James D. Wright, 1947-2019

It is with great sadness that I reflect on the death of my old friend and mentor, James D. Wright, one of the most important and influential sociologists of the last half century. I am doubly disturbed because I didn’t realize how bad Jim’s health had deteriorated, and I missed an opportunity to see him again. Below is a reflection based on my nomination of Jim to the SSS Roll of Honor (which was unjustly denied).  Jim was a good friend and a strong supporter throughout my career. He published my first article in Social Science Research in 1990, and put me on the editorial board when I was an assistant professor at Vanderbilt. He was always selfless, and helped his students and junior professors with all that he could muster. And, he was fun. I’ll never forget the 50th anniversary of Tulane Sociology party, which was a crawfish boil on Tulane’s immaculate campus. All of the fixin’s. Jumbalaya, crawfish, beer….I went over to Jim and told him this was the best party ever, and he said “what could have made it better?” And I said, “maybe if there was weed”, at which point he pulled out a joint and sparked it up. I love you, Jim. I’ll never forget you.

The volume and quality of Professor James D. Wright’s scholarly output is daunting, including 21 books and edited volumes, and 187 peer reviewed articles and book chapters—many of which have been reprinted. Current Google Scholar citations indicate that his work has been cited 8665 times, and 46 of his books and articles have been cited over 46 times. Professor Wright served as editor of Social Science Research, one of the most influential journals in the field, from 1978-2015. Additionally, Wright has served on the editorial boards of many journals, and was also the general editor of the monumental Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences.

James D. Wright received his PhD at the University of Wisconsin in 1973, and took a position at the University of Massachusetts that year. He quickly rose through the ranks to attain the rank of full professor in 1979. In 1988, he was enticed to move to Tulane University where he was the Charles A and Leo M. Favrot professor of Human Relations. In 2001, Professor Wright left Tulane to become the Provost Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Central Florida, and in 2013 was awarded the Pegasus Professorship. Wright has also servied as the director off the Institute for Social and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Survey Research Laboratory at UCF since 2003.

Jim Wright’s arrival at Tulane in 1988 revived the connection between that historic department and the Southern Sociological Society. He strongly encouraged faculty members and students to participate in SSS, and he was a fixture on the program and in the leadership of the organization. Wright’s connection to the SSS became even more visible after his move to UCF—which is arguably one of the most active departments in the SSS. Wright and his colleagues frequently bring more than a dozen students to the meetings, most of them with funding from Wright’s center. Wright has also served as members of the SSS program committee and as chair of the Honors Committee. In addition, Wright hosted a 50th anniversary reception for Tulane’s sociology department at the 2000 annual meetings of the SSS in New Orleans, where we were all treated to a genuine Louisiana Cajun crawfish boil on the grounds of Tulane.

James D. Wright’s contributions to scholarship are myriad, however, one ongoing thread connecting his work is the importance of community, how social groups seek to create and sustain community, and factors that can destroy it. Along with this focus on the importance of community, Wright’s work has amplified the importance of social class, focusing on the conditions of the working class and of the most disadvantaged.

Many of Wright’s contributions focus on the intersections between class, community, and psychological well-being, and these enduring contributions changed the way sociologists thought about class, community, and cognition. Wright was among the first to problematize the relationship between social class and support for conservative politics, and particularly for war. While theories of working class authoritarianism argued that alienation and disconnection from social institutions and media would spur conservative politics, Wright’s work suggested that the connection between integration and conservative politics works in the reverse. Along those same lines, in his classic book with Richard Hamilton State of the Masses, where Hamilton and Wright systematically address the mood and goals of the working classes, and show them to be rather content and unchanging, rather than alienated and angst-ridden. Wright’s companion book The Dissent of the Governed: Alienation and Democracy in America examined the distribution of alienation and its relationship to political disruption, and showed that not only are the working classes less alienated, the alienated are less politically organized. Hence, alienation is unlikely to spur disruptive politics because “Alienation+inactivity=nothing” (1976:253). While Wright’s work was often dismissed by activists hoping for a revolution, his assessment has withstood over 40 years of history.

Professor Wright’s contributions to the study of the working class often focused on issues of family and gender. His classic American Sociological Review articles on childrearing values provided an important empirical test of Melvin Kohn’s thesis on class and conformity and the importance of childrearing for the reproduction of social class, and particularly the working class. Wright also published several studies of family functioning and psychological well-being, some of which focus on the importance of labor force participation for women’s happiness. Again, while the findings (particularly his 1979 Journal of Marriage and the Family) did not fit the popular wisdom in sociology, his conclusions remain sound over decades of research.

In my mind, Professor Wright’s most enduring contributions were in the study of community, poverty, and homelessness. Much of this work focused on the simple demographics of counting the homeless—which is not so simple. Politicized claims about the magnitude and trajectory of the problem of homelessness finally met a sober empirical assessment in Wright’s numerous works with Peter Rossi and several other colleagues. I know that Wright was most proud of his 1987 paper in Science on estimating the size and composition of the homeless population. It meant a lot to him that sociological research on a difficult and important topic was published in the pages of the leading scientific journal. Wright’s many books and articles on the problem of homelessness examined both the genesis of the problem, and also potential solutions—particularly focusing on the importance of low-income housing. There was much academic controversy about the magnitude of the homelessness problem and the relationship between mental health and homelessness in the late 1980s when Wright put forth a torrent of research. Wright’s antagonists moved on to study other things as homelessness became less fashionable in sociology and in the public discourse. Yet, to this very day Jim Wright continues to study the plight of the urban poor and the problem of housing and homelessness, and he has made many contributions to academic and concrete public policy on these issues.

It is impossible to adequately convey the breadth and depth of Professor Wright’s scholarship, and my overview only touches on the contributions I am most familiar with. I leave it to my distinguished colleagues to provide some insight into his influence on scholarship on violence and crime, poverty and health, the long term impact of natural disasters, and the cultural production of sport in NASCAR. What is clear from Professor James D. Wright’s scholarly career is that his contributions have been numerous, multifold, and enduring.

One Response to “James D. Wright, 1947-2019”

  1. David Yamane Says:

    I was sorry to read this this morning. Also surprised, but then again not surprised, that Wright was denied entry into the SSS Roll of Honor. He contributions to understanding guns and gun violence in American society are significant, but do not fit the accepted narrative and no doubt pissed alot of people off. Maybe they still do.

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