Claim: W.E.B. Du Bois was denied recognition as father of American sociology because off racism

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tags: racism, WEB Du Bois

The early Du Bois was devoted to the discovery and analysis of truth. For more than a decade, he led the first empirically oriented school of sociology in the nation, at historically black Atlanta University. As Morris explains, Du Bois taught a generation of black sociologists to “embrace an intellectual discipline as a weapon of liberation”; this weapon had to be razor-sharp to be effective, and for this reason Du Bois held his students to exacting standards. While some of his Atlanta University studies suffered due to limited funding, many of the best (for example, 1902’s The Negro Artisan) predated the most celebrated works of the first Chicago school of sociology.

Yet accounts of American sociology’s origins rarely acknowledge the Atlanta school’s contributions. At best, they halfheartedly footnote Du Bois in what R. W. Connell has called “a kind of affirmative action.” The theft of Du Bois’s legacy as leader of the first American school of empirical sociology is the academic crime for which Aldon Morris seeks restitution in his provocative monograph, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. Across three chapters, Morris builds a case that Du Bois was the first major American “scientific” sociologist. Morris demonstrates that Du Bois not only carried out an extensive data collection and analysis program, but also mentored a group of the earliest American sociologists. His students included Monroe Work, the first African-American scholar to be published in the illustrious American Journal of Sociology; Richard R. Wright Jr., the first African American to receive a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania; George Edmund Haynes, the first African American to hold a US government subcabinet position. These Du Bois–trained scholars carried their methodological prowess and commitment to sociology’s transformative power into academia, government, and even ministry. Morris’s excavation of this history is impressive, but sobering. It is shameful that it has taken so long for these sociologists to be recognized. Morris does sociology a great service by giving such robust attention to the Atlanta school.

Still, one challenge of presenting Du Bois as the “founder” of American empirical sociology is that the founding of this discipline was so fragmented and nonlinear. Identifying the full lineage of American empirical sociology is complicated by the difficulty of drawing neat boundaries between sociology and history, economics, social work, anthropology, political theory, and other fields. The standard tale is that the Chicago school led the move from sociology-as-grand-theory to sociology as data-driven and “scientific.” W.I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki are credited with publishing the first major empirical sociological work, 1918’s The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. But Du Bois’s first major empirical study, The Philadelphia Negro, predated The Polish Peasant by nearly two decades. On this basis, Morris claims that Thomas and Znaniecki have gotten credit they do not deserve.

However, depending on how one draws disciplinary boundaries, perhaps credit for “founding” empirical sociology should go neither to the Chicago school nor to Du Bois. Morris notes that Jane Addams’s Hull House Maps and Papers (1895), and several volumes of Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London, predated The Philadelphia Negro (1899); Du Bois acknowledged the influence of these works. Still, Morris claims that Booth and Addams merely “examined specific social problems,” while The Philadelphia Negro “was a comprehensive sociologically informed community study.” So, is that how we decide what constitutes sociology and what does not — the comprehensiveness of the problems the work addresses? Or that the writing is “sociologically informed”? How many problems must a study address to count as sociology? How much theory must it include?

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