A.E. Havens biography

Drawing on his childhood on a small farm in southwestern Iowa, and his training as a rural sociologist at the Ohio State University, Gene Havens devoted his professional career to understanding and eliminating the causes of rural poverty, exploitation, and injustice. In the early 1960s, Gene was a leading member of a new generation of rural sociologists who rejected the notion that cultural and personal defects of rural people were responsible for the “farm problem,” focusing instead on its social structural causes and the need for structural changes. This focus was reinforced by Gene’s exposure early in his career to Colombia, first by way of a Fulbright Lectureship and later through the Land Tenure Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Gene’s association with Camilo Torres, Orlando Fals Borda, and other Latin scholars and students clarified and developed a political economy and Marxist perspective on social change. His later association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Erik Olin Wright, Maurice Zeitlin, James O’Connor, and others served to mature and radicalize his thinking further.

Gene’s fluent Spanish, deep political and historical knowledge, and command of economic and social theory provided him with insight and empathy on Latin America equaled by few other North Americans. He became extremely influential in the intellectual development of many Latin American students and scholars. He was also respected and sought after as a consultant by many international organizations as well as the Ford Foundation. But while Gene’s scholarship remained as rigorous as ever, he became increasingly concerned with its application to real life problems and their solutions, in the process becoming more of a scholar-activist and popular educator. In this process, events in Latin America again played an important role, perhaps most importantly the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. One of the first programs instituted by the Sandinista government was an agrarian reform, and its agrarian reform research agency sought the collaboration of Gene and the Land Tenure Center. Gene found the early years of the Sandinista “triunfo” very refreshing: young, non-sectarian, and realistic. While in his research, Gene sought to contribute to the knowledge of rural labor dynamics of export economies such as Nicaragua’s, his political work focused on community outreach efforts in the US. He gave many talks around Wisconsin and the US, not only about what was happening in Nicaragua, but also developments in other Central American countries that were experiencing revolutionary upheaval.Gene understood that if Central Americans were to overcome poverty and injustice, North Americans would need to confront their own government and its support for entrenched social and political elites in the region.

Gene died of cancer in the summer of 1984. His Central American solidarity work was thus final testimony to his deeply held belief that the defining role of a social scientist is not only to understand social reality, but to use that understanding to struggle for social change. It is therefore only fitting that the A. E. Havens Center for the Study of Social Structure and Social Change was established in the fall of 1984 as a living memorial to the scholarly rigor and progressive political commitment that embodied Gene Havens' life and work.