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Odyssey in Berlin: W.E.B. Du Bois’ Challenge to Race and the Social Sciences

Barrington S. Edwards

While W.E.B. Du Bois has emerged in history as one of the most reputed Black American scholars, his legacy owes much to Europe. He was fashioned in the respect of a European scholar. Had it not been for his intellectual voyage to Berlin in 1892 (to 1894), he might have been a non-entity worldwide. It was in Germany—as a lone Black American—where Du Bois interfaced with European intellectualism that would transform the race concept. It was in Europe where he warmed to ideas about social change and progress. More significant, it was in Germany where Du Bois—even in his own words—came of age and saw his Blackness (from within a Diasporic prism). Du Bois’s early scientific scholarship on the Black experience was a main source of intellectual and political activism worldwide, paving the way for the American civil rights, Pan-African, Black Power and Diasporic movements throughout the twentieth (and now twenty-first) century.

race: that is, the way we debate race as a tension between nature versus nurture. Through his pioneering empirical studies at the turn of the century, Du Bois successfully employed the scientific method to the race question, thereby not only changing the race question but especially the American social sciences. It was through the lens of 19th-century intellectual and social activism in Berlin that Du Bois would make his singular contribution to the race problem.

Du Bois was a central figure within the broader intellectual movements of the social sciences, happening both in Europe and in the United States. I trace his legacy through nineteenth-century Germany where historical economists (Gustav von Schmoller, Heinrich von Treitschke and Adolf Wagner et al.), objecting to the deductively reasoned economic “laws” of classical economics, established that the economic situation of a society should be understood inductively—that is, through historical means. I work back through the United States where, in studying race, Du Bois would apply this same logic to his sociological studies on the Black experience.

He argued in The Philadelphia Negro and illustrated in the Atlanta University Publications, that the race question was not a question of innate traits—a position held by many social and biological theorists of the time—but that it was a question of economics and politics: race was a social, not biological, problem. Thus, there was an historical basis for what he called a “plexus of social problems” plaguing Black life. Such a conclusion was a radical departure from the work of most non-German sociologists who grounded their work on an evolutionary hierarchical model of progressive racial capacity. His work in empirical sociology was not only pioneering, it was a frontal assault upon the scientific racism of his time. And it was from this springboard that Du Bois would launch the political ideas for which he is most noted.

I raise new questions: How did Europe shape Du Bois’s intellectual and social conscious? (Why is this important?) How was Du Bois different from or similar to mainstream Black European scholars of today? To what extent was Du Bois’s work a precursor to Diasporic challenges to race and racism? How much credit does he deserve in spawning or catalyzing this notion?

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