James “Jim” Sweet joined the University of Wisconsin as an assistant professor of sociology in the fall of 1967 and was one of the founding figures of the UW Center for Demography and Ecology (CDE). Hal Winsborough arrived in the same year, and they were soon joined by Larry Bumpass, Bob Hauser, David Featherman, Franklin Wilson and many more. These “youngsters, “along with the old hands, Norman Ryder, Leo Schnore, Glenn Fuguitt, and Karl Taeuber, transformed CDE from a “sign on the door” into a powerhouse research and training program of social demography with a distinctive voice and vision. Jim played a central role as CDE director from 1972 to 1977 and as the chair of the UW Department of Sociology from 1991 to 1994.
Jim began his career as an economist, taking his BA from Ohio Wesleyan in 1962 and earning his MA economics in 1964 from the University of Michigan. But he gravitated to sociology for his PhD (Michigan 1968), largely though the influence of Beverly and Dudley Duncan. Jim spent his entire professorial career at Wisconsin and recently retired as the William H. Sewell Professor of Sociology.
Jim’s primary focus was the American family, but his many writings reached across a broad range of topics and issues in social demography. His early research, and his first book, Women in the Labor Force (1973) explored the intersection of family and labor force attachment of married women. With Ron Rindfuss, Jim wrote the definitive empirical account of the onset and the end of the baby boom fertility era in Post-War Fertility: Trends and Differentials in the United States (1977). For several decades, Jim, in collaboration with Larry Bumpass, published a series of seminal studies on trends and patterns of marriage and divorce, including their census monograph American Families and Households (1987).
To study the increasingly complex patterns of divorce, cohabitation, and new family forms, Jim Sweet and Larry Bumpass lead a team of University of Wisconsin researchers that designed and carried out the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH). The NSFH set the standard for data collection on new forms of family formation, dissolution, parenting, and family (and quasi-family) relationships. If a research question could be formulated, the NSFH generally provided the requisite data to investigate it. Jim’s expertise in innovative survey data collection soon became legendary, and he was appointed director of the University of Wisconsin Survey Center in the late 1980s.
Jim had a strong commitment to teaching and graduate student mentoring. Jim taught the core graduate courses in social demography and demographic methods to several generations of Wisconsin graduate students. One of the problem sets in his demographic methods course was to apply multiple decrement life table methods to a population of dragons who were at risk of capture as well as death. To estimate the expected life of dragons in freedom and in captivity required extended digressions (in response to student questioning) about the relative risks of death to wild dragons and those held in confinement. Learning how to compute multiple decrement life tables suddenly became fun.
Jim was a “hands on” mentor to his advisees, and his door was always open to students who needed advice, encouragement, or just a friendly conversation. Much of Jim’s best work was a product of collaboration with colleagues, postdocs, and students. He understood that social interaction was not always an interruption of solitary work, but was often a path to formulate new research questions and solve methodological puzzles.
Through his research, teaching, and mentoring, Jim created a model of social demography that is alive and well at the University of Wisconsin and at the many universities and research institutes where his students work.
In his spare time, Jim is an avid cyclist and community volunteer in Verona, Wisconsin, the small town near Madison where he and Ruth Sweet have lived for over four decades. In addition to travels to folk life festivals and other venues with bluegrass music, they keep in close touch with children, grandchildren, and a legion of friends.