I read Aldon Morris’s much-anticipated book, The Scholar Denied, with great interest. I heard Morris talk about the book when he visited UNC last year, and have read and taught some shorter work he’s published from this project. I was not disappointed – it’s a great book, meticulously documented, passionately argued, and sure to correct many important parts of the historical record on the development of American sociology. I learned quite a bit about W. E. B. du Bois’s life and intellectual productivity. Separating the book’s argument into three related claims, I find the first two fully demonstrated. However, I remain unsure of the third, most ambitious, case the book tries to defend.
My understanding of the key claims in the book is as follows:
1.) W.E.B. du Bois was an early practitioner of scientific and critical sociology, independently of, and before, the Chicago School;
2.) The Chicago School, particularly Robert Park, was very aware of du Bois’s work and sought, actively and successfully, to prevent it from being recognized both at the time and in the century of sociological development that followed; and
3.) Had du Bois not been excluded, sociological theory would be better in some way.
4.) …everything I learned as a sociology PhD student at the University of Chicago is wrong. Or at least everything that I learned about the history of sociology.
The first two claims are well defended in the book. From early in his career, du Bois was making claims for the value of empirical sociology in understanding and ameliorating social problems – most urgently, the problem of race in the United States. The key piece of work here is du Bois’s well-known masterpiece The Philadelphia Negro, a painstaking, systematic, data-based study. That book was all but ignored by sociologists for well over a century after its publication, but in recent decades (thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Morris and colleagues) it has been offered what must be called grudging inclusion in some sociology syllabi. But work in that empirical vein continued well beyond The Philadelphia Negro and, more to the point, preceded the Chicago School’s development of the city as the urban laboratory for social science. In short: du Bois and his “Atlanta school” certainly preceded the Chicago School in history, and pioneered many of the intellectual and scientific elements that became identified with the Chicago School.
Furthermore, as Park was establishing his approach to the scientific study of race at Chicago, he was fully aware of du Bois, but actively worked to prevent du Bois from consideration by the new mainstream (white) sociology. In large part this was due to Park’s association with Booker T. Washington—Park worked for Washington at the Tuskeegee Institute before moving to Chicago, and Morris demonstrates the extensive intellectual debt Park owed to his sponsor. In Morris’s historical recounting, Washington considered du Bois both a dangerous rabble-rouser and a worrisome competitor. Washington constituted the conservative, even appeasing, position on race in the south, while du Bois constituted the critical voice.
Once Park came to Chicago, he and his colleagues were able to claim sole leadership of modern sociology for straightforwardly racist reasons. They had the imprimatur of Chicago and the presumed detachment of being white. They could claim detachment from the most important social issue of the time – race – and use that detachment to claim scientific objectivity. And Park, in particular, could position Washington as the authentic voice of the “Negro” in contrast with the critical du Bois. All this is thoroughly documented in Morris’s book, and the case is utterly devastating as an indictment of Park and his colleagues. There is no question in my mind, based on this history, that du Bois ought to be understood as the true first American empirical sociologist. Furthermore, we therefore have to understand our own discipline’s development as thoroughly dependent on racist priors.
That’s big; particularly in certain political circles, where sociology is described as “critical” or “radical” at its core (very suspect claims to begin with, but that’s another story!), it’s going to be tough to incorporate the fact that some of the very same thinkers credited with those critical ideas were in the same moment racists. Sociology can’t be seen as the sort of pure thread in a poisoned fabric; it’s clearly part of that poisoned fabric. In retrospect, sociologists ought not be surprised by that, but I admit that I was surprised by it, and we ought to be both disappointed and humble at its thorough documentation.
That said, is it appropriate to think, with Go, that everything we learned as sociology PhD students was wrong? I don’t think so. Perhaps things were different at the University of Chicago, but I can’t say I ever learned much about the history of the discipline in graduate school. More importantly, the sad reality is that the development of American sociology did proceed without much attention to, or influence from, du Bois. You can’t have it both ways – either du Bois was systematically excluded and therefore not a major influence on the discipline, or he was not systematically excluded but therefore was more of an influence. I think the evidence is for the former, which means that we should understand the discipline’s development as racially tainted but similar to the ways it’s been understood since the founding of the Chicago School.
That same can’t-have-it-both-ways issue comes up in evaluating the third claim as well. Ultimately, if du Bois ought to be included in the canon of sociological theory, it’s because sociological theory is better (by some definition of “better”) with his ideas than without. Is that the case?
From Morris’s book, I think there are a few specific ideas about du Bois’s theoretical contributions:
- The insistence on “human agency” as “a creative force capable of generating new directions and possibilities,” understood as “the unpredictable creative role of human agency” (p. 29; emphasis mine)
- The idea of “double consciousness” providing a special viewpoint on society (89-90), which likely becomes an unacknowledged source of Park’s “marginal man” concept (145-46)
- The social construction of race, now all but a consensus position, but du Bois was, arguably, the first to put it forward; and
- Relatedly, the idea that social disadvantage could produce social ills; that racism could produce racial outcomes: “…social oppression creates cultural deficits among the dominated, thus encoraging cultures of domination to take hold in ways that sunt a group’s social development and its caacity to engage in collective action” (44); “the scholarly principle that race inequality stemmed from white racism…” (pp. 58-59); “if you degrade people the result is degradation” (40-41).
I don’t find the insistence on human agency particularly fruitful. First, it’s just an “insistence” — Morris doesn’t show him theorizing how agency might happen, or how to identify it when it does. Indeed, the insistence that it be “unpredictable” (England and Warner identify this as du Bois’s insistence on “chance” as a social force) makes it seem a residual category.
The other three seem like true theoretical advances. The social construction of race is pretty much a sociological truism, but du Bois likely got there first, and probably taught it to Weber as well. But he goes beyond that to use the “double consciousness” concept to suggest that the social construction has epistemological effects; as a present-day sociologist might say, marginalization provides a unique lens for viewing society. Again, while many sociologists would now agree, du Bois’s formulation was likely first and remains strong.
While I do find the historical account very convincing, there are some points in the book I found less so. At times Morris seems to veer into a “why not du Bois” case, leaving out specific historical mechanisms that might have led to du Bois’s not being involved in one or another social scientific millieu. The implicit claim is that du Bois ought to have been in all of them, but that seems overreaching. And Morris interprets du Bois’s departure from sociology (134ff) as an early example of “public sociology.” Maybe it’s my skepticism about that term in the present day, but again that seems like he’s trying too hard.
Nevertheless, the attention and praise the book is receiving are well deserved. I am sure it will succeed in changing the way sociology understands its own history.