February 05, 2016

The Dead White Guys of Theory?

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

When teaching sociology—particularly theory—we'll often hear about how most of the classic readings we assign are written by "dead white guys." And when you look through the canon it is, indeed, very pale and very male.

Few women are credited in shaping early sociology. Marianne Weber influenced her husband Max and Georg Simmel, and was a powerful sociologist in her own right. Harriet Martineau translated and edited Auguste Comte's famous Cours de Philosophi Positive so well that Comte preferred her version of his book over his own. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (of The Yellow Wallpaper fame) and Jane Addams both described themselves as sociologists, taught sociology courses, published articles in the American Journal of Sociology, and were charter members of the American Sociological Society (now called the American Sociological Association). Mary Jo Deegan writes on the exclusion of women in the American Sociological Society here.

Still, I think that it is completely fair to concede that classical sociological theory has a lot of "dead" and "guys."

What about that "white" part, though? Let's examine that more closely.

Every time I teach theory, I include The Souls of Black Folk in my theory class—a book that astounds me with each reading. (Please read a new book by Northwestern University sociologist, Aldon Morris, which provides a detailed description of W.E.B. DuBois's wide-ranging theoretical and methodological contributions while also explaining exactly how such a great scholar was marginalized in the discipline despite his intellect and influence.)

Is everyone else white? As someone who laid a stone on the grave of Emilé Durkheim myself, I never really thought so.

While levying what seems to be a deep critique of the sociological canon—"These are all Dead White Men!"—this claim actually ignores both the history of race, and the history of sociology. Sociological theory, at its start, was hardly a fortress of white privilege. "But," you might say, "I see all those white faces on Wikipedia!"

Whiteness, however, is socially constructed. In nineteenth -century Europe, Jews were not seen as part of the racial (not just religious) majority. When talking about Durkheim, Marx, and Simmel it should be noted that these men, at the time of their writing, would not have been considered white. Although they ranged in their level of religiosity, they were Jews nonetheless.

Marx, whose father converted to Protestantism when Karl was a child, was baptized and held a disdain for religion in general. Mario Kessler notes that Marx was "almost hostile" in his silence on the state of Jews in Russia and Europe. Still, he was called ethnic slurs from school throughout his life, from being nicknamed "The Moor"—for his dark complexion and wild hair—to being called "a conceited Jew." Marx, as Philosopher Stephen D'Arcy recently noted, "wasn't white, but he is white. He switched races many years after his death."

David Durkheim came from a long line of rabbis and, well after leaving rabbinical school and establishing himself (and sociology as a discipline), wrote on rising anti-Semitism, saying that he had experienced prejudice himself. He preferred using his middle name, Emilé, in an effort to highlight his pride in being French over his given and more Jewish first name. Still, he saw himself, according to W.S.F. Pickering, as a member of a minority group. (Leaving a stone on a grave is a Jewish custom to indicate that someone has visited, and not forgotten, the deceased occupant. Many visitors leave pebbles on Durkheim's grave.)

Unlike Durkheim, Georg Simmel (born to a Jewish mother but baptized and raised as a Protestant) provided a clear, albeit clothed, reference of Judaism to the sociological canon in The Stranger, a powerful fable on the value of dissimilar others to the larger majority that serves as his case for Jews having a place in Europe. Despite being well published and an estimable scholar, Simmel failed to gain a stable academic position due to rising anti-Semitism.

As we move into contemporary sociology, there are others. Alfred Schutz fled the Nazis in World War Two and Walter Benjamin died fleeing the Germans. Then there is Erving Goffman, Robert K. Merton (born: Meyer Robert Schkolnick), David Reisman, Howard Becker, Harold Garfinkel and Edward Shils.

Understanding sociology's past certainly informs how we understand its present. Today our discipline is still disproportionately white, and many programs are working toward addressing this issue.

While it is often difficult to divine how Judaism directly affected the scholarship of most of these men, there is so much more to write on these points. The answers don't come easily, either. But again, to forget the lesson of how Jews became white folks is to miss an important lesson on the social construction of race, and an important facet of sociological history.


Jews are still considered the evil other in ways other minorities are not. Yet despite Jews being perceived as white, they behave in ways that undermine their whiteness. That the majority of the world's Jews are mizrahi or Jews from the Middle East, is lost on the majority of the world.

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