Sociology’s Truth?: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Origins of Sociology

By Monica BellFebruary 9, 2016

The Scholar Denied by Aldon Morris

IN 1893, ON THE EVENING of his 25th birthday, W.E.B. Du Bois was cold, lonely, and uncertain whether the scholarship funding his study in Germany would be renewed. In the midst of an apparent quarter-life crisis, he recorded these existential musings:

O I wonder what I am — I wonder what the world is — I wonder if life is worth the Sturm. I do not know — perhaps I never shall know: But this I do know: be the Truth what it may I will seek it on the pure assumption that it is worth seeking — and Heaven nor Hell, God nor Devil shall turn me from my purpose till I die.

Living only one generation beyond the end of American slavery, Du Bois felt the weight of responsibility to uplift his race. But he was a scholar by temperament, bookish and skeptical of charismatic leadership; he lacked the je ne sais quoi of the personally popular. So he made one commitment, not to the pursuit of power, equality, freedom, or even justice, but to Truth. He believed then that black liberation would flow naturally from fidelity to this aim.

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?

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes his investigation of black history as a young adult, his embrace of romantic stories about ancient African kings and queens: “They had their champions, and somewhere we must have ours.” In college, a professor disabused him of this “weaponized history,” rejecting an approach to history that accepts mainstream standards of worth, putting “successful” blacks into a figurative trophy case, wielding them as armor against a racist world.

I thought of Coates as I read The Scholar Denied. One wonders if Morris is fastening Du Bois into a trophy case. And I must concede that, as a fledgling African-American sociologist and daughter of the South, it is heartening to think of Du Bois and a group of young African-American sociologists in Atlanta as the true founders of modern methods. But perhaps we would do better to rid ourselves of straightforward origin stories altogether, seeing their inevitable untruthfulness and partiality.

Morris authoritatively establishes that academic racism kept Du Bois’s empirical scholarship from being recognized as a forerunner to the Chicago school, and that he has unjustly been denied his rightful home in the sociologist’s lexicon. But he tends to portray people and institutions like characters in a morality play. They represent either virtue or villainy. This leads him to sometimes underplay the nuances of Du Bois’s enemies’ racial views. For instance, I think Morris incorrectly portrays Robert Park, a leading figure of the Chicago school, as a eugenics sympathizer. Park’s racial views were absolutely troubling; his statement that “the Negro is […] the lady among the races” reveals appalling racism and sexism. But some of the social Darwinist statements Morris attributes to Park were not his own: I found at least one error along these lines in the text. There are also moments when Morris seems to over-interpret Park’s words, perceiving his statements about race as prescriptive when they are actually descriptive. Jerry Watts, another Du Bois–inspired scholar, has shown that at the founding of American sociology, both black and white (Chicago school!) sociologists redefined the discipline as anti-Darwinist. As Morris notes toward the end of the book, many of the white scholars who marginalized Du Bois were the racial progressives of their time; they were racist, but not social Darwinist. Rather than portraying people and institutions as pure angels or bogeymen, a more surgical approach might have allowed Morris to shine a spotlight on subtler (and thus likely more enduring) structures of subjugation.


While Morris establishes that Du Bois and the Atlanta school conducted empirical social research before the Chicago school, empiricism alone does not constitute sociology. Sociology must contain theory, some extrapolation from the data that tells the reader what the facts mean. Some sociologists say that the difference between sociology and journalism is theory: journalists report facts, while sociologists report facts and tell you how you should think about them. Thus Morris needs to show that the Du Bois of the Atlanta school was no mere reporter, but a “master of sociological thought.”

In his essays “Sociology Hesitant” and “The Study of the Negro Problems,” Du Bois articulated a theory of sociological knowledge grounded in inductive analysis of social life. Du Bois rebuked sociologists’ attempts to mimic the natural sciences by trying to identify scientific, predictable laws of human conduct and admonished his discipline-mates to forge their own way ahead, seeking to identify human life’s “secondary rhythm,” or “the limits of Chance in human conduct.” In rejecting grand theory and advocating for inductive theory, Du Bois may have been the original proponent of “theories of the middle range,” as Robert Merton called them decades later.

Du Bois is probably most familiar to non-sociological audiences as a theorist of race and “double consciousness,” a notion articulated in his 1903 essay collection The Souls of Black Folk. Morris broadens our understanding of Du Bois’s racial theory, showing that he was not a theorist of race but instead a theorist of social organization and stratification who emphasized race because it was fundamental to the social order. Morris argues that, while Karl Marx believed that the wheel moving history forward was class conflict and Max Weber thought it was bureaucratic rationalization, Du Bois argued that it was “the color line.” This distinction is complicated somewhat by Du Bois’s later embrace of Marxism, but in his early work with the Atlanta school, Du Bois seemed to be offering a teleological theory of racialized social dynamics. Morris also corrects what he perceives as misinterpretations of Du Bois’s racial theory, painting Du Bois as one of the earliest believers that race was socially constructed.

Finally, Morris emphasizes Du Bois’s unacknowledged influence on some of sociology’s leading lights, including Max Weber, to whom Morris devotes an entire chapter. Du Bois and Weber were contemporaries while Du Bois studied in Germany, and, though they had no personal friendship, their mutual respect was nurtured and represented through letters. Weber was vocal in his respect for Du Bois’s research, asking that Du Bois send him his scholarship and inviting him to take sabbatical in Germany. At a conference in 1910, Weber invoked Du Bois to refute claims of black intellectual inferiority, declaring, “The most important sociological scholar anywhere in the Southern states in America, with whom no white scholar can compare, is a Negro — Burckhardt Du Bois.” Morris concludes that Du Bois influenced Weber’s views on race and caste, and while the direct evidence for such a claim is thin, the argument is certainly plausible.

Because Morris’s concern is with academic sociology, we get to see glimpses of Du Bois the public intellectual in The Scholar Denied. This is the Du Bois of history books and Wikipedia pages: co-founder of the NAACP, editor of The Crisis, adversary of Booker T. Washington. In the brief space given to these efforts, Morris calls the role of the public sociologist “lucrative and celebrated,” but this celebration is far from universal. As Michael Burawoy, Orlando Patterson, and others have lamented, many in the discipline are just as wary of publicly engaged sociology as Park was in the early 20th century. While the Atlanta school viewed sociology as a weapon of liberation, sociology has also struggled to define itself as “science” and thus engages in much hand-wringing over how rigorously to maintain the scholar-activist divide. For this reason, Du Bois’s tenure as a major public intellectual is somewhat in tension with his legacy in “scientific” sociology.

Connected to this point, Morris might have acknowledged Du Bois’s evolution over the course of his career. Morris describes an episode from the mid-1930s, nearly two decades after the end of the Atlanta studies, surrounding Du Bois’s ambitious and ultimately unsuccessful effort to publish a comprehensive Encyclopedia of the Negro. White sociologists went to great lengths to destroy Du Bois’s project from the inside. One of the concerns raised to “hatchet” the project (their word) was that Du Bois had developed “propagandistic tendencies.” To some extent, he had: he had spent much of the previous two and a half decades editing The Crisis, a groundbreaking publication that helped set the national civil rights agenda. The Du Bois of the Encyclopedia of the Negro was in many respects a different person from the leader of the Atlanta school.

In rejecting Du Bois’s leadership of the Encyclopedia, funders were not only questioning a black scholar’s intellect or ability to control his emotions, but questioning the competence of a black scholar who was not sufficiently detached from the political sphere, who usually took progressive and sometimes radical positions. This lens on the Encyclopedia affair raises additional questions. Would a white scholar who shared Du Bois’s “propagandistic tendencies” have been treated with more respect? Might a black scholar who took more conservative positions have been able to escape charges of emotionalism? These counterfactual questions are likely unanswerable, but exploring them might have given the reader a clearer view of the interlocking processes through which discrimination affected Du Bois’s legacy.

Two weeks after I received my copy of The Scholar Denied, Nature reported that minority scientists were significantly less likely to receive research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) than white scientists, a disparity that has remained stagnant for three decades. A 2011 article on this topic in Science found that, even taking into consideration correlates of grant receipt such as training and publication record, black scientists were 10 percent less likely than white scientists to get NIH funding. Why the disparity? The answer lies in “priority scores.” These are numbers intended to capture projects’ significance and innovativeness, along with investigators’ qualifications, approaches, and “environment” (which could be understood as institutional resources). When black scientists receive high priority scores, the disparity disappears — but black scientists are less likely than whites to receive high priority scores. Assessments of significance and innovation may contain implicit racial bias, and the scores explicitly build on preexisting inequality under the guise of “feasibility.” Quantification obscures the scores’ inherent subjectivity, a process that sociologists of evaluation such as Wendy Espeland, Michèle Lamont, Michael Sauder, and Mitchell Stevens have analyzed.

In the early years, Du Bois’s primary funding barrier was Booker T. Washington, then the gatekeeper for white elite institutions who might fund blacks’ research endeavors. However, when Morris recounts the Encyclopedia of the Negro affair that occurred later in Du Bois’s career, he describes decision-making rubrics reminiscent of those that might be used today. White scholars and funders questioned Du Bois’s “scientific competence” and proffered “doubts about his objectivity.” Cautious funding organizations forced Du Bois to take on white collaborators, hoping they would dilute his “too emotional” influence.

While racial bias is usually less overt these days, the types of critiques leveled at Du Bois — that some scholars (often women or people of color, usually scholar-activists) are insufficiently “objective” — live on. By highlighting this obstacle, Morris calls attention to the ongoing struggle to secure funding for transformational research, especially for work with a normative or liberatory aim, and for scholars of color.

Though imperfect, The Scholar Denied should be required reading for students of sociological theory and intellectual history. The book should spur new histories that do more than tack on Du Bois and other marginalized scholars as “a kind of affirmative action,” but instead give their work its rightful, meaningful place in the canon.


Near the end of his life, in his 90s, Du Bois believed he had at last found the Truth. “High on the ramparts of this blistering hell of life, as it must appear to most men, I sit and see the Truth,” he wrote in his final autobiography. “I look it full in the face, and I will not lie about it, neither to myself nor to the world.” While Du Bois’s relationship with academic sociology evolved over his nearly seven-decade career, at the end, his commitment to Truth remained. Morris deserves recognition for reminding us of this aspect of Du Bois’s legacy, insisting that the discipline of sociology come to terms with its own truths.


Monica Bell is a lawyer and PhD candidate in sociology and social policy at Harvard University.

LARB Contributor

Monica Bell is a lawyer and PhD candidate in sociology and social policy at Harvard who writes on poverty, inequality, race, criminal justice, housing, and the regulation of the family. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Law & Society Review, the Annual Review of Law & Social Science, the Washington Post, and other publications.


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