Symposium on W. E. B. Du Bois: A Du Boisian Cultural Sociology

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1.

José Itzigsohn
Brown University

Itzigsohn, Jose

Karida Brown
UC, Los Angeles


Is Du Bois’ work relevant for cultural sociology? Our answer is: Sure, it could be. However, to do so would require building a critical cultural sociology—one that addresses social exclusions, social reproduction, and social change—drawing from his work. To do so, we need to read the corpus of Du Bois’s work, and to see him not only as a sociologist of race or an urban studies, but as a social theorist who developed an original sociological approach that centered racism and colonialism as structuring forces of modernity. In this short essay, we can only point to some ideas that emerge from Du Bois’ work and some places to look for them. The task of constructing a Du Bois’ based cultural sociology remains one that we hope young sociologists will soon undertake.

What would a Du Bois’ based cultural sociology focus on? It would focus on the analysis of two phenomena: the first is how racism and coloniality construct our categories of classification and understanding. A model for a Du Boisian cultural analysis would be his book Dusk of Dawn. Here Du Bois reflects upon his own lived experience and reconstructs the evolving meaning of the concept of race in his lifetime. Du Bois makes clear that turning his analysis inward on his own biography is important not because of its details, but because, as he says in the introductory apology, his life was significant “because it was part of a Problem; but that problem was, as I continue to think, the central problem of the greatest of the world’s democracies and so the Problem of the future world.” In that book, Du Bois, anticipating C. Wright Mills, puts his biography in relation to history and social structure, and the result is a critique of the given cultural world. Dusk of Dawn is also a methodological guide that shows us how to analyze the cultural categories that shape our world through a reflection on our own experiences.

A second element of a Du Boisian cultural analysis would be an analysis of the construction of subjectivity. This is what Du Bois starts doing in Souls of Black Folk. In that book, he initiates an analysis of the phenomenology of racialized experience by establishing the constituent elements of racialized subjectivity in the theory of double consciousness: the veil, twoness, and second sight. Du Bois’s phenomenology of racialized subjectivity precedes the sociological phenomenology of Schutz, Berger, and Luckmann. Moreover, differently than them, it analyzes subjectivity in relationship to the structures of power, oppression, and exclusion, something that is absent from the work of most phenomenologists. The analysis of Black subjectivity is developed in Souls and expanded in Dusk of Dawn.

Du Bois also initiates the analysis of White subjectivity, what we now know as whiteness studies. He does so first in John Brown (his biography of the famous abolitionist), and he continues this analysis in his essay The Souls of White Folk (included in Darkwater), in Black Reconstruction, and in Dusk of Dawn. Black Reconstruction is particularly important because there Du Bois introduces the idea of the “psychological wages of whiteness.” That is, the idea that the social deference and recognition afforded to whites by the dominant white world (or white culture) transforms the white poor and working class in defenders of the racial status quo. In other words, the cultural exclusions of race trumps [no pun intended] the economic interests of class.

In The World and Africa, Du Bois expands this analysis to include the subjectivity of the colonizer. He points out that colonialism and coloniality are maintained through the willful ignorance of the population of the colonial metropolis towards the cruelty involved in the production of their everyday world—much like the racist social order is maintained through the willful ignorance of the white population towards the humanity of people of color. In The World and Africa, he also presents a critique of the racist character of the social and historical sciences, how the structures of scientific knowledge reproduce and maintain an unjust social order. This book anticipates the contemporary postcolonial and decolonial critiques of culture and knowledge.

A cultural sociology based on Du Bois’ work would bring to the center of this subfield the analysis of the cultural reproduction of categories of racial and colonial exclusions and the analysis of the subjectivities that those exclusions generate. It would do it in a way that addresses the experience of racialized and colonized subjects and it would start the analysis from these experiences. At the same time, Du Bois always emphasized the possibility of agency. The focus on the possibility of agency—what Du Bois referred as Chance—is in part a result of Du Bois roots in pragmatism and its emphasis in the human ability to shape the social world. Du Bois articulates the ability of the racialized and the colonized to imagine change in his analysis of second sight, an element of double consciousness that allows the racialized and the colonized to see beyond their dehumanizing present. This emphasis on the ability to see beyond the established order, however, derives from Du Bois roots in the Black Radical Tradition and its emphasis in the struggle to assert humanity and dignity in everyday life, even when major scale change looks impossible.

All along his life Du Bois rooted the struggle for the recognition of the humanity of people of color and for a more humane society in the cultural resilience and creativity of people of color. He does so early in his life in the final chapter of Souls of Black Folk where he links the assertion of Black humanity to the sorrow song, and late in his life in his 1958 communication with Kwame Nkrumah, described in his posthumously published Autobiography, where he argues that the newly independent African countries should build political and social orders based on African communitarian traditions rather than in Western modernity.

In its seamless linking of subjectivity and the structures of power, in its analysis of the subjectivities of the dominant and the dominated, in its critique of the structures of knowledge, and in its emphasis on the ability of the oppressed to see beyond the present and imagine change and assert their own humanity, Du Bois work would provide a base for a powerful critical cultural sociology that would allow us to understand both cultural reproduction and cultural change.