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Colleagues Remember William Sewell

William H. Sewell, 91, a world-renowned sociologist, researcher, and educator, died peacefully on Sunday, June 24, 2001. Sewell, the son of a pharmacist, was born on November 27, 1909, in Perrinton, Michigan. He wanted to become a physician, but first became a licensed pharmacist. He completed a pre-med curriculum as an undergraduate at Michigan State, and was accepted by several medical schools, but he decided to study sociology, earning both BA and MA degrees in sociology from Michigan State, and a PhD from the University of Minnesota. Sewell’s first academic appointment was at Oklahoma State University, from 1937 to 1944. He was a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1944-46 and served in the postwar strategic bombing survey of Japan.

In 1946, Sewell joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he spent the remainder of his career. His scholarly reputation was established quickly through path-breaking research on the measurement of socioeconomic status in farm families and on childhood socialization practices. Subsequently, he guided a remarkable study (the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study) of more than 10,000 Wisconsin high school graduates of 1957, tracing their post-secondary schooling, careers and marriages to identify, measure, and explain the linkages between social background and social and economic achievements in adulthood. The study, which extended over 40 years, resulted in dozens of influential publications in the field of stratification and became a major national resource for research on aging. Throughout his research, Sewell served as a leading force in the development of sociology as a scientific discipline.

Sewell was a wise and generous colleague and an extraordinary graduate teacher and advisor. Among others, his students included Louis Guttman, O.D. Duncan, Murray Straus, Archibald Haller, Cora Marrett, and Alejandro Portes. Sewell was also a major institution builder. At the national level, he played key roles in creating support for the social and behavioral sciences in the National Institutes of Health. At UW-Madison, he served as Chair of the Department of Rural Sociology (1949-53) and of the Department of Sociology (1957-62). He is widely credited with transforming the Madison Sociology Departments into a major international center for research and graduate training in sociology. From October 1967 to June 1968, he served as the Chancellor, the UW-Madison’s top administrative post. This occurred during the height of campus unrest over the war in Vietnam, a period Sewell later described as “the worst possible time.”

Sewell was the recipient of many high honors. At UW-Madison, he was Vilas Research Professor of Sociology from 1964 until his retirement in 1980. He was also a visiting professor at the universities of Texas, Puerto Rico, Washington, Bombay, Poona, Delhi, and at Columbia University. Sewell served as well as chair of the National Commission on Research (1978-80) and as President of the Sociological Research Association (1953-54), the Rural Sociological Society (1955-56), and the American Sociological Association (1970-71). Sewell believed strongly in the ability of the American Sociological Association to build scientific sociology, and in a career spanning more than 60 years, Sewell missed the ASA Annual Meeting only three times. In 1997, he received the ASA’s highest award, the Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award. Sewell was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As emeritus professor, Sewell remained active in research until the end of his life. For several winters, he worked at the Population Institute of the East-West Center in Hawaii, embarking on a new line of research on the life-long effects of cognitive ability. He continued working on the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study until his final illness.

Sewell is survived by his wife of 65 years, Elizabeth Sewell. The two were married in 1936 on a Friday the 13th—a day that Sewell always said was the luckiest day of his life. He is also survived by his children, Mary Sewell Cooper (of La Veta, Colorado), William H. Sewell, Jr. (of Chicago, Illinois), and Robert G. Sewell (of Metuchen, New Jersey), five grandchildren, and one great grandchild.

Before his final illness, Sewell established the William H. Sewell Graduate Award Fund to provide flexible research support for outstanding graduate students in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Contributions may be sent in William H. Sewell’s name to the University of Wisconsin Foundation, P.O. Box 8860, Madison, Wisconsin 53708-8860. The Sewell family also encourages contributions to the following source to help create a multi-generational camp: The William H. Sewell Memorial Fund, c/o Firstar Bank, 750 N. Midvale Boulevard, Madison, Wisconsin.

Robert M. Hauser, Charles Camic, and University of Wisconsin Colleagues


Bill was one of that remarkable generation of sociologists that began their careers in the midst of the depression. By their training in the American Pragmatists who populated the reading lists of that time and by their early career experiences, they were committed to doing work that makes a difference; work that can be used for policy purposes. If you are going to do that you need to be sure that what you say will actually work. That constraint led Bill and many others in this generation to empirically test their assertions. Often that testing was quantitative.

Methodological issues were of great importance. …His work created major turning points on the path to the sociology of today. His concern was always “Is it important?” and “Is it correct?”

Hal Winsborough, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Bill Sewell gave many years of service to the American Sociological Association in the offices to which he was elected and on ASA Committee assignments. He and I were members of the ASA Council at the same time. I was ASA Secretary when he served as ASA President in the very difficult early 1970s. I learned a great deal about how to be effective in ASA affairs by observing how often Sewell was able to settle difficult intellectual and political disputes by offering solutions acceptable to both sides without fatal compromises to either of the parties involved. There were many sessions of the ASA Council when it appeared that particular disputes would never be resolved, and I found myself waiting for Sewell to offer the compromise resolution, which usually passed, that found some way to put at least a temporary end to the dispute. The remarkable quality of his solutions was his truly uncanny ability to find the formulation that would be acceptable to most. I understand that he also played the same role in other settings–on the Council of SSRC and while serving on NAS-NRC committees.

It is important to note that his organizational skills were wielded with a foremost concern for the integrity of the profession and discipline. In all the years I played a role in ASA leadership, I met no other person who advanced so consistently and effectively a view of sociology as a theory-driven, empirically grounded social science and who demonstrated at the same time the ability to meld different views of the discipline into acceptable, workable and innovative ways to move our discipline forward.

Peter H. Rossi, University of Massachusetts-Amherst


I was re-introduced to Bill Sewell in 1985 when I became the director of the ASA’s Minority Fellowship Program (MFP), though we had met several years earlier. At ASA, I learned more of the details of Bill’s involvement with the program. President in 1971 when the Caucus of Black Sociologists (now the Association of Black Sociologists) and others began lobbying for an MFP, Bill promptly became an articulate and forceful spokesman for it, working with Council and the Executive Office to make the program an integral component of the Association and hiring its first Director, the late Maurice Jackson. Part of the argument was that the MFP would serve to recruit more people of color into the profession, fostering greater ethnic and racial diversity in its ranks. The ASA would signal the importance of greater access and diversity if the MFP was an integral part of its organizational structure.

I recall vividly my site visits to Madison, knowing that Bill was always a source of astute insight and advice on strategies to strengthen both programs in the profession, at universities, and with funding agencies. Weather permitting, we would drive out to the country club in his restored red Ford Mustang for a relaxed lunch and the opportunity to talk about ways to locate and secure greater resources for MOST and MFP, information particularly valuable given Bill’s distinguished career as an administrator at Wisconsin. And his insights on constructive ways to respond to critics of the programs typically proved useful. Endearingly plainspoken, Bill’s advice could also be earthy and witty, revealing a wry sense of humor.

Despite Bill’s diffidence in claiming credit for his role in the important step to open up the discipline, his early and sustained involvement remains an important contribution to the programs’ acceptance by many initial skeptics. Bill’s unwavering support will remain a measure of his social values.

Lionel Maldonado , California State University-Los Angeles


By any set of criteria Bill Sewell was a major figure in both the discipline and the profession of sociology—and Bill clearly recognized the difference and the importance of the distinction. His scholarship was marked by innovation and the same tenacity that he brought as an under-weight lineman to Big-10 football. The hallmark of his professional contributions—to ASA, as University of Wisconsin President, and in many other capacities—was his integrity.

As a human being, Bill had few peers. He recognized and encouraged young talent; and he sought to bridge differences that stood in the way of understanding, while never giving up his own high standards of ethics and performance. We are all diminished by his passing.

Jim Short , Washington State University


Sociologists who now routinely run enormously complex models on thousands of observations using data that comes to them on CDs from heaven have no idea of just what Bill accomplished using the technology available in the early 1960s. Having inherited a punch card data file based on a survey of 30,000 1957 high school seniors, he chose a 1/3 random sample, supplemented the data with numerous variables derived from other sources, constructed indexes and scales and did a 1964 follow-up survey. Beginning in 1963 and culminating in his ASA Presidential Address in 1971, he published, in collaboration with various students and colleagues, more than a dozen major papers. Much of the early work was done using punch card technology, but Bill always stayed on top of technical developments and the work he did in the late 1960s was among the very first to apply path analysis to longitudinal data. All of this was done when getting a computer run back in only a day or two was considered a major accomplishment. And then, after returning to the Department of Sociology after a difficult year as Chancellor in1967-68, Bill, rather than becoming some sort of senior statesman, continued as an active researcher and educator for another 30 years or so. He was an extraordinary man, and, like scores of other Wisconsin students, my education was far better for having known him.

Richard T. Campbell, University of Illinois, Chicago


Bill Sewell’s work significantly advanced sociology of education in several important ways. Much of his research addressed the fundamental question of why some children receive more formal education than others. Not only did Sewell demonstrate the importance of social and economic status as a determinant of student outcomes, but, more importantly, he made a significant contribution to our understanding of the mechanisms that link status to educational opportunities and college attainment. This work shaped the study of status attainment for decades to come.

Sewell’s research also considered the effect of educational attainment on later successes. His work examining the effects of education on early occupational attainment is classic. This research included investigation of the effect of different types of colleges on occupation and income. The importance of this research is seen in contemporary education patterns, such as the recent increase in two-year college enrollments, and the resurgence of enthusiasm for vocational education.

Not only was Bill an internationally esteemed sociologist, he was an exceptional person. During the many years I had the privilege of being on the faculty with him, I never once saw Bill less than gracious and kind in his interactions with colleagues, students and acquaintances. He was a model of gentlemanly behavior, quick to dismiss status differences, eager to include all in his circle of friends. I am proud to have known him.

Maureen T. Hallinan, University of Notre Dame


Those of us privileged to have collaborated with Bill Sewell as an intellectual companion or student will always remember his passionate vision of sociology and of social science in general. For Bill, doing social science meant manipulating a sharp and unyielding probe. It meant getting the numbers right. Why? Because these numbers—statistics establishing likely impacts and ranges of relationships in human lives and communities, a form of political arithmetic, if you will—could and often did have powerful impacts on those lives and communities. This is a vision born in a historical era when Bill was a young professional, an era when science, even social science, was viewed as a tool of human improvement. Gunnar Myrdal’s final pages of An American Dilemma captured this view: “The rationalism and moralism which is the driving force behind social study…is the faith that institutions can be improved and strengthened…(and) to find the practical formulas for this never-ending reconstruction of society is the supreme task of social science.” Bill devoted his sociological life in this high purpose for empirical, problem-centered social science—the melding of the normative and moral with the rational and scientific. The numbers matter, have consequences, and therefore getting better measurements and better estimates serves a high purpose. Bill’s passing marks part of a generational succession, in a Mannheimian sense, in our collective sense of why we do social science and in the passions we bring to it. We, so privileged to have learned from Bill or from his exemplary career, have had a bright light to guide our way.

David L. Featherman, University of Michigan


Bill Sewell once wrote, “The President of our association does not have great constitutional power but does have the opportunity to influence its affairs if he or she chooses to do so.” He was the first of ASA presidents to use the authority of that office and the stature he enjoyed as president to lead the ASA on a path of broader inclusion of people of color and women in all aspects of the Association. During the one brief year of his presidency (1970-71), because of his trusted leadership, compassion, sense of fairness, and the immense respect he commanded, Bill Sewell left a profound and enduring legacy by which he is remembered. He assumed his presidency during a time of extreme turbulence and widespread grievance, especially among African American, Latino, Native American, and women members of the ASA. He listened to their concerns, committed himself to finding solutions, and persuaded the 1970-71 Council to act favorably on a number of resolutions advanced by the Caucus of Black Sociologists (CBS) at the 1970 ASA Annual Business Meeting. In addition, he used his authority as president to effectuate instant change to inclusion by appointing persons of color and women to all ad hoc committees and membership on the Program Committee; expanding participation of these groups in unprecedented numbers in the program of the 1971 Annual Meeting as well as by facilitating a significant change in the organizational structure of the central office of the ASA.

Under Bill’s exemplary leadership and in response to the CBS resolutions, the 1970-71 Council appointed, for the first time in ASA history, a Committee on the Status of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Sociology (CSREMS); created the Minority Fellowship Program (MFP) and recruited the late Maurice Jackson as the first Director of the MFP; established the Dubois-Johnson-Frazier Award; created the position of Executive Specialist for Minorities and Women (which subsequently became the Executive Associate for Careers, Minorities, and Women and, later the Office of Minority Affairs), and established a Liaison Committee to work with the CBS to find ways of improving their long-term participation in the affairs of the Association. On a personal level, I should point out that, when Rita Simon left the Council to fulfill a commitment in Israel, Bill Sewell appointed me to fill her unexpired term on the Council. It was in that capacity as well as constant interaction with him, especially in identifying possible committee appointees and program participants, I came to fully appreciate his unwavering commitment to social justice, his belief that the Association should change as well as, simply put, he was a wonderful human being! Not so long ago, reflecting on the events of 1970-71, Bill wrote he thought it was high time to further democratize the Association. And that he did! I was especially fortunate to have benefited from his tremendous wisdom and to have enjoyed his friendship for more than 30 years.

James E. Blackwell, University of Massachusetts-Boston (Emeritus)


Bill Sewell was an extraordinary person. A giant in the field of modern sociology, he helped shape many of the features in our institutional landscape that we now take for granted: federal research support for the social sciences, graduate training programs, minority scholarships and interdisciplinary research. In addition to the many institutional contributions and professional achievements, Sewell cared most about the lives of his students and colleagues. Bill Sewell had a profound impact on me and figured importantly in my training at Wisconsin. Although he considered himself to be inadequately trained in social psychology, Sewell was an immensely successful mentor to several generations of sociological social psychologists who studied in Madison. Sewell’s impact was recognized in 1988 when the ASA Section on Social Psychology awarded him the prestigious Cooley-Mead Award for his lifetime contributions to and the scientific advancement of social psychology.

My relationship with Bill Sewell was borne out of the period of student unrest on the Madison campus in the 1960s. Having taken his graduate course on research methods, I had been exposed to his early research on personality and child-rearing. His 1952 paper, “Infant Training and the Personality of the Child,” published in the American Journal of Sociology and later reprinted in more than half dozen books of readings and sourcebooks on the sociology of the family, is a classic. It empirically challenged some of the Freudian theories of childhood personality development that were popular at that time. The irony of course was that Sewell would later encounter a massive wave of student defiance and rebellion on his own campus during his short-lived career as Chancellor at Madison in the late 1960s, a period of protest about which many people whose theories he questioned would have predicted was due to the relaxation of the rigid socialization and child-training regimens of an earlier era.

Sewell was a great leader — one of those rare people who combined skills of leadership on both the instrumental and socio-emotional dimensions of group interaction. He nurtured the professional development of many of us who experienced those turbulent years of the 1960s with him. His stature as a person who cared about those around him and who offered untiring encouragement for excellence in research and scholarship, is reflected in the respect and love that I and many others will always have for him.

Duane F. Alwin, University of Michigan