Philosophy 227 - 12.1.4 Du Bois and Empirical Sociology

W. E. B. Du Bois, a prominent American intellectual and civil rights activist, pioneered the use of empirical methods in the field of sociology. When Du Bois first engaged with sociology, the young field of study was largely theoretical. Du Bois criticized early sociologists for making broad generalizations about human societies based on vague, personal impressions rather than first seeking to gather evidence (Westbrook 2018, 200). Du Bois set out to convert sociology into a scientific discipline.

After receiving his PhD from Harvard University in 1895, Du Bois came to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Here he conducted a complex investigation into the obstacles that African Americans faced in becoming self-supporting. Over 15 months, Du Bois conducted 2,500 door-to-door interviews, collecting data on demographics, education, literacy, occupation, health, membership in civic organizations, criminality, rates of alcoholism, income levels, home ownership rates, voting practices, and the integration of African Americans into the larger society. He compared his findings with data compiled by the US Census Bureau and other sources to gain more insight. For example, comparing his data regarding the occupations of people living in the Seventh Ward, an African American neighborhood, to 1890 census data on the occupations of people in the whole of Philadelphia, he found that a significantly greater percentage of African Americans were engaged in low-skilled, low-paying occupations. Du Bois’s study and his subsequent book, entitled The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, became the first empirical analysis of racism in the United States.

Studio photograph of W.E.B. Du Bois. He wears a formal jacket and sports a neatly trimmed beard and moustache.
Figure 12.3 W.E.B. Du Bois pioneered the use of empirical methods in the field of sociology. (credit: “W.E.B. Du Bois by James E. Purdy, 1907” by James E. Purdy National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia, Public Domain)

Today we take for granted our ability to find statistics such as the divorce rate, the crime rate, or the average salary for a job in the region where we live. However, the collection of this kind of data and its use as a tool to inform public policies aimed at addressing social problems is a product of Du Bois’s determination to bring science to the study of social issues.

Hand-drawn bar graph showing that African Americans are disproportionately represented in Domestic and Personal Service and underrepresented in Manufacturing and Mechanical Industries.
Figure 12.4 This bar graph from Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, published in 1899, illustrates his conclusion that African Americans living in the Seventh Ward were less likely to work in the skilled professions of manufacturing and mechanical industries and more likely to work in unskilled positions of domestic labor. This data-based approach to studying human experiences was revolutionary at the time. Note that at this time, the term Negroes was commonly used to describe Black Americans. (credit: The Philadelphia Negro, p. 109, by W. E. B. Du Bois, Google Books, Public Domain)
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