morris, the scholar denied

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.

Julian Go has added an additional claim:

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.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

7 thoughts on “morris, the scholar denied”

  1. Go was being very specific about Chicago’s role in perpetuating its mythology as the origin point of sociology. I’m not surprised Berkeley, which has long had a somewhat intellectually antagonistic position w/r/t Chicago and methods. That your training did not mythologize Chicago does not mean Chicago doesn’t mythologize itself (and its graduates elsewhere often do the same–many did in my training. Though, to be fair, many Chicago trained professors in my training also were highly critical of that aspect of their alma mater).

    The argument that he was excluded and yet also important is made in your summary: Du Bois was the true origin point of many of the things that Chicago claimed for itself. As such, he was systematically excluded as the proper origin point of ideas/methods but his ideas and methods were not excluded. Were he to be properly included, the field would, likely, have progressed much faster with regard to its theorizing about race and social constructionism (don’t forget Du Bois’ efforts to study whiteness generations before it became a field of study), its empiricism, and efforts to internationalize (Du Bois’ work on Africa).

    In other words, a partial version of Du Bois’ work was foundational to the field. Had the field acknowledged him fully instead of obscuring that reality, he would have been an even more important figure and we’d all be better off. In this case, I believe, one can and should have it both ways.


  2. I have taught a few essays from the Souls of Black Folk in an undergraduate theory class, and I agree generally with the points about his theoretical contributions above. Although I don’t really consider myself a theorist, I like those essays because they bring up bigger theoretical issues in accessible ways. Here are three other things I like about it, to add to the above:

    –Double consciousness, to me anyway, resonates nicely with Mead’s theory of identity and Cooley’s looking-glass-self. I also think it foreshadows the later turn toward performativity of Goffman and feminist theories. Of course, the fact that DuBois’ concept emerges out of structures of oppression opens a discussion of the critiques of Mead, Cooley, and Goffman for ignoring structures of inequality. I think double consciousness opens up a new dimension for those theories of identity and dramaturgy–so that we can begin to see how inequality shapes identity.

    –The Souls of Black Folk also raises issues pertinent to phenomenology and the sociology of emotion. Lines like “How does it feel to be a problem?” and essays like “Of the Passing of the First-Born” (I challenge you to read that essay and not cry) speak to students in a profound way about the experience of oppression. It’s interesting: some students really get the sociological significance of DuBois’ emotional register, while others don’t (in my experience, the privileged students struggle with it, while underprivileged students really get it).

    –I have always loved his critique of the “car-window sociologist” in “Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece,” because it brings up issues of method and how they relate to theory.

    None of these things add up to any grand theory that fundamentally changes sociological theory, as far as I can tell. But the poetic nature of his writing makes theory very accessible to students, and he can be read fruitfully in dialogue with past and future theorists (even if he wasn’t actually in dialogue with them directly).

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I don’t think Morris is trying to have it “both ways” when he argues that Dubois was influential yet marginalized. He was marginalized in the sense that he wasn’t cited nor given proper credit in the sociological canon, but he was influential through what Morris calls “insurgent intellectual networks,” where DuBois influenced scholars who passed through his Atlanta school prior to getting their PhDs from Park at U-Chicago. That nuance is critical because it’s part of Morris’ critique of theories on the formation of intellectual schools. Morris shows that it’s possible for marginalized schools of intellectual thought to grow and have influence, albeit through more informal channels, despite systematically being excluded from the mainstream wing of the discipline (e.g. not being cited, assigned, hired, etc.).


  4. Thanks for posting, Andrew. As I mentioned over on orgtheory, writing my own review has been on my to do list but not gotten done, and I agree this is an important book. BT Washington’s feud with DuBois and BTW’s practice of seeking to marginalize and punish enemies is well testified in standard works on Black history, so the “news” for sociology is the way this impacted the development of sociology as a discipline, as well as the way sociology as a discipline via Park played a role in that feud.

    I also found the documentation of the relation with Weber to be both surprising and fascinating.

    And I think Robert Vargas has the right take on how it is possible to be both marginalized and influential.


  5. I had not seen the 1973 article to Weber and DuBois you linked. I think the article you linked makes good points about Weber’s and DuBois’ relationships and influence. I noted that this article makes reference to DuBois papers–but since 1973, Weber’s papers have been published as a “Collected Works”, and are now more accessible. As I recall there are a number of references (in German) to DuBois in the Collected Works for Max Weber. There is also a reference or two to DuBois in the footnotes of Joachim Radkau’s newer biography of Weber which was translated into English in about 2010. DuBois sat in on some of Weber’s lectures in the early 1890s, and they kept up their correspondence.


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