Symposium on W. E. B. Du Bois: The Philadelphia Negro: W.E.B. Du Bois and Community-based Research

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

Uriel Serrano1
UC, Santa Cruz

In the 1996 reprint edition of W.E.B. Du Bois’s
The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, sociologist Elijah Anderson—the 2018 recipient of the ASA W.E.B. Du Bois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award—writes:

[I]t is an important study that deserves to be read by students of sociology and others interested in the development of the discipline in particular or in American intellectual history in general. W.E.B. DuBois is a founding father of American sociology, but, unfortunately, neither this masterpiece nor much of DuBois’s other work has been given proper recognition; in fact, it is possible to advance through a graduate program in sociology in this country without ever hearing about DuBois. (ix)

In the context of a revived interest in Du Bois’s significance for sociological theory and cultural sociology, here, I present Du Bois, and specifically The Philadelphia Negro, as offering a pioneering methodological model for community-based research. Du Bois’ innovative methods in American sociology’s first large-scale empirical study—a fifteen-month project that included demographic, statistical, historical, and qualitative approaches—offers methodological insight into the study of the “color line” that suggests that instructors should consider including Du Bois in methods as well as theory courses.

W.E.B Du Bois and Community-based Research

At its most basic, community-based research is a collaborative process between a community and researcher(s). By involving members of the community at multiple levels, and incorporating and validating multiple sources of knowledge, sociologists and other researchers have argued that a central goal of this method is to understand and support the specific community’s needs and foster social change accordingly.2 According to Strand and colleagues, three tenets guide community-based research: (1) a collaborative process between professors, students, and community members; (2) the utilization of multiple methodological approaches within research practices and the dissemination of knowledge; and (3) an emphasis on social justice, including the implementation of practices which serve to promote positive and sustainable social change.

Today, community-based research is commonly used in social psychology, social work, and education, as well as sociology departments. Though not often used by cultural sociologists, it offers a research model of public sociology, and a method well suited for community ethnographies and studies of organizational or neighborhood culture. An example of a community-based research project from my own institution, UC Santa Cruz, is a project called No Place Like Home, led by sociologists Miriam Greenberg and Steven McKay, that documents the housing crisis in Santa Cruz, CA. As opposed to more traditional sociological research, No Place Like Home conducts multi-method research in collaboration with community partners to capture renters’ experiences and produce reports that can help promote the need for affordable housing in the city.3 Other variations of this approach include participatory action research, community engaged research, and youth participatory action research. Despite differing names and, at times, focus, at the core is a desire for social justice.

Originally published in 1899, Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro was a study of the conditions of over forty thousand Black residents living in the seventh ward of Philadelphia at the end of the nineteenth century. As Du Bois writes, “This inquiry extended over a period of fifteen months and sought to ascertain something of the geographical distribution of this race, their occupations and daily life, their homes, their organizations, and, above all, their relation to their million white fellow-citizens” (2).4 By applying sociological theory, conducting surveys, and engaging in demographic, quantitative, qualitative, and historical research, Du Bois demonstrated that the condition of the Black community was “a symptom, not a cause…a long historic development and not a transient occurrence”5 of institutionalized racism. Challenging popular eugenic theories of the time, Du Bois explained that the social conditions of the Philadelphia Black community, such as high poverty rates and spatial segregation, were due not to the particular traits of this racial group, but produced by historical, cultural, and structural circumstances.

Though not offering a completely community-based model, The Philadelphia Negro does offer insights into the methodological practices that facilitate community-based research and the institutional conditions that may prevent it. The first tenet of community-based research—collaboration between professors, students, and community—is not discernible in The Philadelphia Negro. This is perhaps due to the fact that Du Bois did not have a supportive environment at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, with which he was affiliated at the time of the study. As Du Bois writes in Dusk of Dawn (2017 [1940])6an autobiographical essay that could be coupled with The Philadelphia Negro for a classroom discussion on research positionality—at the Univ. of Pennsylvania he was “an ‘assistant instructor’ and even at that, that [his] name never actually got into the catalogue” (58). Yet, it is apparent that Du Bois explicitly aimed to use sociological research to challenge the deficit of theoretical analysis of the Black community in Philadelphia:

The fact was that the city of Philadelphia at that time had a theory; and that theory was that this great, rich, and famous municipality was going to the dogs because of the crime and venality of its Negro citizens…Of this theory back of the plan, I neither knew nor cared. I saw only here a chance to study an historical group of black folk and to show exactly what their place was in the community.

Here, like community-based researchers of today, Du Bois centered his scholarship as political and rooted in changing the conditions of The Seventh Ward.

Moreover, to capture the complexity in the experiences and conditions of a community, Du Bois understood that multiple methodological and representational approaches were necessary. In data collection, Du Bois used combination of participant observation, surveys, census data, canvassing, interviews, and historical research to provide an in-depth account of the Black experience in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Negro is also a model of the dissemination of knowledge beyond academic writing. To represent his findings, Du Bois created maps, survey designs, and countless other gems that are similar to the tools community-based researchers employ to disseminate findings to audiences outside of academia today. Du Bois used color coded hand-drawn infographics and maps to represent demographic patterns. This is a practice Du Bois and his students maintained as he continued to visualize data on the state of Black life in his various projects, including The Georgia Negro: A Social Study.7 These images have become cultural artifacts in their own right, and contemporary community-based researchers have done the same with GIS technology not available to Du Bois.8

Lastly, community-based research emphasizes the production of research for the purpose of promoting social justice and facilitation of social change. The Philadelphia Negro not only led to an understanding of social problems of the time (which remain present today), but was also animated by Du Bois’s yearning for social transformation. When discussing the credibility of his findings in The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois argued that: “We must study, we must investigate, we must attempt to solve; and the utmost that the world can demand is, not lack of human interest and moral conviction, but rather the heart-quality of fairness, and an earnest desire for the truth despite its possible unpleasantness” (3). Thus, following the publication of The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois continued his personal commitment to social justice by co-founding National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and serving as editor of the NAACP’s journal, The Crisis.

Du Bois’s Relevance Today

It is encouraging that Du Bois is now appearing with greater frequently on reading lists in Sociological Theory and Introduction to Sociology courses. But the book might also be treated as methodological text, and with its discussions of music and entertainment, intra-group distinctions, and daily life in The Seventh Ward, The Philadelphia Negro could be taught in sociology of culture, urban sociology, race, and methods courses. My first in-depth readings of Du Bois were in courses taught by Dr. Sidney Lemelle (Pomona College) and Dr. Veronica Terriquez (UCSC). For example, in her course, Sociological Methods, Dr. Terriquez included The Philadelphia Negro as required reading in a section titled “Sample Selection, Survey Design, and Constructing Original Quantitative Data Sets.” We read The Philadelphia Negro as a study that advanced statistical methods in sociology in the late 19th century, and discussed his use of mixed-methods research as a tool for addressing inequality. In his discussion on the health statistics of the Black community in Philadelphia, Du Bois wrote the following:

We seek first to know their absolute condition, rather than their relative status; we want to ‘know what their death rate is, how it has varied and is varying and what its tendencies seem to be; with these facts fixed we must then ask, What is the meaning of a death rate like that of the Negroes of Philadelphia?…we must endeavor also to eliminate, so far as possible, from the problem disturbing elements which would make a difference in health among people of the same social advancement. Only in this way can we intelligently interpret statistics of Negro health… Here, too, we have to remember that the collection of statistics, even in Philadelphia, is by no means perfect” (148).

Here, as he does throughout the book, Du Bois provides an astute reflection on the need for statistical research and its limitations.

In engaging with Du Bois’s arguments and the magnitude of his empirical venture in Philadelphia, it was apparent, as Tukufu Zuberi describes, that “Du Bois not only suggested a course of research; he demanded that this research lead to social action…his insurgent intellectual activities still challenge us to make our social science relevant to social transformation.”9 As such, readers can find relevant questions as they embark in social justice oriented community-based research. For example, in his chapter titled “The Problem,” Du Bois poses questions and reflections that I center in my own work with Black and Latino youth organizers in South Los Angeles:

“What is the real condition of this group of human beings?…What sort of individuals are being considered?…The student must clearly recognize that a complete study must not confine itself to the group, but must specially notice the environment; the physical environment of city, sections and houses, the far mightier social environment—the surrounding world of custom, wish, whim, and thought which envelops this group and powerfully influences its social development” (5).


The Philadelphia Negro provides cultural sociologists, as well as their colleagues in other subfields, inspiration to carry out community-based and community-engaged research. As Du Bois demonstrates in The Philadelphia Negro, community-based research brings to the forefront the struggles of the people for whom we write with and provides means to challenge inequality. Following this Du Boisian tradition offers an opportunity to give depth to our scholarship and set forth future directions for our students, theory, and sociology as a whole. Including Du Bois in undergraduate and graduate curricula also has the potential to encourage discussions and self-reflections on research positionality. As Du Bois came to find out when conducting his study, his commitment to social justice and being a Black sociologist did not erase the perception that he was an outsider in The Seventh Ward. Thus, The Philadelphia Negro offers more than just theoretical insight; it offers opportunities to reflect and learn from Du Bois’s commitment to social justice, the tensions doing justice-oriented work from within the academy produces, and the value of multi-method approaches. I invite you to sit with The Philadelphia Negro and the development of W.E.B. Du Bois’s research agenda that followed this groundbreaking study.

Acknowledgements: I wish to thank Hillary Angelo and Theresa Marie Johnson for their comments and suggestions


  1. Uriel Serrano is a PhD Student at UC, Santa Cruz
  2. The color line, discussed by Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), refers to the role of race and racism in history and society.
  3. Merenstein, Beth Frankel. 2015. “Community-based Research Methods: Putting Ideas into Action,” Journal of Applied Social Science, 9(2):125-138. Bach, Rebecca, and Weinzimmer, Julianne. 2011. “Exploring the benefits of community-based research in a sociology of sexualities course.” Teaching Sociology, 39(1): 57-72.
  4. The No Place Like Home Project is a community and student engaged project that draws on survey, historical and policy analysis, interviews, audio documentaries, audio documentation, and creative non-fiction for data collection. Their findings have been shared through data visualization, and interactive website in English and Spanish, and various community events. To learn more about No Place Like Home, visit: 
  5. Du Bois, W. E. B. 1996. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.
  6. Du Bois, W.E.B. 2017. Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of Race Concept. Reprint Routledge
  7. Du Bois, W.E.B. 2017. Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of Race Concept. Reprint Routledge
  8. The Library of Congress current houses a collection of DuBois’ infographics and other images available at:,+w.+e.+%28william+edward+burghardt%29
  9. For an example of interactive mapping used to disseminate findings in Spanish and English, visit the No Place Like Home website:
  10. Zuberi, Tukufu. 2004. “W.E.B. Du Bois’s sociology: The Philadelphia Negro and social science,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 595(1):146-156.