W.E.B. Du Bois was a premier American sociologist, whose contributions to social theory strengthen the philosophies of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Du Bois studied formally in America and Germany, where Du Bois developed his core philosophies. By interjecting the issue of race into the prevailing sociological discourse, Du Bois showed how to apply concepts like structuralism, functionalism, identity formation, and systems of power to social problems. Concerned particularly with racism, Du Bois showed that racism serves a distinct sociological function and is embedded in social institutions. In particular, racism upholds social structures and institutions that perpetuate hierarchies and power imbalances. Thus, Du Bois revealed the intersections between race and power and encouraged the application of social theory to racial conflicts. Unlike Marx, Weber, or Durkheim, Du Bois grappled with issues related to racial identity formation and especially how to reconcile an American identity with an African one. This is why Du Bois opted for Ghanaian citizenship and spent the last years of his life there. Fundamentally, Du Bois’s teachings and writings parallel the claims made by Marx, Weber, and Durkheim regarding the ways individuals behave in social systems, the centrality of power in social institutions, and how social systems as a whole perpetuate themselves, change, or die.
Like Marx, Du Bois recognized the capitalism is an innately and inextricably exploitative system. Also like Marx, Du Bois understood that social class is not just a function of economic power, but also of broader systems of social power and access to capital. Power depends on subjugation, which in turn depends on institutions like the legal and political systems. Thus, capitalism is reinforced by the law and upheld by social norms. “Class struggle was the result of class domination; and class domination, wjhich would be seen again and again in the historical archive, meant that the stronger classes used the state to take advantage of the weaker classes,” (Appiah, 2014, p. 34). Only a revolutionary transformation can undermine the system of exploitation. Although some of Du Bois’s political and social theories derive directly from Marx, Marx did not discuss race. Unlike Marx, Du Bois shows that race can be understood with regards to class conflict. The weaker classes by definition lack access to social, cultural, political, and financial capital. It is impossible to gain access to capital within the self-same system, which is why a revolution in consciousness or a political revolution becomes necessary. Marx urged self-empowerment, as did Du Bois.
Like Weber, Du Bois viewed social reform with an ethical and moral lens, and both theoriests were interested in the social theory of religion too. A society not only can, but should, endeavor to reach ideal states of liberty and equality. The elimination of class conflict is a moral imperative. “It is a battle for humanity and human culture. If in the hey-dey [sic] of the greatest of the world’s civilizations, it is possible for one people ruthlessly to steal anotherâ€¦enslave themâ€¦and then slowly murder them by economic and social exclusion until they disappear from the face of the earthâ€¦then our civilization is vain and the republic is a mockery and a farce,” cited by Appiah, 2014, p. 36). Also like Weber, Du Bois remained summarily interested in national identity. Weber was an idealist, who surmised that nations could be formed on the basis of common values rather than on ethnicity. Du Bois held the same ideals for America, but the country had so deeply betrayed its promise of liberty and justice for all that the philosopher exiled himself. Black Americans were excluded from mainstream American society, its systems of power, and its means of production. African-Americans were not considered part of the social fabric of American society because they were perpetually labeled as “others,” just as with Jews in Germany during Du Bois’s tenure there. As Du Bois put it, “Americans do not encourage Negros to share modern culture,” (cited by Zuckerman, 2004, p. 38).
Like Durkheim, Du Bois considered ethics and morality as underpinnings of the highly functioning society. Durkheim was more centrally concerned with norms than was Du Bois, and yet Du Bois did understand that norms are a part of identity construction. Moreover, it was the lack of norms that had led America astray. Like Marx, Durkheim criticized the capitalist system for alienating workers. Du Bois added to the discussion on social alienation by highlighting the extensive ways African-Americans were systematically alienated. The resulting anomie led to tension and apathy for the nation, symbolized by Du Bois’s ambivalence toward the United States. Furthermore, Du Bois and Durkheim shared in common a belief that social ills and their solutions should not be oversimplified by focusing on economic institutions to the exclusion of other social issues (Simon, n.d.). Du Bois and Durkheim were interested in education, religion, and other social institutions and both fused psychology and sociology in ways that have left significant legacies in the methodologies and content of these fields.
In conclusion, I believe Du Bois’s ideas remain salient. In fact, not enough attention is given to Du Bois, who is sometimes marginalized as a black sociologist as opposed to a universalist one whose ideas pertain to gender and other systematic forms of oppression. I have witnessed first hand the structural and functional problems Du Bois refers to, and agree that race, class, and also gender have intersections, and those intersections have direct and meaningful impacts on things like personal identity and power. Especially with regards to his analysis of labor relations and alienation, I agree that class struggles continue. Although Du Bois would have been pleased with the presidency of Barack Obama, he would have deplored the lack of progress that has been made with regard to perpetual institutionalized racism in the nation.
Appiah, K.A. (2014). Lines of Descent. Harvard College.
Simon, S.J. (n.d.). Economy and society in Marx, Durkheim, and Weber.
Zuckerman, P. (2004). The Social Theory of W.E.B. Du Bois. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
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