May/June 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 5

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Emeritus profile

Severyn Bruyn: Putting Research on the
Social Economy Into Action

Craig Schaar, ASA Membership


Severyn Bruyn

A professor of sociology at Boston College for more than four decades, Severyn Bruyn spent his career researching, teaching, and putting into action the fields of social economy and cultural studies.

Bruyn was born in Minneapolis, MN, and grew up during the Great Depression. He went into the army in 1945 where he served in the Army Intelligence Corps. When he entered college, he pursued criminology and chose to intern at a men’s prison where he gathered data on parole prediction indicators that he later used as part of his master’s thesis (1951). Later the U.S. Bureau of Prisons used his thesis to model an actuarial device for the federal system. He went on to earn a doctorate in sociology at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign in 1959 and joined the American Sociological Association while in graduate school.

A Civil Economy

After teaching at Illinois College (1952-66) and directing a Program in Community Development there (1952-62), Bruyn joined the faculty at Boston College where he was instrumental in bridging academic programs in Boston’s Department of Sociology and the School of Management. Through this initiative, students could earn a doctorate in sociology and an MBA in a new combined degree program.

"Historically, faculty in the sociology department did not work with Management," said Bruyn. Bridging the connection between business and sociology became a leading factor in Bruyn’s first research on "economy and society." Social economy examines how people interact in the market for scarce resources and how the system is shaped by values and culture. As a result, faculties in sociology and management now collaborate in teaching courses. In addition, a graduate student under Bruyn helped found a graduate program in Leadership for Change in Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, where corporate executives take courses on organizational development.

Bruyn published books about the changing forms of capitalism, including A Future for the American Economy and The Field of Social Investment. "If you were to synthesize ‘social and economic factors’ properly in the market system, you could develop a self-governing economy," said Bruyn. "It would go beyond the capitalist system. My books describe social development in the market." These publications study the relationship between profit and nonprofit sectors, community land trusts and community development corporations. Academics and others across the political spectrum have given support to his work, including Noam Chomsky, George Wald, John Kenneth Galbraith, S.M. Miller, Elise Boulding, Irving Louis Horowitz, Amitai Etzioni, Harvey Cox, and David Rockefeller.

Corporations and Labor

During the 1970s, Bruyn applied his knowledge about sociology and labor relations to a collective bargaining issue at a Boston bakery company. He was a proponent of worker self-management of firms and a deal was reached with workers that allowed them to purchase the enterprise from the owners. The workers put together back-vacation time money in the amount of $700,000 to place a down payment on the business purchase. Bruyn and colleagues successfully lobbied the U.S. Small Business Administration to provide a loan for the employee-owned bakery in Boston; however, private banks and state lending agencies refused to fund the endeavor. This led him and his colleagues to organize a nonprofit organization called the Industrial Cooperative Association (ICA) that continues to help workers purchase firms and start employee-owned companies. The ICA has been the recipient of Ford and Rockefeller Foundation grants, which funded employee-ownership initiatives.

Bruyn provided his expertise to a larger and more controversial firm called the United Fruit Company, which had numerous banana tracts throughout the Caribbean and Central America. There were frequent clashes between United Fruit management and the plantation workers in Guatemala and Honduras. Bruyn investigated the origins of the disputes and he kept meticulous track of events in his diary. By keeping track of events he noticed that the United Fruit Company and the Guatemalan government were acting in collusion against revolutionaries in the hills. He noted that United Fruit had a well-armed compound to protect themselves against attacks by rebel forces. The company had isolated itself from the local community. This unstable environment hampered agricultural output on the plantations.

Bruyn spoke to the President of the United Fruit Company and said: "You could make more money if you sold the plantation to the employees who would then contract to sell their bananas to you. [This way] you would win support from Latin American countries." After this interaction, the president of United Fruit gave a talk to Bruyn’s class on multinational firms and planned to work on his model for an employee-owned company before a financier looking for a cash-rich company suddenly purchased United Fruit.

After the United Fruit experience, Bruyn was invited by a church council to visit Puerto Rico to observe environmental abuses at exploratory mining sites of Kennecott Copper. There was evidence of extensive environmental violations associated with Kennecott including gas leaks in the well water in nearby populated areas. Many Puerto Rican nationalists and socialist groups were organizing against the Kennecott Corporation.

Bruyn noted that the local population had the potential to influence company policy in regard to environmental safety by looking to another copper firm in Sweden. "Puerto Ricans have a rich resource in copper and are powerful because of globalization," said Bruyn. He proposed that contracts with a global company include local organizations in the ownership of the business and eventually selling to community development corporations. The competition of other global corporations and the declining price of copper led Kennecott to pull out of Puerto Rico.

During his retirement, Bruyn has remained active with academic projects including a significant volume of research on the subject of evolution. He also enjoys composing music, sculpting, and painting. His books and artwork during retirement can be found on his webpage at

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