Because race and social inequality have been central points of concern in sociology, it is not surprising that the discipline has a rich and deep history of contributions from African American sociologists. Indeed, prior to the emergence of sociology as a formal field of inquiry, African Americans were constructing and applying what would later become bedrock tools for sociological research. One such individual was Ida B. Wells (1862–1931), a journalist and social activist who documented and advocated against the lynching of African Americans in the postbellum South. In order to make her case she conducted what may have been the first formal field studies of lynchings. She accumulated statistics on the frequencies of lynchings and assessed that data in terms of the rationals given (at least in public records) for these events and the socioeconomic conditions of the communities where such events occurred. Ultimately, she discovered that occurrences of lynchings were not so much due to perceived or actual incidents of sexual interaction between African American men and white American women, but to vast increases in the business activity and economic success of African Americans residing in or near communities where lynchings occurred. Having conducted her investigations in the late 1800s, Wells stands as a pioneer figure in the statistical analysis of causal relationships.
A few years after Wells’s foray into social analysis, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) initiated a more formal sociological agenda for research on black Americans. In publishing The Philadelphia Negro (1899), Du Bois introduced a multimethod approach (including ethnography, demographic and document analysis, and historical inquiry) for the purpose of producing a comprehensive study of an urban-based, African American residential community. Du Bois also published The Souls of Black Folk (1903), which helped establish, among other objectives, a tradition of social theoretical considerations or the social significance of race, racial identity, and race relations.
Anna Julia Cooper (1858?–1964) was a much-less recognized, but still highly significant, contributor to a black sociological tradition. She was the first African American woman to obtain a PhD in sociology (receiving one in 1925 from the Sorbonne in France, decades after she completed the majority of her writings). In her work, mostly published in the late nineteenth century, she argued for a feminist perspective on the African American condition by exploring what she believed to be the rightful place of women in both civic affairs and on the home front.
In the decades following the contribution of these figures, and after the founding of the first department of sociology in the United States (at the University of Chicago in 1895), other African Americans emerged in the discipline to advance research on, and interpretation of, the African American social condition. In the first half of the twentieth century, the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology produced: E. Franklin Frazier (1894–1962), who pursued a social-organizational approach to studying the African American family and African American adjustment to the urban sphere as a result of the southern to northern migration; Charles S. Johnson (1893–1956), who studied the social-psychological impact of racism and discrimination on African Americans; St. Clair Drake (1911–1990), perhaps more formally known as an anthropologist, but who, with sociology student Horace Cayton (1903–1970), explored the cultural and social-interactive dimensions of African American adjustment to the urban sphere; and Oliver C. Cox (1901–1974), who introduced a Marxist-informed paradigm for exploring what he regarded to be the castelike arrangement of racial groups in the United States, which he also situated in a larger world-systems framework for understanding how capitalism encouraged racial subordination and conflict. Other African American sociologists who published between 1910 and 1950 also contributed to a canon of African American sociology that largely focused on the social problems and prospects associated with African American migration to metropolitan regions (e.g., Ira de Augustine Reid [1901–1968] and George Edmund Haynes [1880–1960]).
By the post–World War II era, many African American sociologists began expressing frustration with the dominant sociological paradigm that emphasized assimilation and adaptation to a rapidly maturing Western capitalist society. Their frustrations were not only based on the historical exclusion of African American sociologists from the canon of the discipline, but also the perceived inadequacy of assimilation perspectives for interpreting the social condition and possibilities of the African American community. This frustration, coupled with the motivation to pursue new frames of thinking, were captured in The Death of White Sociology (1973) edited by Joyce Ladner. In this and other works produced between 1960 and the early 1970s, many African American sociologists began calling for studies of the positive aspects of African American identity and the virtues of varied patterns of family formation, peer associations, and other social processes and organizational dynamics that reflected strong differences between black Americans and others in the American landscape.
While some of the claims and arguments made during this period were challenged in later years for being more polemical than scholarly, the efforts of many African American sociologists during that time did result in the creation of the Association of Black Sociologists in 1972 (which, itself, had origins in the Black Sociology Caucus, which was created following the 1969 American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco). The creation of the association resulted in there being a more pervasive sense that African American sociologists had achieved a visible and durable status in the mainstream areas of the discipline. Since the 1960s, some African American sociologists assumed central positions in the discipline as they helped introduce or define areas of inquiry that constitute much of the contemporary agenda of the discipline. For instance, urban poverty research became a major subfield in sociology as a result of the publications of William Julius Wilson, who emphasized the importance of taking a structural perspective on the social location and concentration of the urban poor as a foundation for better understanding certain behavioral and cultural dynamics that became manifest for this constituency. Furthermore, Patricia Hill Collins has advanced African American feminist theory in sociology through her publications. Moreover, Lawrence Bobo has advanced survey research on racial attitudes in the post–civil rights era in the United States.
Professors Wilson, Collins, and Bobo represent some of the most visible African American sociologists in American sociology. One reason for their visibility is that rather than trying to advance a distinct and autonomous field of African American sociology, they have striven to incorporate the ideas, arguments, and methods of sociology more generally into specific considerations of African Americans. The changing American racial landscape, largely a by-product of the civil rights era, created the space for these sociologists to function more effectively as mainstream scholars. Despite their rich and varied contributions, the African American sociologists of previous periods were often relegated to African American higher educational institutions in a segregated southern region of the country, where their work was not incorporated into the mainstream canon of the discipline. Accordingly, the methodological, theoretical, and empirical contributions of these early figures often do not get registered (or do not get registered as fully as they should) as significant moments in the progression of American sociological thought.
The success of figures such as William Julius Wilson and Elijah Anderson in achieving mainstream status has not come without certain criticism. Contemporarily, those and other higher-profile black sociologists have been read as traditionally liberal rather than critical analysts of American social inequality. Consequently, it has been argued that their achieving of mainstream status came about through their promoting or implying more passive and sanitized assessments of mainstream American society rather than the progressive, critically centered, and Marxist-infused perspectives of early figures such as Du Bois and Cox, who indicted American and global capitalism and its cultural manifestations more directly and fully as causal factors for the enduring social predicament of African Americans.
SEE ALSO American Sociological Association; Sociology
Bracey, John, August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick. 1971. The Black Sociologists: The First Half Century. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
McKee, James B. 1993. Sociology and the Race Problem: The Failure of a Perspective. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Young, Alford A., Jr., and Donald R. Deskins Jr. 2001. Early Traditions of African-American Sociological Thought. Annual Review of Sociology 27: 445–477.
Alford A. Young Jr.