Professor Erik Olin Wright

29 Jan 2019

The Institute for Social Science Research is saddened to acknowledge the passing of Professor Erik Olin Wright on January 23, 2019 just before his 72nd birthday. Professor Wright was the Vilas Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a former President of the American Sociological Association, and one of the world’s leading scholars of class analysis and Marxian sociology. He was also a friend and mentor to ISSR Director Mark Western and Life Course Centre Director Janeen Baxter, and a regular visitor to the Institute and the Life Course Centre, beginning in 2013 when he gave the John Western Memorial Public Lecture, to his most recent trip in April 2018 shortly before he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia.

Professor Wright was a central figure in sociology, whose work was also reflected in fields such as political economy, political theory and Marxist theory, while also being read by social justice scholars and activists internationally.

Professor Wright’s early work was concerned with the nature and role of classes and the state in capitalist societies. Over the course of his career he wrote on class analysis, Marxian sociology, the state, the intersection between academic work, Marxism and political engagement, and social scientific methodology amongst other topics. Since 1991 his work focused largely on “real utopias”, evidence-informed practical steps to transform economic, social and political institutions in more egalitarian, democratic and humane directions.

One of the distinguishing features of Professor Wright’s work was that he believed in bringing advanced social science tools to bear on the questions he was interested in. He was a central figure in Analytical Marxism whose proponents used methods drawn from analytic philosophy, economic general equilibrium modelling, and game theory and formal theory. For Professor Wright tools included large-scale social surveys and statistical modelling and in the late 1970s he initiated the Comparative Project on Class Structure, Class Biography and Class Consciousness to investigate the role and significance of class in advanced industrial societies and to compare and test rival class theories. The project commenced with national surveys in the United States and Sweden in 1980 and by the 1990s included teams from countries such as Canada, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, West Germany, Spain, Japan and Australia.

It was through their membership of the Australian Class Project team, first as PhD students, and then as researchers that Mark Western and Janeen Baxter came to know Erik Wright. In 1987, as Australian PhD students, we were fortunate enough to visit the US headquarters of the International Class Project for 8 months. We were welcomed into the project team and the Sociology Department at University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was a life-changing experience. We visited again in 1991 and most of 1992 and finally again in 2004.

While Professor Wright is known internationally for his academic contributions, those of us who were fortunate to have been taught by him, to have worked with him and to have shared his friendship, speak more of his kindness, his generosity, his mentorship and his care. Our memories of Erik are built on the numerous shared experiences that defined him – working on data and models with him in his home then taking a break while he cooked lunch, attending the Radical Scholars conference in Wisconsin Dells, an informal get together to share ideas and research findings interspersed with canoeing, walking and stories around a camp fire, being welcomed into his family for Thanksgiving, long bike rides, the semi-compulsory square-dancing at any social event or conference that he organised, where Erik would play the violin and do the calling, or his thoughtfulness and generosity with children, the last time we stayed in his home.

The Institute for Social Science Research would like to acknowledge the passing of Professor Erik Olin Wright, but Mark Western and Janeen Baxter record our deep sadness at the loss of our friend, mentor and teacher. We extend our deepest condolences to Marcia, Becky, Jenny and their families.

Mark Western, January 2019.