Liberation Capital and Insurgent Intellectual Networks

I have a review of Aldon Morris’s The Scholar Denied coming out in a forum in Contemporary Sociology, but I promised I would not scoop the journal by pre-publishing my essay.* I wrote my essay without reading other reviews, but now that I have read them, I find that although my review has its own particular spin, I don’t really have a lot to add, as other reviews already do a good job of summarizing the book.  The book synopsis, if you have not read it, is that Morris carefully documents that W.E.B. DuBois was the first American empirical sociologist and that White sociologists intentionally marginalized him despite his intellectual prominence and prodigious output as a researcher and scholar. The main point of the book is about how the conflict between DuBois and Booker T. Washington, as well as White racism, were central both to marginalizing DuBois and to the foundations of American sociology, especially in its treatment of race and intergroup relations. The book also has a surprising chapter on how DuBois influenced sociology icon Max Weber. Reviews of the book available on line are linked below if you want to get a more detailed preview of the book before deciding whether to buy it. (If you are a sociology graduate student or faculty member, yes you should read it. Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly think it is too academic and challenging for ordinary readers.) My own review stresses White agency in maintaining hierarchies and Black agency in challenging them, as well as the surprising role of Booker T. Washington in the foundations of American sociology.

What I want to focus on here is the role of DuBois in the Atlanta school of sociology. After he completed the research for the Philadelphia Negro and continued to be denied a faculty appointment at the University of Pennsylvania or any other White institution, DuBois was invited to come to Atlanta by the leadership of Atlanta University. There was already a circle of Black leaders there, led by Richard Wright Sr. and others, who sought to foster research that would challenge the ignorant bases of White supremacy. The Atlanta school specifically focused on the situation and needs of urban Black people. DuBois joined and became a leader of this circle. Young scholars inspired by DuBois were mentored into research by him, often went off to White institutions to earn their degrees, and then returned to the segregated Black schools to pursue sociological research with vigor, convinced that truth and knowledge were weapons of liberation.

Morris advances the concepts of liberation capital and insurgent intellectual networks to describe the conditions under which this collective enterprise could thrive despite an absence of elite funding or support and, in some cases, actual hostility or attack. Liberation capital is the volunteer or underpaid work professionals and amateur intellectual workers contribute to amassing evidence and developing new theories and programmatic innovations (p 188). Insurgent intellectual networks are the groups of scholars and professionals who are marginalized in or excluded from dominant intellectual networks who create their own networks for developing and sharing new ideas and research (p 193). Students were important sources of liberation capital in the Atlanta school, as they provided a lot of the labor for the research. Professionals who were able to support themselves, even if at lower-paid and marginalized Black institutions, were important backbones of the insurgent networks that allowed knowledge to grow and spread.

These ideas seem important today. We cannot assume that elites at elite institutions, much less elite-controlled funding agencies and foundations, will be willing to devote their resources to research that may benefit the poor and oppressed. In particular, there is a profound shortage of research specifically oriented to uncovering the relations of domination that maintain hierarchies. A lot of the labor has to come from what Morris calls liberation capital, and that means people with skills volunteering their time to develop research that is useful to a movement. There is also the need for insurgent networks to connect people doing this kind of work with each other. There are many such networks already working today in support of emancipatory causes. I hope that in its small way, this blog and my own work can participate in and contribute to these networks. It is my plan to feature academic work relevant to social movements, especially those challenging racial injustice, and also to link to and comment on social movements, activists, and current events relevant to these issues.

On-line reviews of Aldon Morris’s The Scholar Denied are linked below

  1. First chapter of the book, open access
  2. Morris’s summary of his book
  3. A popular sociology magazine.
  4. Radio interview with Aldon Morris
  5. A short 2:43 youtube segment of Aldon Morris lecturing
  6. Review by sociologist Andrew Perrin
  7. The case for scholarly reparations by Julian Go
  8. Fabio Rojas has a three-part review that is linked from this page
  9. Book blurb on Northwestern University’s web site
  11. Los Angeles Review of Books
  12. Chicago Tribune review
  13. A beautiful review by Jason Ferguson who both praises the book and criticizes it for neglecting both DuBois’s emphasis on art and his general theory. A short quotation from the review: “The empirical sciences reveal themselves as not only not enough, but woefully insufficient for changing the plight of blacks. There is not a dearth of knowledge, but a dearth of empathy on the part of whites, and a dearth of selfpossession on the part of blacks. And it is to art—literature, painting, and, in particular, poetry—that he increasingly turns to rectify it.”
  14. My review in Contemporary Sociology. This is behind a paywall so you will need institutional access to see it.

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