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What do W. E. B. Du Bois, Simone de Beauvoir, Patricia Hill Collins, Michael Omi, Howard Winant, and Dorothy E. Smith all have in common? How are they different?

All of these figures are similar in the fact that they are all theorists who analyze the social conventions that allow oppression to exist within society. They are different in the fact Du Bois', Omi's, and Winant's research works to interpret racism and racial identity, while Beauvoir's and Smith's mainly dissect the subjugation of women. Collins' work speaks about the intersection between all of these oppressed groups.

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W.E.B Du Bois is unique amongst these theorists in that he alone is acknowledged as one of the founders of the field of sociology. Like Beauvoir, he combined research, political theory, and memoir to provide a deeply compelling framework for the psycho-socio effects of racism. In particular, Du Bois’s theory...

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W.E.B Du Bois is unique amongst these theorists in that he alone is acknowledged as one of the founders of the field of sociology. Like Beauvoir, he combined research, political theory, and memoir to provide a deeply compelling framework for the psycho-socio effects of racism. In particular, Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness posits that African Americans’ experiences of racism split their consciousness in half between their own perceptions and how others perceive them. Du Bois writes that

it is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.

Du Bois’s research on the black experience is part of the seminal canon of sociology, which links him with the rest of the theorists mentioned here. American sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant worked together to develop the theory of racial formation. Like Du Bois, Omi and Winant’s research deconstructs racism and racial identity. However, Omi and Winant go further in defining race as a historically and socially constructed characteristic that is made up of interlocking social, economic, and political factors.

Unlike the rest of this group of theorists, Simone De Beauvoir did not primarily identify as a sociologist or even a political theorist and was belatedly acknowledged as such against her own words. According to Beauvoir herself, she was a writer and interpreter of other famous philosophers (most notably Jean Paul Sartre). While the other theorists’ work falls within the academy, Beauvoir also wrote novels, travel essays, plays, and memoirs. Also the only existentialist of the group, she was raised Catholic, but she eschewed religion in favor of a worldview which centers the individual. What Beauvoir has in common with Du Bois, Collins, Omi & Winant, and Smith is a focus on the significance of identity groups and the mechanics of oppression against minority groups. In particular, Beauvoir’s work can be placed in a similar tradition with Dorothy E. Smith’s work on feminist theory. Notably, however, Smith articulates a Marxist theory of feminism while Beauvoir’s most famous work, The Second Sex, challenged the social and political institutions historically used to subjugate women.

In a sense, the work of African American sociologist Patricia Hill Collins synthesizes and refines the political and philosophical theories of Du Bois and Beauvoir. Rather than focusing her work on African Americans or women as an identity group, Collins starts her research at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. Collins’s research is rather broader than many of the other theorists discussed here, ranging from discussions of Black feminism and public education to hip hop and the media. This can be viewed as parallel to and in tandem with Smith’s standpoint theory, which argues that knowledge is subjective and emerges from experience of one’s social position. Like Collin’s work, Smith’s is informed by Marxist theory. Standpoint theory, it should be noted, belongs to a common lineage with Du Bois and double consciousness.

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All of these people are prominent intellectuals who have done important work in sociology. All of them have been particularly concerned with how society tries to define and circumscribe the lives of oppressed groups of people (that is, black women, black men, and white women), and they all offer ideas on how to overcome the oppression of being denied the social right to define oneself for oneself.

Du Bois explained the problem within the context of "double consciousness," an expression that he invented to describe the particular problem Black Americans face in being both American and black, both integral to and marginalized by American culture. For Du Bois, the solutions to oppression lay in economic and political enfranchisement as well as intellectual achievement. However, Du Bois could not quite resist elitism in regard to the latter. He envisioned that it would be a "Talented Tenth"—a select group of talented, middle-class black people—who would use their resources to help others to advance.

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir provided the first thorough examination of how society conditions women into a particular mode of femininity designed to make them complicit in their own oppression. She re-appropriates the philosophical concept of immanence, which describes a character that is both inherent and divinely mandated, to describe how women are fixed into a particular mode of being, while men are granted the privilege of transcendence, which allows them to evolve. As an existentialist, Beauvoir believed that women have a responsibility and a right to determine their own existences.

The others whom you mention, all of whom are currently living professors, deal with identity formation. Omi and Winant created the sociological theory of racial formation to help us understand how race is socially constructed and used as a tool to determine other forms of status, such as one's economic or social value. Dorothy Smith, too, looks at social organization, in particular how it impacts women. Finally, Patricia Hill Collins is specifically concerned with conditions for black women and the development of a black female point of view and response to the specific conditions of their lives. Thus, one could argue that the ideas of Du Bois and Beauvoir around race and gender, respectively, have provided these contemporary thinkers with a philosophical framework.

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