Ronald Freedman, Ph. D.
Roderick McKenzie Distinguished Professor of Sociology
Research Affiliate, Population Studies Center
University of Michigan
Ronald Freedman was born in Winnepeg, Canada in 1917, but moved as a child to Waukegan, Illinois. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1939 with a BA in History and Economics. He received an MA in Sociology at Michigan and then went to the University of Chicago for doctoral training which was interrupted by World War II and military service. He finished his Chicago Ph.D. in sociology in 1947, writing his dissertation on migration to Chicago. Ron joined the Michigan Sociology Department as an instructor in 1946, moved up through the ranks, and retired in 1987.
Ron married Deborah Selin, a Michigan student in Economics in 1941. Deborah later became an economic demographer and Ron’s collaborator. Ron and Deborah were devoted companions. They raised two children, Joe and Jane, and had three grandchildren who they took great pride in.
Ron Freedman was an incredibly creative and talented scholar. His innovations and accomplishments have been broad, deep, and enduring.
Ron’s introduction to survey research and the study of fertility began in 1948 when Clyde Kiser and Pat Whelpton introduced him to the Indianapolis Fertility Study. Then in 1951 Angus Campbell, director of Michigan’s Survey Research Center, gave Ron a faculty fellowship to spend time at the Center to learn about surveys. Angus and Ron joined together to establish the Detroit Area Study — an innovative three semester program that trained several generations of students and produced valuable data sets leading to many publications.
The hallmark of DAS was the close relationship between theory, the survey questions, research design, interviewing experience, data analysis, and paper writing. After sitting in living rooms conducting surveys, legions of DAS graduates are well known for questioning where the data came from. The DAS continued in the Sociology Department for about 5 decades and was then transformed into a practicum that still continues at Michigan’s Survey Research Center.
In 1955 Ron combined his interests in fertility and surveys to conduct the Growth of American Families Study, the first national study of fertility. It has persisted in various forms since then and continues now as the National Survey of Family Growth under the auspices of the National Center for Health Statistics, with the data collected at the University of Michigan. This series of surveys has provided the data for many important articles and books and has provided a model for similar surveys throughout the world.
The name of Ron Freedman became nearly synonymous with international studies of fertility and family planning. Ron launched his international fertility work in 1960 with an experiment in Taiwan and then initiated a series of island-wide surveys that blazed the way for much of today’s international population research. The Taiwan surveys, which still continue, also propelled Ron into consultancies and research projects in many other places around the world.
Another innovative and lasting project, initiated in 1962 by Ron and David Goldberg, was a panel study of new mothers living in the Detroit area. This project was later expanded by Deborah Freedman and Arland Thornton to be an intergenerational study of mothers and children, with interviews through 1993. This three-decade panel study has been the basis for important publications about family change and the ways parents and children affect each other as the children mature into adulthood.
Ron was committed to studying demographic behavior, including childbearing and family planning, within a broad sociological framework that included social theory and social dynamics. The surveys he helped to conduct focused as much on the social setting as the demographic dynamics, as he was interested in how demographic behavior was influenced by the values and norms of society and reference groups and by the social and economic conditions faced by each family.
Ron founded the Michigan Population Studies Center in 1961. The Center immediately gained national and international acclaim for its many contributions to several areas of population studies. With the strong foundation established by Ron, the Center has continued to expand the breadth and depth of its contributions to the field. Subsequent directors consistently found in Ron a proud and respectful supporter.
A major component of the Population Studies Center for Ron was the training of future generations of American and overseas demographers. He sensed very clearly that such training requires hands-on research experience in addition to appropriate coursework. This led to an apprenticeship model, which persists today, whereby trainees are matched with a mentor and work on a research project, undertaking tasks appropriate to their background and level, which increase in complexity as they increase their skills.
Ron served as president of the Population Association of America, as Vice President of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and as a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Among other awards, he won the Irene Taeuber Award of the Population Association of America and the Laureate Award of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population. It is hard to imagine anyone having more influence than Ron on the fields of sociology and demography.
When Ron died on November 21, 2007, he left a legacy of outstanding research, strong institutions, a prominent cadre of former students, and many loyal and accomplished scholars and friends around the world. Ron both showed us how to study the world and how to live in it with generosity and openness to people and ideas, with pragmatism, and with love and commitment.