Racism, Colonialism, and Modernity: The Sociology of W.E.B. Du Bois

Aldon Morris, Michael Schwartz*, José Itzigsohn

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Du Bois was the founder of American scientific empirical sociology and one of the most important social theorists of the twentieth century. Today, many mainstream sociologists are willing to accept that empirical sociology in American started with Du Bois and the Atlanta school. But they are not aware that Du Bois also developed a distinct theoretical approach that understood modernity as racialized and put racism and colonialism at the center of historical capitalism. He introduced and documented the color line as a global historical social structure that affects the opportunities, experiences, and subjectivities of people around the world. His theoretical approach was global and historical in its perspective, combining the analysis of macrostructures and subjective experiences. Du Bois constructed a bottom-up sociology that interrogated the social world from the perspective of the oppressed and anchored his analysis in a subaltern standpoint connecting lived experiences and social analyses. The sociology of W.E.B. Du Bois was critically shaped by the institutional structures in which he was embedded. For Du Bois and his North American contemporaries, the surrounding structure included a rigorous form of segregation that exercised a profound influence on the evidential, analytic, and theoretical substance of scholarship on both sides of the racial divide. Racial oppression—inside and outside the academic world—led Du Bois and other Black sociologists to develop a relevant politically engaged sociology that addressed pressing issues of their era and ours. Black sociologists—and their intellectual and political allies who stood outside the White male sociological establishment—countered with an explicitly activist and emancipatory sociology that signaled a distinct direction for the young discipline. Although erased for over a century, this direction is as relevant for sociology today as it was during Du Bois’s days.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHandbooks of Sociology and Social Research
PublisherSpringer Science and Business Media B.V.
Number of pages23
StatePublished - 2021

Publication series

NameHandbooks of Sociology and Social Research
ISSN (Print)1389-6903
ISSN (Electronic)2542-839X


  • Colonialism
  • Emancipatory sociology
  • Empire
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities
  • Inequality
  • Institutional discrimination
  • Jim Crow sociology
  • Oppression and liberation
  • Racial and colonial capitalism
  • Scholarship from the periphery
  • Social movements
  • The color line

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Psychology (miscellaneous)


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