Durkheim vs. Du Bois: the Underlying Differences

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Diverse, patriotic and powerful – three words describe the atmosphere and culture of United States of America. As America takes great pride in their country and its citizens, that of inclusiveness has been an issue over the course of American history. From a historical standpoint, the United States of America has faced the issue of racism against that of the African American people and the lack of acceptance has resulted in hatred, violence and exclusivity. Due to the pervasive influence of race as a social system being intensely ingrained in society’s thoughts, the attitudes and inclinations and its nuanced effect can dictate the way in which individuals behave and choose to structure their daily lives. From a sociological standpoint, the way in which this issued can be analyzed and eventually solve involves that of sociologists voicing their theories and suggesting what one can do to acquire inclusivity and equality amongst society. Moreover, the impact of these racial undertones in everyday life speaks to the way in which these varying codes of ethics, laws and values in the United States of America are ingrained with different measures of moral and cultural meaning.

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Sociology can be described as the development of systematic ideas of social life; the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society. Through sociology, issues within society can be further analyzed and solved. Through learning about the foundations of modern social theory, one can see how many different theories can be developed and analyzed from multiple different perspectives. Learning about each theory helps propose simple yet important sociological questions such as what does it means to be social?, What does society mean? And what exactly is a theory? Throughout the course these questions were answered and theories were given. Now, to be social means the interactions or orientations between people; units of analysis for interaction and group dynamics and the varying scales of study. Society means the sum total, order and regularity that we observe interactions and the immersion of various social contexts and finally a theory is the analyzing and voicing of the way the world works in a systematic manner as well as the knowledge and statements about society and interactions.

By giving a brief overview of that of racism in American history, a greater understanding for the reasoning behind specific sociological theories will be developed. Over the course of American history, that of the African-American race has been exploited in more ways than one. Due to the dark complexion of their skin, discrimination has been a prevalent issue within the African-American community dating all the way back to the 16th century. In the early 17th century, white European settlers began to have servants or slaves that assisted with the rapidly growing labor needs in the North American colonies. With this, many Africans were brought ashore to assist these American colonies. Though it is impossible to give accurate figures, some historians have estimated that six to seven million slaves were imported to the New World during the 18th century. Through the 18th and 19th century Blacks were kept as slaves to those of whites and were treated as unequal. Over the course of American history there have been multiple attempts to demolish inequality between those of blacks and whites. With events including the Civil War, abolition of slavery and civil rights movement there has also been many key figures within African American history such as William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and many more. These important figures are those that fought for equality for those of color while being colored themselves. They fought for togetherness and through their social movements have produced the equality we have in our society today. All though still far from perfect, we as America have come a long way and with this statement, one of the main ways America has developed into what it is now is analysis through the sociological lens.

One of the most influential people within the history of sociology is Emile Durkheim. Durkheim was a French sociologist who made his presence known through his intelligent theories and reasonings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He developed theories that involved that of the functionalism of social structure, the division of labor as well as anomie. With this, his theories permeated on the concepts of societal norms, values and facts. One of the ways in which Durkheim exhibited his knowledge was by developing what he called structural Functionalism. Structural functionalism is a theory that assists in explaining why a society functions the way it does. This is explained through the relationships within the functioning society between their social institutions that make the society what it is in that present day. In 1938, Emile Durkheim published “Sociological Method”. In this publication Durkheim stated that he defined society as “a category of facts with very distinctive characteristics: It consists of ways of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual and endowed with a power of coercion by reason of which they control him…they consist both of shared representations and actions” (Durkheim, 1938, p.59). In other words, Durkheim believed that society should be “A cohesive group that should embrace each other’s differences and tolerate each other’s inequalities. This integration of a social whole is what he coined as “solidarity”. Overall, Durkheim's sociological method goal was to anticipate the growth and interactions of societal groups. Through Durkheim’s theories one can analyze and criticize other sociologists and authors publications. In this case William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk” as well as “Black Reconstruction of America”. The following paragraphs will attempt to refine and narrow the ideas derived from the theorist above; Durkheim and Du Bois for the purpose of applying them in a contemporary context and more specifically, to help provide an explanation for how one might interpret the socioeconomic racial phenomena observed in society today. Despite the diverse set of races and ethnicities existing in today’s society, inequality still has emerges as dominant.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was one of the most well-known and influential African American public figures in the 19th and early 20th century. Du Bois was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He was a United States civil rights leader and political activist who campaigned for equality for African Americans during the 20th century as he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P) in the year 1909. Du Bois’ activism allowed for those to come together as he assisted in the development of providing African Americans with the equality needed to bring American society back together. In Du Bois’ “The Souls of black Folk- Of Our Spiritual Strivings” he states “The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people, – a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people”. With this, Du Bois is expressing that although change was trying to be made, those of the African American people felt as though not enough change had been made to make a difference in the way they had been being treated. When examining this quote from the perspective of Durkheim, I believe that he would tell Du Bois to be patient at this point in time. One of the main ways in which Durkheim’s sociological method works is through the prediction and measured growth of interactive groups. With those of color feeling as though not enough had been done in terms of inclusion and equality, Durkheim would most likely bring forth his perspective from “The Division of Labor in Society” where he suggests that there are two ways in which a society can develop. This, being a “complex” group, would be considered “organic” according to Durkheim; while a “simple” group is considered “mechanical”. The issue of racism, from Durkheim’s perspective would be considered a complex group due to the fact that in order for a society to develop organically “individuals begin to develop their own personal views of life, and creates individual goals, the members of the society fight for a unity within their differences, where this complex society exhibits an “organic solidarity”. From the opposite end, a simple group develops mechanically due to each member of the society or societal group sharing a common interest and feel as though they are equal members within the group. Therefore Durkheim would tell Du Bois that it is important to set goals and rules based on that of the society; in this case rules between blacks and whites, to ensure that the goal of the group is reached. Du Bois later suggests what must be done in establishing equality when he states in his “The Souls of black Folk - Of the Sons of Master and Man” that “It is, then, the strife of all honorable men of the twentieth century to see that in the future competition of races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and impudence and cruelty. To bring this hope to fruition, we are compelled daily to turn more and more to a conscientious study of the phenomena of race-contact, – to a study frank and fair, and not falsified and colored by our wishes or our fears”.

Another impactful reading from that of Du Bois’ collection is “Black Reconstruction in America”. As this essay is directed towards the historical significant time period where Black folk attempted to reconstruct democracy in America, it seems fitting as Durkheim attempted to change the way in which society was constructed in this approximate time period. In the reading from Du Bois he states “universal suffrage could not function without personal freedom, land and education, and until these institutions were real and effective, only a benevolent dictatorship in the ultimate interests of labor, black and white, could establish democracy”. With this being said he is making the assumption that a society would not function smoothly without personal freedom, land and education etc. Having said this, Durkheim suggests a similar theory in the sense that he believes that if a society functions as a family, equality will be more attainable. Durkheim states “The family does not then owe its virtues to the unity of descent ; it is quite simply a group of individuals who find themselves related to one another in the midst of political society by a particularly strong community of ideas, of sentiments and interests. Consanguinity facilitates this concentration, for it causes mutual adaptation of consciences”. Durkheim is acknowledging the fact that if society were to view itself as a family less problems would arise and it would be much easier for those within the society to connect with each other. In this sense both Du Bois and Durkheim have similar views on how a society would be best run. In addition to this, it can be noted that when talking about the African American Negro, Du Bois has multiple suggestions in terms of how, from a political standpoint, equally has been neglected. He states “It had been insistently and firmly believed by the best thought of the south: (1) that the negro could not work as a free laborer; (2) that the negro could not really be educated , being congenitally inferior; (3) that if political power were given to the negroes it would result virtually in the overthrow of civilization”. Due to these three statements Du Bois gives us, one can see the reasons as to why he believed equally had not been achieved between that of Whites and Blacks. Seeing as these statements hold to be true, I believe that Durkheim’s response to Du Bois would have been simple and straight forward. Durkheim says “to succeed in getting rid of all the prejudices, to show that the corporative system is not solely an institution of the past, it would be necessary to see what transformation it must and can submit in order to adapt itself to modern societies for evidently it cannot exist today as it did in the Middle Ages”. By modernizing society and becoming more inclusive we as individuals can come together as a family like atmosphere to ensure that our future societal norms do not match those of the Middle Ages.

With two influential and intelligent theorists such as Du Bois and Durkheim, there are critiques between the two that must be acknowledged. Du Bois was able to recognize the color line from an economic standpoint. Seeing the color line requires one to examine the evidence from a skeptical point of view from their own eyes. Du Bois had the ability to provide self-evidence of the racial inequalities in which surrounded him. Durkheim on the other hand, found theoretical questions that were of interest and provided evidence based on his findings as he did not have the ability to provide his audience members with self-evidence. This left his findings more open ended while Du Bois’ were taken more so from a literal standpoint as he had experienced these events being an African American male himself. When comparing Durkheim and Du Bois one can see how “in today’s studies of race, for example, bits and pieces from Forms travel separately from it, reduced to glib formulas about the “social construction” of “collective identities”. With this, Durkheim and Du Bois are similar in the sense that due to the racism within the politics of France’s Third Republic their attention was caught. Seeing as though Durkheim did not use self-evidence it would be easy for him to criticize Du Bois as one could say he only view the social constructs of race from the African American point of view but then again, Durkheim did not experience these inequalities first hand and therefore could be criticized upon that.

In all, it is very evident that both Emile Durkheim and W.E.B Du Bois were on the same side and viewed the way in which they hoped society to be developed in a similar sense. Durkheim voiced his opinion from the perspective of the whole society as he was a white male and was unable to provide his audience with self-evidence while Du Bois was able to provide self-evidence but ultimately lacked a whole other side to his argument as he based his observations and opinions of off that of the African Americans. As American society provides its citizens with a very persuasive atmosphere it is very easy to influence American society as a whole. These thoughts and social systems have been engrained in one’s mind and with this it makes it very difficult to change a society in a short period of time. By looking at both Durkheim and Du Bois’ arguments we can see the ways in which they, as important historical figures suggest we as a society change for the better. With this, I will leave you with a quote from Emile Durkheim. “Therefore, it is imperative that all societies set clear goals of rules and objectives as a group. If a group loses its common goal and dissolves the rules that binds their behaviors together, it will turn into a state of “anomie” or a chaotic state where rules are not abided and purpose is forever lost”.

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