Ronald Freedman is a social demographer who has devoted most of his career to the study of fertility and was instrumental in the development of the sample survey as a means of investigating levels, trends, and determinants of fertility. Freedman completed his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1947, writing a dissertation on population distribution in the United States, having already taken up a teaching position in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan in 1946. He quickly shifted his attention to fertility and, with a pioneering younger generation of social scientists at Michigan with whom he had formed the Institute of Social Research, began to explore how the sample survey might advance fertility research. Freedman recognized that the sample survey naturally lent itself to the measurement of knowledge and attitudes, an attractive feature given Freedman's deeply sociological approach to fertility that placed considerable emphasis on values and norms.
In 1955, Freedman directed the first national fertility survey in the United States, the Growth of American Families, with Pascal Whelpton. Many had questioned whether intimate matters such as contraceptive behavior could be measured in survey interviews. The results of the 1955 survey largely allayed those concerns, as can be seen in the 1959 book written by Whelpton, Freedman, and Arthur Campbell as a result of this work. The sample survey has subsequently become the primary source of data on reproductive attitudes and behaviors in all regions of the world.
Freedman turned his attention to fertility in developing countries, and, in the early 1960s, forged a relationship with researchers in Taiwan that has been remarkably productive for him and his associates at Michigan since that time. During the 1960s, many national governments (including Taiwan's) and private agencies were considering launching family planning programs in order to accelerate fertility decline, but the likely impact of such programs was the subject of much dispute. Freedman and his Taiwanese collaborators conducted an experiment in the city of Taichung, with new services randomly assigned to a sub-set of neighborhoods. The results, published in 1969 as Family Planning in Taiwan: An Experiment in Social Change, demonstrated convincingly that the new family planning services facilitated adoption of modern contraception and, interestingly, that the effects spilled over to adjacent neighborhoods. The Taichung study was a landmark in demographic research and remains one of the few rigorous applications in demography of classic experimental design. Through a succession of island-wide fertility surveys, Freedman and his collaborators charted the course of fertility transition in Taiwan; few transitions are better understood from the standpoint of both causes and consequences.
Freedman became a leading figure in research on fertility in developing countries, authoring many influential papers and serving in numerous advisory capacities. He steadfastly maintained a theoretical perspective strongly grounded in the social sciences, in which socioeconomic conditions, cultural systems, and targeted programs each have causal roles. Freedman was a gifted institution-builder, notably of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, which he directed from its establishment in 1962 through 1971. He had a remarkable ability to spot talent and to bring out the best in those with whom he worked. Freedman was also a dedicated teacher, serving on the faculty of the University of Michigan for 41 years. Freedman was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1974, and was awarded the IUSSP (International Union for the Scientific Study of Population) Laureate in 2002.
selected works by ronald freedman.
Freedman, Ronald. 1961–1962. "The Sociology of Human Fertility." Current Sociology 10/11: 35–121.
——. 1979. "Theories of Fertility Decline: A Reappraisal." Social Forces 58: 1–17.
——. 1987. "The Contribution of Social Science Research to Population Policy and Family Planning Program Effectiveness." Studies in Family Planning 18: 57–82.
Freedman, Ronald, and John Y. Takeshita. 1969. Family Planning in Taiwan: An Experiment in Social Change. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Freedman, Ronald, Ming-Cheng Chang, and Te-Hsiung Sun. 1994. "Taiwan's Transition from High Fertility to Below-Replacement Levels." Studies in Family Planning 25: 317–331.
Whelpton, Pascal K., Ronald Freedman, and Arthur Campbell. 1959. Family Planning, Sterility, and Population Growth. New York: McGraw-Hill.
John B. Casterline