W.E.B. Du Bois's Critical-Theoretic Uses
 of Assumptions in Research and Activism

Project by Robert W. Williams, Ph.D.,
(Political Science,
Bennett College).
Canadian Sociological Association –

Société canadienne de sociologie
Conference 2023.
May 2023
• DRAFT Version Only •

The Long-Form Presentation  [TOC] 
Personal Acknowledgments • Reiss Kruger, session organizer & chair
• Sherry Fox; Executive Director, CSA-SCS
• Conference organizers & team members
Land Acknowledgment • I wish to acknowledge and honor two Native American nations whose ancestral homelands included Guilford County, NC, where I reside and work: the Saura (Cheraw) and the Keyauwee peoples.
• I also acknowledge Guildford County and the Piedmont region of North Carolina as part of a plexus of Native American trade routes and cultural exchanges that predated European colonization. This land was not terra nullius.
The Presentation in Summary Form
I. The Project
  I have been studying Du Bois for many years, especially his philosophy of social science.
• My academic website: < www.webdubois.org >.
  Scholars of Du Bois cover how Du Bois challenged the assumptions of White supremacism, and also mention his own assumptions in this regard.
• However, Du Bois scholars do not examine how he formulated his assumptions.
  In my presentation I will discuss...
(a) two of the several assumptions that Du Bois valued;
(b) a potential basis for the formulation of those assumptions in his lived experiences as an African American; and
(c) several implications of this backgrounding of lived experiences for his research and activism.
(d) This panel's theme provides the concept of the "background", especially as regards its nuanced meanings:
Background#1: something not emphasized; someone subordinated.
Background#2: information that explains how and why something happens.

II. Assumptions: An Overview
  Assumptions in general:
(a) Assumptions are a component of the research process, establishing the parameters of the processes or conditions being studied, and of the objects of research.
(b) Assumptions simplify the complexity of reality, but can be based on some aspect of reality.
(c) Assumptions are often relegated to the background in the sense of being taking for granted.
  Example: In neo-classical economics and rational choice theories of human behavior, the individual is typically characterized as​—​is assumed to be​—​an optimizer of costs and benefits when making decisions.

III. Two of Du Bois's Assumptions
  Two of several assumptions that Du Bois often used:
(a) the equal humanity assumption and
(b) the capability assumption.
  Du Bois did not label those assumptions specifically. I derived the names from several of his texts. For example:
There are certain things PHYLON assumes without any attempt at proof; among these are the equal humanity of persons of Negro descent; and the capability of Negroes to progress and develop along essentially the same lines as other folk.
[PSOP: "Phylon: Science or Propaganda", 1944: ¶15]
  For Du Bois, both assumptions were needed to conduct scientific inquiries in general as well as to open new avenues of research, all to challenge the racist assumptions of mainstream research.
• If African Americans and communities were considered inferior by mainstream/White researchers,
then [Du Bois wrote] it is manifest that a study of such a group, while still of interest and scientific value is of less pressing and immediate necessity than the study of a group which is distinctly recognized as belonging to the great human family, whose advancement is possible, and whose future depends on its own efforts and the fairness and reasonableness of the dominant and surrounding group.
[ATLC: "The Atlanta Conferences", 1904: ¶8]
  In addition, Du Bois considered assumptions vital for activism:
I assumed that human beings could alter and re-direct the course of events so as to better human conditions.
[....Chance, Du Bois held, placed limits on situations and human capacities and situation....]
[But] I did see evidence of the decisive action of human beings.
[LHA: Du Bois's letter to Herbert Aptheker, 1956: ¶7]

IV. Du Bois on "Intimate Soul Contact"
  Du Bois did not indicate explicitly how he developed such assumptions.
  Because assumptions in general can involve or incorporate some aspect or semblance of reality, then we can explore what Du Bois called his "intimate soul contact".
• Scholars in their research occasionally mention that phrase, but do not study it with regard to Du Bois's assumptions.
  In the early 20th century Du Bois previously had collaborated with Walter Willcox, a White scholar of demographics working on the U.S. Census.
  Du Bois sent Willcox an article in 1904 in which he presented data on African American social advancements. Although the future was unclear, Du Bois wrote,
it is distinctly and emphatically hopeful, and in the light of history and human development it puts the burden of proof rather on those who deny the capabilities of the negro [sic] than on those who assume that they are not essentially different from those of other members of the great human family."
[FNRA: "The Future of the Negro Race in America" 1904: ¶¶36-37]
  Willcox replied in a letter, saying that the data were not available to determine whether African Americans conditions were the result of social causes or of innate characteristics.
  In a response to Willcox's letter, Du Bois argued that the data were present to conduct scientific research on those topics.
(a) The data available to Du Bois came through "intimate soul contact"​—​which is what he called his interactions with African American individuals, families, and communities, as well as his experiences of their agency expressed in joy and sorrow, in struggle, failure, determination, and triumph.
(b) Although such experiences were not scientific confirmation, Du Bois argued, they were enough to warrant further and more exhaustive research. Willcox and others needed to conduct studies in the communities they claim to be researching.
  [Partial text of Du Bois's response to Willcox]
You have simply no adequate conception of the Negro problem in the South & of Negro character & capacity. When you have sat as I have ten years in intimate soul contact with all kinds & conditions of black men you will be less agnostic. I have my prejudices but they are backed by knowledge if not supported. [. . . .] If you insist on writing about & pronouncing judgment on this problem why not study it? Not from a car-window & associated press despatches [sic] [....] but get down here & really study it at first hand. Is it a sufficient answer to a problem to say the data are not sufficient when they lie all about us?
[LWWM: Letter to Willcox, 1904; emphasis added]
  In terms of this conference panel, Du Bois's response to Willcox, as I interpret it, involves an interaction between two senses of background.
(a) Background#1
• Denotes: something, even someone, not emphasized.
• Connotes: taken for granted, possibly obscure and even obscured; can be ignored because it has little or no value due to its subordinate position.
(b) Background#2
• Denotes: information that might or does explain how and why something happened.
• Connotes: if we do not gain such knowledge, then we do not have enough details to more fully comprehend what is happening and how we might try to solve it.
  Du Bois experienced personally and communally Background#1 along with others backgrounded by Jim Crow oppression. Du Bois applied those experiences when he emphasized Background#2 as a guiding principle of the assumptions that he created to support research and activism for justice.

V. Implications of "Intimate Soul Contact" for Today
  Engaged researchers within the community
(a) Researchers gain insights and knowledge that they otherwise would not.
(b) Engagement promotes ethical interactions with those being researched.
  The agency of African Americans & other communities
The research subjects are also subjects in their own right with volition and capacities to act in the world in their fullness and complexity as human beings.
  "Intimate soul contact" informing research questions
(a) Research questions must be historically appropriate.
(b) For example, as Du Bois admonished, do not compare property ownership across racial groups, without also taking into consideration social impediments, political and legal constraints, and terrorist acts.
  Diachronic research projects
Long-term studies are necessary because the assumption of capability holds open the possibility of changes in lives and life circumstances. Research must be on-going.
  Assumptions informing hypothesis formation
Hypotheses, derived from assumptions, can be studied via research and can be tested in life via actions and activism.

VI. In Closing
  For Du Bois, assumptions were inescapable in research and pervaded our daily lives.
(a) Instances of social progress and individual good will did provide Du Bois with the foundation for assuming hope, and thus for living and striving hopefully.
(b) As Du Bois wrote:
There is, for instance, faith in the triumph of good deeds; hope that the world will grow better; love of our relatives and our neighbors and of all humanity.
It would be difficult to adduce scientific proof that these hopes and faiths are justified, and still there is good reason for our assuming that they are and guiding our conduct accordingly.
[TCAR: "The Church and Religion", 1933: ¶¶2-3]
  Reflecting on this project, I ask myself:
• Am I aware of the assumptions underpinning my research projects?
• Do I recognize the assumptions informing my actions and interactions in the world?

• •   •••   • •

The Presentation as a Long-Form Paper

The Project

In this project I wish to explore and better understand W.E.B. Du Bois's thoughts on, and use of, assumptions in his social research and activism. For Du Bois, as I will interpret him herein, the marginalized communities and peoples​—​those oppressively backgrounded by White supremacism​—​provided the epistemological backgrounds, or standpoints, that informed his creation and critical application of assumptions vital to the struggles for racial and social justice.
In particular, I am arguing, the segregated, disfranchised communities of African Americans in which Du Bois lived and researched provided him with examples of oppression, but also examples of life-affirming capacities to grow and prosper amid pervasive White supremacist norms, laws, and practices. From the experiences of what Du Bois called "intimate soul contact" he witnessed first-hand and grasped the possibilities of self-development and its associated capacities. What Du Bois did across his long life was to interrelate those personal and anecdotal experiences in several ways that would justify both critical-social research and activism. Accordingly, such justifications were embodied in assumptions.
Du Bois's critical assumptions challenged much of the existing research and their attendant assumptions which posited negative qualities to Africana peoples and communities. Such mainstream White research believed that they had gathered all of the data necessary to make policy pronouncements and reach research conclusions. Du Bois's critical assumptions related to how research should be conducted and supported on-going research in order to study what was happening over time with regard to progress, regress, or stasis and to explore Africana persons lives in more comprehensive and supportive ways. In addition, his assumptions supported policies for the amelioration of suffering and for the improvement of the conditions and life chances of Africana peoples in the U.S.A. and beyond.
My presentation proceeds as follows:
• Section II sketches an overview of assumptions in general as used by scholars and by Du Bois himself.
• Section II delves into two of Du Bois's assumptions found in his research and activism.
• Section IV examines Du Bois's backing/grounding those two assumptions in terms of "intimate soul contact".
• Section V explores the implications of Du Bois's assumptions and "intimate soul contact" for today.
The reader will find long quotations in this presentation because I wish to offer extensive evidence to document my claims. This is important for my interpretive methodology and techniques, which are derived mainly from my professional education as a political theorist. I seek to present plausible interpretations of Du Bois, but because of my positionality as a White scholar, I will always lack the valuable insights and telling experiences faced and endured Black scholars like Du Bois. Consequently, the often lengthy quotations offer needed perspectives communicated by the spoken and written words of Du Bois himself.
My presentation follows this convention for in-text citations, References to Du Bois's works involve an abbreviated title and year of publication (e.g., SBF 1903). The Works Cited section divides the references by those written or edited by Du Bois and those written by others. Within the former unit Du Bois's works are alphabetically listed by the abbreviated titles.

Assumptions: An Overview

Scholars seek to produce knowledge grounded in evidence attained via replicable research practices. Assumptions, speaking generally, are often in the background of research. They are vital to scholarly inquiry, but not necessarily discussed or criticized. There are, of course, exceptions where assumptions are interrogated as to their effect on the research process, especially in terms of the biases that assumptions can introduce (e.g., Somekh & Lewin 2005: passim; also read Ladyman 2002: pp.171-172). This section briefly mentions the types of general assumptions and then delves more deeply in Du Bois's use of assumptions.
(II) A. Assumptions in General
Within a research project, assumptions provide the axioms on which a theory and/or a research method is based, establish the parameters of what is being studied, and help to inform the hypotheses to be tested (Weber 1949; also Gorton n.d.). Assumptions indicate implicitly how the researcher or scientific community understands the structure of the world (the ontological aspect), the conditions for the possibility of empirically studying the world (the epistemological aspect), the conditions for the possibility of conducting research into the phenomena (the methodological aspect), and the conditions for the possibility of making sense of the world (the hermeneutic aspect). In this presentation I will focus on the ontological dimension of assumptions.
Assumptions in an ontological sense imply that the world or some part of the natural, social, or natural-social part of it functions or exists a certain way. Researchers make these assumptions even if they recognize that the assumptions are not descriptive of all or most of the behaviors observed. The assumptions are employed to render the behavior more easily theorized and studied. Well recognized examples include the homo economicus of neo-classical (orthodox) economics and theories of rational-choice actors in which an individual is assumed to seek maximum benefits with the least costs. Other examples occur in political science in which various theories assume that humans face tensions between passions and intellect (Hirschman 1997), that humans, or at least princes, seek power to dominate their territories (Machiavelli), or that humans pursue self-preservation amidst the turmoil of a state-less world (Hobbes).
(II) B. Du Bois's Use of Assumptions
Reading Du Bois, we can regularly observe his application of assumptions, which he sometimes called postulates, when discussing how he proceeded with his research. In challenging the grip of supremacist oppression, Du Bois used assumptions in various critical-theoretic roles, which include but are not limited to
(a) foregrounding Black capacity and agency (thereby, theoretically keeping open the possibilities for racial progress)(ATLC 1904; TDOP 1904);
(b) justifying ongoing research with and on persons of color (when many scholars and politicians had already reached their final conclusions)(ATLC 1904);
(c) normatively guiding activism for social and racial justice (in the midst of uncertain scientific predictions and also the unknowable details of others and past events)(TCAR 1933);
(d) problematizing what he called the "American Assumption", very similar to the so-called American Dream, (for its overly individualistic explanations that did not challenge structural/racial oppressions)(BREC 1935: Chs.7, 14); and
(e) metaphysically invoking such fundamental concepts as cause, natural laws, and chance, as well as hope for a better world, all of which Du Bois argued were empirically unprovable, but nonetheless needed for empirical research, and indeed for living in the world (LHA 1956; SOCH ca.1904; TCAR 1933; also Itzigsohn & Brown 2020; Gooding-Williams 2017).
In this presentation I will concentrate on the first two assumptions listed above.
For Du Bois, social research was conducted not only for the sake of knowledge, but could be used at some point movements for social justice (Barkin 2000; Lemke 2000; R.W. Williams 2006), for it was all too often a matter of life and death. Accordingly, for Du Bois assumptions brought what typically was taken for granted​—​situated or constrained in the background​—​and brought them into a sharper focus, especially as regards their role in sustaining and justifying oppression, as well as in struggling against it.
To say that assumptions occur in the background of the research process does not mean that the assumptions are inconsequential or trivial. Du Bois addressed the assumptions underpinning White supremacism in numerous places. A pointed example occurred in Du Bois's report on the Universal Races Congress of 1911. He was a representative from the U.S.A. and also a presenter. In his report, Du Bois wrote about the "racial philosophy upon which America has long been nursed" (URCI 1911: p.401)
[....] The central idea of that philosophy has been that there are vast and, for all practical purposes, unbridgeable differences between the races of men, the whites representing the higher nobler stock, the blacks the lower meaner race. Between the lowest races (who are certainly undeveloped and probably incapable of any considerable development) and the highest, range the brown and yellow peoples with various intermediate capacities. The proofs of these assumptions have been repeatedly pointed out; the high civilization of the whites, the lack of culture among the blacks, the apparent incapacity for self-rule in many non-Europeans, and the stagnation of Asia. The reasons for this condition were variously stated: some assumed separate development for each race, while others spoke as tho [sic] the various races represented different stages in the same general development, with thousands of years between, the negro [sic] remaining nearest the ape, the whites furthest from the common ancestor.
Had these assumptions remained merely academic opinions it would not be necessary to recall them, but they have become the scientific sanction for wide spread and decisive political action​—​like the disfranchisement of American negroes, [sic] the subjection of India and the partition of Africa. Under the aegis of this philosophy strong arguments have justified human slavery and peonage, conquest, enforced ignorance, the dishonoring of women and the exploitation of children. [....] [URCI 1911: pp.401-402; emphasis added]
Supremacist assumptions demanded refutation. In this passage Du Bois seemed optimistic that providing research to refute the supremacism might sway White minds and hearts. He later changed his mind about this avenue (MEPF 1944: ¶¶122-127), instead seeking to protect Black communities, such as by voluntary self-segregation in education and commerce (DUSK 1940: Chs.7,9).
Generally speaking, many scholars of Du Bois will mention Du Bois's use of assumptions but do not concentrate on them. They emphasize the importance of Du Bois's experiences as a Black man in racist and racialized world, but do not connect those experiences with the creation of assumptions (e.g., Itzigsohn & Brown 2020). A few scholars of Du Bois will mention his assumptions with regard to how they challenged White supremacism (e.g., Judy 2000; Monteiro 2000 and 2008; Reed 1997). But these authors do not delve into the bases for the formation of his assumptions.

Two of Du Bois's Critical Assumptions

For the sake of time and clarity, I will highlight two assumptions derived from Du Bois's thoughts, although there are several other dimensions expressed in his writings, as I indicated above. In this section and the next, I will relate the two assumptions to one of Du Bois's numerous auto-biographical statements. Such statements form the basis, as I interpret Du Bois, for his assumptions: namely, the lives of backgrounded communities and his experiences with and of them.
Here I focus on what can be called for the sake of brevity the equal humanity assumption and the capability assumption. Although Du Bois typically wrote about assumptions in the aggregate and did not designate them by individual names, I derived the nomenclature from his own words published in the journal Phylon.
There are certain things PHYLON assumes without any attempt at proof; among these are the equal humanity of persons of Negro descent; and the capability of Negroes to progress and develop along essentially the same lines as other folk. [....] [PSOP 1944: ¶15; "Phylon" capitalized in the original]
Du Bois used similar language over time in other texts.
For example, in his methodological essay "The Study of the Negro Problems" (1898) we read:
[I]f we would rally to this common ground of scientific inquiry all partisans and advocates, we must explicitly admit what all implicitly postulate​—​namely, that the Negro is a member of the human race, and as one who, in the light of history and experience, is capable to a degree of improvement and culture, is entitled to have his interests considered according to his numbers in all conclusions as to the common weal. [SNP 1898: ¶36]
Other texts could be cited (e.g., BREC 1935: "To the Reader"; PSOP 1944: ¶15).
(III) A. Role of Assumptions for Research
As we can read in ATLC Du Bois considered assumptions absolutely vital for the research process:
The study of men however, is peculiar in being especially liable to the influences of prejudice which makes the inevitable scientific assumption with which all investigators must start difficult to agree upon. For instance, if the Negroes are not ordinary human beings, if their development is simply the retrogression of an inferior people, and the only possible future for the Negro, a future of inferiority, decline and death, then it is manifest that a study of such a group, while still of interest and scientific value is of less pressing and immediate necessity than the study of a group which is distinctly recognized as belonging to the great human family, whose advancement is possible, and whose future depends on its own efforts and the fairness and reasonableness of the dominant and surrounding group. [ATLC 1904: ¶8]
Part of the third assumption Du Bois wrote about in the previous passage​—​"the fairness and reasonable of the dominant and surrounding group"​—​was not necessarily or always repeated in later writings. Du Bois came to believe that Black communities could not believe that apathetic and antagonistic Whites would become fair or reasonable (e.g., MEPF 1944: ¶¶122-127).
There are more dimensions of Du Bois's views on assumptions that are present in other passages in "The Atlanta Conferences" essay and in other texts, but they are beyond the scope of this presentation. For example, for Du Bois, assumptions did not confirm the highest levels of advancement and "we do not dogmatically assert what place the Negro really occupies in the human scale", but rather, he argued, no scientific research indicates that Africana persons were incapable of developing (ATLC 1904: ¶9). Thus, for Du Bois assumptions were not scientifically based knowledge derived from conventional research practices, but were the necessary starting points of inquiry into, not only the tribulations, but also the triumphs, of Africana peoples in a supremacist world.
(III) B. Role of Assumptions for Activism
For Du Bois assumptions supported social research that could inform and justify activism in the streets or that could support policy changes (R.W. Williams 2006). He also mentioned assumptions directly in relation to actions and events in the world. In a letter to his friend and literary executor, Herbert Aptheker, Du Bois wrote:
For myself I set out in 1896 on the task of studying human action in exhaustive detail by taking up the Negro Problem. I set forth my thesis at a convocation of the University of Pennsylvania in 1897 and then for fifteen years at Atlanta University. I began to count and classify the facts concerning the American Negro and the way to his betterment through human action. I assumed that human beings could alter and re-direct the course of events so as to better human conditions. I knew that this power was limited by environment, inheritance and natural law, and that from the point of view of science these occurrences must be a matter of Chance and not of Law. I did not rule out the possibility of some God also influencing and directing human action and natural law. However I saw no evidence of such divine guidance. I did see evidence of the decisive action of human beings. [LHA 1956 ¶7; emphasis added]
Several other primary sources exist (e.g., TCAR 1933: ¶¶2-3).
Du Bois did not state affirmatively the basis of his assumptions, nor did he fully explicate how he derived them for his research and activism. How might we understand the grounding and justifications of such Du Boisian assumptions? Here let us examines the 1904 correspondence between Du Bois and Walter Willcox.

Du Bois on "Intimate Soul Contact"

Insofar as assumptions are based on what the world, society, or nature is or is believed to be, or else involves some purportedly salient aspect of them (often in its most reductivistic form), then we can interpret Du Bois's thinking on this as deriving from his knowledge of Africana communities and, very tellingly and often poignantly, from his life experiences as a Black man (e.g., A68 1968; SBF 1903; DARK1920; DUSK 1940; MEPF 1944; OHWI 1960; RAMA 1961). Du Bois's assumptions of equal humanity and of capability were simplifying for the sake of justifying research​—​but not simplistic or reductivistic​—​because his assumptions were capacious. They focus on capabilities, broadly implied, that he had witnessed within communities of which he was also a part. Consequently, the assumptions allow us to conduct studies of the possibilities of Black advancement that many mainstream (read White) social scientists had ignored or maligned.
This section sketches the correspondence between a White scholar, Walter Willcox, and Du Bois as a foundation for one plausible interpretation of how Du Bois backed/grounded his assumptions of equal humanity and of capacity. A few scholars discuss Willcox vis-à-vis Du Bois, but they do not focus on the formation of assumptions, such as the equal humanity and capability assumptions (e.g., Morris 2015; Rabaka 2010; F.R. Wilson 2006: pp.73-75).
(IV) A. Du Bois and Willcox
Willcox was an American statistician who studied demographics and worked on the U.S. Census. Du Bois previously collaborated with Willcox on a major project (U.S. Dept. of Commerce & Labor 1904). Du Bois sent Willcox his article "The Future of the Negro Race in America" (FNRA 1904) in which he wrote:
From enforced ignorance so great that over 90 per cent. of the coloured people could not read and write at the close of the war, they have brought themselves to the place where the 56 per cent. can read and write. Starting a generation ago, without a cent or the ownership of their own bodies, they have saved property to the value of not less than 300,000,000 dollars, besides supporting themselves; and finally they have begun to evolve among themselves men who know their situation and needs.
All this does not prove that the future is bright and clear, or that there is no question of race antipathy or negro [sic] capacity; but it is distinctly and emphatically hopeful, and in the light of history and human development it puts the burden of proof rather on those who deny the capabilities of the negro [sic] than on those who assume that they are not essentially different from those of other members of the great human family." [FNRA 1904: ¶¶36-37]
The arguments and tone of this article were common to Du Bois over time, but especially during the early years of the 20th Century.
Via a letter Willcox thanked Du Bois for sending the article. However, Willcox disagreed with several points that Du Bois made in the essay. Here is the second paragraph of Willcox's letter, which pertains to the theme of my presentation:
The fundamental difficulty I feel in accepting your position is that it is impossible for me to judge how far the present economic condition of the American Negro is due to persistent characteristics of the people how far it is due to heavy economic and social pressure upon them, resulting from drawing the color line in society, in politics and in industry. You seem inclined to attribute almost all of it to the latter. I confess that I do not see that the evidence warrants one holding either opinion with confidence and therefore for the present I am an agnostic on the subject. Nor do I see any way in which convincing evidence on the question can be derived from an analysis of social processes now in progress in this country. If either factor could be isolated from the other we might derive important evidence, but I do not see how it can be. [LWWM 1904]
The point to emphasize here refers to Willcox's saying that he was "an agnostic on the subject" of whether the factors influencing African American "economic conditions" (as he phrased it) derived more from innate characteristics or from social conditions. He asserted that there were no means to gather data that could support one factor as more influential than the other (LWWM 1904).
That is to say, Willcox criticized Du Bois's assertion in the essay "The Future of the Negro Race in America" that African Americans might continue to socially advance into the future, despite socially repressive conditions, because "they are not essentially different from those of other members of the great human family." (FNRA 1904: ¶37) In short, Willcox criticized Du Bois's pragmatically-inflected idea of hope for continued African American progress. Du Bois took up this challenge.
Du Bois's response indicated that, as far as he was concerned, there was enough information to warrant research on social causes as primarily operative, and not innate causes. Du Bois wrote:
The fundamental difficulty in your position is that you are trying to spin a solution of the Negro problem out of the inside of your office. It can never be done. You have simply no adequate conception of the Negro problem in the South & of Negro character & capacity. When you have sat as I have ten years in intimate soul contact with all kinds & conditions of black men you will be less agnostic. I have my prejudices but they are backed by knowledge if not supported. [. . . .] If you insist on writing about & pronouncing judgment on this problem why not study it? Not from a car-window & associated press despatches [sic] as in your pamphlet on crime but get down here & really study it at first hand. Is it a sufficient answer to a problem to say the data are not sufficient when they lie all about us? There is enough easily obtainable data to take you off the fence if you will study it first hand & not thro' [sic] prejudiced eyes?​—​my eyes, or those of others." [LWWM 1904; emphasis added]
Du Bois was careful to distinguish between his opinions and prejudices in favor of a positive view of African Americans, on the one hand, from data that would support such a claim, on the other. Nonetheless, Du Bois argued that African Americans in general could socially advance, or to borrow the language of his article, they could be deemed as fit as any race (read Rabaka 2010 who discusses the consequences of Du Bois's response to Willcox in terms of Du Bois's "unprejudiced eyes"). Further research could be conducted​—​research also should account for the societal obstructions of racism.
For the purposes of my project, the Du Bois's letter to Willcox highlights the extent to which actual Black quotidian life may be obscure to many, if not most Whites in general, backgrounded as it was, and often remained so, via oppressive norms, policies and practices. This cloaking calls to mind the veil of the color-line (e.g., Itzigsohn & Brown 2020), a line constructed by White supremacist ideologies and practices.
Yet and also, everyday lives are important if we are to understand those being studied who are also humans. Such everyday lives provide the background necessary to comprehend the human potential of those with whom Du Bois was living and interacting, and thereby​—​because of "intimate soul contact"​—​could provide the backing/grounding to the creation of assumptions that justify on-going research and activism.
(IV) B. Related Example
Du Bois in his letter to Willcox wrote of "intimate soul contact" which is a phrase I could not locate in other works, including 19 of his published books. Perhaps he repeated the phrase somewhere else among 2000 published writings, including newspaper columns, popular and academic press articles, pamphlets, government reports, and so forth, or the several thousand more unpublished letters, drafts and documents that he created over the decades.
Nonetheless, in several other texts Du Bois did use the terms "intimate" and "intimacy" in a manner similar to his letter to Willcox. For example, he wrote of an "intimate association of all relations" in 1904:
Such has been the work of the Atlanta Conference. I cannot hope of course that our work has been entirely free of bias. I am a Negro and a Negro's son and I make no effort to conceal the fact that I believe most thoroughly in the capabilities and possibilities of my race. Nor is the belief wholly a matter of blood and prejudice, but is based on the intimate association in all relations of life with tens of thousands of my own race and with thousands of other races where I have had no ordinary means of knowledge and comparison. Nevertheless it is quite natural that I should have a tendency to see the bright side and emphasize the favorable points. Notwithstanding this I am sure that neither I nor my colleagues have ever conscientiously colored our reports or added one jot or tittle to the plain import of facts. This which we have striven to do ourselves is all we ask of others. We urge and invite all men of science into the field, but we plead for men of science​—​not for busy bodies, not for men with theories to sustain or prejudices to strengthen. We sincerely regret that there has been a tendency for so many men without adequate scientific knowledge and without conscientious study to pronounce public opinions and put gratuitious [sic] slurs on me and my people which were as insulting to us as they were to their own scientific reputations. [ATLC 1904: ¶15; emphasis added]
In this passage, Du Bois offered more clarity on the concept of intimacy. He related intimacy to the studying of one's own community, including the "favorable points", but also the problems that arise when non-community members did not conduct research in a rigorous manner. For Du Bois, scientific inquiries of Black communities and persons entailed research based on assumptions of possibility that could be studied without pre-judging the results, which White researchers might and often did bring to their research projects. As with his letter to Willcox, Du Bois did not argue that he was necessarily correct in his views and experiences in Black communities; indeed, research, committed and continuous research, was required.
Du Bois penned the phrase "intimate soul contact" in 1904, yet that concept lives on because it allows us to think about methodological and normative issues almost 120 years later.

Some Implications of "Intimate Soul Contact"

"Intimate soul contact" resonates with us today as researchers and activists. I will discuss several implications in this section.
(V) A. Engaged Researcher
Du Bois's idea of "intimate soul contact" speaks in one sense to the researchers being engaged in the community they are exploring. Such engagement is an ethical way to conduct research because it treats those being studied as subjects in their right, capable of understanding and acting in the world. In addition, the engaged researcher will have a better opportunity to gain insights and knowledge from the community members themselves (e.g., Gray 2019). In a very broad sense, "intimate soul contact" was a harbinger of the relevance of community oriented research, Participatory Action research, and even public sociology, public history, among others.
(V) B. The Agency of African Americans and Other Communities
Du Bois's assumptions of human equality and capability accord with his understanding of Africana peoples as human beings in the fullness and complexity of their agency. His was not a reductivistic view that could treat humans, all humans, as if they had no agency, like rocks and trees (PSOP 1944). For Du Bois, a fuller account of humans as observed via their actions can be understood via taking into account that their patterned behavior also combined chance​—​or what he called free will​—​that everyone possessed (AFAM ca.1895; SOCH ca.1904).
(V) C. Informing Research Questions
The insights and comprehension gained from "intimate soul contact" helps in creating research questions. Those questions can be tailored to the conditions that might be influencing life chances. I believe this resonance could be interpreted in terms of what we might call the conceptualizing phase of social-scientific methods.
Via the interpretation of historical dynamics Du Bois framed research questions for empirically oriented, explanatory studies. For example, in his 1904 essay, "The Development of a People" Du Bois argued that under the slavery regime and its aftermath African Americans adjusted to new circumstances, ones that did not provide sufficient or fair opportunities for Blacks to develop their full human potential (TDOP 1904). Therefore, we could not correctly interpret social data by asking ahistorical questions or by making historically inappropriate comparisons. In other words, we could not examine the data of Black property ownership since Emancipation, for example, and then compare it with Whites. For Du Bois, we should ask historically specific questions, especially given the social impediments to education and related, often deleterious, influences on Black economic advancement.
Du Bois posed such research questions as:
How soon after a social revolution like emancipation ought one reasonably to expect the appearance of habits of thrift and the accumulation of property? Moreover, how far is the accumulating of wealth indicative of general advance in moral habits and sound character, or how far is it independent of them or in spite of them? [TDOP 1904: p.294]
Other texts and other research questions could be cited (e.g., ATLC 1904: p.59; EORP: p.209; SNP 1898: ¶22).
(V) D. Diachronic Research
Du Bois's critical-theoretical understanding of assumptions supports on-going research: what we discover today may not hold in the future. Du Bois pursued diachronic research in the form of the Atlanta University Studies that he organized from 1898 until 1914 (read also Wright II 2016).
(V) E. Assumptions Informing Hypotheses
We can interpret Du Bois as moving from assumptions to research questions, which in turn could be framed as hypotheses to be studied. As indicated above, Du Bois regularly asserted that assumptions were not in themselves scientifically confirmed knowledge. That would require rigorous research which could be promoted via formulating assumptions as hypotheses to be tested.
Indeed, Du Bois mentioned this in a few texts (e.g., LHA 1956; SHMA ca. 1946). For example, In his chapter for Charles S. Johnson's edited volume, The Negro in Civilization (1930), Du Bois wrote:
There was a time when social studies having to do primarily with the health, physique and growth of the Negro population were of pressing importance because of the widespread assumption that the Negro was not adapted to the America climate, to conditions of life under freedom, that he was of peculiar and unusual physique, that he was bound sooner or later to die out.
It was necessary, therefore, to test these assumptions by such scientific measurements as were available. Yet for a long time universities and social organizations refused to touch the matter, and philanthropists refused funds and encouragement when Atlanta University attempted its wretchedly restricted pioneer work. Times changed. Today tests and measurements have gone so far that there is no further question of the survival of the Negro race in America and the physical studies connected with him are no different and demand no different technique or organization from the general physical studies carried on in the nation. The real question narrows down to matters of sanitation, hospitals and income. [NCCJ 1930: ¶¶8-9; emphasis added]
Du Bois did not operationalize such hypotheses in that book chapter, but such could be fashioned easily as generations of scholars have done researching African Americans and Africana persons.
Du Bois also considered that we could comprehend actions and activism for social and racial justice in terms of hypothesis testing, so to speak. In the third volume of this Black Flame fictional trilogy, one of his fictional characters spoke these words:
[W]e work slowly and waveringly forward by use of scientific hypothesis, probing, changing and rejecting, by incessant testing of facts until bit by bit truth emerges. Our greatest and most useful hypothesis is that the conscious action of human beings can change human history. Still clinging to this hope and conviction, we approach this new crisis of mankind to inquire what action caused it, what action can cure it. [BFT-3: p.166]
Du Bois presented many of his ideas through the words of his fictional characters.
Other resonances of "intimate soul contact" of course are possible to discern in some of Du Bois's writings, but are beyond the scope of this presentation.

In Closing

Inquiry into Du Bois's use of assumptions is an inquiry into how he challenged the oppressive backgrounding of Black peoples via asserting the transgressive background lives of those communities. Rather than the static, one-dimensional assumptions of Whites and White supremacism, Du Bois sought to portray Black persons as capable of advancement which could be facilitated insofar as social, political, and economic impediments, such as segregation, were removed.
In particular, studying two of Du Bois's assumptions in conjunction with a brief letter allows us some insight into how he formulated assumptions. In terms of this conference session, Du Bois's experiences with a backgrounded (marginalized) community gave him the understanding necessary to form assumptions that could open up the opportunities for social-scientific inquiry and on-going research.
For my interpretive purposes here, there are two relevant senses (or forms) of background with which Du Bois worked: Background#1 and Background#2. The sense of Background#1 denotes something that is not emphasized or someone who is subordinated, especially compared with what and whom lies in the foreground. Connotatively, Background#1 means out of sight, even out of mind. It is taken for granted, possibly obscure and even obscured. Background#1 does not need to be examined, and can be ignored as less germane, or as not worthy because it has little or no value.
The sense of Background#2, on the other hand, denotes necessary information that explains why and how something happened or is happening. Connotatively, Background#2 means that, if we do not gain such knowledge, then we do not have enough details to more fully comprehend what we are experiencing and how we might try to solve it. Du Bois encountered personally and communally one sense of background​—​Background#1​—​and applied those experiences when he emphasized the other sense of background​—​Background#2​—​as a guiding principle of the assumptions that he created to support research and activism.
I illustrated Du Bois's emphasis of Background#2 via interpreting his response to Willcox. In that letter Du Bois stressed that "intimate soul contact" formed one basis for research on African Americans because such experiences and insights pointed to the capacity of African American to progress socially.
Du Bois became increasingly more radical over time. His Marxism and changing political strategies estranged some of his former supporters and colleagues (MEPF 1944; IBFP 1952). Nevertheless, Du Bois continued his research into a "science of human action" (ATLC 1904) and continued to foreground assumptions that informed research and activism for social and racial justice.
In an essay titled "The Church and Religion" (TCAR 1933: ¶¶2-3), Du Bois offered us his understanding of the inescapable role of assumptions in daily life and social activism.
Life is largely and must be a series of assumptions. In so far as these assumptions are confirmed by the recurrent happenings of the world, we have a right to assume that they are approximately true. But we must even go beyond this. There is, for instance, faith in the triumph of good deeds; hope that the world will grow better; love of our relatives and our neighbors and of all humanity.
It would be difficult to adduce scientific proof that these hopes and faiths are justified, and still there is good reason for our assuming that they are and guiding our conduct accordingly.
Reflecting on this project, I ask myself: Am I aware of the assumptions underpinning my research projects? Do I recognize the assumptions, often implicit, ever present, in my actions and interactions in the world?
• •   •••   • •


A. Works Written or Edited by Du Bois

A68. 1968. The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. NY: International Publishers.

ATLC. 1904. "The Atlanta Conferences." Voice of the Negro, 1:3 (March): 85-90.

AUPs. 1896-1916. Atlanta University Publications, various years.

AFAM. ca. 1895. "The Afro-American, ca. 1895". Unpublished typescript in the Papers of W.E.B. Du Bois, Special Collections and University Archives, Series 3, Subseries C, MS 312, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst. URL: https://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b211-i124

BFT-3. 1961. Worlds of Color. [Black Flame, Vol. 3]. NY: Mainstream Publishers.

DARK. 1920. Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. NY: Harcourt, Brace and Howe.

DUSK. 1940 [1986]. Dusk of Dawn. In Du Bois: Writings. Ed. by Nathan Huggins. NY: Library of America.

EORP. 1909. "Evolution of the Race Problem." Pp.142-158 in Anon., Proceedings of the National Negro Conference. New York: s.n.

FNRA. 1904. "The Future of the Negro Race in America". The East and the West; v.2 (January 1904): 4-19.

IBFP. 1952. In Battle for Peace; The Story of My 83rd Birthday. [Appendix & Postscript by Shirley Graham.] NY: Masses & Mainstream.

LHA. 1956. Letter from W.E.B. Du Bois to Herbert Aptheker, 10 January 1956. Pp.394-396 in W.E.B. Du Bois, The Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois, Vol. III: Selections, 1944-1963. Herbert Aptheker (Ed.). Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1978.

LWWM. 1904. Du Bois, W.E.B. 1904. "Letter from Walter F. Willcox to W.E.B. Du Bois, March 13, 1904". The University of Massachusetts Library, Special Collections and Archives. URL: http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b006-i174 [Notes: Du Bois's response is a handwritten reply composed at the end of Willcox's letter]. Also, the Willcox letter and Du Bois's response are included in an Aptheker anthology, specifically: Pp.74-75 in The Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois: Volume 1, Selections 1877-1934. Edited by Herbert Aptheker. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973.

MEPF. 1944. "My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom." Pp.31-70 in Rayford W. Logan (Ed.), What the Negro Wants. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

NCCJ. 1930. "The Negro Citizen." Pp. 461-470 in Charles S. Johnson, The Negro in Civilization. NY: Henry Holt and Company.

OHWI. 1960. "Oral History Interview of W.E.B. Du Bois by William Ingersoll, ca. June 1960." W.E.B. Du Bois Papers. Special Collections & University Archives. University of Massachusetts Amherst Library.

PSOP. 1944. "Phylon: Science or Propaganda." Phylon, V:1 (First Quarter): 5-9.

RAMA. 1961. "W.E.B. DuBois: A Recorded Autobiography; Interview with Moses Asch." Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. URL: http://www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=1031 (catalog page) [PDF: Liner Notes (Transcript)].

SBF. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg.

SHMA. Undated, Ca. 1946 [?]. "Steps Toward a Science of How Men Act, ca. 1946."? [Typescript: 4 pages, plus 3 pages of handwritten notes by Du Bois]. W.E.B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. URL: http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b213-i071 [Metadata indicates "Circa 1946" as the possible date of creation].

SNP. 1898. "The Study of the Negro Problems." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 11 (January): 1-23. URL: www.webdubois.org/dbStudyofnprob.html.

SOCH. Ca. 1904-1905. "Sociology Hesitant." W.E.B. Du Bois Papers. Special Collections & University Archives. University of Massachusetts Amherst Library. URL: http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b212-i003 [Metadata indicates "ca. 1905" as the possible date of creation].

TCAR. 1933. "The Church and Religion." The Crisis, 40:10 (October): 236-237.

TDOP 1904. "The Development of a People." International Journal of Ethics, 14:3 (April): 292-311.

URCI. 1911. "The First Universal Races Congress". The Independent, Vol. LXXI, No. 3273 (August 24, 1911): pp. 401-403.

B. Works Written or Edited by Others

Barkin, Kenneth. 2000. "'Berlin Days,' 1892-1894: W. E. B. Du Bois and German Political Economy." boundary 2, 27:3 (Fall): 79-101.

Gooding-Williams, Robert. 2017. "W.E.B. Du Bois." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (Ed.). URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/dubois.

Gorton, William A. n.d. "Philosophy of Social Science". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. URL: https://iep.utm.edu/soc-sci/

Gray, Robin R.R. 2019. "Repatriation and Decolonization: Thoughts on Ownership, Access and Control". Pp.723-738 in Frank Gunderson, Robert Lancefield, & Bret Woods (Eds.). Oxford Handbook for Musical Repatriation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. URL: https://robingray.ca/writing/

Hirschman, Albert O. 1997 [1977]. The Passions and the Interests; Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. Twentieth Anniversary Edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U.P.

Itzigsohn, Jose and Karida L. Brown. 2020. The Sociology of W.E.B. Du Bois: Racialized Modernity and the Global Color Line. NYC: New York University Press.

Judy, Ronald A.T. 2000. "Introduction: On W.E.B. Du Bois and Hyperbolic Thinking." boundary 2, 27:3; pp.1-35.

Ladyman, James. 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science. London: Routledge.

Lemke, Sieglinde. 2000. "Berlin and Boundaries: Sollen versus Geschehen." boundary 2, 27:3 (Fall): 45-78.

Monteiro, Anthony. 2000. "Being an African in the World: The Du Boisian Epistemology." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 568,(March): 220-234.

Monteiro, Anthony. 2008. "W.E.B. Du Bois and the Study of Black Humanity: A Rediscovery." Journal of Black Studies, 38:4 (March): 600-621.

Morris, Aldon. 2015. The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rabaka, Reiland. 2010. Against Epistemic Apartheid: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Disciplinary Decadence of Sociology. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Reed, Adolph L. 1997. W.E.B. DuBois and American Political Thought. NY: Oxford University Press.

Somekh, Bridget & Cathy Lewin (Eds.). 2005. Research Methods in the Social Sciences. London: SAGE.

U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor. Bureau of the Census. 1904. Negroes in the United States. Bulletin 8. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Weber, Max. 1949. The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Translated & edited by Edwards A. Shils and Henry A. Finch. NY: Free Press.

Williams, Robert W. 2006. "Early Social-Scientific Research of W.E.B. Du Bois". Du Bois Review, 3:2 (September): 365-394.

Wilson, Francine Rusan. 2006. Segregated Scholars: Black Social Scientists and the Creation of Black Labor Studies, 1890-1950. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Wright II, Earl. 2016. The First American School of Sociology: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing.

• •   •••   • •
© 2023 Dr. Robert W. Williams