what about du bois? a response to prasad’s critique of emancipatory sociology

The following is a guest post by Rory Kramer.

I highly recommend Monica Prasad’s recent piece in Socius advocating for problem-solving sociology as our era’s pragmatism. I cannot emphasize enough how smart it is and how much I love the idea of pragmatism as an escape from philosophical debates that are fun to have late at night, but more often than not lead nowhere in terms of getting stuff done. And I think the examples at the end, like Aliza Luft’s work on genocide, are great examples of sociology done well and summarized in the piece fantastically.

To try to summarize a complicated, in-depth piece in a quick paragraph or so (please read the whole thing), Prasad convincingly identifies three themes in how sociologists conceptualize the goal our work: rationalist, skeptic, and emancipatory. The rationalist studies for the sake of knowledge itself—the ultimate and exclusive goal of study is to understand society, regardless of whether or not society improves (or gets worse) thanks to that knowledge. The emancipatory studies for the sake of improving society—arguing that we should search for knowledge to create a better society, else it be squandering our efforts. The skeptic questions both whether or not sociology and academic discourse itself is at all useful, merging in some ways the critiques of rationalists toward emancipation and emancipatory scholars’ critiques of rationalist inaction into an almost meta-analysis of why and how we study and how that explains why reason is inadequate both as a driver of social change and as a means toward truth.

All three, Prasad argues, “reach[] an unresolvable theoretical impasses.” Most importantly for my reply, I focus on the school of thought with which I identify: emancipatory. To Prasad, emancipatory sociology cannot resolve the “question of what to do when human communities disagree about what constitutes emancipation.” Prasad illustrates this tension through an extended reading of Habermas and his critics.

Of course, as anyone invested in academic debates is probably aware, practically any time a comment or reply starts with praise like I do here, there’s a but floating around. Here’s my but: is Habermas really the best example of emancipatory sociology? What does it do to emphasize the Habermas goal of “communicative rationality” and the “ideal speech situation” over other forms of emancipatory sociological theory? What if emancipatory sociology were grounded not in Habermas—who was, ironically, influenced quite a bit by pragmatism in his hopes of avoiding an overly abstract, non-pragmatic critical theory—but rather in Du Bois? That is, doesn’t Du Bois solve many of the problems of melding problem-solving with emancipatory sociology?

At this point in discussions of sociology, it’s almost a cliché to reply to any sociological argument with “but what about Du Bois?” But seriously, what about Du Bois?

Here, I’d argue the problem with Habermas is not that his sociology is emblematic of the problem of emancipatory sociology, but rather that it is emblematic of the racial contract. Habermas’ emancipation fails because of the failure of liberal claims of universality that Charles Mills identified so powerfully. In short, white supremacy is the hidden flaw of Habermas’ ideal speech situation. Habermas is an analytic Marxist, and as such he is at best ambivalent regarding liberalism. Thankfully, in Black Reconstruction, Du Bois already exposed the same fundamental error in any Marxism that does not take seriously the role of racism as foundational.

In short, according to Black emancipatory scholarly traditions, that fundamental mistake leads to the flaws Prasad identifies in Habermas’ theory not because the scholarship isn’t pragmatic enough, but rather because it is not emancipatory enough.

Did Du Bois not “turn normative questions into analytical questions, and aim for new knowledge about causation”? Du Bois did that so brilliantly by simply adding “s” to Negro Problem and thus turning the normative into the analytic (credit to Tukufu Zuberi to pointing this out to me first in a grad seminar). 

I agree that we should “focus[] more on the causes of problems than their effects.” And Du Bois was one of the first scholars to turn his gaze to whites, most famously introducing the concept of the “psychological wages of whiteness.” Du Bois’s best work emphasized the study of the relationships and interactions between Black and White. That does not require emphasizing research on perpetrators, but rather on ensuring that scholarship never focus on perpetrator or victim, but rather on the relationship betwixt and between (I see Julian Go’s work trying to define a postcolonial sociology as an explicitly relational approach to emancipatory sociology).

One response I have in my own head is to claim Du Bois as a pragmatist (which, I discovered in writing this, others have done—see Taylor, 2004 for example); he did study under William James, after all. Perhaps we should embrace this definition of Du Bois as early pragmatist sociologist. Not unreasonable, but that is not the Du Bois of his most forceful, later work. And it accepts the critique of emancipation, just argues Du Bois is an exception.

I disagree, because I read Du Bois’ as at odds with the claim that “emancipatory perspectives…have never sufficiently answered how to determine what would constitute emancipation if norms are socially constructed.” Instead, Du Bois accepted that by placing one’s own norms up front and then staying true to the analytic process, one could have an emancipatory relationship with research. Others may have different definitions of emancipation, but that is a difference of norms, not a fundamental failing of one’s own definition, nor of one’s research and reason. As Du Bois wrote in his “To the Reader” section introducing Black Reconstruction:

“It would only be fair to the reader to say frankly in advance that the attitude of any person toward this story will be distinctly influenced by his theories of the Negro race. If he believes that the Negro in America and in general is an average and ordinary human being, who under given environment develops like other human beings, then he will read this story and judge it by the facts adduced. If, however, he regards the Negro as a distinctly inferior creation, who can never successfully take part in modern civilization and whose emancipation and enfranchisement were gestures against nature, then he will need something more than the sort of facts that I have set down….I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings, realizing that this attitude will from the first seriously curtail my audience.”

To Du Bois and Mills, I argue, the pragmatic critique of emancipation presented in this article is not a critique of emancipatory sociology, but rather a critique of incomplete emancipatory imaginations that fail to escape the racial contract of liberalism and modernity. The impasse Prasad identifies is real, problem solving is a valuable lens for breaking that impasse—but not at the expense of emancipatory sociology’s ability to see what should be and why it isn’t so.

Rory Kramer is Associate Professor of Sociology at Villanova.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

One thought on “what about du bois? a response to prasad’s critique of emancipatory sociology”

  1. Fantastic reply to Prasad’s piece! I 100% agree. I would add a bit more and say that Prasad does not problematize sufficiently how to identify a “problem.” She chides emancipatory sociology because it cannot resolve the “question of what to do when human communities disagree about what constitutes emancipation,” which is true, but then pragmatism cannot resolve the question of how to define a ‘problem’. After all, Du Bois criticized mainstream sociology (much of it informed by pragmatism) because of its uncritical adoption of the notion of “the Negro Problem” and begged instead “how does it FEEL to be a problem?” Furthermore, pragmatism cannot resolve the problematic issue of how to turn normative questions into analytic ones, which is crucial for the pragmatist vision of sociology as Prasad sees it. By which concepts, theories and categories do we frame the “analytic” problem? Whose experiences, interests and concerns do they embed? The experiences and concerns of the state, power, and policy-makers? We should deploy emancipatory’s vision of empowering people to define what the ‘problem’ is and take more seriously the concepts and categories by which we, as sociologists (or would be technocrats, in the policy-making vision) make sense of ‘problems.’ I agree that sociology should do what Prasad suggests, and Prasad’s piece is wonderful for laying it out so clearly (as is all her work!) But I would insist the other traditions that Prasad’s piece tends to dismiss (including emancipatory and skeptical) as much more relevant for that very task than it lets on. Thanks Rory for your intervention and pushing this issue along further.


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