Bruce Western

Columbia University

Primary Section: 53, Social and Political Sciences
Membership Type: Member (elected 2015)


Bruce Western is a sociologist at Harvard University who studies social and economic inequality, poverty and its institutional context. Western’s research has spanned a variety of topics including trends in labor union membership, trends in U.S. income inequality, the growth and demographic distribution of incarceration in the United States, and the application of Bayesian statistics to social research.  Western was born in Canberra, Australia in 1964 and grew up in Brisbane, Australia. In 1987, he took his BA (Hons.) in government from the University of Queensland in Australia in 1987 before going to the United States where he received a PhD in Sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1993. Western taught in the Sociology Department at Princeton University from 1993 to 2007, and then moved to Harvard University. Western is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.

Research Interests

Western’s research examines trends in poverty and social and economic inequality in the United States. Western’s main line of research in this area examines the emergence of very high rates of incarceration and its consequences for the disadvantaged communities in which incarceration is overwhelmingly concentrated. Western’s research has documented extremely large racial and class disparities in imprisonment, and extraordinarily high rates of incarceration among young, African American men with very low levels of schooling. Other work has studied the effects of incarceration on economic opportunities and patterns of marriage and family life. Current research focuses on the process of community return of former prisoners and the social conditions of severe poverty immediately after incarceration. Running through this research program is an interest in the intimate link between penal confinement and poverty in the United States, where the criminal justice system has become a ubiquitous presence in the lives of the poor.

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