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Essay on Du Boi's Notion of ‘Double Consciousness’

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Du Boi’s notion of ‘Double Consciousness’ and why it was so transformative to social theory.

Du Bois was an American sociologist, activist, and author. He was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and graduated from Fisk University in Nashville and was also the first black American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. Until recently Du Bois’ contributions to sociology have been greatly overlooked especially his ideas revolving around the notion of ‘double consciousness. Du Bois’ ideas and concepts of society were formed very shortly after the American civil war and the abolishment of slavery and Du Bois’ early years were spent in the black reconstruction in America. His own personal life experiences as an African American at a revolutionary point in history is why these concepts are so ground-breaking in the fight for racial equality. Throughout my critical analysis of Du Bois’ study of double consciousness I will focus on; the social constructs surrounding race including Du Bois’ notion of double consciousness and own personal relation to his sociological understanding of these concepts and ideas, as well as how it has impacted sociology.

Du Bois’ notion of double consciousness describes an individual who has been split into competing identities. It’s the internal rivalry of ‘alienation and disenfranchisement’ of one identity which is posed as inescapable alongside the ideal identities that appears unattainable. (Lyubansky and Eidelson, 2005). Du Bois poses this concept in his novel ‘The souls of black folk’ where he states, “One ever feels his twoness, -an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body” (W.E.B Du Bois, (1903, p.2). It is seen that social interaction is the process in which the self emerges and can be portrayed as the self-being developed from the internalized view that is held by society. (Itzigsohn and Brown, 2015). The gift of second sight is less of an occasional sensation but a constant form of persistent consciousness that is embedded in socio-culture as a theoretical construct and not an implication of biological race. (Pittman, 2017). The concept of splitting the souls is what Du Bois refers to as twoness; the feeling of being black and American. As a result, not fully fulfilling an integrated position in the whole community. Du Bois’ idea of twoness that has developed around the psychological demand in ‘soul splitting’ has been commented on in many scientific articles many stating the effect on individuals of marginalization in societies, Recognition is so crucial to one’s own subjective understanding that we may develop as many social selves as there are individuals that recognize us (James,(2010 p. 294). The overriding community rejects the subject’s humanity and community which then becomes a source of provision in the oppressive state that is the ‘veil’. The veil being the inability to see the humanity of the racially excluded by the dominant culture. Du Bois often supports his account of the problems of black people and deals with the issue of double consciousness with the concept that it commonly involves leading his readers “within the veil” and bringing clarity and a sense of the black experience to the white population. However, Du Bois’ concept of ‘double consciousness’ alongside his ideas surrounding ‘the veil’ have brought up several points of contention including Gooding-Williams argument of Du Bois’ freedom from double consciousness. If double consciousness is prevalent for people of colour or marginalized groups and a structural issue in society how has Du Bois conquered and acquired a “true self-conscious manhood” (Gooding-Williams,( 2009, p.85).

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Du Bois’ work is seen by many to have changed the practice of sociology as a discipline through using his own insights as a black man in his work when using practical research methods while reflecting on how the color line and lack of social mobility affect urban communities that were so overlooked for such a long time. He was a pioneer of conducting comprehensive community social surveys, surrounding the documentation of black community life, and in exploring the theory of self through black-white relations. (Bobo, 2000). Du Bois created a new way of discussing racialization in his biographical writings in a style that combines his intellectual ideas with his frustration surrounding academic communication. Du Bois’ belief that the documentation of a racialized experience demanded an intense literary understanding is what fuelled his innovative writing and research style which is seen as a methodical experiment generated from the recognition that nothing written by itself could convey his feelings. However, there are arguments to suggest that his specific sheltered upbringing I the New England black community of Great Barrington is seen by some critics to be inauthentic because of its detachment from slavery in comparison to his time spent in the south, where Du Bois was able to effectively and authentically discover and internalize a new way of being black. In comparison to the criticism, many people including Gilroy believe that it is his background that made his discovery of the notion of double consciousness so transformative in sociology. “But turning my gaze from fruitless word. -twisting and facing the facts of my own social situation and the racial world, I determined to put science into sociology through the study of the condition and problems of my own group. I was going to study the facts, any and all the facts, concerning the American Negro and his plight, and by measurement and comparison and research, work up to any valid generalization which I could” (Du Bois, (1940 p.51). He saw a need for new analytical languages that would covey the issues between social relations linked to racial relegation and legitimize their approaches for surmounting it. This concept of gauging the complexity of social standing in relation to politics and conventional western morality “was also an important influence on the development of black literary modernism. “(Gilroy (1993, p.115). Du Bios’ was able to use his experience of being black as well as becoming black in two very racially distinct communities. He was honest about the privilege he grew up with as well as the way he had to learn the difficulties of racialized living for himself when he left the protected segregated environment of Great Barrington.

Du Bois’ foundational work surrounding race came at such a crucial time in history, especially with the industrial revolution, economic growth and the black reconstruction in America in the late 1800s when race was such a fundamentally structural issue, ‘race is not only a field of study but something that is at issue in the fundamental structure of social knowledge’ (Bhambra.G. K, 2013 (quoted in(Meer and Nayak, 2013) ). In addition to the historical importance, his work surrounding the concept of double consciousness broke down the false claim that black people and marginalized groups are responsible for their own mobility and formation in society and offered an explanation that in the modern world of our dominant white society we project our own Ideas onto people of color and manipulate their own view of themselves and their value in society. Du Bios states in his study ‘The Philadelphia Negro’ is that what keeps ‘the negro’ and his children out of decent employment is a ‘dislike for his blood’(The Philadelphia Negro, 2010, p.322). This central idea of the process of racialization is why his social theories surrounding race and double consciousness is so transformative in sociology as it presents the experiences of a group of people alongside the wider social context, “his work goes beyond treating race as a discrete concept and instead situates the process of racializing and racialization at the core of the formation and the organization of the modern world.” (Itzigsohn and Brown, 2015). With this idea of racialization, it allows modern-day Sociologists to expand on his concept and idea of the veil which is representing the oppressive nature of societies to stereotype racial groups (Smaje. C, 1997) and link it with twoness the idea of living with two natures into other areas of social inequality including gender and class as well as race. For example, with the rise of feminist sociological theory in the 1990s there have been arguments to suggest that female is another competing identity in an androcentric world and can also be linked to the growing concept of intersectionality (Collins, 2010) when layering these identities. (Thomas, 2020). “Feminist writers, for instance, have suggested that “female” is another competing identity, and therefore that the Black female consciousness is triple, the Black female Hispanic consciousness quadruple, and so on.” (Rawls, 2000). Furthermore, Du Bois’ theories surrounding colour have been revolutionary in society in aiding to mold our knowledge of the ways that racial practices are acted out through structuring and how the color was fundamentally unavoidable in the face of white supremacy and its desires for racial exclusion. In conjunction with this radical notion, Anna Brand believes that “we can trace the ways that racial processes are constituted and resisted across different temporalities of racism.” (Brand, 2017).

In conclusion, Du Bois’ work was so transformative to sociology because it change the practice of and showed new ways to produce and reflect on ideas including innovative analytical language, and perceptive personal and historical references in his work while using empirical research and quantitative as well as qualitative analysis. He also makes a huge contribution to our philosophical understanding of race and the race problem, because he treats it as a philosophical discussion instead of a scientific concept. (Gooding-Williams, 2017). I believe his notion of double consciousness is still incredibly important in our current society as a tool to perceive how self-formation is constrained in a racialized civilization. Du Bois was also transformative in social theory as he submerged himself in his hypothesis and lived through his own revelations and concepts which is an innovative part of his sociological ideas.

Reference list

  1. Bobo, L. D. (2000) “Reclaiming a Du Boisian Perspective on Racial Attitudes,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 568(1), pp. 186–202.
  2. Brand, A. L. (2017) “The duality of space: The built world of Du Bois’ double-consciousness,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 36(1), pp. 3–22.
  3. Du Bios, W. E. B. (2007) The Philadelphia Negro, Google Books, Lightening Source
  4. Du Bois, W. E. B. (William E. B. and internet archive (1968) Dusk of dawn; an essay toward an autobiography of a race concept, Internet Archive. New York, Schocken Books, p. 7.
  5. Du Bois, W. E. B, ANDERSON, E. and EATON, I. (1996) “Front Matter,” in The Philadelphia Negro. University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 1-4.
  6. Gilroy, P. (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Google Books. Harvard University Press, p. 114,115.
  7. Gooding Williams, R. (2009) “Front Matter,” in In the Shadow of Du Bois. Harvard University Press, pp. i–vi. Available at: https:www.jstor.orgstablej.ctvjhzqcr (Accessed: December 21, 2020).
  8. Gooding-Williams, R. (2017) W.E.B. Du Bois (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy),
  9. Hill Collins, P. and Bilge, S. (2020) Intersectionality, Google Books, Wiley.
  10. Itzigsohn, J. and Brown, K. (2015) “SOCIOLOGY AND THE THEORY OF DOUBLE CONSCIOUSNESS,” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 12(2), pp. 231–248.
  11. James, W. (2007) The Principles of Psychology, Google Books, Lightening Source.
  12. Lyubansky, M. and Eidelson, R. J. (2005) “Revisiting Du Bois: The Relationship Between African American Double Consciousness and Beliefs About Racial and National Group Experiences,” Journal of Black Psychology, 31(1), pp. 3–26. doi: 10.11770095798404268289.
  13. Meer, N. and Nayak, A. (2013) “Race Ends Where? Race, Racism and Contemporary Sociology,” Sociology, 49(6), pp. NP3–NP20.
  14. Pittman, J. P. (2017) Double Consciousness, Available at: (Accessed: December 21, 2020).
  15. Rawls, A. W. (2000) “‘Race’ as an Interaction Order Phenomenon: W.E.B. Du Bois’s ‘Double Consciousness’ Thesis Revisited,” Sociological Theory, 18(2), pp. 241–274.
  16. Smaje, C. (1997) “NOT JUST A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT: THEORISING RACE AND ETHNICITY,” Sociology, 31(2), pp. 307–327.
  17. Thomas, T. (2020) The Double, Double Consciousness: Gender Construction in America – Vol 2, Number 1 SummerFall 2020 – African American Studies Journal – CCSU Newsletter.

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