May/June 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 5

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Debra Umberson to Edit the
Journal of Health and Social Behavior

Michael Hughes, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


Debra Umberson

The wealth of experience and enormous energy that Debra Umberson brings to the editorship of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior can be seen by a brief look at her amazing career. She started at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, earning a BA (Magna Cum Laude) in 1980 and an MSW in 1981. Four years later, in 1985, she had completed both her MA and PhD in sociology at Vanderbilt University under the direction of Walter R. Gove. After a three-year tour at the University of Michigan including positions as Visiting Scholar and National Institute of Mental Health Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Research, she took a position as Assistant Professor at the University of Texas-Austin. Within four years, she had tenure and promotion to Associate Professor and in another four years was promoted to Professor. She is now Christie and Stanley E. Adams, Jr., Centennial Professor in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas. Along the way, she served five years as Chair of her department, has held many key leadership positions in the fields of mental health, medical, family, and aging and life course sections of the ASA, and has served as reviewer on awards, nominations, and scientific panels too varied and numerous to mention.

Umberson’s work has appeared in the American Sociological Review, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the Journal of Marriage and Family, Social Psychology Quarterly, Social Forces, Journal of Family Issues, and a number of other journals and volumes. A substantial proportion of her publications are with graduate students and junior colleagues. Her sole-authored book, Death of a Parent: Transition to a New Adult Identity, was published in 2003 by Cambridge University Press, was issued in paperback in 2006, and was released in the United Kingdom in 2007.

In short, Deb is somehow amazingly productive in ways that reveal careful judgment, intense focus, a great deal of energy, and the ability to organize and to motivate others to perform at a high level—exactly what we want in our editors.

JHSB at Texas

This will be the second time that JHSB will be housed at the University of Texas. The last time (1994-1997), Ron Angel was the editor and Deb was the deputy editor. This time, Ron will be part of a team of deputy editors that includes their Texas colleagues Mark Hayward and Robert Hummer along with Chloe Bird at the Rand Corporation and Stephanie Robert at the University of Wisconsin. This team is well chosen to serve the priorities Deb outlined in her proposal for the editorship: Innovation, theoretical grounding, high-quality data, cutting-edge methodological approaches, and a focus on research that can inform health policy.

Deb won the ASA Medical Section award for the best dissertation in 1987. Soon after, she published a key paper from that work in the September 1987 issue of JHSB: "Family Status and Health Behaviors: Social Control as a Dimension of Social Integration." That paper was widely influential and is still frequently cited. It shows that health advantages linked to being married and being a parent are the result of micro-social control processes that promote positive health behaviors. A major theme of this paper, how family relations affect health and mental health, has stayed with her through the years, but she has creatively transformed this theme as her career has evolved. Through her own work and that of her students, she has probed the various ways that family statuses change and unfold over the life course to affect health, often in ways that would not be predicted by her early studies or understood in the context of her early explanations.

Research Evolution

This evolution has occurred largely because Deb is an intellectually restless researcher who is rarely content. She also has the nagging sense that our work does not always make a difference—that its promise of providing the basis of polices that can improve human lives is too often unrealized. She does not take the results of anyone’s research, including her own, as the solution to a research problem or the problem of informing viable health policies. She always wants to go one step further. This restlessness also has resulted in probing key issues in a variety of ways. While her early empirical work was largely quantitative, as her career moved forward, she incorporated a variety of qualitative methods while simultaneously expanding her quantitative expertise to include sophisticated contemporary modes of analysis.

Of course, JHSB is the place for cutting-edge research in medical sociology and the sociology of health, and maintaining that tradition will be an important part of Deb’s new role. But, as the field changes, new methods come about and new theoretical ideas emerge, creating novel challenges for every new editor. It is clear that her career as administrator, teacher, sociologist, and creative researcher provides her with just the right tools to manage these challenges. As I look over her productivity and the substantive changes in her work over the years, I am confident that she will take nothing for granted and will work tirelessly to publish innovative papers that promote theoretical and methodological creativity and will provide a basis for informing social policies that promote population and community health.

Though some think of sociology as a discipline, it is diverse and unruly, and more than once in my career I have thought we were about to lapse into chaos or end in a colossal train wreck. In a room of 10 sociologists, there would probably be 10 arguments for why this has not (yet) occurred. My preferred explanation is that our journals have kept us coherent and focused on the fundamental task of creating knowledge and promoting theoretical progress. Editors of journals are the key players who manage the process of peer review that (mostly) ensures that our diversity and creativity support and strengthen our several foundations rather than undermine them. As Deb Umberson takes the editorship of JHSB, I can see that the ASA Publications Committee has again made an excellent decision and that the field is safe for another few years.

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