Bruce Western

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Bruce Prichart Western
Born (1964-07-01) July 1, 1964 (age 54)
Nationality Australian-American
Education University of Queensland (B.A., 1987)
University of California, Los Angeles (M.A., 1990; PhD 1993)
Known for Research into mass incarceration
Spouse(s) Yes
Children 3 daughters
Scientific career
Fields Sociology
Institutions Columbia University
Harvard University
Thesis Unionization trends in postwar capitalism: a comparative study of working class organization (1993)
Doctoral advisor Iván Szelényi[1]

Bruce Prichart Western (born July 1, 1964)[2] is an Australian-born American sociologist and a professor of sociology at Columbia University. He has been called "one of the leading academic experts on American incarceration."[3]

Early life and education[edit]

Western was born in Australia, to a white native Australian father who taught at the University of Queensland, and a Thai international student mother. He became interested in inequality in Australia growing up in Queensland, where he, his brother, and their mother stood out as racial minorities.[4] He received his B.A. in government with honors from the University of Queensland in 1987.[5] He subsequently received his masters' and Ph.D. degrees in sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1990 and 1993, respectively.[5]


After receiving his PhD, Western taught at Princeton University for fourteen years. He taught at Harvard University from 2007 to 2018, where he was a professor of sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the director of the Kennedy School's Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy.[6][7][8] and the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy, as well as director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy and faculty chair of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.[9] In 2018 he moved to Columbia University, where he is professor of sociology and co-director of the Justice Lab.[10]


Prisons and mass incarceration[edit]

Originally, Western's research pertained to organized labor, but he became interested in researching prisons and mass incarceration, in his words, "almost by accident" after talking to a colleague about the United States' use of prisons to manage disadvantaged populations.[7] As of 2008, he had written or co-written more than a dozen articles about prisons, as well as a book ("Punishment and Inequality in America") on the same topic.[7] In "Punishment and Inequality in America", originally published in 2006, he concludes that "mass imprisonment has erased many of the "gains to African American citizenship hard won by the civil rights movement.""[11] In a 2010 study, Western and fellow sociologist Becky Pettit outlined the way in which, according to them, poverty increases prison populations and these populations in turn increase poverty.[12][13] Other studies co-authored by Pettit and Western have found that on average, incarceration reduces annual salaries by about 40% for the average male former prisoner, and reduces hourly wages by,on average, 11% and annual employment by nine weeks.[14][15] As of 2013, Western was also studying what happens to prisoners after they are released, and has interviewed the subjects of the study in person, which has, according to Elizabeth Gudrais, "put a human face on the statistics and dashed preconceived notions in the process."[16] In 2015, he published a study based on these interviews, showing that 40% of the recently incarcerated prisoners he interviewed in the Boston area had witnessed a killing when they were children.[17][18] Another finding of his research on these released prisoners was that most of them immediately return to poverty upon their release.[19]


He has also researched the relationship between the decline of unions and increasing income inequality, and has found that the former accounted for a third of the increase in income inequality among male workers.[20][21]

Honors and awards[edit]

In 2005, while on the faculty of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, Western received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his project, "The Growth and Consequences of American Inequality."[22] His book "Punishment and Inequality in America" won both the 2008 Michael J. Hindelang Book Award from the American Society of Criminology and the 2007 Albert J. Reiss, Jr. Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association.[23] Western was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 2015.[24]

Personal life[edit]

As of 2008, Western lived in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife and three daughters.[7]


  1. ^ Western, Bruce Prichart (1993). Unionization trends in postwar capitalism : a comparative study of working class organization (Ph.D.). University of California, Los Angeles. OCLC 29541828. Retrieved March 23, 2017. 
  2. ^ "Bruce Western". Library of Congress. Retrieved February 11, 2016. 
  3. ^ Coates, Ta-Nehisi (October 2015). "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration". The Atlantic. Retrieved November 28, 2015. 
  4. ^ Gabrielsen, Paul (2017-08-15). "Profile of Bruce Western". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 114 (33): 8672–8674. doi:10.1073/pnas.1710704114. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 5565469Freely accessible. PMID 28784808. 
  5. ^ a b "Bruce Western CV" (PDF). Harvard University. Retrieved November 28, 2015. 
  6. ^ "Professor Bruce Western". United States Studies Centre. Retrieved November 28, 2015. 
  7. ^ a b c d "Bruce Western". Harvard Magazine. January–February 2008. Retrieved November 28, 2015. 
  8. ^ Lavoie, Amy (2007-06-14). "FAS names Bruce Western professor of sociology". Harvard Gazette. Retrieved 2017-08-21. 
  9. ^ "Bruce Western". Harvard University. Retrieved November 28, 2015. 
  10. ^ "Bruce Western". Retrieved August 17, 2018. 
  11. ^ Gottschalk, Marie (April 15, 2008). "Two Separate Societies: One in Prison, One Not". Washington Post. Retrieved November 28, 2015. 
  12. ^ Western, Bruce; Pettit, Becky (July 2010). "Incarceration & social inequality". Daedalus. 139 (3): 8–19. doi:10.1162/DAED_a_00019. 
  13. ^ Abramsky, Sasha (October 8, 2010). "Toxic Persons". Slate. Retrieved November 28, 2015. 
  14. ^ Tierney, John (February 18, 2013). "Prison and the Poverty Trap". New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2016. 
  15. ^ Porter, Eduardo (30 April 2014). "In the U.S., Punishment Comes Before the Crimes". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 June 2017. 
  16. ^ Gudrais, Elizabeth (March–April 2013). "The Prison Problem". Harvard Magazine. Retrieved January 13, 2016. 
  17. ^ Western, Bruce (November 2015). "Lifetimes of Violence in a Sample of Released Prisoners". RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. 1 (2): 14–30. doi:10.7758/rsf.2015.1.2.02. 
  18. ^ Smith, Clint (February 8, 2016). "The Meaning of Life Without Parole". The New Yorker. Retrieved February 8, 2016. 
  19. ^ Walsh, Colleen (1 March 2016). "The Costs of Inequality: Goal Is Justice, but Reality Is Unfairness". US News & World Report. Retrieved 23 June 2017. 
  20. ^ Western, B.; Rosenfeld, J. (August 1, 2011). "Unions, Norms, and the Rise in U.S. Wage Inequality". American Sociological Review. 76 (4): 513–537. doi:10.1177/0003122411414817. 
  21. ^ Harkinson, Josh (August 1, 2011). "Major Study Links Decline of Unions to Rising of Income Inequality". Mother Jones. Retrieved November 28, 2015. 
  22. ^ "Bruce Western receives Guggenheim Foundation fellowship award". Princeton University. August 31, 2005. Retrieved December 17, 2015. 
  23. ^ "Punishment and Inequality in America". Russell Sage Foundation. Archived from the original on December 8, 2015. Retrieved November 28, 2015. 
  24. ^ "Bruce Western elected to the National Academy of Sciences". Department of Sociology News. Harvard University. 29 April 2015. Retrieved November 28, 2015. 

External links[edit]

  • Faculty page at the John F. Kennedy School of Government website
  • Faculty page at the Harvard University Department of Sociology website