W.E.B. Du Bois, the First Public Sociologist

Michael Burawoy’s (2004; 2005) challenging and provocative articles on public sociology sought to remind sociology of its historic origins as a “moral science.” In these articles, Burawoy juxtaposes what he believes sociology has become, and how and why it has morphed into an entity unrecognizable from its origins and legacy. Throughout the 2005 article, Burawoy cites W.E.B. Du Bois, along with Jane Addams, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber as early pioneers and representatives of this sociological approach, oriented toward one of many publics, and committed to addressing one or more public issues and problems. As a first step in the codification of sociology as a discipline, Burawoy created four typologies of knowledge corresponding to four distinct types of sociological orientation: professional, critical, policy, and public.

Our focus on Burawoy’s articles is important because like him, we believe the role of public sociology continues to be necessary. Burawoy’s effort to highlight its importance cast a much needed light on what has been a neglected orientation of the discipline. His frequent mention of Du Bois within the context of public sociology conveys a deep understanding and appreciation of Du Bois’s role as one of the early founding fathers of public sociology, at a time when the discipline was attempting to establish its identity. Beyond Burawoy’s appreciation, we assert that Du Bois was the first public sociologist and furthermore, that he consciously carved out a role for himself as a public sociologist. Viewing Du Bois’s life in its entirety, we are able to appreciate that he encapsulated all four types of Burawoy’s sociological orientations, often all at once.

Beginning in the 1970s, a number of sociologists (Green, 1973; Dennis, 1975) began to explore the role of W.E.B. Du Bois as one of the early, yet neglected and forgotten classical sociologists alongside Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, and Sumner. We all know of Du Bois’s role as a civil rights leader. As a black man in a world where race and color had taken center stage, race as a social idea and value became the central focus of Du Bois’s intellectual and scholastic critiques and analyses.

This paper explores the world of Du Bois, the sociologist, and in particular, his transition from sociologist to public sociologist. W.E.B. Du Bois cannot be fully understood as a sociologist, at least not as a public sociologist, without an understanding of the persistent and recurring late 19th and early 20th century national and international events he sought to address and resolve. In the U.S., and especially in the South, the nation chose not to grapple with the vestiges of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, which Du Bois (1935) analyzed and critiqued intensely.

Du Bois and the Making of a Public Sociologist in a World of National and International Strife

Du Bois contended with several legacies of slavery, among them the violence and intimidation that became institutionalized in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and other white vigilante groups. The purpose of these groups was to frighten and intimidate blacks, prevent them from voting, and prevent them from showing any public displays of success and prosperity. Additionally, Southern racial policy was also predicated on the idea that education and schools for blacks should not be given any priority. The premise underlying this policy was that an impoverished, poorly educated, and powerless black population would better ensure the economic and political superiority and success of whites. Further, the last two decades saw the emergence of Darwinism and social-Darwinism, with the latter adhering to a philosophy of human “survival of the fittest” and a policy of “right makes right,” along with the continuing policy of “manifest destiny” applied to America’s indigenous populations.

Thus, social-Darwinism (Dennis, 1995) coupled with an emerging practice of IQ testing, resulted in a new version of racism known as “scientific racism.” Lastly, the transition into the 20th century witnessed the emergence of America as a new imperial power following the victory in the Spanish-American War and acquisition of spoils; namely, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Hawaii. It was at this time that America emerged as a major urban and industrial economic behemoth whose productivity came to outpace England as the major capitalist stronghold.

In Europe, nations and principalities were still recovering from the Napoleonic wars and the war of 1848, also known as the war of intellectuals. According to Jacques Barzun (1965:133), “between 1870-1900 Europe was simultaneously a prey to all the forces previously described as acting separately toward the intensification of race-beliefs…Nationalism was an acute and universal fever…imperialism and prestige-diplomacy was clutching at every argument for the furtherance of commercial aims in Africa, America, and the Far East…”

The Berlin Conference of 1885 (Du Bois, 1940) in particular, constituted the most far-reaching and devastating event of the century for the African continent as it represented the beginning of a sustained European imperialist and colonialist attack, conquest, and occupation of the continent with dire economic, military, and political consequences for Africa’s development (Rodney, 1972).

A young Du Bois took to the stage, designating himself the self-declared socio-political missionary destined to address the ills of his people and the nation. In reality, his concerns were more global, as he viewed himself as the centerpiece of a national and world-wide missionary program to save people of African descent. This missionary spirit was on full display while celebrating his 25th birthday in 1893 in Germany, the point at which he began to define his role as an integral agent in solving the problems of his people. Per Du Bois’s own words (Du Bois, 1985 reprint: 28-29):

“…I am firmly convinced that my own best development is now one and the same with the best development of the world…The general proposition of working for the world’s good becomes too soon sickly sentimentality. I therefore take the work that the Unknown lay in my hands and work for the rise of the Negro people, taking for granted that their best development means the best development of the world.”

Thus, Du Bois projected himself into history and the world in a way that C. Wright Mills (1959) eventually came to describe as a feature of the “sociological imagination.” In two 1897 essays, Du Bois laid out an action plan whose substance and objective reside in what we would call public sociology, with the focus being the problem of race, class, social injustice, and inequality. In his action plan, the messengers would be a cadre of educated blacks dedicated to achieving freedom for their people and liberating the larger white society from its prejudice. Du Bois (1968[1903]) called this cadre, the educated elite, or the Talented Tenth.

In an essay entitled, “The Conservation of Races,” presented as a lecture before the American Negro Academy, Du Bois (1970 reprint) made the case for cultural and racial pluralism opposing what many were advancing at the end of the 19th century: that the race problem could be resolved if only the African race were to disappear either by being absorbed into the European race, or being deported to Africa or Latin America. Rejecting these options, Du Bois almost takes a “chosen people” approach, believing “the Negro race-has not as yet, given to civilization the full spiritual message which they are capable of giving…For the development of the Negro genius, of Negro literature and art, of Negro spirit, only Negroes bound and welded together, Negroes inspired by one vast ideal, can work out in its fullness the great message we have for humanity” (Du Bois, 1970 reprint: 73-85). To make this message a reality, Du Bois proposed the creation of “race organizations,” whose formation would be the responsibility of the Talented Tenth and would include such institutions as colleges and universities, newspapers, business organizations, schools of literature and art, all of which would feed into a national “intellectual clearing house” to be known as the American Negro Academy.

In a second essay (Du Bois, 1897b) delivered as a speech on November 19, 1897 before the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Du Bois focused mainly on the development of the newly emerging discipline of sociology.

The speech entitled “The study of the Negro Problem,” expanded upon his first essay and proposed the main sociological methods he sought to use in pursuing this line of inquiry: observation, research, and comparison. According to Du Bois, trained minds, such as the Talented Tenth, would be central in these studies and therefore, responsible for disseminating and conveying the results of these studies to the larger society via magazines, journals, newsletters, public lectures, and other media. This new approach to the issue of “the Negro Problem” would be addressed by black researchers already engaged in this line of inquiry, such as the Atlanta University Laboratory Studies by Earl Wright (2016).

The key to this research would have to be black researchers, as Du Bois believed white researchers lacked both the skills and objectivity to study blacks, a point emphasized by the use of foreign scholars, such as Gunnar Myrdal (1944), to study America’s racial problem.

In these two speeches, and through his focus on race and class, we see a profile of Du Bois the public sociologist. The key issue was the proviso highlighting the importance of accurate data, the understanding of that data, and the dissemination of information to black and white audiences by trained researchers and educators such as the Talented Tenth. Since dissemination of information was crucial, the information itself, and its interpretation would also be crucial.

In these two early speeches, we see the kernel of Du Bois’s vision for what a psychology addressing public issues of concern to a public should be and should accomplish; that is, address issues of great concern to one or more constituent groups on important local, regional, and national issues and problems. Having made information and data pre-requisites for social action and social policy, Du Bois set out to gather this information and data.

The Public Sociologist as Empiricist

Du Bois’s entry into the world of empirical research began while he was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and working on a research project (August 1896-December 1897) designed to study the existence of and problems facing blacks living in the Seventh Ward of Philadelphia (Du Bois, 1967[1899]. This would be the first community study in the country, and Du Bois saw the opportunity to collect objective facts about blacks which, according to him, would stem the rampant disinformation circulating about blacks in the larger white community. The book, “The Philadelphia Negro (1967 reprint),” continues to serve as a model of early attempts at conducting fieldwork and survey research in a large urban setting.

During the course of his career, Du Bois also led four U.S. government funded research projects. In “Negroes of Farmville, Virginia (1898b),” we find a model for comparative research as it took place in a small rural town located in the south, providing both size and geographic location as comparatives. The three other studies included “The Negro in the Black Belt (1899),” “The Negro Landholder of Georgia (1901),” and “The Negro Farmer (1904).” Du Bois also conducted a fifth study in Lowndes County, Alabama 1906, but it was never published. Because the study was deemed counter to Booker T. Washington, it is believed to have been destroyed (Du Bois 1968). These studies were valuable tools in Du Bois’s intellectual and sociological arsenal as he sought ways to better study and understand the problems confronting blacks.

They also yielded data he would use throughout his life as he sought statistics to bolster his arguments related to the injustices being perpetrated towards blacks in society. This desire to unearth data as a reflection of social conditions, attitudes, and values, was an early feature of the public sociologist. With it, Du Bois sought to refute racial myths and misinformation. This early empirical stage in Du Bois’s academic and scholastic life did not merely reflect an orientation towards data and facts. It also reflected Du Bois’s faith and belief in science, the scientific approach, and scientific methodology as paths to social truths and social reality.

The Public Sociologist’s Use of Organizations as Insurgent Weapons

Du Bois viewed organizations as important strategic and tactical weapons in a subordinate group’s quest for equality and social justice. In his 1897 speech before the American Negro Academy, where he was to become the second president, Du Bois outlined the need for black organizations to serve as foundations for addressing community social and psychological needs. Du Bois saw the potential for these organizations to serve as home bases for collective action against a dominant white society. The Academy would be the first of many organizations either created by Du Bois, or joined by him, to launch a two-pronged strategy of attack. This strategy included creating a base for black community development and launching a frontal assault against the system of segregation and social injustice.

The Academy was an all-male organization; however, beyond excluding women, it also excluded the ordinary working man. For Du Bois, these exclusions were purposeful. He believed that the goals and objectives of the Academy would largely appeal to the educated, the Talented Tenth.

Du Bois believed, in the true spirit of the Luke theorem, that those blessed with intellectual talents and worldly possessions should be expected to give much in return. For him, this meant sacrificing time, energy, and even money to support their freedom. Just as Lenin (Lukacs, 1974) viewed the creation of the vanguard party organization as the main vehicle for organizing and coordinating the societal class struggle, Du Bois’s (1903) view of the Academy served as a vehicle to organize and coordinate the societal racial struggle.

Du Bois was also an organizer of the first national organization to address racial inequity, the Niagara Movement which restricted membership to fifty-nine black men. Created in 1905, the Movement failed and in 1910, the majority of its members, along with a few invited whites, formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Both organizations were designed to confront and challenge discrimination and to set agendas for both black and white America on how to enact social policy to promote social and racial change. Du Bois played an activist-sociologist role or in other words, the public sociologist role in both organizations as he provided sociological insights on societal issues while demonstrating and petitioning as sociologist-citizen-activist. He played a similar organizational role internationally within the Pan-African Congresses.

Du Bois’s interest in the socio-cultural life of Africans and their links to Africans in America was first conveyed in his doctoral dissertation (1896). Keenly aware of the disconnect between Africans in Africa, the Caribbean, and North and South America, Du Bois, the public sociologist, actively engaged in creating and promoting economic, political, and cultural links between Africans on the continent and Africans in the diaspora.

Among the central themes in all of the congresses (Du Bois, 1940) was the challenge western colonialism and imperialism directed towards Africa, as well as towards Asia and Latin America. To develop and cement this relationship between the continent and the diaspora, Du Bois organized a series of Pan-African Congresses in 1919, 1921, 1923, and 1927 (Du Bois, 1940). These congresses were instrumental in setting the groundwork for the groundswell movement (Du Bois, 1965;1968) which resulted first, in the decolonization of India. In the 1950s and 1960s, the challenges posed by the various Congresses to the West’s commitment to democracy and freedom led to the almost complete decolonization of Africa. Du Bois’s role as scholar-activist-organizer was central to the success of the congresses just as it had been central to the success of the NAACP.

His tireless commitment and total devotion to the cause was unmatched. In essence, he was a one-man organizational unit, and the organization, and committed members, the Talented Tenth, served as weapons in the struggle. One could include in this section Du Bois’s use of magazines, periodicals, and newsletters, to get the message out to blacks and whites on issues of race because the creation of these outlets also requires organizational skills. Because Du Bois had little faith that whites would publish his views on race, he invested considerable time and energy on the development of media for blacks. These media outlets included: The Moon (1906); The Horizon (1907-1910); The Crisis, the house organ owned by the NAACP; The Brownie’s Book (written for children) 1920-1921, and later Phylon (1938), a review of race and culture, created at Atlanta University where Du Bois was a sociology professor. These periodicals were a part of his overall strategy to not only inform the public (both black and white) but to also shock the public into shedding old racial habits and adopting new ones.

The Public Sociologist as Creative Artist and Performer

Du Bois’s writings have always been characterized as having a “literary bent.” In “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903), the “Coming of John,” Du Bois uses allegory to highlight a racially charged story involving the death of white John by black John, and the eventual lynching of black John. Du Bois as public sociologist, sought every vehicle available to him to help move the issue of race and blacks and their life experiences, history, and culture forthrightly into the public square so that it could be accessible. Du Bois the poet-dramatist-creator (Du Bois, 1963; Freedomways, 1965; Agbeyebiawo, 1998), came alive through the poems “The Song of Smoke,” “A Hymn to the Peoples,” “Revelation,” “Almighty Death,” “The White Man’s Burden,” “Ghana Calls,” “Suez,” and the long epic poem, “A Litany at Atlanta.” These poems, and his pageant of the history of blacks from Africa to the New World, “The Star of Ethiopia,” were examples of how Du Bois sought to get the message to black audiences not only of the greatness of Africa but also of blacks in America. Importantly, he believed that blacks needed to be able to concisely define what and who they wished to be in relation to European-American people and culture. This was a call for cultural and social pluralism, rather than racial separation.

Du Bois the aesthete, also tried his hand at novels as a medium for telling the stories of black life from 1919 onward. The first of these novels was “The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911).” Others followed, including “The Dark Princess (1928)” and the trilogy, “The Black Flame (1957).” With Du Bois the public sociologist as creative artist and performer, a clear picture emerges of the wide array of academic, scientific, and artistic tools he used in pursuit of his goal to convey the story of black life and black experience.

The Legacy of Du Bois as Public Sociologist

It is clear that Du Bois was the first public sociologist in our era. Like Karl Marx before him, the more we dig into the richness of his vast intellectual and scholastic treasure chest, the more we see and understand how driven he was to insert life into a seemingly moribund American society glued to some of the vestiges of its mixed good/bad society and its good/bad history. However, despite the ambiguities of the present and past, throughout his life, Du Bois seemingly sought to create a black Balzacian Comedie Humaine, portraying and analyzing almost every aspect of black life, culture, and experience in his poems, pageants, novels, short stories, historical studies, sociological research studies and essays.


Portrait of W. E. Burghardt Du Bois. Winold Reiss. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.


Indeed, his contributions in these areas have been astonishing, a fact now recognized by the academic-scholastic-literary world. Volumes of books currently in print dissect his contributions in many areas of American and world history, including sociology, political theory, economics, literature, and even criminology, where he is now increasingly recognized by many as the first criminologist.

His record of devotion to public issues and problems in so many venues, his organizational strategies for collective change, and his prodigious and scholarly productivity over more than sixty years is nothing short of amazing, as is the tenacity with which he persisted. Du Bois was a public scholar, public intellectual, but above all, a public sociologist. This was conveyed by his analysis of issues and the solutions he sought for them. He continued to use his valuable sociological reasoning and logic long after he disengaged from and disavowed the discipline in its entirety – a discipline he, like Burawoy, loved, but ultimately denounced, as the profession increasingly moved away from its once great calling.


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By Rutledge M. Dennis and Kimya N. Dennis

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