Aldon Morris

Fred Block|Research professor of sociology at U.C. Davis

Professor Aldon Morris Joins CES Advisory Board

The Center for Engaged Scholarship is proud to announce that Professor Aldon Morris from Northwestern University has joined our Advisory Board and will serve as one of our reviewers.  In his new book, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology (University of California Press), Morris demonstrates the advantages of a social science that is motivated by strong normative commitments.

Morris’ central argument is that Du Bois was the pioneering scholar in the United States who developed an empirical sociology based on rigorous methods and extensive data collection.  Du Bois did this in writing The Philadelphia Negro (1899), and in his extensive research program carried out at Atlanta University from 1897 to 1910.   However, from the start, Du Bois envisioned this scientific project as a means to emancipate African Americans from racial subordination.   He believed that empirical social science could ultimately defeat the “scientific racism” that was then dominant within U.S. universities.

Morris draws a powerful contrast between Du Bois’ approach and that of the Chicago School led by Robert Park.  One part of the argument is that Chicago sociologists embarked on their empirical studies of urban neighborhoods a full decade and a half after Du Bois.  Moreover, Park and his colleagues rarely referenced Du Bois’ pioneering work which helped bolster their questionable claims to founding empirical sociology in the U.S.  But the other part is that Park and his colleagues embraced the idea of “objective” social science.  Morris quotes Park as telling his students that they should not be crusaders: “Their role instead was to be that of the calm, detached scientist who investigates race relations with the same objectivity and detachment with which the zoologist dissects the potato bug.” (114)  [Mary Jo Deegan’s work makes a similar point about Park distancing himself from Jane Addams and other feminist reformers.]

But Morris’ point is that Park’s own ideas about race in the 1910’s and 1920’s were anything but objective; they were deeply influenced by the prevailing scientific racism.   Hence, it was the engaged scholar, Du Bois, who anticipated the idea of race as a social construction that serves to justify the subordination of certain groups.  Meanwhile, the “objective” scholar, Robert Park, produced work that was tainted by the biases and preconceptions of his own class and social position.  Over the longer term, it has become obvious that Du Bois’ understanding of race and racism was the more powerful one.  In fact, Morris shows that the key African American scholars of the later Chicago School, E. Franklin Frazier, Horace Cayton, and St. Clair Drake were well aware of their intellectual debt to Du Bois.   In short, Aldon Morris has produced a powerful indictment of “objective” social science and an eloquent defense of engaged scholarship.

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