What is Double Consciousness in Sociology? Explained

The idea of double consciousness is well-known in social philosophy. This thesis, which William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868–1963) first proposed in his book The Souls of Black Folk” (1903), continues to be his best work for setting forward a revolutionary viewpoint. It is essential to note that Du Bois was a Pan-Africanist Civil Rights Activist and American Sociologist. Along with that, he became the first Black person to be awarded a PhD by Harvard. As the name implies, his theory of double consciousness addresses the issue of dual identity that black people frequently experience.

In the opening chapter of his book, “Our Spiritual Strivings,” Du Bois discusses how black people are compelled to view themselves through the eyes of others, that is, through ‘the veil’ in his own term. Here, “others” refer to white people, who oftentimes rule society.

Du Bois isn’t afraid to state that the ‘twoness’ that African-Americans experience is simply a result of white supremacy or their long-term racist oppression.

Du Bois primarily concentrated on the years 1861 to 1872 to study the plight of American Negros. In his later works, he also takes into account how Black people’s experiences during the 20th century affected their consciousness.

Particularly, his work continues to be crucial due to its macro-analysis of how racializing and racialized groups construct their identities.

He was the first person to bring into the picture the power-relations, and colour-line politics.

Due to its phenomenological examination of Black Folk experiences in the American culture, his theory has been of the utmost significance.

A state of duality could be seen in American society, as black people having limited social and civil rights there experience double thoughts, double-social classes, and double duties. A black guy is often seen living two lives—one that he/she actually feels from the inside, and the other one is the identity society has forced upon him/her. This entire situation creates an isolated self, which cuts people off from the outside world.

As Du Bois himself asserts in his book The Souls of Black Folk that “to be a poor man is hard but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of the hardships.”  (Bois, 1903)

Relevance of Double Consciousness in Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theories:

It has been noted that the early works and contributions of Du Bois were not given much importance by the discipline of sociology. For a very long time, Bois’ ideas remained dominated only among the scholars of African-American studies.

Nevertheless, Bois’ theory has the potential to be categorised under the umbrella of classical sociologists like Hegel, George Herbert Mead, Herbert Blumer, and Cooley as well as contemporary sociological theorists such as Levi Strauss, Jacques Derrida, Anthony Giddens and many more.

Synthesizing Bois’ and Hegel’s theories of Consciousness

It is a popular belief that Hegel’s classic work “the Phenomenology of Spirit,” which discusses his notion of self-consciousness, had a direct influence on Bois’ theory. However, Hegel in his theory tries to shed light on how self-consciousness recapitulates a variety of periods in the evolution of human history. Bois, on the other hand, tries to inculcate African subjects as vital agents in the evolution of world history, as a sheer effort to add to his Hegel’s historical philosophy. Moreover, on a broad level, the American Negroes’ spiritual struggle to achieve real self-Consciousness is akin to the main ideas of the Hegelian theory.

Mead, Blumer, Cooley and Bois on the conception of the ‘Self’

Du Bois has given us tremendous insight into how other sociologists have studied the concept of “self.”

While Cooley developed the theory “looking glass self”, wherein he emphasised the importance of using symbols to make sense of the everyday world. On the other hand, sociologists like Mead traced the genesis of self through his conception of “I” and the “Me.” It was Bois who brought up the issue of the racialized subjects not being acknowledged in the discourse on Self.

He discussed how black people’s “inner spiritual slavery” stunts their ability to develop into their true selves.

Bois appears to have made a significant contribution to the discussion of racism, power dynamics, black identity, and oppression, among other topics.

Double Consciousness and the Communicative Social Action

Furthermore, Mead’s theory is relevant to modern social theory because it served as the foundation for Habermas’ theory of communicative action.

And if take into consideration Bois’ contributions, it could be argued that, according to the theory of double consciousness, communication cannot be free and fair as long as there is racialization, which again shows its relevance to the current social discourses. It is to be noted, however, that even though Bois’ theory sparked a number of fruitful discussions, Habermas did not really delve deeper into the issues of race or power relations in his theory of Communicative Action. Thus, in this way, Bois somehow presented a whole new perspective on this theory.

Most importantly, Du Bois in his book claims that the desire to fully realise one’s “self-conscious manhood” is the essence of the phrase “double consciousness.” (Bois, 1903)

Additionally, he makes it very apparent in his book that the sole motive of his theory is not to put African culture above American culture or vice versa, as there are many valuable lessons to be gained from both cultures. In a similar context, he makes use of the terms such as ‘the second sight’ which can become a guiding force or an alternative perspective to see oneself. Bois merely seeks to achieve a balanced state in which it is possible for Americans and Blacks to live harmoniously without sacrificing their values or true selves. This brings us to yet another important sociological discourse of our times.

Double Consciousness of Structure and Agency

The idea of dualism—that two forces that appear to be in opposition could easily come together and coexist—is presented by Giddens’ structuration theory, which seeks to eliminate the polarised nature of structure and agency as opposed to classical sociological theory.

Similarly, Bois claims that the issue of the colour line, or the relationship between the darker and lighter races of humans in Asia and Africa, is the biggest issue of the 20th century. (Bois, 1903) The issue of this kind of oppression is deeply explored in poems like “White Man’s Burden.” Rudyard Kipling, for example, presents the most objectionable and oppressive stance in his above-mentioned poem by putting the onus for managing non-white people’s issues on the shoulders of the so-called “white man.”

The oppressive behaviour of whites against non-whites is at the centre of the Bois debate.

Deconstruction of the Black Soul

This also brings us to Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction, which is nothing but an effort to erase the boundaries between the opposition.

This theory shows how polar opposites such as black-white, good-bad, etc. are just the two sides of the same coin.

The real issue emerges when we begin focusing on only one side of the coin. Bois’s theory, in this sense, is also an effort to deconstruct what has been stuffed in the “minds of black souls.”

Double Consciousness: An Orient’s viewpoint

In his book Orientalism, Edward Said challenges the Orientalist perspective’s false portrayal of the eastern world. On similar grounds, Bois refers to the Eurocentric bias that portrays African or even Asian people as weak, eccentric, barbaric, and uncivilised when he talks of white supremacy. After establishing itself as superior, West begins to believe that it is only the responsibility of white people to educate the other allegedly “lower races.” Subsequently, ‘the other’ is constituted, which Bois tries to elucidate by using ‘the veil’ as a metaphor.

Formation of ‘the other’

‘The Savage Mind’ by Levi-Strauss and ‘Time and the Other’ by Johannes Fabian both discuss how colonisers use repressive time and space practices to construct ‘the other.’ Since the very formation of ‘this other’ gives rise to double consciousness in various classes and races, it is this other that serves as the focal point of Bois’ study.

Conclusion and Suggestions

As we saw, Du Bois’s analysis of the ‘Negro problems’ brings to us great insights into the toiling souls of black people. Even after

decades and centuries of freedom struggle, the very systematic humiliation, personal disrespect, ridicule and mockery of black people were commonplace in American culture and somehow still is. In the present context, the slogans such as ‘black lives matter’ call out racism, inequality and discrimination on that same soil demonstrating the oppressive nature of American Society. The same society that openly promotes ideas of freedom, equality, emancipation, etc is in reality not able to guarantee its citizens the basic encouragement to be what they wish to be. A black man or woman simply wishes to develop into their true selves, which could only happen if they retain their suppressed selves.

“The colour line,” “double consciousness,” and “the veil” are the three main barriers to attaining true self-consciousness as discussed by Bois.

Besides, we hope that more humanitarian aid will be provided to everyone at the dawn of the new century, regardless of caste, creed, or colour. A Dalit in India and a black person in America both experience similar forms of oppression. The sole distinction between the two is that the former is based on race while the latter is based on caste. The only way out of this double consciousness, which is nothing more than a false consciousness, seems to be to let go of all types of cultural and societal hegemony. A fully evolved person with only “single-consciousness” is the need of an hour.

References:

  • Bois, W. D. E. B. (n.d.). The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903). Cornell University Library.
  • Itzigsohn, J., & Brown, K. (2015). SOCIOLOGY AND THE THEORY OF DOUBLE CONSCIOUSNESS: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Phenomenology of Racialized Subjectivity. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 12(2), 231-248. doi:10.1017/S1742058X15000107

I graduated with a Master’s degree in Sociology from Jamia Millia Islamia. Apart from that, I get immersed in poetry, listen to Sufi music and I’m fond of Autumn foliage.