Published November 17, 2020
W.E.B. Du Bois’ significant contributions as a civil rights leader, author, philosopher and sociologist still only partially acknowledge the full sweep of his continuing impact resulting from his work as scholar, writer and one of the founders of the NAACP.
Du Bois’ sophisticated engagement with the natural sciences was a robust, if previously neglected, part of his work in the humanities, social sciences and beyond, and a paper published by a research team led by a UB sociologist brings this largely neglected dimension of his legacy into full light.
“Du Bois was the greatest American sociologist, but he was much more than a race scholar,” says Jordan Fox Besek, assistant professor of sociology, College of Arts and Sciences, and lead author of the paper published in the Journal of Classical Sociology.
“He was a public intellectual who incorporated many forms of knowledge into his thinking — from social science to poetry to evolutionary biology — to try to make radical change for a better world.”
Besek says Du Bois was an early and vocal critic of racist pseudo-scientific beliefs, such as eugenics. He confronted these distorted ideas throughout his career, debunking racist natural science that sought to prove any notion of racial superiority.
“We know so much about Du Bois as an influential leader in many fields, but what is not well known is how he engaged and incorporated non-racist natural science as part of his emancipatory struggles.”
Du Bois understood and applied the importance of natural science into his sociological framework to inform his comprehensive understanding of the world. But he recognized that as socially situated disciplines the findings of some scientists may have reflected either consciously or unconsciously biases used to justify racist ideologies and perpetuate inequality, Besek argues in the paper.
Du Bois was a humanist and social scientist who maintained a lifelong interest in natural sciences, described generally as the broad suite of physical and life sciences outside of the arts, humanities and social sciences. He closely watched developments in biology, geography and physical anthropology.
He maintained friendships and had professional relationships with natural scientists, often assigning their work to his students and recommending their books in reading lists he published in “The Crisis,” the NAACP’s official magazine, which Du Bois edited from 1910 to 1934.
Du Bois’ encouragement of others to follow his example stimulated an interdisciplinary scholarship decades before recent observers would identify the approach as novel.
“Faced with realities like climate change, exponential pollution and other instances in which relationships between social and natural processes are becoming increasingly dynamic, the demand for a nuanced, multidimensional and decidedly interdisciplinary scholarship is plainly necessary, especially one that can adequately address the politics of social justice,” says Besek.
“Du Bois can serve as a model for such engagement.”
Besek says his interest in pursuing this avenue of research began with “The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology,” a book by Aldon Morris, now president of the American Sociological Association, that demonstrated how early 20th-century sociologists consciously and explicitly denied Du Bois a place in sociology. After hearing Morris speak at a conference, Besek wanted to explore where else history may have failed to note Du Bois’ other roles and possible influences.
With his co-authors Patrick Trent Greiner, assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, and Brett Clark, associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah, Besek turned to well-known books, surveyed “The Crisis,” Du Bois’ correspondence, unpublished essays, schoolwork, notes and ephemera held at the University of Massachusetts and Fisk University to develop an understanding of Du Bois as an interdisciplinary scholar who harnessed the powerful explanatory potential of scientific observation to confront and contradict racism.
“Du Bois knew that understanding our relationship with the natural world is a platform for humanistic politics,” says Besek. “When we better understand both the possibilities and the limitations of natural science we can apply its findings appropriately and constructively.
“This kind of approach to science, and life, allows for a humanist perspective.”
Thank you for publishing this truth about W.E.B. DuBois. While his work on racial conditions in America is legendary, I, too, neglected his influence on natural sciences. Thank you for celebrating him!