Double Consciousness and the Stranger

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Throughout history, Georg Simmel and W.E.B. Du Bois have had a significant influence on important theories and ideas developed in the Social Sciences. Perhaps two of the most relevant and well-known concepts developed by both of these theorists are the concepts of “double consciousness” and “the stranger”. In this paper I will be analyzing both of these pieces of work to draw upon differences and similarities between the two. The similarities I will be elaborating on are the usage of the paradoxical figure, which both Simmel and Du Bois discuss in their theories, and the coexisting feeling of division from mainstream society. The difference between the two theories that I will be exploring is the perception that mainstream society has of these paradoxical figures. For Simmel, the stranger is seen as a valuable addition to society. For Du Bois however, the seventh son is seen more as a burden on society, or something to look down upon.

The idea of double consciousness was first conceptualized by W.E.B. Du Bois. In his writing “The Souls of Black Folk” Du Bois reflects on the subjective consequences of being black in America. On the concept, Du Bois says:

“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,--a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. 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. One ever feels his twoness,--an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Du Bois, 7).

Du Bois viewed double consciousness as a conceptual model for describing the divisions affecting the consciousness of individuals who are in disadvantageous social positions outside the dominant culture, despite their citizenship or belongingness in that society. Initially, Du Bois intended to have the term describe the “two-ness” that African Americans face. That is, the feeling of an African identity, as well as an American identity. He says that African American individuals are largely excluded from the heart of society, forcing them to navigate between two worlds (ibid, 9)

Du Bois believed that double consciousness is important to the analysis of Black American culture because it describes a felt contradiction between the daily experiences Blacks in America have, and their social values. Blacks perceive themselves through the generalized contempt of white America, and as a result, are deprived of a true self-consciousness. They are always looking at themselves through the eyes of others (ibid, 8). Du Bois believed that African Americans were pitied individuals; that they were not seen as contributing individuals to society, and were looked at in scorn (ibid, 7). By seeing themselves through the eyes of others, Blacks always experience a feeling of self-degradation.

In his writings, Du Bois refers to a paradoxical figure. The figure he refers to is that of a “seventh son”. The seventh son is used to represent African Americans who are said to be gifted with a special insight into not only who they are; but also their position from the perspective of the world around them. In other words, African Americans have a particular point of view on society that allows them to see certain truths about social systems which others, who are not in oppressed groups, cannot see (ibid, 7).

The concept of “the stranger” was first theorized by Georg Simmel to describe someone who do not belong to a part of a group, however, is included in the group nonetheless. On the concept, Simmel says:

“The stranger will thus not be...
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