About The Havens-Wright Center
Established in the Sociology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984, the Havens-Wright Center for Social Justice is dedicated to promoting critical intellectual reflection and exchange, both within the academy as well as between it and the broader society. The Center is named in honor of the late Professors of Rural Sociology and Sociology, A. Eugene Havens and Erik Olin Wright, whose life and work embodied the combination of progressive social and political commitment and scholarly rigor that the Center encourages.
Havens-Wright Center Mission
The traditional tasks of critical social thought have been to analyze the sources of inequality and injustice in existing social arrangements, to suggest both practical and utopian alternatives to those arrangements, and to identify and learn from the many social movements seeking progressive social and political change. These tasks are as relevant today as ever. Indeed, we face a variety of challenges, both new and enduring, that demand creative critical reflection. These include the increasingly integrated and global character of capitalist economic development, the durability of racial and gender oppressions, the threats of global environmental catastrophe, and the failure of many traditional models of progressive reform.
Furthermore, we face these challenges at a moment of considerable uncertainty and transition. Established orders have fractured, and what will replace them is far from clear. As in all such historical moments, answers will come from the interaction between critical reflection and active engagement with these challenges. By fostering such interaction and providing a space for critical voices advocating democratic alternatives to existing social arrangements, the Havens-Wright Center seeks to contribute to the development of a society openly committed to reason, democracy, equality, and freedom. In this respect, the Center stands in a long tradition at the University of Wisconsin. The “Wisconsin Idea” holds that reason and decency should inform issues of public policy, and that academics have an important role to play in realizing that goal. Since the Progressive Era, UW faculty have given life to this Idea. They have expanded the bounds of policy debates, offered proposals for progressive reform, and worked with actors outside the university to implement reform.
The sort of intellectual reflection and exchange the Havens-Wright Center seeks to promote might therefore be characterized as “strategic.” First, the work at the Center will have a practical intent. This does not imply that every Havens-Wright Center discussion and project will have immediate practical relevance; much of what needs to be done involves clarifying the abstract concepts and frameworks necessary for creative critical analysis. The guiding motivation behind such discussions, however, will be their ultimate relevance for practical agendas of social change.
Second, the work at the Havens-Wright Center will not be confined to investigating alternatives realizable within existing institutional arrangements. Conventional policy analysis generally takes the central institutions of society as given and thus treats seriously only those options that are possible within existing institutional structures. However, since the Center seeks to widen public debate beyond its present narrow confines, it will look to the choices made feasible by changes in the background institutional structures themselves.
The realization of this kind of strategic objective requires an intellectual setting that is at once interdisciplinary, methodologically diverse, and connected to the world outside the academy. For this reason, the Havens-Wright Center has sought, and has greatly benefited from, the active participation of students and faculty in a variety of academic disciplines (including sociology, history, economics, law, political science, geography, comparative literature, education, philosophy, and mass communications, among others), as well as numerous community and social movement organizations.
In pursuing these goals, the Havens-Wright Center also rejects dogmatic forms of reasoning and argumentation. Instead, it embraces a careful and rigorous method of inquiry that is founded in the belief that the strength of ideas is measured by their capacity to withstand vigorous criticism, and that therefore subjects progressive alternatives to the same critical scrutiny as dominant perspectives and social arrangements. The Center understands that this commitment to critical thinking will not always be popular, and indeed that it will at times provoke displeasure among those whose views are the object of criticism. However, the Havens-Wright Center embraces the view that such displeasure is an inevitable consequence of — and in fact essential to — the fearless pursuit of knowledge. In this respect as well, the Center stands in a long tradition at the University of Wisconsin. In the famous words of the UW Board of Regents in 1894, “whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state university of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
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 Social Justice 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.
Havens-Wright Center Director
Havens-Wright Center Administrative Director
Havens-Wright Center Project Assistant
Havens-Wright Center Project Assistant
For a full list of our staff and steering committee, see our people page.
The Visiting Scholars Program
The Visiting Scholars Program brings distinguished critical scholars from around the world to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Visiting scholars spend several days in residence at the Havens-Wright Center, delivering lectures, conducting seminars, and meeting with students, faculty, and the interested public. Through the Visiting Scholars Program, the Center also offers a Colloquium in Critical Sociology (Sociology 994), which is available every semester and can be taken for variable credit.
Social Cinema: Stories of Struggle & Change is the Havens-Wright Center’s annual film series. Films screened in the Social Cinema series explore important contemporary social topics from critical perspectives. Each screening is followed by a discussion of the issues explored in the film. The series is organized in collaboration with the Wisconsin Union Directorate Film Committee and is free and open to all.
The Havens-Wright Center puts on a wide variety of conferences, some of which are strictly academic in character and aimed at a campus audience, and others which are more public in character and designed for both the campus and off-campus communities.
Other Programs & Activities
The Havens-Wright Center is also involved in a wide range of other programs & activities, including sponsoring and planning a variety of public lecture series, conferences and workshops, and other community events.
Dreaming & Building Freedom
Spring 2019 Visiting Scholars
Building Social Movements and Winning the Right to the City in the Age of Trump
Cheap Food: Why Does it Cost So Much?
Capitalism: The Future of an Illusion
Tuesday, March 12, 4pm
Dreaming & Building Freedom
Science & Politics
What does thinking about reproductive politics get us?
Havens Center Award for Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship: “What Can Socialism Mean Today? An Expanded View.”
War Over Peace, Israel in the eyes of a Critical Sociologist
- Past Visiting Scholar Lectures
2019 Social Cinema
Wednesday, February 13, 6:30pm
The Devil We Know is the story of how one synthetic chemical, used to make Teflon products, contaminated a West Virginia community. But new research hints at a much broader problem: nearly all Americans are affected by exposure to non-stick chemicals in food, drinking water, and consumer products.
Wednesday, February 20, 6:30pm
Invisible Lines is a frank, unscripted conversation about segregation, racism, and discrimination by a diverse pool of Milwaukeeans (activists, artists, students, and historians all participate).
Wednesday, February 27, 6:30pm
We humans are a force of nature. At the same time human activities alter the basic elements of life – earth, air, water, and fire – those elements change human life. In an arresting new documentary from the producers of Racing Extinction, The Cove and Chasing Ice, environmental photographer James Balog captures the lives of everyday Americans on the front lines of climate change.
Wednesday, March 6, 6:30pm
Renowned media scholar Robert McChesney traces how the democratizing potential of the internet has been radically compromised by the logic of capitalism and the unaccountable power of a handful of telecom and tech monopolies.
Wednesday, March 13, 6:00pm
Amidst a landmark class action lawsuit over illegal policing quotas, Crime + Punishment chronicles the remarkable efforts and struggles of a group of black and Latino whistleblower cops and the young minorities they are pressured to arrest in New York City.
- Past Social Cinema Series