W.E.B. Du Bois and the Sociological Canon

Over a century in the making, American sociology’s investment in the study of race has not resulted in a happy marriage. On the positive side, the study of race and ethnic relations constitutes a robust subfield in the discipline, reflecting a rich legacy of empirical findings and theoretically-informed arguments. Indeed, a non-trivial number of sociologists in this subfield have become prominent figures in the discipline. Yet, success has come with costs. In the case of the sociology of race and ethnic relations this is reflected in the fact that the robustness of the subfield has not prevented it from remaining marginal. The subfield is often regarded as secondary to those considered hard-core sociology (topics like organizational sociology and stratification) or is seen as exploring topics that, while important, are not central to other subfields (like political sociology and theory). Consequently, becoming a sociologist of race and ethnicity, even if one is a successful specialist, often means neither occupying a place of centrality in the discipline nor being regarded as a contributor to its mainstream canon.

No sociologist better represents this conundrum than W. E. B. Du Bois. He is recognized as a forefather of the discipline, but mostly as one who introduced the comprehensive study of African Americans rather than shaping sociology more broadly. Even this recognition is relatively recent. Following extreme negligence of his contributions, the last several decades have seen an abundance of efforts to recover and reclaim him as an important contributor to sociology. Sociologists and other scholars have written hundreds of books and articles that affirmed Du Bois as the pioneer sociologist of the African-American experience. Unfortunately, most of this work argues little else about his scholarship.

Aldon Morris takes a huge step forward in The Scholar Denied by placing Du Bois at the center of the sociological canon.

Morris argues that the founding of American sociology rests in Du Bois’s scholarship. His book explicitly places Du Bois, and more particularly what he defines as the “Du Bois school,” at center stage, arguing that this pioneering approach was not only the first such organized effort in American sociology but also that later generations of sociologists have erred in consistently attributing vanguard status to other scholars (such as Robert Park) or scholarly publications (such as William Isaac Thomas and Florian Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant in Europe and America) though they appeared or were produced after Du Bois’s and his own seminal work.

Morris’ passion is reflected in every page of this book. That is because he is not only a scholar of Du Bois, but also a disciplinary activist who worked to help the American Sociological Association re-name its distinguished publication award after his subject. Morris’ administrative efforts, however, do not corrupt his scholarly agenda. Instead, The Scholar Denied reflects serious engagement with original archival material as well as the work of other scholars (both sociologists and non-sociologists) in uncovering and illuminating the Du Bois school of sociology established in the early twentieth century. Morris makes his best case for the primacy of the Du Bois school by considering Du Bois’s efforts at Atlanta University (one the few institutions that would hire him despite his remarkable record of study at Harvard University and other institutions) to construct an agenda for sociological research, supplemented by studies he did before and after his appointment there.

Scholar Denied CoverMorris tries to do a lot in The Scholar Denied. He not only aspires to illuminate Du Bois’s contribution to sociology and to the social sciences more generally, but also to address the racism that Du Bois experienced throughout his professional life (and his response, in thought and action, to it); to articulate why and how Du Bois was erased from the sociological canon; to document the history of African American contributions to sociology by figures trained by or associated with Du Bois; and to present a theoretical framework by which to consider how intellectual schools come into being and endure over time. One can only be humbled by this expansive agenda. Yet, just as humbly, I find I want to ask for more. Almost every point of attention in this work would benefit from further elucidation.

First, much more could go into defining precisely what constituted the Du Bois school of sociology. Is this school primarily vested in a set of methodological approaches to sociological investigation, a core set the theoretical premises, an empirical agenda with policy-focused objectives, or a combination of them all? It seems Morris believes that these come together in Du Bois’s scholarship, but much of Morris’ argument centers on how Du Bois was a pioneer scholar rather than on how he interwove theory, method, and empirical focus into an argument for how sociology should be conducted as a means of social inquiry.

It is an enormous project to pursue, but legitimating Du Bois as the founder of a disciplinary school involves assessing precisely how his historical analyses interconnect with his observational and statistical research to form a logic for social investigation. In Du Bois’s case, this means assessing these relationships while also accounting for his own consistent questioning of the utility of the methods that he employed. It is fascinating to read The Philadelphia Negro, for instance, in which Du Bois constantly questions whether statistics can deliver true insight into the experience of African Americans or whether a researcher can grasp the totality of one’s reactions to the world through an interview, even as he trudges ahead with the objective of making the best use possible of the data that he assembles, balancing caution with assertiveness. This unique stance in regard to method and data is an indelible feature of Du Bois’s sociology. Morris remains only on the edge of an effort to unpack both Du Bois’s broad range of methodological applications as well as his entwining of various questions of knowledge and theory construction.

Du Boisian scholars also consistently document his use of two concepts—the double-consciousness and the veil. Morris could offer more about what these and other concepts may mean for the Du Bois school as a model for more general sociology. Are they just terms assisting in the understanding the condition of African Americans, or do they inform a more general project of concept-building as an approach to constructing a school? What other concepts or conceptual schemes did Du Bois introduce that help define a Du Bois school?

Another critically under-documented issue in The Scholar Denied is how sociologists themselves erased Du Bois from the canon. Morris indicates that Du Bois was well-known among sociologists of his time (including other forefathers such as Max Weber and Herbert Spencer). Thus, his thorough removal from such lofty company had to be engineered by scholars of later years. What happened at that time is essential to why and how Du Bois became the scholar denied. I would hope that someone takes up this effort because, while Morris begins his project with the fact of Du Bois’s omission, the precise process by which this occurred remains to be told.

Finally, Morris challenges some critics of Du Bois’s elitism by suggesting that Du Bois did not embrace, but rather argued vehemently against, the litany of cultural and pseudo-biological inferiority claims that proliferated in late 19th and 20th century scholarship and public discourse about African Americans. Towever, to say that Du Bois experienced great challenge in understanding and affirming the social worlds and practices of the African-American poor and that he expressed distain for much of their social behavior and demeanor does not mean that he embraced cultural and biological inferiority as tenets (or causes) of the African-American condition. In fact, as many other scholars have argued, it was common for African Americans of higher class standing to affirm the humanity of African Americans by asserting how much these elites believed they could play a role in transforming the presumably backward social and cultural practices demonstrated by their more economically challenged peers. For scholars like Adolph Reed and Jerry Watts (who Morris criticizes), Du Bois was the prototypical elite African American in expressing these perspectives. Consequently, I question why Morris places Reed and Watts in the same camp as philosopher Anthony Appiah, who regards Du Boisian thought as articulating much of the racialist thinking so common during his time.

Ultimately, readers must take pleasure in the fact that Aldon Morris has given us considerable work to do, both in how we think about Du Bois and how we might document his contributions more substantively. Those goals are more than we can ask for from a single book. Accordingly, Morris should be congratulated for providing us a mandate to both think differently about and conduct more work on the legacy of this brilliant scholar.

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