Reflections for Young Sociologists to Consider
In 1974, I arrived at Stony Brook University as a sociology PhD student. I chose Stony Brook because Lewis Coser was a prominent conflict theorist on the faculty. Those theorists were hard to find because sociology was still under the enormous influence of structural functionalism. I was interested in conflict and change because I had experienced Jim Crow in Mississippi, participated in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, worked in Chicago factories, and came up against ugly racism in the south and north.
I was an atypical student given that I was a first-generation college attendee, raised in relative poverty by grandparents in Mississippi under Jim Crow and by a single mother in Chicago, entered higher education through community college, and by trial and error discovered I was college material. I harbored levels of anger because I was acutely aware of the deleterious effects of racism pervading American society and affecting me personally. Indeed, my consciousness had been raised through social movement activism. I pursued graduate studies not to become an academic but an informed activist working for social transformation.
I possessed scant knowledge about graduate school and knew little about how to survive and achieve in this foreign setting. Yet, the department contained features I knew well: white people in charge at all professorial and administrative levels; the culture was white; and the intellectual atmosphere was shot through with whiteness. Thus, I faced the daunting challenge of acquiring intellectual tools to topple white supremacy from scholars who were products and beneficiaries of white privilege.
I remember my excitement as I headed to the classical theory seminar. First came Marx. I knew of class inequality having worked in rich white neighborhoods only to return to those riddled with catastrophic challenges associated with poverty and entrenched racism. I observed class inequality while working in the factory and I was exposed to some Marxian ideas as an undergraduate. However, in graduate school I was introduced to the detailed analysis of class interests and conflict provided by Marx. Previously I had not encountered Marx’s stunning prediction that industrial workers would free humanity. As I pondered this unusual idea of potential historic agency, I revisited how defeated and insignificant we often felt while toiling in the factory. The idea of a transformational agency unleashed by proletarians, even in theory, changed my outlook causing me to view social relations in class terms.
Durkheim changed my perspective on human behavior. As a typical American, I viewed society as a collection of individuals whose personal decisions determined their fates. The Durkheimian message that societal norms and social structure played overpowering roles in human affairs despite decisions by individuals was startling. That insight was sealed when I learned that even the “choice” of killing oneself emanated largely from social structure. Weber reoriented my thinking on work and occupations. As a factory worker, I felt intense alienation triggered by boring and monotonous work. That alienation was exacerbated by a lack of meaningful social relationships among coworkers because our energies were riveted on specialized tasks designed to increase productivity by keeping pace with fast-moving assembly lines. I surmised these were inevitable conditions embedded in factory work until reading Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy and the march of rationality through modern history. I was awed by Weber’s claim that this rationalized disenchanted behavior was here to stay barring a miracle. That possible miracle would derive from charisma so insightfully analyzed by Weber. I resonated with the power of charismatic authority because I witnessed Martin Luther King’s charisma that energized the Civil Rights movement that produced him.
The generative ideas of the trinity—Marx, Durkheim, and Weber—deserve canonization given their profound and enduring insights into human behavior. Their canonization ensures that generations of sociologists will arm themselves with sociological wisdom bequeathed by the trinity. This stance may surprise those familiar with the relentless criticisms of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber animating my ASA presidential address (Morris, 2022). But those criticisms flowed from my intellectual debts to these scholars and troubling dismay of their gaping omissions and blind spots. Nevertheless, these scholars should be evaluated within the context and biases of their eras and personal standpoints. After all, they were scholars, not prophets. When they did indulge in prophecy, they trod on slippery slopes from which they glimpsed communist utopias, societies knitted together by social effervescence, and humanity confined within iron bureaucratic cages. Yet, as we know, those possibilities were not inevitable because social trajectories are constantly reshaped by the ceaseless deeds of social actors. I cannot, however, fathom my sociological imagination bereft of the trinity’s rich analyses of class, unyielding social forces, rationalized giant bureaucracies, and the occasional transformational flashes of charisma. Thus, in sociology ideas that profoundly illuminate the human condition and provoke critical analyses need to be part of the canon to spur new knowledge.
Marx, Weber, and Durkheim were not the only scholars who have produced important sociology. Indeed, over the last two centuries, legions of sociologists with differing perspectives have produced insightful social theories, conceptual frameworks, empirical findings, and methodologies that have illuminated human behavior. The call to interrogate and broaden sociological canons does not advocate throwing all preexisting sociology overboard. The concern is that such canons have been limited by Eurocentric perspectives, nationalism, racism, sexism, and historical biases. Moreover, when used to justify and extend the power of dominant groups over the oppressed, the canons do harm. As Go (2016) has argued, such canonical works at their best produced partial one-sided knowledge. At their worst, they produced orthodoxies that paraded as universal knowledge. Thus, the purpose of a canonical reckoning is to produce fresh original ideas that incorporate the best insights of past sociology while discarding orthodoxies that block accurate understandings of the social world. This is the process by which new canons should be constructed.
Racism and the predicament of blackness have always haunted me. As James Baldwin (1961) informed, “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time.” Du Bois (1903) also grappled with the unsettled nature of the Black condition asking why Black people became outcasts, strangers, and prisoners in their own house. From an early age, I struggled with why Black people were routinely thought to be inferior, and the recipients of damnable treatment. Why, I contemplated, were we at the bottom of society and victims of lynching, incarceration, and wretched poverty? Why could we not be ordinary people free of the awesome burden of always having to prove our worth? It was the day-to-day overt and covert racism that puzzled and bedeviled even the least inquisitive of us. Our stigmatized Blackness enveloped us like a tight-fitting uniform alerting White people that amongst them roamed living problems. But alas, I obsessed, too, as to who White people really were given their seemingly unlimited tendencies to degrade Black people. From my perspective, negatively lived Black experiences cried out for explanation and liberation. By the same token, the lived racist experiences of White people needed examination and eradication. Thus, a sociology of lived experiences was paramount.
Not Marx, Durkheim, Weber, nor my graduate professors shed light on Black lived experiences. They did not probe sources of Black anger, resistance, creativity, and Black history-making agency. Rather, they taught that White people in Europe and the United States produced the agency that shaped modernity. Moreover, people of color worldwide were theorized as premodern without adequate levels of civilization to lead the human frontier. Indeed, messages both subtle and explicit, communicated that Blackness was inferior. The genius of the civil rights movement was attributed to White people be they northern liberals, Supreme Court justices, or presidents. The social organization of the Black community whether it was the family, gangs, or churches was portrayed as formations of disorganization sustained by emotionalism and irrationality. Sociology students did not encounter producers of knowledge from the past or present who were Black. To mention a few, Ibn Khaldun, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W. E. B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, Franz Fanon, C.L.R. James, E. Franklin Frazier, Oliver Cox, St Claire Drake, and Charles Johnson were absent from the curriculum. While we longed to become sociologists, it was clear our lived experiences existed outside the purview of sociology.
Though not explicitly stated, graduate sociology conveyed the claim that the discipline was founded and developed by White scholars. It propagated that what mattered in the discipline, whether ideas or celebrated sociologists, was produced by whiteness. Thus, Black graduate students experienced a profound disconnect between their lived experiences and sociological analyses. The discipline from which we expected much offered us so little because its practitioners were incapable of teaching what they did not know, theorize, feel, or consider important. We came away convinced class dynamics, social structure, bureaucracies, and charisma were intrinsically important. Yet, we were uncertain how these structures and processes shaped Black lives historically and contemporaneously. Hence, White sociologists, theoretically and empirically, failed to develop a sociology showing how race was a defining reality that shaped every sociological dimension of modernity.
When I read W. E. B. Du Bois’s sociology, I was astounded by how it probed structural and cultural determinants of Black lived experiences. I immediately resonated with his ideas regarding the centrality of the global color line, the conflicted Black consciousness racism produced, the Veil that shrouded a little understood but rich Black community, thriving Black creativity, a unique Black culture, an all-encompassing Black church, and a people battered by the vicissitudes of racism and oppression. At the heart of Du Bois’s sociology was an analysis of Black agency that broke from the Black deficit model dominant in sociology. He explicated how Black agency drove social protests by highlighting how slaves’ agency won the Civil War for the Union. Based on this understanding of Black agency, Du Bois predicted the Civil Rights movement which caught all White sociologists by utter surprise. Additionally, Du Bois’s sociology was driven by an intellectual perspective that analyzed interlinked social structures and belief systems that produced global race inequality. Similarly, he developed analyses of liberation movements to overthrow colonialism across the globe. He probed women’s oppression, especially that which afflicted Black women. He also interrogated women’s agency thus demonstrating how Black women engaged in enlightened politics and would provide leadership for liberation movements. By taking lives of subalterns seriously, Du Bois crafted a sociology of the lived experiences of the oppressed, enabling analysts to confront those experiences inside the discipline rather than gazing outside for answers.
As a Black social scientist victimized by racial oppression, Du Bois wrestled with why White people dominated Black people with zeal and fury. He investigated why they so unswervingly convinced themselves of their racial superiority and of Black racial inferiority. In so doing, Du Bois seized on a key structural formation of modernity– the color line— identified earlier by Frederick Douglass. He theorized the color line as a global formation because it enabled whites to dominate people of color worldwide. The color line, which he argued was a foundational pillar of modern capitalism, was constructed to generate and maintain white supremacy. White people nurtured and reinforced that line because it delivered white economic, political, and social privileges. Thus, the color line was material: it enabled White people to exploit people of color for wealth, wages, and natural resources. Indeed, whiteness determined the ownership of the earth. Hence, white supremacy constituted a foundational component of modernity.
Moreover, sociology failed to critically analyze White lived experiences. Yet, the color line shaped the lived experiences of White people. By infiltrating the psychological makeup of White people, it enabled them to glide about with an air of superiority, believing their white skin made them innately superior. Capitalists promoted the idea that all White people were better than Black people to prevent dangerous uprisings from below by a racially united working-class. Du Bois argued that disadvantaged White people embraced this fiction because it provided a psychological wage, making them feel special despite their own oppression. This fiction of white superiority followed W. I. Thomas’s (1928) theorem: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” To reap this psychological wage, White people struck out against Black people with vitriolic hatred, rape, lynching, mob violence, insults, disenfranchisement, and massive discrimination to perpetuate their place in the sun as better than inferior “darkies.” As a result, White people developed distorted selves thanks to the twin effects of capitalism and racism. Hence, Black and White lived experiences prevented socially constructed races from meeting on common grounds and building cooperative relationships beneficial for humanity. It was the absence of a sociology of lived experiences that created a sense of intellectual and political vacuousness throughout my sociological education. It was a sociology unable to provide a better understanding of self and the social structures shaping my experiences. It produced a mismatch between my lived experiences and an out of touch sociology.
A Decolonized and Emancipatory Sociology
How can an “out of touch” sociology be fixed? Sociologists (Magubane 2021, Burawoy 2021, Meghji, 2021, Connell 2018, Go 2017, Mangcu 2016, Steinberg, 2016) from different parts of the world believe sociology can be fixed through a process of decolonization. Yet, what does decolonization of sociology mean? To address this issue, I draw on the emerging decolonization of sociology literature with the understanding that important differences exist among proponents. Yet, sufficient agreement on fundamental matters among these scholars enables me to produce a coherent rendering of the project to decolonize sociology.
To understand what a decolonized sociology entails, I must first address colonized sociology. It was born within European and American empires forged in the fifteenth century that still exist in varying manifestations. Sociology emerged during the period when brutal slavery and colonialism were violently imposed on people of color to build white empires worldwide. European scholars hailing from Germany, England, and France birthed sociology. They were products of empires and usually supported empires to enhance the power of their respective nations. They viewed nonwestern peoples as inferior and denigrated their worth, culture, institutions, and achievements. Because these architects of sociology, in line with their countrymen, viewed people of color as inferiors, it was assumed colored people deserved to be subjugated to western ‘superior’ Europeans. Through their imperial eyes, inhabitants of the west were the captains of advanced civilization who produced all historic developments, including capitalism. The western world, therefore, had a moral duty to civilize backward nonwestern peoples by any means necessary. All people outside the west had to follow the lead of the west if they were to be civilized. Thus, the classic sociological founders proceeded from a Eurocentric point of view and developed a sociology guided by these presuppositions. Additionally, White American sociologists bred in the empire of the United States, embraced Eurocentric sociology, and made it their own in most respects. As a result, the core intellectual content of sociology prevailing to this day is driven by a white worldview that had been inculcated in the discipline’s white founding fathers. Thus, in sociology white Eurocentric approaches reign hegemonically.
Moreover, an all-encompassing infrastructure consisting of dominant elite western universities, presses, foundations, grants, gatekeepers, intellectual networks, awards committees, graduate programs, pedagogic resources, and conferences fortify the hegemonic content of disciplines, including sociology. In these domains, relevant information and resources are hoarded and distributed to chosen scholars to advance their careers. For example, when I was an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, I asked my famous colleague, Charles Tilly, why it was important to begin your career at a top prestigious sociology department. He replied, “scholars who know how to work the system are there, and they will teach you how to work the system.” Elite intellectual networks steer incumbents to opportunities to secure academic appointments, publish in prestigious outlets, acquire grant funding, and secure promotions. In all these ways and more, the dominant infrastructure plays a critical role in distributing white-oriented sociological viewpoints across the intellectual world in elite and non-elite venues. Thus, in sociology the white dominant intellectual infrastructure stands hegemonic.
Diverse intellectual representation is resisted in western hegemonic universities worldwide. Most professors and students in these institutions are White people from elite backgrounds. The ones who are not are carefully vetted to make sure their views and styles do not run too far afoul of conventional intellectual traditions and practices. The writing of letters of recommendations, for example, is an important vetting tool buttressing the messages and conventional voices endemic in elite sociology. My experiences from decades of sitting on graduate admissions committee have taught me that it is an uphill battle for students who are not from elite schools to be admitted to top graduate programs. A Black student at a top Black university with superior grades and superb recommendations is likely to be passed over for a student—especially a white student—from an ivy league university with similar grades and glowing recommendations from familiar trusted colleagues. Moreover, once admitted, the White student stands a far greater chance of being welcomed to exclusive membership in informal student and faculty networks where she is taught how to succeed and land a coveted professorship. Because citing scholarly work is influenced by network membership and politics, the scholarship of the elite White student is more likely to be cited by network peers and sociologists generally. All these barriers minimize the chances that new voices and perspectives are infused into the intellectual core of sociology. Thus, in sociology white intellectual representation is hegemonic thus preventing sociology’s core canons and paradigms from being disrupted and challenged. In short, Eurocentric theories and methodologies, dominant intellectual infrastructures, and restricted elite representation constitute the durable structures of colonized sociology. Such barriers appear impenetrable, but subaltern agency has begun to crack their armor.
The calls for decolonizing sociology signal that Eurocentric sociology has come under scrutiny. As Magubane (2021) put it: “this day of reckoning is finally here. Sociology must also face whether, how, and to what extent its interpretive frameworks, core analytical categories, methods of analysis, and data have been impacted by the colonial encounter.” Let’s examine this intellectual insurgency and strategies to decolonize sociology. Proponents of decolonization argue that dominant white scholars present their paradigms and theories as universally valid and timeless. They believe their analyses are hegemonic because of their analytic merits and universality. Yet they fail to consider their formulations may even have limited ability to understand their own groups and local regions. This is so because dominant sociologists produce one-sided knowledge of their own groups whose structures and dynamics are shaped through relational interactions with nonwestern societies. Though ignored, these relational interactions need to be analyzed to arrive at comprehensive understandings of humanity (Go, 2016). Western and American sociologists usually do not ponder the possibility of their scholarship being riddled with racial, national, class, and gender biases preventing accurate analysis of societies, especially outside their own tribes. Consequently, subaltern scholars of the Global South and within western empires are conducting painstaking research and developing analyses to explain their realities and lived experiences that are often at odds with hegemonic sociology. Hence, challenges are being launched to dislodge dated orthodoxies and elevate alternative intellectual frameworks to canonical status.
The recent advent of Du Boisian sociology is an example of a canonical challenge. It seeks to explain the social world from the standpoint of subalterns—their lived experiences, agency, histories, intellectual contributions, responses to western intellectual and political domination—while dialoguing with and reshaping existing canons. Du Boisian sociology is prompting the rereading of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and instigating for rereading the entire corpus of western sociology (Burawoy, 2021; Itzigsohn and Brown, 2020). There are those opposed to canonizing Du Bois’s work because all canons, they claim, are misleading and acts of deification. It is instructive to note such cries are usually trumpeted when insurgent ideas and personages become candidates for canonization. Refusing to admit Du Boisian sociology into the sociological canon, in my view, would be a mistake because there is limited discussion of Du Bois’s generative ideas. Canonizing his scholarship would spur the excavation of Du Boisian sociology so that it serves as an intellectual force for revitalizing sociology. This is a moment not for blocking scholars denied (Morris, 2015), but one of lifting their works to energize and decolonize the sociological imagination.
Decolonizing sociology is not possible without addressing the hegemonic infrastructure fortifying colonized sociology. It is no small task to circumvent the power that elite western universities, presses, foundations, grantors, referees and other gatekeepers, intellectual networks, awards committees, graduate programs, pedagogic resources, and conferences exercise in sustaining status quo-oriented sociology. Because of this power, subaltern scholars have little choice but to infiltrate existing infrastructures and acquire as many of their resources as possible. The trick is not to become co-opted and reproduce mainstream orthodoxy as the price of the entry ticket. Additionally, subaltern scholars would be wise to develop parallel infrastructures to fortify an emancipatory decolonized sociology. This effort entails creating subaltern intellectual networks, workshops, conferences, awards recognizing exemplary scholarship, mentoring, and teaching, and developing knowledge banks through which intellectual and professional resources can be routinely distributed throughout insurgent intellectual networks. Taking the liberty to revise Audre Lorde, the master’s tools alone will never dismantle the master’s house, but a combination of subaltern tools and those of the masters may speed rectifying a sociology that is out of touch.
Lack of diverse intellectual representation is the cornerstone of colonized sociology. It thrives when subaltern voices and perspectives are absent from the seminar table, departmental corridors, conferences, and decision-making committees. This absence ensures the dominant intellectual choir sings only one tune while avoiding discordant notes representing conflicting intellectual interests and perspectives. Prior to the 1960s, few Black professors and students were allowed access to predominantly white American universities. Intellectual debates, even those concerning race, were conducted exclusively by White sociologists who were anointed as authoritative race theorists. In that segregated intellectual ghetto, theories of Black inferiority, agentless Blacks, biological racial traits, pathology, and superior White folks proliferated. Du Bois could not counter these views effectively because racism blocked him from teaching in white universities. Nevertheless, Du Bois and other Black sociologists (Wright, 2020) developed alternative theories of racial domination within the confines of Black universities. Because White sociologists ignored scholars in “inferior” Black institutions, the voices of Black sociologists were muted, and their works rarely cited. This situation prevailed until Black students and their allies revolted demanding that Black students and professors be recruited and that Black studies be established. Thus, colonized sociology prevails when subaltern scholars are unrepresented at the table of knowledge production and their work is rendered invisible through the politics of discriminatory citations (Ray, 2018). Historical examples reveal that the underrepresentation of subaltern voices can be rectified through contentious collective action. Citation politics can be undermined when subalterns and their allies read and cite each other’s scholarship. Decolonization of sociology hinges on increasing the number of subaltern scholars who can lead the decolonization process.
Hopefully, the decolonization of sociology ushers in an emancipatory sociology. In our world today, systems of domination-patriarchy, race, class, and oppression based on sexual orientation are imposing cataclysmic suffering on billions of people across the globe. Legacies of slavery and colonialism continue to restrict life chances for untold masses. The negative impact of these dominations multiplies continuously given they intersect and mutually reinforce. An “in touch” emancipatory sociology that takes seriously its mission as a rigorous science, should provide accurate analyses of human domination from every conceivable standpoint, including that of subalterns. The goal of an emancipatory sociology is the uncovering of sociological truths crucial to achieving liberation.
I conclude with Du Bois’s advice to young people regarding work and closing words from my ASA Presidential address. Du Bois’s advice (1958) to young workers was simple, do not engage in alienating labor:
“The return from your work must be the satisfaction which that work brings you and the world’s need of that work. With this, life is heaven, or as near heaven as you can get. Without this — with work which you despise, which bores you, and which the world does not need — this life is hell.”
Finally (Morris, 2022), as you work, you must define your standpoint within the discipline because “sociology must determine whether it is a science of human emancipation or continue pretending to be an aloof, objective, detached science. The Du Boisian challenge insists scientific sociology is at its best when it combines rigorous, critical scholarship and emancipatory activism. The challenge is this: will sociology provide cannon fodder for wolves of oppression or traction for freedom fighters seeking human freedom through social transformation?”
Aldon Morris is the Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University. Morris is the author of The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement and The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. Morris was a consultant for the documentary, “Eyes on the Prize.” A film, “The Scholar Affirmed,” featuring Morris’ work and life was released in 2018. In 2019, Morris was elected 112th President of The American Sociological Association. Morris received the 2020 W. E. B. Du Bois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award of the American Sociological Association.
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