Erik Olin Wright
|Died||January 23, 2019 (aged 71)|
Marcia Kahn Wright
|Thesis||Class Structure and Income Inequality (1976)|
|Doctoral advisor||Arthur Stinchcombe|
|Other academic advisors||Michael Reich|
|School or tradition||Analytical Marxism|
|Institutions||University of Wisconsin–Madison (1976–2019)|
|Main interests||Marxist class analysis|
Erik Olin Wright (February 9, 1947 – January 23, 2019) was an American analytical Marxist sociologist and educator, specializing in social stratification and in egalitarian alternative futures to capitalism. He was known for diverging from classical Marxism in his breakdown of the working class into subgroups of diversely held power and therefore varying degrees of class consciousness. Wright introduced novel concepts to adapt to this change of perspective including deep democracy and interstitial revolution.
Wright was born on February 9, 1947, in Berkeley, California, though he was raised in Lawrence, Kansas. Wright's parents were both psychology professors at the University of Kansas. His parents were both Jewish. He received two Bachelor of Arts degrees, one from Harvard College in 1968, and one from Balliol College, University of Oxford, in 1970. Wright received a Doctor of Philosophy degree from University of California, Berkeley, in 1976. He became a Professor of Sociology at University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1976.
Wright began making contributions to the intellectual community in the mid-1970s, along with a whole generation of young academics who were radicalized by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.
At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Wright supervised the dissertations of numerous young scholars who proceeded to become notable sociologists and politicians, among whom are included Wilmot James, César Rodríguez Garavito, and Vivek Chibber. Wright also served on the dissertation committees of scholars who go on to make considerable contributions to the fields of social stratification, social policy, and inequality including Gøsta Esping-Andersen, former American Sociological Association president Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, and the late Devah Pager.
Throughout Wright's career, he was solicited by other universities to join their sociology faculty. One notable such recruitment attempt occurred at Harvard University in 1981. Among Wright's supporters were Harrison White, who respected Wright's work despite opposition to Wright's Marxist political commitments. Wright's opponents at Harvard included Daniel Bell and George Homans, as well as university president Derek Bok who purportedly blocked the department's attempt to recruit Wright. Harvard's attempt to recruit Wright coincided with its decision to deny tenure in 1981 to Theda Skocpol, a decision that was later reversed following controversy over accusations of gender discrimination.
In 2012, Wright was elected President of the American Sociological Association.
Wright was also an avid fiddle player, often encouraging guests to square dance at parties.
Wright died on January 23, 2019, from acute myeloid leukemia at a hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, aged 71.
Wright has been described as an "influential new left theorist". His work was concerned mainly with the study of social classes, and in particular with the task of providing an update to and elaboration of the Marxist concept of class, in order to enable Marxist and non-Marxist researchers alike to use "class" to explain and predict people's material interests, lived experiences, living conditions, incomes, organizational capacities and willingness to engage in collective action, political leanings, and so on. In addition, he attempted to develop class categories that would allow researchers to compare and contrast the class structures and dynamics of different advanced capitalist and "post-capitalist" societies.
Wright has stressed the importance of:
According to Wright, employees with sought-after and reward-inelastically supplied skills (due to natural scarcities or socially constructed and imposed restrictions on supply, such as licensing, barriers to entry into training programs, etc.) are in a "privileged [surplus] appropriation location within exploitation relations" because, while they are not capitalists, they are able to obtain more privileges through their relation to the owner of the means of production than less skilled workers and harder to monitor and evaluate in terms of labor effort. The owner(s) of the means of production or their employer in general therefore has to pay them a "scarcity" or "skill/credential" rent (thus raising their compensation above the actual cost of producing and reproducing their labor power) and tries to "buy" their loyalty by giving them ownership stakes, endowing them with delegated authority over their fellow workers and/or allowing them to more or less be autonomous in determining the pace and direction of their work. Thus, experts, managers of experts, and executive managers tend to be closer to the interests of the employers than to other workers.
Erik Olin Wright's books include Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis (Cambridge, 1997), which uses data collected in various industrialized countries, including the United States, Canada, Norway, and Sweden. He was a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison until his death.
Main article: Real utopian sociology
Later in his career, Wright was associated with a renewed understanding of a socialist alternative, deeply rooted on social associativism. The transition to this alternative, according to Wright, depends on designing and building "real utopias", the name of a research project and book of his. They'd counter prevailing institutions by advancing democratic and egalitarian principles, thereby pointing in the direction of a more just and humane world. Examples include Wikipedia and the Mondragon Corporation.