequent mistakes ' passports and applications are lost. Independent adjudicators upheld 20 per cent of asylum appeals in 2004. Staff in the IND feel beleaguered, and this part of the civil service has a reputation for the highest number of staff suicides. In 2004 Ian Knowles, a Catholic priest in Croydon, who counts staff from Lunar House in his congregation at St Dominic's Church in Waddon, and also acts as an advocate for asylum seekers, established South London Citizens as an attempt to connect the problems of people seeking asylum with those people working on the inside of Lunar House. In November 2004 they conducted an inquiry into the workings of Lunar House. Its first meeting was held in Croydon Town Hall in March 2005, where they took evidence from immigration officers and asylum seekers. The meeting gave rise to an extraordinary two-way form of communication; one worker commented that she felt 'anxious, frustrated and demotivated' because she was forced to 'act in an uncaring unsupportive way when dealing with customers.' Another immigration officer stood up and apologised to those present for the misery caused by the workings of Lunar House. The cynic might say one apology does nothing to change the Kafkaesque workings of the institution but the inquiry has rattled the government and they are taking notice. An important opportunity emerged in the fact that many of those working to administer the law, under extreme pressure, felt just as trapped as those suffering its consequences. In this space a new ground of common politics can be forged. Connecting the global and the local, and those in and outside power, can have real political effects.

Of course the meetings had no way to connect directly to the stories of Mohammed, Alberto or Michael, but perhaps this is what we need a global sociological imagination for.

The task is to link individual biographies and the questions they raise with larger social and historical forces. Our public culture is one of compressed priorities, it works within the limited parameters of the not too distance past and, at best, the medium term future. It is the search for remarkable things that are otherwise not remarked upon which offers the possibility of refiguring this relationship between the near and the far.

As we zoom in from the global process to the local dispute, from the jet at 13,000 feet to the town hall meeting below, the distance spanned by the falling body of the unnamed victim of globalisation, we find the scale of global sociology.

This article is extracted from 'Speaking of Remarkable things: The Scale of Global Sociology', Professor Back's inaugural lecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London, Tuesday 17 May 2005.