The Presence Of Double-consciousness In Ethnography Of Race

The article “Ethnographies of Race, Crime, and Justice: Toward a Sociological Double-Consciousness” aims to introduce double-consciousness thinking into ethnographic studies of race, crime, and justice (RCJ) in order to “redefine what it means to study practices, structures, and cultural processes within the field” (Rios, Carney, & Kelekay, 2017, pg. 2). It emphasizes the importance of Du Bois’ work in the field of sociology and advocates that researchers acknowledge power-blindness and both explicit and implicit biases in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of minority groups and to enact sustainable policies that will benefit the marginalized and down-trodden.

Like many sociologists who followed the social-conflict approach, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois believed that sociologists should not only learn about society’s problems but instead should try their best to solve the problems around them. His biggest contribution to sociology is the theoretical tool called double-consciousness. He defined this as the “sense of always looking at one’s self-thought the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Rios et al.

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, 2017, pg.2). He believes that African Americans live under the strain of two distinct identities by which the world sees them as, and this theory brings to light both the psychological and social divisions in American society. His work argues that African Americans have never had the privilege to see themselves as “Americans,” as they are constantly forced to view the world on two plains; being an American, and being a Negro.

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The article argues that Du Bois’ work is more relevant than ever in today's divided and broken America, and by understanding his work and applying it to policies and laws, we can attempt to move closer to a world of equality and social justice. While the article focuses on American society, it is equally applicable to issues facing minorities in Canada.

A sociological theory that relates and can expand on Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness is George Herbert Mead’s concept of the looking-glass self. It states that “what we think of ourselves, depends on how we think others see us” (Macionis, Burkowicz, Jansson, & Benoit, 2017, 3.2). By integrating these two concepts, it makes it easier to see just how damaging it can be to live life with the lens of double-consciousness. If society sees African Americans and minorities as being a separate class, it may be easier to understand why these demographics see themselves as the problem, which brings on low self-esteem, lack of trust in institutions, and an overall negative worldview. This is a problem when is it done by society, but it is a crisis when it is being perpetrated by legal institutions and the powers in government.

One valuable aspect of this article is that it takes into consideration the work of many sociologists who have tried to tackle RCJ inequalities, and it reinforces its arguments about the destructive tendencies of double consciousness by pointing to the many factors that play a role in keeping it alive. It outlines ways in which schools, crimmigration, prisons, and policing, all help to perpetuate injustice, thereby causing minorities to see themselves differently in society (Rios et al., 2017, pg.8).

Double-consciousness is directly linked to the inequalities between African Americans and whites in society, and it is reinforced throughout a person’s life. As a heterosexual white male, the concept of double-consciousness is quite foreign to me, as I have the privilege of not having to deal with this societal burden. From early on in my life and into my college years, I always felt safe when dealing with law enforcement, and never felt uncomfortable in my own skin when dealing with day to day activities. It is something I rarely think about – or ever have to think about – in our western society. This is by no means my sole experience, as many of our laws, research methods, and economic circumstances benefit white people in North America. This affects African American and other minority communities in more ways than imaginable, and one of the most harmful ways in which this manifests is in the enforcement of crime, and policing. Police killings of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless other African Americans and Latinos shows the imbalance of power and the negative effects this has on minority groups (Rios et al., 2017, pg.15). For an African American man, simply being pulled over for a traffic violation can put him into a life and death situation. Knowing this, African Americans do not see themselves as equals, and often fear what should not be feared in everyday life. The rise of movements like Black Lives Matter is one of the ways in which minorities try to shed light and fight back such racial injustice. On the other hand, young white people are “often allowed to grow out of their delinquent activity and become well-integrated adults in the community” (Rios et al., 2017, pg.11). This is not just at the policing level. It goes much higher than the street level policing that so often puts black lives in danger. This belief is held by those at the top of the courts' hierarchy, seeing young white men as deserving a second (and third, and so on) chance before harsher sentencing and prosecution for their actions. Recently in Canada, a white farmer named Gerald Stanley was found not guilty by an all-white jury for shooting a young aboriginal by the name of Colten Boushie in August 2016. The verdict led to major unrest in the province of Saskatchewan and was a story of debate across the country. Many in the Aboriginal community claimed that Mr. Stanley murdered Colten Boushie, and believed that the courts' verdict was unjust (Graveland, 2018). Cases like this bring a spotlight onto the meaning of white privilege and are clear evidence that the court systems in Canada are unjust, maybe even racist. This verdict will negatively affect visible minorities for decades to come, as it further reinforces injustice in the legal system. By developing a better understanding of double-consciousness, more research can be done to aid in the change of archaic laws and practices that disadvantage a large number of the American population.

What can sociologists in the RCJ field do to alleviate minority groups of their social inequalities, and how does the awareness of double-consciousness theory help solve current problems? The article states that sociologists must gather more feedback from primary sources; the people who are directly affected by the injustice. Their views and experiences can help researchers understand the effects of double-consciousness at a deeper level, producing “more robust, sophisticated understandings of the populations under study” (Rios et al., 2017, pg.14). Other ethnographies of race, crime, and justice are starting to look at the institutions which “shape the daily life of criminalized communities” (Rios et al., 2017, pg.15). This is referred to as “studying up,” and the aim is to get a better understanding of the powers at play who endlessly marginalize certain racial groups and minorities. Police officers, judges, politicians and lawyers contribute to the racial injustice of the criminal justice system by too often giving unequal punishment to marginalized groups. By better understanding the system, change can hopefully come from the top down, but to do so, better research must be done to hold specific (predominantly white) people in positions of power accountable.

While the article makes a good case as to why double-consciousness is important to understand and solve, it falls into the trap of generalizing all African Americans and minorities as viewing society in this way. Given that Du Bois’ work was done through the lens of social conflict theory, it does not apply a scientific approach to his work, and this also translates into the article. While ethnographies of RCJ are very effective and shed light onto these issues, more statistical records and numerical data could help to solidify the article’s conclusions. The article also looks at the issue of double-consciousness from a macro scale and offers top-down solutions, which are often very hard to implement. Removing established judges and people of power and privilege is not an easy task, and waiting for these positions to be filled by more understanding and diverse individuals could mean having to wait decades with no guarantee of success.

The article does a good job of defining the issues with the criminal justice system and how it affects minorities, however, how people see the world and themselves is a personal position that everyone experiences differently. A micro-level approach to solving double-consciousness would be very effective in that it would find the precise communities and people most affected by double-consciousness. This would lead to a better understanding of how the problem can be solved on the individual level, as you would receive input from the target population allowing one to implement ground-up interventions. This is recommended in the article, but it is clear from the body of the work that very little research has been done at the micro-scale, and that a lot of what is understood about double consciousness and RCJ is extracted from a macro methodology. Who in the black community is most affected by the double-consciousness lens? Why? By extracting information from individuals, and looking at their life experiences, sociologists will get a better understanding of how double-consciousness plays a role in individuals lives, and what institutions they are affected by the most in their day to day lives.

Updated: Feb 26, 2024
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The Presence Of Double-consciousness In Ethnography Of Race. (2024, Feb 26). Retrieved from

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