The Social Sciences and Theories of Race

By Fitch, Nancy-Elizabeth | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Social Sciences and Theories of Race


Fitch, Nancy-Elizabeth, The Journal of African American History


Vernon J. Williams, Jr., The Social Sciences and Theories of Race. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006. Pp. 151. Cloth $50.00. Paper $20.00.

The Social Sciences and Theories of Race is a small, provocative, and thought-provoking collection of essays by Vernon J. Williams Jr., a professor at Indiana University. It is a mixture of genres, including history of ideas, African American and U.S. intellectual history, biography, and historiography. Williams wrote, "I draw on the intellectual, personal, and social forces at work on my subjects. ... As a consequence, I ignore boundaries separating cultural history, biography, autobiography, social history ... to provide the reader with evidence to support my conclusions. ... " This interdisciplinary approach is effective, especially with his synopses of the work of seminal black and white scholars and thinkers such as Franz Boas, George Washington Ellis, Booker T. Washington, Ulysses Grant Weatherly, and Monroe Nathan Work who participated in the development of the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and psychology, the behavioral sciences that are the focus of this volume.

The overall purpose for the volume is most clearly stated in its concluding essay. This collection is meant to explain how these social science disciplines evolved around certain operating hypotheses, not always objective or disinterested. These essays focus on the development of philosophical and ideological concepts and foundations, and the training of generations of scholars who cover a continuum of thought on race and race relations, and the practices and public policies coming from these theories beginning in the late 18th century. The text outlines some of the major societal trends over two centuries such as black (and white) southerners' migration to the Midwest, and explores the diversity of personalities influenced by what Williams calls the "major reorientations" in North American social science research.

Williams also considers the cultural and social heritages and influences of Central and West Africa, perceived positively and negatively, as the reason for the progress or "backwardness" of African Americans whose African ancestral homelands lie in these regions. African captives weathered not only forced servitude in North America and the loss of the fruits of their own labor, but their descendants suffered from the legacies of Transatlantic Slave Trade and slavery, legal segregation based on race and racial ideologies--some coming from the practitioners of these very disciplines--and discriminatory social and economic practices. Despite these conditions, African Americans continued to make important contributions in their communities in terms of self-help and uplift, and to the nation. Within the dominant white society, the values and beliefs about what anthropologist Audrey Smedley terms the concept of "innate white superiority" and the "inferiority" of African-descended people, determined "who should have access to wealth, privilege, loyalty, respect, and power and who should not."

Williams is an expert in African American and African Diasporic Studies and American Studies, and he wrote these essays over a period of two decades, though they are not organized chronologically.

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