October 24, 2008

English prof contrasts literary, sociological approaches to race

Kenneth Warren, a professor in the English department and the deputy provost for research and minority issues at the University, discussed how literature studies—not sociology—might be the most productive venue for studying race, during a talk Wednesday evening in the Regenstein’s Special Collections Research Center.

Although sociology has long been the standard discipline for examining race, Warren discussed the merits of literature as a useful tool for studying race. Warren pointed particularly to Ralph Ellison as an author who criticized sociologists for missing “the complex cultural history that black Americans had cultivated,” and instead started an “investigation into the true nature of what it’s like to be black in America.”

Warren added that other critics have noted sociology’s tendency to reduce “human complexity to numbers…reducing the whole of the people to its current social circumstances.” While sociology studies groups and statistics, literature considers the nuances of individual cases, he said.

Warren discussed the study of race as it has been approached historically by both sociology and literature. Describing these two fields as “competing and complementary technologies for understanding the ways of the world,” Warren explained how the need for such an understanding came out of a post–Civil War America in which racial violence and prejudice were frequently justified by alleging the innate inferiority of black people.

Sociology, Warren explained, with its more scientific means of understanding racial conditions in the country, served as “a bulwark against prejudice,” demonstrating that racial differences are a product of environmental and not biological influence. Warren also discussed the role of the U of C’s renowned Department of Sociology in training many of these early “scholars who were decisive and crucial in the study of race for the 20th century.”

The talk, sponsored by the U of C Library Society, was its first of the academic year and was offered in conjunction with the current Special Collections exhibit entitled “Integrating the Life of the Mind: African-Americans at the University of Chicago, 1870–1940.”