As Sean Elias writes,
“Du Bois was the first sociologist to develop strong theoretical arguments explaining the sociological importance of human rights for all individuals, groups, nations, and international bodies, specifically universal rights that transcends race, class, gender, and other human divisions. He tirelessly fought for basic human rights of all the exploited, dispossessed, ‘oppressed and staggering masses’ in the US and across the globe, concerned with all of ‘the unfortunate and the welfare of all the world.’”
For example in A Program of Emancipation for Colonial Peoples (1947), Du Bois wrote that “the slums of London and New York, of Paris and Rome need the exact kind of industrial emancipation that the black people of Africa and the brown people of Asia need...and the question of imperial colonialism is identical with the problem of poverty in Western Europe and America.” Such insights were the foundations of Global South sociological theories of underdevelopment and academic dependency that emerged in the 1960s.
As Patricia Hill Collins, asks politely, “If Du Bois’s research was so germane to early twentieth-century sociology, why was he denied recognition as a bona fide sociologist? Moreover, what has been the significance of this exclusion for sociology itself?”
To read Morris it was a function of the development of a conservative and white mainstream American sociology that eschewed the critique inherent in the sociological imagination of Du Bois for a faux scientific exceptionalism based on the notion that whiteness provided objectivity in the study of racial differences. Morris’s research discusses the institutional racism of the Chicago school of sociology and Ivy League universities, and on an interpersonal level, in particular Robert Park, who worked to overlook the ground breaking critical sociology practiced by Du Bois. This side lining went so far as claiming for themselves some of the original elements of Du Bois’s work, such as the scientific study of race, and his theory of double consciousness, as their own. When more accurately as Morris argues, Du Bois was practicing his original brand of mixed-mode urban sociology independently and earlier than the Chicago school, including establishing the department of sociology at the historically black Atlanta University, where he taught from 1897 to 1910. In the context of the presentation of sociological knowledge on black life in America too, Du Bois’ hand-drawn info graphics, charts and maps and are well worth exploring if you haven’t seen them before. It is also true that mainstream sociologists well entrenched in the Western sociological canon such as Max Weber were influenced in their understandings of the study of racial inequalities by meeting with and communicating with Du Bois.
As we note in our own book, through such foundational documents such as The Souls of Black Folk, and The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois is on par with Karl Marx and Harriet Martineau in the mainstreaming the study of inequalities within Western sociology. Yet Du Bois found his social justice orientated sociological work and intellectual viewpoint marginalised. Instead of the development of a mainstream sociology with a concern for rights and addressing social inequalities, Du Bois’s insights and work were pushed aside for a more conservative sociology, faux objective policy interventions, and reform. Not accepted into mainstream sociology by white sociologists Du Bois became more of a public sociologist than a “professional” one located in academia. Some scholars have suggested that as he became more publically active in the NAACP after 1910 that this made him more than a sociologist.
Yes, Du Bois was marginalised, but as Patricia Hill Collins notes, this marginalisation and being a “sociological outsider” improved the integrity, reach, and power of his sociological imagination and methods, as he moved beyond academia with The Crisis. It is also fair to say that today the public sociology of inequalities he developed under an institutional colour bar is the type of sociology most relevant today. As Elias reminds us,
“Along with pursuing sociological research that demonstrated human rights abuses and exclusion from humanity of black Americans, Du Bois became politically involved in promoting Human Rights Based Approach outside of the academy. Because of his exclusion from the academy and evolving field of professional sociology and lack of power and resources granted to white sociologists, Du Bois’ fight for human rights became more effective after leaving the university and white academic world, a move that marked his shift from a ‘professional’ to ‘public” sociologist.’ As a black sociologist in a white-run discipline that was becoming increasingly professionalized and detached from human rights issues, Du Bois’ sociological insights were often overlooked and not given the respect and voice they deserved.”
I was reminded of Morris’s book and his account of the racism inherent within the development and formation of American and by extension Western sociology through the prism of Du Bois life in a recent correspondence with a sociology colleague in the Global South who suggested we had missed an opportunity with our own manuscript. Specifically this was, that while we have a decent representation of non-white and Southern sociologists in the book, they are mostly found in the second half of the book and not within the initial introduction to “What is the Social?” and “Seven key moments in Western sociology”, which set the scene for the story we tell about the emergence of Western sociology.
Although we did include Du Bois in those stories, (and other activist sociologists such as Harriet Martineau, Ida B Wells, Jane Addams, Suzanne Césaire, Elma Francois and Claudia Jones are included in accompanying chapter activities where we ask you to learn more about them), the suggestion was that it was a missed opportunity to include other non-white and Global South sociologists in the origin story of Western sociology’s emergence and development. In the context of a black and Global South “canon” these persons would include Ida B. Wells and Carter G Woodson. It would also provide a way to talk about how other English-speaking black and Global South sociologists built on their work such as Vincent Harding, Lerone Bennett, Charshee Charlotte Lawrence-McIntyre, the Guyanese born sociologists Ivan Van Sertima and Walter Rodney, and Trinidadian born sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox who challenged the ideas of Gunnar Myrdal.
These omissions are not a new observation. For example, in a 2018 integrative session of the International Sociological Association bringing together scholars in the sociological fields of ‘Racism, Nationalism, and Ethnic Relations’; ‘History of Sociology’; and ‘Historical Sociology’, the panellists, which included Morris, as well as others sociologists George Steinmetz, Raewyn Connell, Sujata Patel and Vilna Treitler, discussed the ways race has been “written in and out of sociological theories and the effects its centrality and its erasure have equally resulted in racialising accounts of non-Western, non-white or non-European peoples and regions”.
Such observations also tell us something about the world of academic book publishing and how cultural hegemony is maintained through the histories various communities tell about themselves but also by the politics of economy in the context of what textbooks as normative technologies and disciplinary origin myths do. In introductory textbooks to Western sociology “centrality” and “erasure” suggest who’s vision of the world dominates and how comprehending sociologically the historical conjuncture and point in time we find ourselves in is always shaped by time, location and purpose of publication; by many rounds of review and advice from editors and reviewers; by the individual biases and vision authors and others bring; and also how the larger field itself is seen and understood by each of us. These are contexts, and there are many more, that all sociologists are shaped by in differential ways and that has implications for the sociologies we each practice. In this sense any sociological canon that doesn’t recognise the centrality of Du Bois’s sociological imagination or the importance of race to the relationship between social structure and inequalities under empire and capitalism probably isn’t evidential or honest. Not to mention, as Connell concludes in a recent return to her original 1997 article, a fixation on canons is futile as it erases building the other ways of knowing needed for today’s ominous times.
“[T]he reliance on a canon to provide structure, identity or boundaries to a field of knowledge - the claim most persistently made for the canon in sociology - obstructs thinking. It obstructs the capacity to think for oneself, it obstructs willingness to leap beyond those boundaries and put that professional identity at risk. It is really bizarre that the polemic of an embattled metropolitan intellectual in the 1890s about the methodological separateness of the social should be taught to students in India or China in the 2010s as part of the definition of their field of study, at a time when they are choking in the pollution of their cities and scared by anthropogenic climate change.”
(originally published on the Imagining Society companion website