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“With Whom no White Scholar can Compare”: Academic Interpretations of the Relationship between W.E.B. Du Bois and Max Weber

Abstract

Max Weber (1864–1920) is considered one of the canonical founders of sociology, while W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), author of The Philadelphia Negro (1899), The Souls of Black Folk (1903), and Black Reconstruction (1935), has only recently been included in the sociological canon. We provide a historical review of what we know of their relationship in order to first ask, what did Du Bois say about Weber, and second, what did Weber say about Du Bois? We then analyze the extant scholarly discourse of published English-language academic journal articles that substantively mention both Weber and Du Bois in order to address a third question: what did other scholars say about their relationship? We provide an analysis of the variation of scholars’ perceptions on the relationship between Du Bois and Weber to illumine the dominant assumptions about founding figures and the origin story of American sociology writ large. We argue that three mechanisms of white group interests configured the marginalization of Du Bois from both mainstream and sub-disciplinary sociological theory: (1) reduction or “knowing that we do no know and not caring to know” (when knowledge is perceived as irrelevant to white group interests), (2) deportation or “not wanting to know” (when knowledge is systematically exiled), and (3) appropriation or “not knowing that we do not know”) (when dominant knowledge usurps or assimilates challenges to that knowledge).

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Notes

  1. Du Bois’s own notes from Schmoller’s seminar quote Schmoller as saying “My school tries as far as possible to leave the sollen [should] for a later stage and study the geschehen [done] as other sciences have done” (in Broderick 1958:368). Hence, Schmoller promoted the notion that social scientists should assess the socioeconomic developments they study against the “ideals” of their times and work promote policies to achieve more “ethical” outcomes as a core part of their scientific labor (see Peukert 2001). Conversely, Weber defended the goal of a value-freedom position in opposition to Schmoller’s goals of an “ethical” political economy, writing that Schmoller conflated the ethical imperatives of science with larger cultural values (cf. Weber 1949:15). Du Bois methodology, and his stated goal of writing The Philadelphia Negro (1899) was to provide empirical support for, and a rationale for the goals of improving Seventh Ward’s social conditions, which indicate the influence of Schmoller on Du Bois’s sociology. For additional commentary on Schmoler’s influence on Du Bois’s sociological methods and scientific end-goals, see Zamir (1995).

  2. Weber wrote a detailed chronicle of his mental illness, but his wife Marianne destroyed the account in the final months of the Second World War, supposedly out of concern that Nazis would use it to discredit Max Weber’s work (cf. Kolbert 2004).

  3. As Chandler (2007: 215) writes of Lewis’ (1993) characterization: “Throughout his two volume biography, David Levering Lewis rather systematically characterizes the relation of Du Bois and Weber in a manner that obscures what is most in need of understanding: the terms of possible inter- locution between these two figures…. He presents the relation of Du Bois to Weber more or less under the heading of a tutelary order. Weber would be the tutor, Du Bois, the pupil.” Yet, it is important to note that other scholars deviated from this rendering of their relationship, namely Rothberg (2001) and Chandler (2006).

  4. We do not cite the analyzed articles as they are data, not references.

  5. Socius and Sociology of Race and Ethnicity were not included in the analysis as they were recently inaugurated journals in 2016 and 2015, respectively.

  6. Interested readers should consult Chandler (2006, 2007) for a thorough review of their existing correspondence.

  7. Chandler (2007: 221) precisely documents that from the winter term of 1892 through the summer term of 1893 (which was Du Bois’s first year at Berlin), that Weber substitute taught a class on commercial and Roman law for his ailing dissertation adviser, Levin Goldschmidt. It is possible that Du Bois could have attended some of Weber’s lectures, but that, “… there is no apparent indication [emphasis in original], in document or any other form, that Weber was ever a decisive figure as such in the pedagogical formation of W. E. B. Du Bois as an intellect or scholar…”

  8. The translation was made in 2003, in commemoration of the centennial anniversary of Souls original publication in 1903.

  9. Original editor’s English translation: “The following, and also a series of other new publications by Negroes and about Negroes in the United States, will be reviewed by one of the editors in one of the next few volumes. This will provide the occasion to address several of the contentual [sachliche] dimensions of the problem. In the meantime we are pleased to be able to provide one of the most outstanding intellectual representatives of the American Negroes the opportunity to express his views (Du Bois 1906b).” It should be noted that it was upon a request from Weber that Du Bois submitted the essay and that the translation was re-published in an annotated edition (Du Bois 2015) which addresses these historical matters in greater detail.

  10. E.g. Robert E. Park’s writings on race reflect that biological determinist paradigm, especially in his use of “racial temperament.” In “The Conflict and Fusion of Cultures with Special Reference to the Negro” in Journal of Negro History Vol IV (2) (1919):111–133, Park wrote, “This temperament, as I conceive it, consists in a few elementary but distinctive characteristics, determined by physical organization and transmitted biologically [italics our emphasis]” (129). “The particular complex of inheritable characters, which characterizes the individuals of a racial group constitutes the racial temperament” (131).

  11. We do not argue that those responsible for the reduction, deportation, and appropriation of Du Bois’s contributions were simply white male sociologists (although many were). Rather, the development of academic fields in which Du Bois’s contributions would have been central—from sub-disciplines within sociology (e.g. rural sociology, urban sociology, and criminology) to related fields (e.g. history, religious studies, and African studies)— all vied for acceptance and status, thereby meeting strings of legitimation crises (Habermas 1973) through encyclopedic, and then canonical, listings of already accepted and high-status white men as “founders” or chief contributors to disciplines that best explained society (a segregated and unequal society) and the individual (which was implicitly a civilized, educated, industrialized, white citizen in relation to people of color who were often second-class citizens or problems, at best). Such pursuits both intentionally (“reduction” and “deportation”) and unintentionally (“appropriation”) reproduced white groups interests.

  12. The end of the first paragraph in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) reads: “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”

  13. The essay was included in the posthumously assembled book Economy and Society, originally published in the original German in 1922 by his widow and fellow sociologist Marianne Weber and Melchior Palyi. The essay in question was originally called “Ethnische Gemeinschaften” which has been translated as both “Ethnic relations of communities” and “Ethnic Groups.” The latter term “ethnic groups” is the title Roth and Wittich gave to Weber’s essay as a chapter in their 1978 English language publication of Economy and Society (cf. Banton 2007).

  14. In the case of Du Bois and Weber, race, institutional affiliation, and region are likely to have played a role in what Merton (1968) called the “Matthew Effect”; better-known scientists tend to get too much credit, and lesser known scientists receive too little credit, for comparable scientific contributions.

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Acknowledgements

We appreciate the comments from Lawrence Nichols and the anonymous reviewers. We are also grateful for the many suggestions given on the presentation of this paper at the 12th Social Theory Forum, “W.E.B. Du Bois and the Color Line in the 21st Century: Continuity, Challenges, and New Directions” held in Boston, MA, 24-25 March 2017 as well as helpful comments on the Du Bois-Weber relationship offered in the graduate seminar “The Social Theory of W. E. B. Du Bois,” which the first author taught at the University of Connecticut in the Fall of 2017.

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Hughey, M.W., Goss, D.R. “With Whom no White Scholar can Compare”: Academic Interpretations of the Relationship between W.E.B. Du Bois and Max Weber. Am Soc 49, 181–217 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-018-9368-2

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Keywords

  • Collective memory
  • Canon of sociology
  • Discourse
  • Epistemology
  • Max Weber
  • Origin stories
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Racism
  • W. E. B. Du Bois