who’s afraid of w.e.b. dubois?

At the Social Science History Association meetings, I was part of the Author Meets Critics panel about The Scholar Denied, Aldon Morris’ book on the career of W.E.B. DuBois and the institutions that shape academic discourse. The panel included Vilna Bashi Treitler and Melissa F. Weiner. The conversation was interesting and focused on how DuBois strove to bring empirical rigor to social science and how he used empirical social science to counter racist social science.

On my account, I offered a few critiques of Professor Morris’ book and he pushed back on one. I argued that he needed to more clearly articulate the question of “who is this for?” He said (correctly) that DuBois is not frequently taught in a lot of graduate sociology programs. Here’s my point – DuBois is no longer a fringe figure, if he ever was:

  • Citation count: Souls, by itself, has 11,000 citations!
  • There is a DuBois Institute at Harvard
  • There is a DuBois journal
  • There is a DuBois award from the ASA (promoted by Professor Morris, by the way)
  • His work is included in all kinds of anthologies and overviews of American letters

I could go on and on. So what’s the issue? My hypothesis is that DuBois is resisted by the sub-specialty of people who use the label “social theorists” and thus DuBois’ work is not appreciated by people outside the sociology of race who take a single theory course. That is why you get this weird situation where DuBois has a big impact across academia but is seen as secondary within sociology. The canonizers haven’t gotten on board, but that doesn’t prevent the rest of us from reading him.

What do you think? Where and how did you read DuBois? Use the comments.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 29, 2016 at 12:08 am

5 Responses

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  1. The Atlanta school was a foundation for American sociology, and particularly empirical sociology which now dominates the discipline. While DuBois was a part of that, our inattention is really to people like Benjamin Mays, who was far more central to the mission of that research center. DuBois went off to be an activist, which is fine. Mays continued to do sociology. And then let us discuss the neglect of Franklin Frazier…..

    Liked by 1 person


    November 29, 2016 at 12:53 am

  2. One of the strengths of The Scholar Denied is that Morris gives a lot of credit to the various individuals in the Atlanta school. As for Frazier, I’d love to see a Frazier revival.



    November 29, 2016 at 2:48 am

  3. Du Bois is the reason I am going back to school to be a sociologist. It is difficult to fully estimate how influential Souls was on my conception of self and on sociology generally. For me it is an issue of canonization: why dont we speak of Du Bois in the same breath as Marx, Durkheim and Weber? Those big three supposedly speak to all of us and shape our approach to everything (a Marxist sociologist, e.g.). How normal is it to be a Du Boisian, however? It gives a sense that white & Western is normalized to represent everyone, but we only bring in Du Bois to talk about “black stuff”. I think that’s the problem I have, but based on reviews I have read of Aldon Morris’ book, and other articles he has personally written, he doesnt seem to go that far.


    The Reg

    November 29, 2016 at 12:42 pm

  4. In addition to classes on race, urban sociology courses also cover Du Bois and are probably more likely to do so in light of Morris’ book. I remember being transfixed by reading The Philadelphia Negro and realizing the amount of work that went into it and being utterly depressed at learning about the denial of Du Bois’ talent.



    November 30, 2016 at 2:12 am

  5. As far as I can tell, DuBois is not taught at all in sociology departments outside of the U.S. Some translations of American texts on sociological theory even leave DuBois out. I don’t think American social theorists are to blame for this (Ritzer, if I remember correctly, cites DuBois as a founding figure of sociology on par with Durkheim or Weber). Still, I hope that this movement by some American scholars to revitalize DuBois’s legacy manages to catch on outside the U.S.



    December 2, 2016 at 7:27 pm

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