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 relevant today. 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”