September-October 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 7

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103rd ASA President Erik Olin Wright:
Reinventing Sociology

Michael Burawoy, University of California-Berkeley

erik olin wright

Erik Olin Wright

Erik Wright, the 2012 President of the ASA, was born in Berkeley, CA, grew up in Kansas, was educated at Harvard, Oxford, and Berkeley and has spent the last 35 years teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is not only one of the most prominent sociologists on the planet, but one who manages to be both a local and a cosmopolitan.

A few months ago he could be found among the thousands of Madison citizens in their 17-day occupation of the capitol building, protesting Governor Walker’s offensive against public sector unions and state spending, and lining up with hundreds of others to give testimony that would prolong the encampment. He then took off for Germany to explain Madison’s “Cairo” to scholars at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. This is typical, developing projects in Madison and then lecturing about them to audiences all over the world. 

Wright brings the local to the global, but he also brings the global to the local. For 28 years he has headed the Havens Center at the University of Wisconsin, inviting leading intellectuals from all corners of the world to Madison, where they are treated to an intense questioning and have the privilege of working with his animated graduate students. Wherever he goes, wherever he stays, Wright stirs up intellectual ferment. And so he will over the next year as he prepares us for the 2012 ASA Annual Meeting in Denver.

The Birth of a Sociological Career

I am unable to pinpoint where his sociological career began. Maybe it was at the childhood dinner table where each member of the Wright family had to give an account of their day’s activities or as a Harvard undergraduate where he became aware of structural functionalism at the tail end of Talcott Parsons’ luminous career. Perhaps it was at Oxford where he was inspired by the great Marxist historian Christopher Hill and learned from the sociologist and political theorist Steven Lukes. Then again, maybe it was when he entered a Unitarian-Universalist seminary in Berkeley and worked at San Quentin as a student chaplain to avoid the draft and joined an activist organization devoted to reforming prison conditions. At the seminary, he organized his first seminars on utopian thinking and soon after wrote his first book, Politics of Punishment, co-authored with some of the San Quentin prisoners and prison-rights activists.  

Perhaps the most formative of his early experiences was as a graduate student at Berkeley in the early 1970s. In those heady days, students were more concerned about changing the world than about their future careers. Faculty were still in a state of shock at the disturbances on campus, which opened up space for graduate students to teach their own courses. Wright and his fellow students conspired to put together a course on Controversies in Marxist Social Science, whose descendant Wright still teaches today at Madison.

In his own work, Wright’s dissertation challenged mainstream sociology not on ideological grounds but on scientific grounds, demonstrating that a reconstructed Marxist definition of class could better explain income disparities than existing models of stratification and human capital theory. What he added to Marxism was the notion of contradictory class locations of which there were three: Small employers between the petty bourgeoisie and large scale capital, supervisors and managers between capital and labor, and semi-autonomous employees (professionals) between labor and the petty bourgeoisie. This breakthrough soon led to conducting social surveys designed to map class structures and their material and experiential correlates—first in the United States and then replicated in a dozen other countries—providing a global platform for his scientific Marxism.

Developing his Theoretical Foundations

Wright’s empirical analysis of capitol and labor sparked many invigorating debates about the meaning of class. Wright was always willing to shift his framework as others made compelling criticisms. If there is one feature that threads through his scholarly work—and indeed through his life—it is his determination to get things right. This meant not only developing as close a correspondence as possible between theoretical elaboration and empirical research, thereby confronting and resolving anomalies, but also working exhaustively on the internal logic of his theoretical framework. The result was a series of books with various permutations on the word “class:” Class, Crisis and the State (1978), Class Structure and Income Determination (1979), Classes (1985), The Debate on Classes (1989), Class Counts (1997), Approaches to Class Analysis (2005).

In 1981, Wright joined a group of brilliant social scientists and philosophers among whom he was most influenced by philosophers G.A. Cohen and Philippe van Parijs and the economist John Roemer. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s they pioneered what they called analytical Marxism, or more colloquially “no bullshit Marxism,” clarifying the foundations of Marxism in a no-holds barred London grilling of each other’s work. This group became a second intellectual home for Wright and one inspiration for his subsequent turn to the moral foundations of Marxism.

The second inspiration has to do with the intersection of history and biography. Even before the collapse of Soviet communism, the Marxist resurgence within academia had begun to decline. As Wright’s theories of class became part of mainstream orthodoxy, standard items on prelim reading lists, they now attracted a bevy of critics who announced the end of class, and the plurality of identities. Sociology was taking its neo-institutional and cultural turn, and in so doing lost sight of alternatives to capitalism. In response, Wright redirected his energies toward imagining such alternatives, directly challenging the metaphysical pathos of the new conservatism.

Reflecting on Real Utopias

His new project began in 1991 with the inauguration of a series of conferences on “real utopias” designed to discuss specific proposals for an alternative world, yet the proposals had roots in the actually existing world. Held at the Havens Center at Madison, each conference assembled scholars from various disciplines to respond to a specific “real utopia” proposal. Over the years, conference topics have included associative democracy, market socialism, participatory democracy, universal income grants, and gender equality. The conference papers were published in a book series culminating in one authored by Wright himself, Envisioning Real Utopias (2009), which reconstructs Marxist theory to accommodate real utopias.

Building on these conferences, the theme of the 2012 ASA Annual Meeting is “Real Utopias: Emancipatory Projects, Institutional Designs, Possible Futures.” Real utopias have no special affiliation with Marxism. Rather, they return to the abiding themes of classical sociology. Taking value commitments as a point of departure—always central concerns for Marx, Weber, Durkheim, De Tocqueville and others—Wright continually enquires into the institutional possibilities for realizing them. What would such institutions look like? What are the conditions of their reproduction and dissemination? What are their internal contradictions and dynamics? He scours the earth in search of embryonic real utopias, putting them under his analytical microscope and elaborating more general designs. His favorite examples include participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil; the production cooperatives of Mondragon, Spain; and even the collective self-organization of Wikipedia. The next meetings of the ASA in Denver will be awash with real utopias, featuring 20 panels, each devoted to a specific real utopia proposal, some 50 thematic panels on broad topics connected to real utopias and social justice, as well as three plenaries focused on real utopias in the areas of environment, equality, and democracy.

This is nothing short of reinventing sociology. Insecure about its standing among the disciplines, classical sociology often covered its value foundations under a mask of scientific virtuousness and virtuosity, whereas Wright—far more confident about the scientific foundations of sociology—inverts the balance by explicitly formulating values and then deploying science to work out the means for their realization. Wright’s sociology does not sideline but instead explicitly foregrounds questions of social justice—questions that motivate many to enter our discipline, only to later discover their marginalization. With Wright at our side we have no need to be embarrassed by our devotion to this risky, relatively low-status discipline. He shows us how sociology’s abiding concerns, as well as its theories and its methods, can have immediate relevance to an expanding world of concatenating crises.

Wright has been practicing real utopias most of his life. For starters, he is a superb teacher. I know no more lucid expounder of complex ideas, no one more open to exploring alternatives to his own views. He can be unsparing in pursuit of nonsense within sense, but is also adept at finding sense in nonsense. Legions of graduate students have passed through his courses on Marxist social science, theories of the state and economic sociology. Whether they agreed or disagreed with what he had to say, they received an unforgettable education in thinking, writing, and reading that they carried with them to universities all over the globe. For some students, Wright can be intimidating, but he can also be the gentlest, kindest, and most generous of teachers.  

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Wright is an inveterate optimist about the capacity of human beings to come to rational consensus about the state of the world and what should be done about it. That is what drives his passion for social science, as well as his organizing energy for innumerable workshops and conferences. Obviously, such enthusiasm for rational deliberation privileges the intellectual over other dimensions of social life. All real utopias have their limitations, but that never stopped Erik Wright from trying to realize their possibilities.

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