Sociation Today® 
The Official Journal
The North Carolina
Association: A 
Refereed Web-Based 
ISSN 1542-6300
Editorial Board:

George H. Conklin,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Richard Dixon,

Chien Ju Huang,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Ken Land,
 Duke University

Miles Simpson,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Ron Wimberley,
 N.C. State University

Robert Wortham,
 North Carolina
 Central University




Volume 3, Number 1
Spring 2005

Introduction to the Sociology of W.E.B. Dubois

Robert A. Wortham
North Carolina Central University

    Service learning, policy sociology, public sociology, doing sociology, the sociological imagination, and methodological triangulation are “buzz words” that characterize contemporary sociology.  Students are encouraged to link the academic study of society and practical work experience.  Evaluation research is stressed.  How effective are current social programs designed to improve quality of life?  How might social institutions be catalysts for change?  How might our sociological findings impact society?  Does our research have policy implications?  In the classroom do we encourage students to exercise their sociological imaginations, and how often do we inspire (or require) students to do sociology?  Furthermore, are students encouraged to apply multiple theoretical perspectives in their study of social issues, and are multiple methodological approaches utilized?  This sociological litany sounds so contemporary; yet it is not.  If one were to step back and consider W.E.B. Du Bois’ sociological legacy, one would discover that he was a pioneer in service learning, policy and public sociology and the utilization of methodological triangulation.  He was also a leader in the field of social problems even though his contributions have been virtually ignored.

    Du Bois’ contribution to the development of scientific sociology in America is extensive.  If fact, he is one of the “founding figures” in American sociology in general (Wortham, 2005a) and the sociology of religion in particular (Wortham, 2005b).  The Philadelphia Negro (1996, [1899]), is one of the first studies in urban ecology predating the work of Park and Burgess and the “Chicago School” by almost twenty years.  This study follows Durkheim’s Suicide by only two years and is equal in its methodological rigor.  Yet, Durkheim’s study on suicide continues to be widely read while Du Bois’ study of the quality of life of Philadelphia’s African American population remains relatively obscure.  The Negro Church (2003a, [1903a]), volume 8 of the Atlanta University Studies on the Negro Problem, appears to be the first empirically based sociological study of a religious organization (Zuckerman, Barnes and Cady, 2003).  Finally, Du Bois went to Atlanta University in 1897 to teach sociology at the undergraduate and graduate levels and to head the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory.  From 1896 to 1917, twenty volumes from the annual “Conferences for the Study of the Negro Problems” were published, and from 1897 to 1913, fifteen of these volumes were either edited or co-edited by Du Bois.  Wright (2002a, 2002b and 2002c) makes a convincing argument for identifying the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory as the first U.S. school of sociology.  Du Bois was a strong visionary leader, students were trained to do sociological research, studies were published and ties were forged with community agencies.  Thus, a further look at Du Bois and the “Atlanta School” is warranted.

Du Bois and the Atlanta University Sociology Curriculum

    Du Bois provided an outline of the program of undergraduate and graduate sociological study at Atlanta University and a description of the “Conference” research cycle in an early 1903 essay (1995, [1903b]).  The undergraduate program consisted of year-long study of economics during the junior year and a year-long study of sociology during the senior year.  Rather than utilizing standard textbooks in each field, Du Bois structured a program that featured extensive library research and the reading of primary sources.  Fieldwork was incorporated as an active learning activity, and students received training in qualitative and quantitative research methodologies.   More specifically, students received training in ethnography, ecological analysis and statistics.  Data collected by the junior and senior classes on selected social problems often were incorporated in the published proceedings of the annual conferences on the study of “the Negro Problem.”  The study on religion (2003a, [1903a]) is a case in point.

    The first study on religion, The Negro Church (2003a, [1903a]), illustrates Du Bois’ use of methodological triangulation and student involvement in the research process.  This study utilized census data, survey data, student research and ethnographic description.

Ecological Analysis

    Extensive use was made of the 1890 Census of Religious Bodies data.  In a section addressing the state of the Negro Church in 1890 (pp 37-49), Du Bois included a national level table identifying all denominations with African American membership.  For each denomination information was reported on number of organizations and church buildings, seating capacity, property value and membership.  In 1890 there were 23,770 Negro Churches with an approximate seating capacity of 6,800,085 persons and an estimated membership of 2,673,977 persons.  From these data one could surmise that the average church membership was 112.5 persons and that each church utilized approximately 39 % of its seating capacity.  This is an interesting finding given that today’s estimates for the total population’s church membership and attendance are in the 60% and 40% range respectively (Johnstone, 2004; Finke and Stark, 2005).  The additional tables in the section provide the same type information by state and selected religious groups (Regular Baptists [Colored], African Methodist Episcopal, African Union Methodist Protestant, Congregational Methodist [Colored], African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Colored Methodist Episcopal and Cumberland Presbyterian [Colored]) by state.

Survey Analysis

    The results of a survey of 1,339 African American public school age children in Atlanta (pp. 185-190) were included also.  Several of the major findings are included in the following reconstructed table (see Table 1 below).

                    Table 1

     Religiosity of Atlanta Public School Age
                  Children, 1902

Survey Question and Primary          Response
      Response                       Percent

1.  Are you a Chrisitan?
       Yes                             37%

2.  Do you go to church?                
       Yes                             92%

3.  Do you like to go to church?
       Yes                             98%
4.  Why do you liike a certain church
    the best?
       On account of parents
       and relatives                   57%

5.  What does it mean to be a
        To serve God                   16%

*Double counting or some other type of
calculation error is evident here as the
total number of responses is 1,392 cases.
Du Bois identifies the sample size
as 1,339 cases. Errors were possible
given that the data were probably
hand tabulated.
Source:  The Negro Church (2003a [1903a]).

    The data reveal that almost all school age children went to church and enjoyed it.  The more contemporary childrearing theory of religious involvement (Bainbridge, 1990) also appears to be supported by Du Bois’ historical data.  More than a third of the children viewed themselves as Christian and one in six children seemed to understand that being a Christian involved some type of service.  Du Bois (2003a, [1903a]: 189) also noted that similar data broken down by age suggest that the younger children (aged 7-12) “had the clearer and simpler idea of the direct connection of goodness and Christianity” while the older children (aged 13 and over) viewed Christianity as having a “reference to some higher will.”  Du Bois was aware that developmental differences in the perception and expression of religious experience exist.  In more recent years, Fowler (1981), has articulated a developmental model of faith development known as “the stages of faith.”

Student Fieldwork

   The Negro Church (pp 69-79) also includes a study of 54 Negro Churches in Atlanta that was conducted by the students in Atlanta University’s 1902-1903 junior and senior classes.  The students collected demographic data on the different churches following the Census of Religious Bodies format as well as helping provide ethnographic descriptions of each congregation.  Today, this latter activity is known as “congregational analysis” (Woolever and Bruce, 2002), while the former is an example of “neighborhood” or “community analysis” which became one of the hallmarks of the “Chicago School.”

    Students collected demographic information on the following characteristics: membership claimed, active membership, value of church property and 1902 church income.  Summary data were provided for all 54 congregations as well as denominational summaries for Baptist, Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal, Colored Methodist Episcopal churches and a miscellaneous category.  A brief look at the summary table for the 54 congregations indicates that the average Black Church claimed 301.1 members with an average active membership of 156.0.  Thus, roughly one in two (51.8 %) members were considered active.  Du Bois maintained that given Atlanta’s 1900 African American population (35,727), a little less than half (45.5 %) was church members.  From this one could deduce that one-fourth (23.6 %) of the African American population held active membership.

    Here again, these findings provide historical support for a more recent finding in the sociology of religion literature.  While Hadaway, Marler and Chaves (1993) note that poll and survey data indicate that 40 % of Americans are active church members, actual membership counts based on visits to individual congregations indicate that the active membership is 20 %.  Remember, the student study of Black Churches in Atlanta was based on data collected for 54 different congregations and involved visits to each congregation.  The student data suggest that the active church membership rate for African Americans was just a few percentage points higher.

Ethnographic Description

    The study of the Atlanta Black Church also included ethnographic descriptions of each congregation.  An excerpt from the student summary observations is provided below (p. 73):

The pastors of the Congregational, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches have excellent characters, and are doing much towards lifting the moral standard and religious life of the people.  Not only are they earnest workers, but they are also well equipped for their work.  They are well educated ….  They have excellent reputations, and are held in high esteem by their Alma Maters….  The character of the members of these churches is good.  They are quiet and intelligent, and there is no emotionalism in the churches.  Most of the members of these churches are at least high school graduates, and a large per cent, is composed of business and professional men and women.

    Information is provided concerning the religious leadership’s educational background and character.  These are issues that had troubled Du Bois.  His criticisms of the Black Church had addressed the limited educational training of the clergy as well as the questionable character of some members of the clergy (Du Bois, 1996 [1899]; 2003a [1903a]).  The “emotionalism” associated with Southern Black Churches had also been an issue for Du Bois (1994, [1903c]).  Given the educational and occupational status of the members it appears that these churches appealed to the African American middle and upper class.  Throughout his writings on religion Du Bois commented on the association between religious affiliation and social class and noted the presence of class distinctions within the Black Church.  The following description  P. 37) of a small, thirty-member Christian church portrays this class division and Du Bois’ critical assessment of the clergy.

The leader and pastor is a man of questionable character.  The members are mainly the middle working classes of average intelligence.  Very little charitable and relief work is done because the church has a hard time to keep on its feet.  The church drew out of No. 37 [an African Methodist Episcopal church] in 1897 and established this church, and since that time the young church has been struggling for existence.  The church building is a large barn-like structure, roughly finished on the outside and rather crudely furnished on the inside.  It will accommodate about 400 people.

    Du Bois believed that the church could assist with the social and economic improvement of the African American community.  However, this was unlikely where the character of the leadership was in question and the church held too much debt.  In The Negro Church (2003a [1903a]) and in The Philadelphia Negro (1996, [1899]) Du Bois argued that the church was the center of African American life.  Here societal norms were reinforced, educational and leadership opportunities were offered, cultural legacies were preserved and social support networks were provided.

Du Bois and the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory

    While undergraduates received basic training in the fundamentals of social research, the sociology graduate program stressed original research, and students played a more direct role in carrying out the work of the sociological laboratory (Du Bois, 1995, [1905]; 1995 [1903b]).  Du Bois envisioned a program where each year a particular aspect of “the Negro Problem,” like the family, crime or education, would be selected for in depth scientific study.  Survey instruments would be prepared and distributed, and data would be collected over a six to eight month period.  An annual meeting would be held to discuss the findings of the selected year - long study, and a final report would be published. 

    The Atlanta Sociological Laboratory was to become a center for social inquiry, where aspects of “the Negro Problem could be studied empirically, and policy implications could be grounded in scientific fact rather than opinion and ideology.  Du Bois believed that if the causes and characteristics of inequality could be displayed for public view, actions would be taken to rectify these conditions.  Thus, each volume of the annual “Atlanta University Study on the Negro Problems” included a policy implications section.  A cycle of nine studies and a summary study was projected, and this process involving the study of the same subject areas was to be completed every ten years.  Consequently, improvement in the social and economic status of the African American community could be monitored (Du Bois, 1995 [1905]; 1995 [1903b]; Wright, 2002c).  Two research cycles were completed (see below) and covered such issues as health, business opportunities, work, education, family, religion and crime.

List of The Atlanta University Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems Publications*

A.  Cycle One

  1. Mortality among Negroes in Cities  (1896), Thomas N. Chase. 
  2. Social and Physical Condition of Negroes in Cities (1897), Thomas N.Chase.
  3. Some Efforts of American Negroes for their own Betterment (1898), W.E.B. Du Bois.
  4. The Negro in Business (1899), W.E.B. Du Bois.
  5. The College-Bred Negro (1900), W.E.B. Du Bois.
  6. The Negro Common School (1901), W.E.B. Du Bois.
  7. The Negro Artisan (1902), W.E.B. Du Bois.
  8. The Negro Church (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois.
  9. Some Notes on Negro Crime Particularly in Georgia (1904), W.E.B. Du Bois.
  10. A Select Bibliography of the American Negro (1905), W.E.B. Du Bois.



    B. Cycle 2 

  12. The Health and Physique of the Negro American (1906), W.E.B. Du Bois.
  13. Economic Co-operation among Negro Americans (1907), W.E.B. Du Bois.
  14. The Negro American Family (1908), W.E.B. Du Bois.
  15. Efforts for Social Betterment among Negro Americans (1909), W.E.B. Du Bois.
  16. The College-Bred Negro American (1910), W.E.B. Du Bois and Augustus Granville Dill.
  17. The Common School and the American Negro (1911), W.E.B. Du Bois and Augustus Granville Dill.
  18. The Negro American Artisan (1912), W.E.B. Du Bois and Augustus Granville Dill.
  19. Morals and Manners among Negro Americans (1913), W.E.B. Du Bois and Augustus Granville Dill.
  20. Economic Co-operation among the Negroes of Georgia (1917), Thomas I. Brownn.
  21. Select Discussions of Race Problems (1915), J.A. Bigham. 

* The Atlanta University Press published all volumes.

    Twenty volumes on the scientific study of “the Negro Problem” were published by Atlanta University from 1896 – 1917, and Du Bois played a critical role in editing or co-editing fifteen volumes.  Although Du Bois left Atlanta University in 1910 to work with the NAACP and assume the editorship of the organization’s major publication, The Crisis, he continued to work with the annual Atlanta Sociological Laboratory publications through 1913.  After that only two more volumes were produced.  Throughout his first tenure at Atlanta University, Du Bois commented on the need for additional funds to conduct the laboratory’s work.  Equipment to aid with statistical analysis was lacking, and the center was understaffed.  The last volume was published in 1917 and the work of the sociological laboratory continued to 1924  (Wright, 2002a; 2002b; 2002c).

    The Atlanta Sociological Laboratory continued to have a profound influence on Du Bois even after he assumed the editorship of The Crisis.  In Darkwater:  Voices from within the Veil (2003b, [1921]: 47-48), Du Bois referred to the Atlanta experience as his “real life work” and a period of self-discovery.  Here he forged strong friendships, studied the human condition and began to understand the magnitude of American racial inequality.  After his initial Atlanta University experience, he was no longer the “cold,” detached, “scientific investigator” who had studied the social problems of African Americans in Philadelphia.  While excerpts from the first Atlanta University study on religion were used to demonstrate Du Bois’ use of methodological triangulation, a brief summary of some of the key findings of the 1904 study on crime are provided to underscore Du Bois’ understanding of the depths of “the Negro Problem.” 

Some Notes on Negro Crime Particularly in Georgia (1904)

    Employing a contextual approach to the study of crime in Georgia, Du Bois (1904) focuses on the association between crime and social status and maintained that crime among African Americans was linked to the status inequality inherent in the legacy of slavery and the marginal status of African Americans following Emancipation.  Crime was linked with status inequality and such structural factors as the demand for prison labor and the failure to provide training centers for troubled youth.  A weak link was also noted between crime and literacy.  Du Bois (1904: 8) argued that crime “among Southern Negroes is a symptom of wrong social conditions – of a stress of life greater than a large part of the community can bear.”  The resemblance between Du Bois’ reflections on crime and stratification and Merton’s (1968) structure-strain theory of deviance is strong.  Could Du Bois have been one of the first to note and empirically test the association between crime and poverty and other forms of structured inequality?  He was obviously addressing the fact that crime may be a by-product of the mismatch between a society’s goals and acceptable means for achieving those goals.

    Looking at the 1890 census data on crime, Du Bois expressed concern over the quality and accuracy of the national data.  Questions about male overrepresentation and variations in the reporting of different types of crime were acknowledged.  Du Bois (1904: 9-16) noted that although African Americans accounted for one-fifth of the crimes committed, they represented only one-eighth on the total population.  Furthermore, four out of five African American prisoners lived in the South and one out of two African American prisoners were aged 20 to 30.  Concerns over the racial and age bias in crime remain contemporary social issues (Kornblum, Julian and Smith, 2004).

    Turning to state, county and community level data for Georgia, Du Bois (1904: 35-48, 60-64) observed that crime and population heterogeneity varied directly.  Racial differences in the perception of African American crime were also noted as a selection of ethnographic reports included in the study revealed that whites were more likely than African Americans to perceive African American crime as increasing.  Looking more specifically at state level statistics, Du Bois documents a declining trend with respect to the amount of African American crime, the number of lynchings and the demand for prison labor.  On the other hand, increases in African American literacy and property ownership were recognized.  Articulating what is now referred to as the “stratification hypothesis” (Stark, 2004), Du Bois argued that African American crime would continue its decline as reductions in African American status inequality continued. 

    The study on crime (pp. 54-55) also included an interesting discussion of African American children’s perception of laws, the police and the courts.  The following reconstructed table (Table 3) is based on the survey responses of 1,500 African American children in the Atlanta public schools aged 9-15.

                 Table 2
Young African American Atlanta Public
School Children's Perception of Crime

Survey Topic and           Response 
Primary Resonses           Percent

1.  Laws are made:
     For protection          39%
     To keep peace
       and order             21%
     To govern or
       rule people            9%

2. Courts exist:
     To determine guilt
       or innocence          27%
     To see all laws are
       obeyed                15%
     To settle
       matters               15%
     For bad
       people                 5%

3.  Policemen are for the
      purpose of:
      Arresting people       35%
      Protecting people      23%

4. Policemen are usually:
      Kind                   41%
      Unkind                 31%
      Variable (kind or
      unkind)                14%

*The children surveyed were aged
9-15.  The survey was probably
conducted in 1903.  The annual
conference addrerssing crime was
held May 24, 1904.
Source: Du Bois, Some Notes on Negro Crime Particularly in Georgia (1904).

    The data indicate that the majority of the younger school age children understood the primary purpose and function of the law and the court system.  Seven out of ten children seemed to understand that laws exist to provide protection and provide some sense of peace or order.  Likewise, sixty percent of the younger children surveyed were aware that the courts determine guilt or innocence, settle issues, enforce the laws or provide some type of punishment (i.e. they are “for bad people”).  The children were fairly clear about the purpose of policemen, but expressed more disagreement when it came to their perception of the police.  Again, almost 6 out of ten younger students believed that a policeman’s job was to arrest people and to protect people; however, only four in ten younger children perceived the police as being kind.  Overall, these data suggest that these younger children understood the purpose and intent of these three measures of social control. 

    Social problems are often addressed from cultural and / or structural perspectives.  Du Bois (1904: 65-66) evoked both approaches in the concluding policy recommendations section, which addressed such issues as the amount of crime, the causes of crime, possible cures, and an appeal to the white community.  While concluding that African American crime was associated with the African American’s marginal social status, the persistence of slavery, limited labor market participation and a flawed judicial system, Du Bois argued that churches, the school system, job training centers and youth centers could impact African American moral standards in a positive manner.  The white community could partner with the African American community by encouraging judicial reform, eliminating the prison labor program and supporting prisoner rehabilitation efforts.  Once again it was clear that Du Bois believed reform would flow naturally from the presentation of scientific facts.  The major problem was overcoming ignorance and fear.

Du Bois’ Sociological Legacy

    From 1896 – 1913 Du Bois provided extensive sociological reflection on the nature of “the Negro Problem.”  While exploring the various social problems faced by the African American community, Du Bois advanced the development of scientific sociology and became a seminal voice in American sociology.  His awareness of the problems associated with researcher bias and his use of methodological triangulation reveal that he was quite aware of the strengths and limitations of the empirical approach to the study of social phenomena.  Furthermore, while he was aware of the structural dimensions of inequality, he observed that social change and reform were grounded in structural and cultural solutions.  He was also keenly aware that power relationships could impact both.

    In reviewing Du Bois’ pivotal involvement with the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory (1898-1910/1913), perhaps it is easier to see why Wright (2002a; 2002b; 2002c) concludes that the “Atlanta School” was the first sociological school in the U.S.  Du Bois hoped that training would be provided for a new generation of researchers and that the ongoing progress being made in achieving racial equality would be chronicled scientifically.  Du Bois’ empirical explorations on religion, crime, urban life and social problems were indeed pioneering (Zuckerman, 2004; Wortham, 2005a; 2005b).  Perhaps now W.E.B. Du Bois may be formally recognized as a founding figure in the American sociological tradition.


Bainbridge, William Sims.  1990.  “Explaining the Church Member Rate.”  Social Forces 68: 1287-1296.

Du Bois, W.E.B.  [1899] 1996.  The Philadelphia Negro, introduction by Elijah Anderson.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

----- [1903a] 2003.  The Negro Church, introduction by Phil Zuckerman, Sandra Barnes, and Daniel Cady.  Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

-----[1903b] 1995.  “The Laboratory in Sociology at Atlanta University.”  In W.E.B. Du Bois: A Reader, edited by D.L. Lewis, pp. 165-168.  New York: A John Macrae / Owl Book, Henry Holt and Company.

----- [1903c] 1994.  The Souls of Black Folk.  New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

-----1904.  Some Notes on Negro Crime Particularly in Georgia.  Atlanta: The Atlanta University Press.

-----[1905] 1995.  “Atlanta University.”  In W.E.B. Du Bois: A Reader, edited by D.L. Lewis, pp. 237-252.  New York: A John Macrae / Owl Book, Henry Holt and Company.

-----[1921] 2003.  Darkwater:  Voices from within the Veil, introduction by Joe R. Feagin.  Amherst, NY: Humanity Books / Prometheus Books. 

Finke, Roger and Rodney Stark.  2005.  The Churching of America 1776 – 2005, Second Edition.  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Fowler, James.  1981.  Stages of Faith:  The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning.  San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers.

Hadaway, C. Kirk, Penny Long Marler and Mark Chaves.  1993.  “What the Polls Don’t Show:  A Closer Look at U.S. Church Attendance.”  American Sociological Review 58: 741-752.

Johnstone, Ronald L.  2004.  Religion in Society:  A Sociology of Religion.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Kornblum, William, Joseph Julian and Carolyn Smith.  2004.  Social Problems, Eleventh Edition.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Merton, Robert K.  1968.  Social Theory and Social Structure, Third Edition.  New York: Free Press.

Stark, Rodney.  2004.  Sociology, Ninth Edition.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Woolever, Cynthia and Deborah Bruce.  2002. A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Wortham, Robert A.  2005a.  “The Early Sociological Legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois.”  In Diverse Histories of American Sociology, edited by Anthony Blasi.  Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill (forthcoming).

-----2005b.  “Du Bois and the Sociology of Religion:  Rediscovering a Founding Figure.”  Sociological Inquiry (forthcoming). 

Wright II, Earl.  2002a.  “Using the Master’s Tools:  The Atlanta Sociological Laboratory and American Sociology, 1896-1924.”  Sociological Spectrum  22: 15-39.

-----2002b.  “Why Black People Tend to Shout!  An Earnest Attempt to Explain the Sociological Negation of the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory Despite its Possible Unpleasantness.”  Sociological Spectrum 22: 335-361.

-----2002c.  “The Atlanta Sociological Laboratory 1896-1924:  A Historical Account of the First American School of Sociology.” The Western Journal of Black Studies 26: 165-174.

Zuckerman, Phil.  2004.  The Social Theory of W.E.B. Du Bois. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Zuckerman, Phil, Sandra L. Barnes and Daniel Cady.  2003.  “The Negro Church:  An Introduction.”  In The Negro Church, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, pp. vii-xxvi. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

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