If you’re already familiar with my work, then you know I do Black feminist sociology that draws on Black feminist thought as conceptual framework for the mixed methods study of digital society. In this blog post, I want to discuss one of the predecessors of the field: Black sociology.
Black sociology analyzes society from the standpoint of Black people to highlight how historical social structures affect them today. It offers a non-eurocentric perspective to address the interrelatedness of racial and economic inequality affecting society, making its practitioners scholar-activists who bridge the gap between academia and the masses. White sociology contradicts its purported tenets of humanism and objectivity through anti-Black scientific racism that manufactures claims of racial inferiority to justify subordination. In contrast, Black sociology argues the social problems Black people experience, such as higher rates of poverty or lower rates of educational attainment, are indicative of the interdependency between racism and capitalism.
This framework seems poignant at a time when state and local governments across the United States aim to eliminate the presence of Black intellectual thought from the halls of academia. For this reason, this blog post explores the historical roots, evolution, key figures, and current state of Black sociology as a field.
The Historical Roots of Black Sociology
From the very beginning, Black scholars have navigated sociological negation characterized by varying patterns of exclusion that can be summed up in three distinct periods: exclusion and segregation (1895-1930), accommodation and assimilationism (1931-1964), and co-optation and containment (1965-Present). These periods also produced three distinct groups of Black sociologists respectively: the Beginning School, the New School, and the New Black Sociologists. Contra to notions of liberalism rife within sociology, the experiences of Black sociologists throughout indicate they have consistently faced persist oppression and racism.
In 1895, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois earned the first Ph.D. awarded to a Black person from Harvard University from the Department of History. Despite this disciplinary background, he is now widely considered a founding father of sociology. Consequently, the awarding of his degree is considered the genesis of Black people’s involvement in sociology. Du Bois used his training to research the lives of Black people in America as did several other early Black sociologists, including George E. Haynes, Richard R. Wright Jr., and Kelly Miller. Anti-Black racism from white sociologists fostered academic segregation within the profession, making it difficult for their contributions to be recognized and acknowledged.
The New School of Black sociologists was initiated by DuBois and developed by E. Franklin Frazier, Charles S. Johnson, and others. Through applied research and social reform orientation, they drew on prevailing sociological methods on the immediate effects of urbanization, integration, rural poverty, and segregation on the Black community. Yet, they still faced racism including having their work labeled propaganda and other discriminatory practices. Their inclusion necessitated adhering to positivism to compete for rewards that were often defined by standards of the white dominant group. Despite this challenge, they performed social science research as a form of protest. Thus, they had to balance advocating for freedom, justice, and Black people while also submitting themselves to standards of merit based on research principles defined according to white norms.
The New Black Sociologists experienced increased professional visibility due to racial integration, which has also drained Black institutions and threatens their existence and that of the Black sociological tradition dependent upon them. In integrated spaces, a caucus structure often constrains Black sociology, leaving little promise of parity while it dismantles the Black sociological tradition. Additionally, predominantly white universities often hire a token number of Black sociologists solely as race relations experts, which negates the diversity of Black intellectual traditions. Into the present day, whiteness defines the substance and epistemology of sociology.
Overall, the historical roots of Black sociology created a framework of social science based on self-definition and self-determination that reinforces Black identity. Still, the dynamics of negation from the broader discipline create a precarious reality for a tradition that rejects its scientific racism.
The Evolution of Black Sociology
The evolution of Black sociology has been shaped by an extension beyond the study of race to incorporate intersectionality; an emphasis on social justice and activism; and an incorporation of diverse perspectives, methodologies, and approaches rooted in the standpoint of Black people. Black sociology continues to amplify marginalized voices and expand our understanding of power, resistance, and liberation
The framework of Black sociology has evolved due to the transformative role of intersectionality, particularly in the field of Black feminist sociology. The paradigm highlights the interconnectedness of race, gender, and other social identities in shaping the social inequalities that affect individuals’ experiences. This concept also expands Black sociology beyond the single-axis framework of racism to explore the complexity of multiple systems of oppression intersecting and mutually reinforcing each other. Black feminist sociology therefore deepens our understanding by providing a more nuanced analysis of power, inequality, and resistance in society.
Black sociology’s evolution also includes a growing emphasis on social justice and activism. By emphasizing the link between theory and praxis, this emphasis fosters transformative research agendas, community engagement, and collective resistance in pursuit of liberation and Black self-determination. Based on this activist-theorist orientation, Black sociologists have also challenged traditional notions of objectivity and neutrality in sociological research, arguing these ideals often serve to perpetuate the status quo. Instead, they advocate for a more applied approach to research that acknowledges how Black social scientists develop interpretations rooted in their experience of oppression. This approach therefore acknowledges the importance of centering the voices and experiences of marginalized communities, rather than relying on dominant sociological interpretations about how race relates to social inequalities.
The field of Black also evolved through the incorporation of perspectives such as critical race theory, which provides nuanced understandings of power relations and racial inequality. Adopting such frameworks enables it to challenge dominant narratives and foster a more comprehensive understanding of social phenomena. Such a liberatory approach to sociology develops new areas of research, such as Black feminist digital sociology, which studies of digital technologies and their impact on Black social life primarily from the perspective of Black women.
Key Figures in the Field of Black Sociology
W.E.B DuBois’s study of race and social inequality in The Souls of Black Folk provides the groundwork of the sociological examination of Black American life as conceptualized by his theory of double consciousness. Double consciousness describes the social psychological experience of Black Americans who must constantly navigate between their own cultural identity and the norms of a white-dominated society. In addition to DuBois, numerous scholars have done work that exemplifies Black sociology, but I will focus on three: Oliver Cromwell Cox, Orlando Patterson, and Patricia Hill Collins.
Oliver Cromwell Cox
I chose Oliver Cromwell Cox because I intend to delve deeper into Black sociology from the Caribbean perspective in my future writing. Cox was born in August 1901 in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He moved to the United States during his childhood and later received degrees in economics and sociology from the University of Chicago, including a Ph.D. in Sociology in August 1938. Cox went on to teach at Wiley College, Tuskegee Institute, Wayne State University, and Lincoln University.
Cox’s scholarship primarily challenged dominant theories of race relations from a diasporic perspective that recognized the interrelations of racism and capitalism. He rejected biological determinism, instead arguing that race was a social construction of the power relations of a white supremacist society. His writing also characterized racism as the foundation of the capitalism system and that this system had global implications. Cox’s most influential works include Caste, Class, and Race; Capitalism as a System and Foundations of Capitalism. Overall, Oliver Cromwell Cox’s contributions to sociology have been invaluable in advancing our understanding of race relations both in the United States and globally.
Orlando Patterson, born in Westmoreland, Jamaica, is another Caribbean sociologist whose work has contributed heavily to Black sociology. He studied economics at the University College of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica before completing his doctorate in sociology at the London School of Economics, where he graduated in 1962. He has served as faculty at both schools and now works at Harvard University as the John Cowles Professor of Sociology since 1971.
Patterson’s scholarship challenges mainstream sociological theories of racial relations through an emphasis on the impact of slavery on contemporary society. His seminal work published in 1982, Slavery and Social Death, argues slavery was both a social and economic insinuation that profoundly shaped the lives of enslaved people and their descendants. Other publications include Freedom in the Making of Western Culture; Modern Trafficking, Slavery, and Other Forms of Servitude; and The Ordeal of Integration. In addition to his rigorous research and insightful analysis, Patterson co-founded Cultural Survival, which demonstrates his commitment to social justice for all indigenous people of the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
Patricia Hill Collins
Born in May 1948, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Patricia Hill Collins is one of the founders of the field of Black feminist sociology. She earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Brandeis University in 1969. Her academic journey continued at Harvard University, where she completed her master’s degree in teaching in 1970. After a career in education, Collins returned to Brandeis where she completed a Ph.D. in 1984. Collins’s career as faculty include the University of Cincinnati and the University of Maryland, College Park, where she is now Distinguished University Professor Emerita.
One of the key contributions of Collins’s work is her exploration of the concept of the matrix of domination. The groundbreaking work Black Feminist Thought uses this concept within sociological research to illuminate the intersectionality of race, gender, and class in an investigation of the unique experiences of Black women. Additionally, Collins’s scholarship has also explored the importance of Black feminist activism and community organizing as tools for social change in movements for justice and liberation.
The Current State of Black Sociology
Currently, the field of Black sociology faces several challenges that affect scholars within the discipline. Despite progression, Black sociologists remain underrepresented in academic spaces and receive less recognition for their contributions to the field. Their careers often encounter barriers such as limited access to resources, scholarly networks, and funding opportunities due to biased evaluation criteria. Moreover, the eurocentric quality of white sociology undervalues the experiences and perspectives of marginalized communities, particularly Black people.
Nevertheless, Black sociology remains a crucial component of the discipline due to how it continues to center the experiences and perspectives of the African diaspora. Centering Black people in sociological analysis enables a more comprehensive understanding of social dynamics and power structures. Furthermore, this approach also cultivates more inclusive and equitable approaches to the social sciences. Should the academic racism Black sociologists navigate ever got resolved, the field of Black sociology can actively contribute to dismantling systemic inequalities and fostering social justice.
By centering the experiences and perspectives of Black people, Black sociology challenges dominant explanations of societal phenomena. It addresses the interrelatedness of racism and capitalism affecting the experiences of Black Americans to emphasize social justice and activism guided by a paradigm of intersectionality.
Key figures in the field, such as W.E.B Du Bois, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Orlando Patterson, and Patricia Hill Collins, have made significant contributions to our understanding of how social systems such as racism and capitalism affect the experiences of Black people. Still, Black sociology continues to face challenges, including underrepresentation and the undervaluing of marginalized communities’ perspectives. Despite these challenges, Black sociology remains a crucial area of the discipline.
To learn more, check out the hyperlinks in the essay above.