Engaged Faculty Spotlight: Decolonizing Sociology

This month’s spotlight focuses on José Itzigsohn, Professor of Sociology
November 3, 2021

José Itzigsohn (he/him) is Professor of Sociology at Brown University. He identifies as a Du Boisian sociologist, “rethink[ing] the discipline along the lines proposed by W. E. B. Du Bois to one rooted in a historical understanding of the present, that is global and relational, and takes racialized modernity as the object of its work.” Itzigsohn extends this central focus of sociological theory, towards the global intersection of race and class, studying the differential affects of racial and colonial capitalism on racialized groups. His work also studies alternative forms of economic organization, specifically how the marginalized of racial and colonial capitalism build informal and solidarity economies.

Across these three areas, Itzigsohn’s scholarship and praxis center community-engagement and engaged scholarship. His second book, Encountering American Faultlines, engaged through research, direct action, and community organizing in Providence to shed light on the experiences of the local Dominican community. He continues to build collaborations with community organizations and universities in the United States and abroad. He also re-designs methods and continues to think and invite conversations about the discipline in relation to society to more clearly connect sociology to communities. This, for Itzigsohn, is where community engagement comes in and where knowledge production and policy recommendations can be aligned with community voice and priorities.

In thinking about principles or values that guide his community-engaged scholarship, Itzigsohn references “do no harm” as a golden rule and a potential ‘Hippocratic oath’ for social scientists, whose work sometimes stigmatizes, orientalizes, and exoticizes the communities they study. Itzigsohn invites anyone with a commitment to emancipation to think about how our work might be relevant and contribute to a broader goal of making the world more equitable and habitable.

It wasn’t until after he finished his Ph.D. in Sociology at Johns Hopkins University that Itzigsohn stumbled upon W.E.B. Du Bois, when he found his name on the walls of the UMass Amherst library. This discovery dramatically changed his views on the field and approach to his work. Interestingly, Du Bois himself had a learning trajectory, upgrading his views and methodologies long into his nineties. As he learned and read more and tried to reconcile Du Bois’s theories with his traditional training, he centered racism and colonialism in the study of historical capitalism. Itzigsohn’s next reorientation led to his asking questions on decolonizing Sociology.

In his teaching, including his re-designed Classical Sociological Theory graduate course and his Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the Modern World undergraduate course, Itzigsohn starts with scholars from the Black radical tradition and then introduces European thinkers in conversation, thus provincializing them, “to start correcting the Eurocentric bias of the classical sociological cannon.” While de-colonizing sociology and other disciplines is not a mere syllabus re-design, this change is one example of centering excluded knowledges. Community engagement, to Itzigsohn, extends to imbuing our knowledge production with voices and lived experiences of organic intellectuals often expelled from disciplinary and university boundaries. He takes these lessons to his student advising and mentorship, and tries to welcome ideas and projects that push the sociological discipline beyond its rigid boundaries and its ‘acceptable’ modes of inquiry.