Race, Class, and Socialization: Allison Davis and Twentieth-Century American Social Thought

Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Mark Pittenger

Second Advisor

Paul Sutter

Third Advisor

Peter Wood

Fourth Advisor

Phoebe Young

Fifth Advisor

Paul Shankman


This project is an intellectual biography of the African-American social scientist Allison Davis (1902-1983). It uses his career and thought to investigate the history of twentieth-century American social thought, the history of social science, and African-American history. In particular, it shows how Davis’s lived experiences with race and class, as well as his first-rate formal education, made him a pioneering anthropologist and educator. After contributing to the New Negro Renaissance, Davis entered social science and published two classics, Deep South (1941) and Children of Bondage (1940). Both were theoretically and methodologically innovative, and both furthered the larger environmental revolution within social science that made clear the socially-constructed nature of human difference, and hence helped to displace essentialist views. His growing stature within the social-science community prompted the University of Chicago to hire him in 1942. This landmark appointment helped to racially integrate the faculties of other predominantly-white universities, and it made Davis an early civil rights pioneer. As a professor of education at Chicago, Davis had his largest social impact. He investigated the cultural differences between social classes, thus reconciling cultural and structural theories. His work pushed school districts across the country to abolish their use of culturally-biased intelligence tests, and it laid the intellectual foundations for the federal Head Start program. Understanding education as an instrument of democracy, Davis fought for far-reaching educational reforms, including the abolition of racial segregation. Among other achievements, his work here contributed to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

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