16-08 Segment 1: W.E.B. Du Bois: The scholar denied

 

Synopsis: At the beginning of the 20th century, the study of sociology was dominated by the University of Chicago and other, historically white universities. Scholars at these schools conducted “armchair” theorizing – developing theories without actually going into cities and towns to talk to the people they were studying. One man – an African-American scholar and author – changed all that with his groundbreaking research and writing about Black people, their culture, and economic and social situations in urban areas. We talk to a sociologist about W.E.B. Du Bois and his work, and why he was denied the accolades he deserved for developing a new way to research and study various populations in the United States.

Host: Gary Price. Guest: Aldon D. Morris, professor of sociology and African-American studies at Northwestern University, author of the book, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the birth of modern sociology.

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W.E.B Du Bois: Innovator in scientific sociology

Gary Price: We’ve all heard that in 1903, the Wright Brothers – Orville and Wilbur – were the first to invent a heavier-than-air flying machine and take it on a sustained flight. Now there’s talk that Gustave Whitehead, a German immigrant living in Connecticut, built and flew a plane two years before the Wright brothers took off from Kitty Hawk on their historic flight. Oversights of inventors like Whitehead happen all of the time, and debates about “who was first” to accomplish some historic feat rage for decades – even centuries. A new debate has come to light, this one about innovations made in scientific sociology. It might not sound as exciting as the first flight, but its ramifications changed the way urban populations are researched, and how data are compiled and analyzed. Aldon D. Morris is a professor of sociology and African-American studies at Northwestern University, and he’s bringing this information to light in his new book, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the birth of modern sociology. Morris says that in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century, one school of thought – and one university – reigned over the study of the social sciences…

Aldon Morris: The dominant view is that scientific sociology was created at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and what emerged out of there is something called The Chicago School of Sociology. And of course at that time in the 1920s Chicago was a largely white university. All of the professors were white, they were white and male and they are credited with having developed modern scientific sociology. So what The Scholar Denied is about is how that account is, in fact, very inaccurate because I show that Du Bois, W.E.B. Du Boise, a black man, actually developed scientific sociology at the turn of the 20th century, in the late 1890s and the early 1900s.

Price: Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868, attended Fisk University and received a blue-ribbon graduate education – something Morris says was unusual for an African-American in those days…

Morris: W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African-American to get a Ph.D. from Harvard and then in 1892 to 1894 he went and studied at the University of Berlin with the major scholars who were in the forefront of creating the social sciences. And then, after leaving Germany, he came back and received his Ph.D. from Harvard and took a job at a small Black school called Wilberforce. He was somewhat unusual to have those kinds of opportunities and, of course, he was a very gifted intellectual and he was able to make the best of his opportunities.

Price: The time he spent studying in Berlin was a joy – and an eye-opener for Du Bois. Morris says the difference between the way Europeans treated him and other people of color, and the Jim Crow atmosphere of the United States was like night and day…

Morris: To be Black in America at that time one confronted indignities on a daily basis, and one was locked out of the fruits that comes from being a citizen of America. So when Du Bois went to Berlin he was shocked that Whites there did not treat him the same way that Whites did in the United States. That they treated him in many ways as a social equal and he, for the first time, came to understand that there was something somewhat peculiar about America in terms of race, and that it did not have to be that way that it was in the United States.

Price: Morris says that studying under the great sociologists in Berlin also opened Du Bois’s eyes to the possibilities for more in-depth and accurate research that could be conducted in communities back home…

Morris: He learned that sociology should be an empirical science where people actually went out and studied people in the settings where they lived and where they worked. And he learned the various quantitative and qualitative methods by which to study people. He came back to America and put those scientific, empirical kinds of tools to work. There was no one else in America doing that kind of social science. And this is why I argue that Du Bois was actually the founder of scientific sociology in America.

Price: If the sociologists at the University of Chicago, Columbia, Yale and other major schools weren’t doing empirical sociological research, how were they developing their theories? Morris says that these scholars certainly studied in Berlin just as Du Bois had…

Morris: But they were slow to break away from a kind of social philosophy as opposed to an empirical sociology. They were more likely to do what we now call “armchair theorizing”: they would come up with an idea about how society worked, how groups interacted and so forth, pretty much out of their heads and then they would write about it and write books about it and go to the library and so forth. They didn’t go out into communities and actually study people the way that Du Bois did. And so Du Bois was ahead of them in that respect. He accused them of engaging in what he called “car window sociology” – that is to pass by communities quickly, not really get out of the car and study them and collect data on them and interview them, and so on. And so he was ahead of his time implementing an empirical social science in the United States.

Price: Du Bois’s used these “up-close-and-personal” research techniques in his 1899 study of Philadelphia’s seventh ward titled The Philadelphia Negro. His empirical techniques showed that the African-American stereotypes that persisted at the time were wrong…

Morris: Black people then and to a certain extent now were though of as a homogeneous group. So Du Bois showed the tremendous diversity within the Black community; he outlined the class structure of the Black community and made an argument that the lived experiences of Black people within different classes differed greatly. He also studied the institutions within the Black community showing just how rich the institutions were. He was the first to write about the centrality of the Black church and to predict that social change movements would come out of the Black church and therefore his knowledge foreshadowed what actually happened in the Civil Rights Movement because that movement was so anchored in the Black church. But he showed that Black people were not disorganized, that they had many organizations, voluntary associations and other institutions.

Price: Morris says that Du Bois also looked at Black culture which, at the time, was thought to be just an inferior copy of White culture…

Morris: There were great deals of creativity in African-American music and poetry and in their churches and so on that the preacher was a very important figure, and so forth. But he also showed it wasn’t just about Black people. It was about the relationship between Black people and White people and he showed that it was not Black people’s genetic structure that was responsible for them being locked at the bottom of American society, but rather it was racism, it was oppression. So he came forth with a very sociological definition rather than a biological one for what caused racial inequality in the United States. He also looked at the role of women and showed that they confronted unique kinds of situations and barriers, so he engaged in gender analysis as well.

Price: Sociological studies with their charts and graphs are not armchair reading for most people. Du Bois changed that in 1903 when he published his pioneering study, The Souls of Black Folk. It wasn’t the usual dry, data-heavy research, but a beautifully written, literary treatment of Black culture at the turn of the 20th century…

Morris: It’s also a book that would really draw you in emotionally, and at the same time there are these very important sociological arguments that’s being made in The Souls of Black Folk. So what he really did was show that social scientists did not have to just write cold-blooded, dry books and articles; that they were studying people and that people are very rich in culture, they’re very diverse, and that one could write about them in a very, very human kind of way.

Price: Morris adds that The Souls of Black Folk is now assigned in many humanities courses in the U.S. and around the world. But how did Du Bois’s scholarship play with the White sociological establishment? Did they see it for the ground-breaking work that it was? Or did they dismiss it?

Morris: For the most part, the White establishment marginalized Du Bois’s work. They did not usually discuss it. They did not footnote it in their own work. But The Souls of Black Folk was the kind of book that could not really be contained. It became known within the humanities and for some social scientists and so on. But it is amazing the degree that Du Bois’s work was marginalized by the White establishment.

Price: Morris says that these days, academics in sociology and other disciplines are circling back to study Du Bois’s work on race and Black culture. And with young students – both Black and White – exploring his research and his role in in the study of sociology, he says that Du Bois will eventually receive the credit he’s due…

Morris: Right now, I would argue that we’re sort of in this pregnant moment of Du Boisian studies and I expect this marginalization of his work will be changing. These kinds of changes usually happen slowly, but I think they are very much afoot now. So, I get emails and various inquiries about how syllabi should be changed, how the curriculum should be changed to reflect the importance of Du Bois’s work. So I think that we are beginning to see a new stance in the academy, vis-à-vis Du Bois’s scholarship.

Price: Aldon Morris says that he hopes listeners will delve into the life, science and literary works of Du Bois who wrote about inequality in other populations, including women, immigrants and the poor, and not just African-Americans. You can begin your reading with his book, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the birth of modern sociology available in stores and online, including the University of California Press, at UCPress.edu. For information on Aldon Morris, log onto sociology.northwestern.edu. And to learn more about all of our guests, visit our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.

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