Monday, November 26, 2007

Bruce Western

Bruce Western is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've just finished Halldór Laxness's Independent People, his epic account of Icelandic sheep-farming. The novel follows the habitually self-inflicted travails of Bjartur of Summerhouses a small landholder engaged in an often bloody-minded struggle for independence from the predations of creditors, kin and supernatural forces. From my perspective, the novel is deeply sociological, describing how one man – in a class out of place – is swept up in the current of Iceland's modernization through the early decades of twentieth century. But this is far more a great novel than a social history, so the arc of history is inscribed on this singular biography rather than the other way around.

By my bedside, I'm currently chewing off small chunks of Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters. This is the first volume in his monumental biography of Martin Luther King and history of the Civil Rights Movement. Parting the Waters focuses on the decade from 1954 and can be read as a case study in the life cycle of a social movement, beginning with small and local forms of protest, rooted in churches and other community social organizations. Political histories of the 1950s and 1960s now seem focused on the emergence of social movement conservatism. Together I think these two streams of writing – on the civil rights movements and on the origins of contemporary conservatism -- form parts of mosaic that tell us a lot about today's politics, and the pivotal influence of race in structuring the left-right divide.
Western's research interests are in the field of social stratification and inequality, political sociology, and statistical methods. He is the author of Punishment and Inequality in America, a study of the growth and social impact of the American penal system. His first book, Between Class and Market, examined the development and decline of labor unions in the postwar industrialized democracies. He is currently studying the social impact of rising income inequality in the United States. Western taught at Princeton from 1993 to 2007 and received his PhD in sociology from UCLA.

The Page 99 Test: Punishment and Inequality in America.

--Marshal Zeringue