The scholars, scholarship and scholarly histories denied

W.E.B. Du Bois

This is the fourth blog post in my Race Critical and Decolonial Sociology series for my course at The New School Department of Sociology in Spring 2017. This week we are beginning to discuss books, mainly new works, in race critical studies. The rest of the syllabus is here (leave a comment if you want access to the Google folder with all the readings). This week we are beginning with  discussion of Aldon Morris’s The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. My review of the book can be read here. And you can listen to Aldon Morris discussing the book here. In this post, I attempt to link Morris’s discussion of Du Bois’s intellectual legacy for global sociology to a discussion of both the race blindness of sociology and, Zine Magubane puts it, its paradoxical foundations in wholly racial social contexts. I ask what Du Bois’s invocation to treat race as central, and not marginal, to sociology (and the social sciences in general) signals in terms of the challenges facing sociology today in the face of the pressing need for a truly global sociology attentive to the formational role played by race and coloniality. In this I am guided by the vital work of Gurminder Bhambra and would like to thank RCDS student William Borstall for suggesting the work of Zine Magubane on ‘America’s Racial Ontology’ which I did not previously know.

“Racism is more objected to than understood in sociology” (Barnor Hesse 2014: 141).

“For the rest of his very long life, Du Bois was to be politically and theoretically as actively engaged in the global, world-systemic series of ‘gaze from below’ anti-color line, therefore anti-colonial cum antiapartheid struggles, as he was to be in his own ‘local’ U.S. one – a position Fanon would similarly adopt” (Wynter 2015: 51-2).

I have chosen these two quotes with which to open my observations because they allow to elaborate on three key themes that a reading of The Scholar Denied as well as work by other writers concerned with the parochialism and race blindness of sociology reveal to us. 1) the failure to include – one might say the erasure of – the racial and colonial foundations of sociology both in the US and Europe; 2)  the need to look at processes from a global perspective, or with a focus on what Gurminder Bhambra would call ‘connected sociologies’, both in terms of presenting a more complete history of social and political processes, and with the view of becoming a less Eurocentric discipline; and 3) the impossibility of separating scholarship from activism or of elevating sociology – or any other ‘science’ for that matter – as objective or of following ‘natural laws’.

  1. Objecting to racism

Barnor Hesse’s criticism of sociology for merely objecting to but not studying racism, as discussed partially in my last blog, has bought about a scenario in which sociology understands itself, and is understood, as non-racist. As I wrote in relation to the problem of  the ‘postracial silences’ shrouding contemporary ‘migration, ethnicities and minorities research’ (MEM), the failure to engage head on with the legacy of race for the discipline and the trace it continues to leave in contemporary scholarship is predicated on the erroneous view that not speaking about race can stand in lieu of opposing it. The mainly European scholars I looked at base their objection to using the language of race on the naturalising effects that evoking pseudo-scientific language has, a language used to justify the Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe. This is based on an erroneous view of what race does, as explained in my last blog.

The problem created by this silencing is that the failure to name race dissociates contemporary racism from its roots in racial-colonial structures and thought. But in addition to this, for sociologists – the primary discipline in which studies on race are done – the failure to name race has a longer history. Despite the fact, as Zine Magubane (2016) shows, that the foundational sociological literature in English is steeped in the defence of slavery, global US dominance over the discipline has led to the creation of the impression that sociology was primarily a non-racist discipline. Magubane, unearthing the work of early sociologists of the Southern United States, such as Fitzhugh, Hughes and Holmes, writing in the mid 1800s, shows how this sociology was primarily the work of ‘pro-slavery imperialists’ (Magubane 2016: 370). Robert Park and Ernest Burgess’ Introduction to the Science of Sociology (the so-called ‘Green Bible’), Magubane observes, uses Park’s ‘race relations cycle’ as ‘the theoretical scaffolding for the entire book’ (ibid. 371). So, US sociology, more than any other discipline, has centred the question of race . Sociology, she writes, following Steinberg (2007: 50), is ‘a discipline evolved out of a racial ontology.’

Nevertheless, this is not the overriding impression most students of sociology would have today, nor is it in any sense the impression most western sociologists would give, or want to give. Magubane remarks that race has become sidelined in sociology today because its central organising feature – that it is the study of modern societies – is predicated upon a rewriting of what is meant by modernity. According to Magubane, and this is backed up in the work of Gurminder Bhambra on the interrelatedness of the processes underpinning industrialisation for example (cf. Bhambra 2007), slavery is ‘the signal event of in American modernity’ (Magubane 2016: 371). If we were to organise our understanding of modernity around the fact that global US economic hegemony was only achievable  because of the ‘commodification and suffering and forced labour of African Americans’ (ibid.) then our view of what modernity is would be radically different. It would no longer be possible to argue that race is of marginal concern to general sociological inquiry, much less that it is possible to study processes such as industrialisation, the development and spread of capitalism, the formation of social classes, social stratification, commodification and consumerism, etc. without centering the role played by US slavery in all of these processes.

What Aldon Morris shows in his study of Du Bois’ influence on sociology, yet his erasure from the canon, is how this could have been otherwise. Morris’ extensive study is revealing of Du Bois’ intellectual biography, his developing understanding of the theorisation of race, his contributions to the development of innovative methodologies, and his building of intellectual communities that sustained generations of marginalised Black and women scholars. Beyond this, Morris details Du Bois’ impact on both his interlocutors and his detractors, and it is in this detail that a sense of how US sociology, and hence sociology globally, could have taken another turn can be found.

Max Weber

Of course, saying this is perhaps unhelpfully counterfactual. Du Bois, after all, lived during what some have called the ‘Golden Age of Racism’. However, I think it is generally unhelpful to talk about people being ‘of their time’ because, for one, this assumes that we are now in a postracial age in which we no longer encounter the forms of institutionalised racism with which Du Bois was endlessly confronted. Nothing could be further from the truth as, for example, the fact that there are only 85 Black professors in the entire UK academia attests. So, it is interesting to read in Morris’ book that Max Weber was highly influenced in his work by his visit to America in 1904, during which he met with several African-Americans. While letters to his mother from the US reveal Weber’s ‘social Darwinist racism’ (Morris 2015: 155), he later changed his views on the basis of his reading of Du Bois. For example, Morris notes, Weber turned to Du Bois’ analysis of ‘the Negro Problem’. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois noted that European societies had been able to develop capitalist economies due to the ‘colonisation, exploitation and the domination of peoples of colour’ (ibid.). The ‘colour line’ which Du Bois stated was the defining global division of the twentieth century was also an urban-agrarian one with the ‘darker races’ being ‘agrarian populations exploited within industrialising societies’ (ibid.). Hence, Weber, interested in understanding the problems facing the Polish peasant used Du Bois’ work on the ‘Negro Problem’ to theorise the influence of race and ethnicity on ‘capitalist markets and the social relations they generated’ (ibid.). As Morris notes,

“Du Bois’ work interested Weber because it emphasised ‘the impact of social-economic conditions upon the relations of the races to each other’.”

Practically this engagement with Du Bois’ work meant that, having previously mobilised social Darwinism himself, Weber used the occasion of the first German Sociological Society meeting in October 1910 to challenge the founder of the Society for Racial Hygiene, later a Nazi ideologue, Alfred Ploetz. When asked by Ploetz why white Americans segregated Blacks, Weber noted that this was due to anti-Black prejudice and countered Ploetz’s assertion that Blacks were intellectually inferior by saying that,

“Nothing of the kind is proven. I wish to state that the most important sociological thinker anywhere in the Southern States in America, with whom no white scholar can compare, is a Negro – Burckhardt Du Bois” (Morris 2015: 162).

Despite the shift, noted by Morris, over Weber’s career from avowed nationalist and social Darwinist to cultural pluralist, the influence of Du Bois and the other Black scholars who he met during his trip to the US are absent from canonical discussions. Perhaps the roots for this can be found in the way in which Weber himself develops his approach to human difference. For while Morris shows that Weber echoed Du Bois in seeing ‘race and ethnicity as belonging to the cultural sphere rather than the biological’, this did not preclude him from making remarks about the superiority of Western civilisation. The understanding that race has no basis in biology does not therefore thwart the ensuing racism whatever the basis for human difference is deemed to be. As Wulf D. Hund reminded in the editorial of our co-edited volume, Racism and Sociology (2014), in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930),

“Weber developed a global contrast between Orient and Occident, assumed that ‘Western civilization’ displays ‘a line of development having universal significance and value’ and wondered why in other parts of the world ‘the scientific, the artistic, the political, or the economic development [did not] enter upon that path of rationalization which is peculiar to the Occident'” (Hund and Lentin 2014).

We used the front cover of the book to muse on what a fictional meeting between Du Bois, Weber and Durkheim would have looked like. The cover displays a mash-up of Durkheim and Weber sitting against the backdrop of one of the ‘world fairs’. Du Bois is sitting against the same background, but is concealed in the cover flap, only to be revealed when pulled out. This is explained in the editorial:

“the fictional panel [between Weber, Durkheim and Du Bois] would have featured a double distance, illustrated (as on the front cover) by Du Bois as an observer of Durkheim and Weber who, on the one hand, is excluded from an equal participation by power relations and, on the other hand, takes a sceptical position on the arguments presented. That his doubts were valid is demonstrated by the exotic ambience of the meeting – it might have taken place during the world exposition in Paris 1900 (attended by both Du Bois and Durkheim without coming into contact) or St. Louis 1904 (whose scientific fringe events afforded Du Bois and Weber the opportunity for a short dialogue). Both exhibitions celebrated the supremacy of Western culture and lifestyle, emphasized by displays of ‘natives'” (Hund and Lentin 2014).

So, the tempering of Weber’s social Darwinisn does not seem to have altered his belief in the superiority of the West.  Durkheim, for his part, was committed to the notion of ‘primitivsm’ as a framework for explaining the ‘simple and primitive’ religions of the Australian tribes (ibid.). However, it may be argued, following Morris,  that had Du Bois’ work, and that of his students and followers, been taken more seriously, there would have been a potential for the influence that he had on Weber to have had a more lasting effect on the discipline. By writing Du Bois out of the canon and supplanting his theorisations on race specifically and society more broadly with alternative ideas that relied on the out-dated ideas of social Darwinism, already unproved by Du Bois, US sociology purposefully created itself a ‘racial ontology’ that nevertheless did not speak its name.

As Gurminder Bhambra has noted, none of ‘the standard histories of the discipline’ demonstrate the significance of race and Black or non-western scholars to sociology (Bhambra 2014: 474) . She, as well as Hesse (2014) and Magubane (2016) have noted that, in the US, white and Black sociology have developed along two separate tracks. Essentially, a black sociological tradition grew up alongside what Joyce A. Ladner called ‘white sociology’ (Ladner 1998[1973]). The mainstream did not recognize this existence of two parallel sociologies. As Hesse notes, black sociology was essentially a response and a corrective to what its protagonists saw as a white sociology that ‘endorsed white normativity’ (Hesse 2014: 142). Outside of the US, until the emergence of Black British cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s, it is fair to say that no such parallel tradition existed. Today where scholars of race work in sociology it is within the confines of a sub-discipline that is rarely considered integral to sociological concerns generally.

This was the genius of the development of the field of ‘race relations’, according to Magubane, in stark contrast to Du Bois’ belief that race should not be considered as separable from the discipline’s focus on modern social formations generally. (And I would add that MEM studies can be thought of as a Europeanised race relations). There is a paradox in the aforementioned fact that Park and Burgess’s Green Bible was focused around Park’s ‘race relations cycle’. This is, as I learned from Magubane, that by calling it ‘race relations’ Park, and subsequently US sociology generally, neutralised the colonial nature of race and the fact that it is the primary conduit for domination in the modern era. The stratifications created by the division of the global population into exploitable ‘darker people’ and those in Europe and the US, who profited from their labour and resources, should not have been rewritten as the ‘relations’ between people of purportedly different racial groups.

First, the very invocation of the existence of races serves to naturalise race as actually descriptive of difference while discarding the power dimension on which the need for the creation of this demarcation is based. Secondly, it creates the impression that relations between ‘races’ are theoretically equal and that the fact that there are wide divides in the social status and life chances of Blacks and whites in the US for example is due to the intrinsic failure of the former to progress. Morris shows how Robert Park’s training at the seat of the Conservative Black leader and educator Booker T. Washington laid the ground for his presentation of Blacks as ‘a population handicapped by a double heritage of biological and cultural inferiority’ (Morris 2015: 119).

The dual sidelining of race as a central concern for sociologists and the rewriting of race, the ‘problem of the colour line’, or racism as ‘race relations’ contributed to the impression on which sociology has been trading for a century that it, as Hesse says, ‘objects’ to racism. There has been a purposeful erasure of sociology’s early imbrication in race, not only in the US, in terms of the defining role played by pro-slavery sociologists, but globally, due to the silence around the affordances of colonialism for sociology. Notwithstanding Weber’s appreciation of the problems of social Darwinism, as Raewynn Connell (1997) shows, it did not discount the fact that,

“the predominance of the conditions of Empire as a central organising mechanism for viewing internal and external societal differences meant that sociology as a ‘science of society’ could not evolve independently of this racialised political context” (Lentin 2004).

As I argued in my first book, following Connell, the comparative method as the primary prism developed by early sociologists, Durkhem in particular, was

“determined by the colonial situation which enabled the construction of the method as ‘a one-way flow of information, a capacity to examine a range of societies from the outside, and an ability to move freely from one society to another’” (Connell 1997:1523).

The possibilities for comparison thus afforded by colonial domination, not openly discussed in sociology, in marked contrast to anthropology which has done work to redress its role as the ‘handmaiden of colonialism’ does not go unnoticed when we consider the relative merits of comparativism and relationality, the subject of my last blog. One cannot advocate for a comparative approach that purportedly builds on a long standing tradition in sociology without being careful to point out not only the problem of methodological nationalism that the approach permits, but also the the erasure of the colonialist lineage of this methodology.

2. Globalising sociology

If a reading of Du Bois through the prism of the double consciousness he theorises, a consciousness born of the common experience of ‘discrimination and insult’, as he says, is to enable a shift in our approach, it should be to encourage more complete, more ‘truthful’ (as Lewis Gordon says) accounts. In my second blog post, I already elaborated on several of the approaches taken by decolonial scholars to encourage us to view politics, economics and sociality as interrelated. Gurminder Bhambra’s emphasis on interrelated, or ‘connected sociologies’ provides a good rubric for what sociologists have to be attentive to if they want to go beyond the inevitable pitfalls in approaches such as ‘multiple modernities’, ‘cosmopolitan sociology’ or ‘multicultural global sociology’. The problem with each of these approaches in their various ways is that they fail to go beyond a vision of the world to which Europe and the ‘West’ remain central and around which alternatives and critiques may be arranged. This, Bhambra convincingly argues, is not representative of the actual way in which modernity evolved. The myth of linearity or progress from Europe outwards is just that; no world-defining process evolved in a vacuum. The gathering of power in one centre was dependent on its loss in another; the enrichment of one group on the labour of another.

Professor Zine Magubane

Zine Magubane provides further evidence for why a connected approach is vital for a reassessment of the past and future of sociology. Her claim is that the rewriting of racial-colonialism in US sociology as ‘race relations’, mentioned in the previous section, also had the effect of compartmentalising the history of race in America and a general failure to observe its continuities and its global ramifications. She suggests that the period 1865-1965 should be named the ‘long era of global Jim Crow’. During this time, there were ‘sustained efforts to articulate the “new South” and the “global South” as co-joined and coterminous political and economic projects’ (Magubane 2016: 378). Sociologists Robert Park and Thomas Jesse Jones were key actors in the attempt at this co-joining. As cotton-picking in the Southern US ended after 1930, they oversaw the Togo-Tuskegee programme, a plan to use African-Americans to train West Africans to pick cotton to thus globalise an industry built in the US on slave labour (discussed by Andrew Zimmerman in this linked article). As Magubane remarks,

“Projects like this one, with concrete methods and aims and well-known advocates, by miracles of abstraction and de-contextualisation, morphed into ‘data’ that formed the basis for conceptual abstractions like ‘modernisation’. Variables, theories, and methods were plucked out of the transnational histories that generated them in the first place. ‘Plucking’ was followed by ‘erasure’; thus authorising a comparative sociology premised on the idea that societies are distinct, nationally bounded entities wherein social change is generated by endogenous mechanisms’ (ibid.).

From a race critical perspective, none of this can be disconnected from race and how it is understood. The compartmentalisation of the study of race as a sub-discipline under the rubric of ‘race relations’ is not coincidental, according to Magubane. It serves to create the appearance of a delineation between racism as a contemporary problem internal to US (and other) societies brought to bear by a range of factors, with a strong individualising bias in the analysis, and past colonialism. Moreover, the US and US sociology constructs an image of itself as anticolonialist, thus furthering the distance between itself and ‘real’ colonial societies (those which had not thrown off their colonial masters in the way that the Americans had!). So residual racism may indeed be a relic of slavery, for example, but slavery in itself is not seen as a form of internal colonialism; laying this bare would connect it to the global racial-colonial project and demonstrate the significance of Transtlantic slavery in cementing the very conditions for racial rule as it emerges and implants itself as a key form of governmentality in the modern era. As Magubane writes, thinking about scholars such as Du Bois who were actively written out of the canon of American sociology,

“It was precisely when the epistemology of race was ‘rewritten’ that the many barriers to the kinds of ‘connected, non-ethnocentric, relational theorisation’ that global historical sociology is currently seeking to instantiate were erected.”

In their article, ‘Towards a Transnational History of the Social Sciences’, Heilbron, Guilhot and Jeanpierre correctly point out,

“historical accounts of the social sciences have far too easily adopted a nation-centered view uncritically accepting national traditions as a more or less self-evident framework of analysis” (Heilbron et al. 2008: 147).

And they continue, encouragingly,

“Local and national developments represent relevant levels of intellectual activity, but instead of treating them as more or less self-contained universes, it is more fruitful to consider them as embedded in transnational relations of various kinds” (ibid.).

However, they construct a divide between anthropology and sociology that fails entirely to take into account the foundational role played by colonial arrangements for the development of the sociological method. The only role played by colonialism, according to their rubric, was the diffusion of western knowledge to colonised contexts:

“The rise of oriental studies and anthropology can thus be linked to the demand of the colonial powers and to imperial visions of other civilizations (Asad, 1973; Said, 1978). Similarly, the diffusion of social science knowledge meant the adoption by the colonized countries of the scientific patterns of the colonizer” (ibid.).

They then go out to outline a ‘programmatic outline for a transnational history of the social sciences’ that purposefully sidelines what they call ‘extra-academic countercurrents such as Marxism or feminism’. If Marxism and feminism are ‘extra-academic’, it can only be imagined what the authors assume race studies are. Nevertheless, if we follow Morris, Magubane, Bhambra, Hesse, Goldberg or Boatca, for example, it would be entirely impossible to conceive a transnational history of the social sciences that did not emplace racial-coloniality centrally. Nevertheless, the authors proceed as though this was irrelevant to their three areas of analysis; ‘(a) the functioning of international scholarly institutions, (b) the transnational mobility of scholars, and (c) the politics of transnational exchange of nonacademic institutions’ (ibid. 148).

With respect to transnational exchanges and noting that ‘transnational flows can take two directions’ (ibid. 152), the authors observe that some social scientists migrate from the ‘centres to the peripheries’, as in the case of Frantz Boas’ work in Mexico. However, beyond noting that ‘imperial and colonial political structures also provided a dissymmetrical framework for voluntary migrations of social scientists’, they do not discuss the racial-colonial underpinnings of the very notion of centre and periphery. And despite observing that over one million students moved to western ‘centres’ from Africa and Asia creating a ‘brain drain’, they claim that.

“the most important migration of scholars took place in the 1930s with the exile of professors and researchers—a majority of them being Jewish—from Germany and occupied countries to the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Turkey, and Palestine, among other countries” (ibid.).

Clearly European provenance is what elevates this group in importance over the migration of 1,000,000 African and Asian students. The fact that the racism systematised in academic institutions spurs this imbalance in perceived significance is not mentioned. Once again, however, there is an opening for history to have been written otherwise if it had been mentioned by the authors for example that many Jewish refugee academics fleeing Europe found an intellectual home in Historically Black Colleges and Universities. It goes almost without saying that Du Bois’ influences on Weber go entirely unmentioned in the article.

A cosmopolitan!

In conclusion, the authors do concede that critiques of the strong ‘dissymmetrical structure’ (ibid. 157) of the western-dominated social sciences poses a problem. And they remark that critiques of western epistemological hegemony are warranted. However, the sources of these critiques are, for them, Immanuel Wallerstein and work on ‘cosmopolitanism’. In other words, even in the attempt to propose the need for a reversal of western dominance the only lenses offered are white, western ones. It is unclear, as Gurminder has already discussed in her explanation of the insufficiencies of a multiple modernities or cosmopolitan approach how a focus on this work to the exclusion of that of race critical and decolonial scholars from both the Global South and within institutions of the Global North can go very far in actually transnationalising sociology.


3. Activism vs. scholarship

This is a big area, and one to which I cannot do justice in the context of this blog (I will return to it in the future). Nevertheless, it is fundamental to Morris’ account of Du Bois’ contribution. Morris describes Du Bois’ role as a public intellectual who

“developed sociology relevant to social change and utilised it in his efforts to emancipate the oppressed” (Morris 2015: 133).

It is interesting, reflecting on Heilbron et al’s aforementioned article, that they name Marxism and feminism as ‘extra-academic’, and note that new methodologies developed for example by Marxists and feminists, ‘contributed to a diversification of scientific endeavors, but also to a sense of uncertainty about the identity of the social sciences that persists to this day’ (Heilberon et al.: 149). Hence, contra Du Bois, and as many sociologists contend, the challenge to the discipline from those who do not see a separation of activism from scholarship as necessary, or indeed possible, is seen as a problem rather than an opportunity.

Recalling Sylvia Wynter’s quote at the outset of this blog, Du Bois was as actively engaged in,

“global, world-systemic series of ‘gaze from below’ anti-color line, therefore anti-colonial cum antiapartheid struggles, as he was to be in his own ‘local’ U.S. one.”

Du Bois and the NAACP

Du Bois founded the NAACP and was involved in organising four pan-African congresses held in Europe and African in the 1920s. He also founded Crisis magazine, expounding on ‘theories of race, class and gender inequality for a popular audience’ (Morris 2015: 135). But these activities were not without personal cost; his exit from formal academia to take up leadership of the NAACP paved the way for Robert Park to received credit for ‘producing the second generation of black sociologists’ (ibid. 196). Nevertheless, despite the clear disadvantage to his academic career, Du Bois only grew more radical over his lifetime. At the end of his life, in his 90s, he was invited to Ghana by President Kwame Nkrumah

“after being hounded out of America by the US government because he demanded not just civil rights for African-Americans but freedom for Africa and an end to capitalism, which Du Bois said was the cause of racism and all human misery” (New African Magazine)

In contrast to the dominant strain in sociology that continues to preach the supremacy of objectivity, Du Bois’ combination of public commitment and rigorous scholarship demonstrated the falseness of this pretense decades before second wave feminist scholars advocated for the importance of ‘standpoint’. Du Bois was a constant critic of what he called the ‘car window’ sociology of those who refused to get their hands dirty:

“These ‘car-window’ or ‘armchair sociologists’ tried to study and understand the African American social situation from a distance without directly observing African American life.  He accused his contemporaries of trying to comprehend the ‘Negro Problems’ from the office
” (Saari 2009)

In an interview for the Office Hours podcast, Aldon Morris is asked by the interviewer whether the maxim coined by Audre Lorde that ‘the masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ should not be applied to Du Bois’ championing of sociological methods as a form of activism. He gives a brilliant reply which I shall paraphrase by way of conclusion.

Morris explains that the master’s tools do not belong to the master; what makes them the master’s tools is the ends to which they are put. I thought this was a wonderful way of summarising how sociology itself can be used to dismantle the houses of its own masters. For if we are to accept Morris’ thesis, and he provides plenty of evidence for this, far from originating solely with Euro-American thinkers, the sociological methods, epistemologies and concepts we rely on today, including visual methods as was recently shown, originated with Black thinkers who were both scholars and activists. A recent article demonstrates the contributions of Black women to Du Bois’ Atlanta School and US sociology. So, it is necessary, not to shun sociological scholarship but to show how it complements and contributes to activism.

Example of infographics developed by the Du Bois Atlanta School







Leave a comment (Your IP address will be logged)