Pamela Smock

by Susan Rosegrant
July 2010

“Do you believe that there are some people who are complicated and some people who aren’t?”

Pamela Smock, professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan and newly appointed director of the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research (ISR), asks the question of an interviewer in all seriousness. But you sense it’s less the topic she’s interested in than in what the answer will reveal about the person she’s talking to. Smock seems to be on a constant quest for knowledge and insight—about the world, about other people, about herself.

And maybe all people aren’t complicated. But Smock is. As a leading expert on the intersection of family with racial/ethnic, economic, and gender inequality, Smock has undertaken groundbreaking research, won awards for teaching, and written prolifically. She is just the second woman to serve as the Pop Studies head at Michigan.

At the same time, Smock, 48, blithely defies the staid, bookish stereotype of an academic. She’s stylish, and has been known to don edgy costumes for Halloween. Her ideal vacation? Smock imagines traveling by yacht from one Greek isle to another, accompanied by close friends, a cook, and a pile of books. And a conversation with Smock is likely to digress into a discussion of favorite ’70s rock bands, true crime novels, and why many of her friends aren’t academics (“I am comfortable with people who have struggled a bit to get where they are, and these folks come from all walks of life.”).

Smock’s open and fearless style may be a logical counterpoint to her chosen specialty—an area of research that delves into people’s more private thoughts and actions. “Family demographers tend to study the events of life and live the events of life and talk openly about the events of life,” says fellow family demographer Bill Axinn, director of ISR’s Survey Research Center. “A thing that Pam and I have in common is we both say whatever we’re thinking.” He grins. “Another thing that Pam and I have in common is that we sometimes scare people.”

From girlhood, Smock has been trying to figure out life—and her role in it—with a gusto that many people bring only to sports and fried food. She devoured books as a kid, particularly novels with strong characters like Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Jo in Little Women, Nancy Drew, Caddie Woodlawn, and Marjorie Morningstar, girls who were “trying to launch a life that is a little bit unusual or independent, or standing alone and taking risks.” She adds: “I loved reading about people who had interesting lives, to imagine what mine might be like.”

Smock grew up north of Chicago; her father was in marketing and her mother taught sociology at a small college nearby. Her home life was rich. Smock built model airplanes with her dad, put on plays with her cousins, learned the lyrics to the songs in every musical she saw (which were many, thanks to her father’s love of American musical theater), and went to greyhound races. At the same time, she was a kid who wanted to push the boundaries, envious of peers who “could just go out at night and come back whenever.”

Leaving home for college solved that problem. Smock started at Oberlin, but switched to the University of Chicago after two years. There, Smock began to hit her stride. She studied great books, urban sociology, calculus, astrophysics. She also explored neighborhoods outside of Hyde Park. “I made a point of traveling in unusual circles and a lot of them did not include University of Chicago students,” Smock says of this period. “I just wanted to experience things. I didn’t want to grow older and come to regret that I had lived a narrow life.”

After earning a bachelor’s in sociology, Smock treated herself to a trip alone to Hawaii. Then she moved back home. “I had learned from my parents that the life of the mind was very important,” she says, “and, especially through my mother, to have work about which I was passionate.” But what, exactly, to do? Her father told her she had the strategic ability of a general. Friends and family suggested her outgoing personality suited her for business. Over the next three years, Smock worked in Chicago, including as a marketer for a commodities firm. She came to see the job as a kind of research, but didn’t like what she was discovering. “I always assumed that people who were bright and engaged and energized by their work had values about learning about themselves, learning about the world, and doing good in the world,” she recalls. Instead, the workplace seemed money-driven, sexist, and hierarchical. “I knew I had to leave.”

Smock returned to school, and, to her relief, quickly felt back in her element. In 1992, she received her doctorate in sociology from the University of Wisconsin, specializing in social inequality and demography. For her dissertation, Smock had examined whether women’s growing financial independence translated into improved economic conditions for women and children in the wake of divorce. The answer, she reported in a highly influential article based on her research, was no. Smock, herself, had married towards the end of graduate school. But it ended amicably two years later after a long distance relationship proved too hard to maintain.

Smock became an assistant professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, then moved to the sociology department and the Pop Studies Center at Michigan in 1994. She had already begun a research partnership that would shape the direction of her scholarship for years to come. Fellow Wisconsin grad Wendy Manning, who is now professor of sociology and director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University, was investigating why whites seemed to move more quickly from cohabitation to marriage than blacks. Manning asked Smock to coauthor an article, and the collaboration immediately “took”: Over the next 17 years, the two co-authored about 20 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, sometimes meeting at a retreat in North Carolina where they worked all day and then kicked back with wine and talk at night. “There’s something very comforting about collaborating with Pam,” Manning says. “We know what to expect from one another. Sort of like an old married couple.”

Cohabitation from a stratification perspective proved a perfect fit for Smock’s interests, and it was a dynamic area to study. Between 1965 and 1974, only 10 percent of couples who married had lived together first, but by the mid-1990s, that proportion had risen to more than 50 percent. That was a big shift, and large gaps remained in understanding how cohabitation was affecting family patterns, individuals, children, and society as a whole.

In the late 1990s, Smock proposed an article for the Annual Review of Sociology summarizing what had been learned about cohabitation to date. “For a year and a half I wrote and thought and read everything there was at that time about cohabitation.” Smock’s 2000 article captured not only key research findings, but how cohabitation was growing and evolving. For example, increasing numbers of cohabiting relationships included children, rising from about 40 percent to 50 percent between 1987 and 1995. There was also evidence for the same time span that lower proportions of cohabitors were marrying and more were breaking up.

Smock’s article became a touchstone for the field. “When Pam writes an essay, people are really interested, because she thinks hard about these issues,” Manning says. “She isn’t just spitting back the known literature, but thinking about it in historical time, in terms of gender, and in terms of stratification.” From Smock’s perspective, though, her work underscored the fact that researchers were missing important questions. After all, the meaning of marriage itself was changing radically.

It would be helpful, she wrote, to do qualitative research—to “ask people what cohabitation means to them.” Not only would interviews help researchers understand how people are thinking and deciding about cohabitation, marriage, and childbearing, Smock argued, they could provide a basis for new questions on surveys. (As it turns out, they eventually did: two national surveys recently incorporated questions on cohabitation suggested by Smock and Manning.)

Soon after, she and Wendy Manning won the funding to do qualitative work. Their research in the early to mid-2000s on working class, lower middle class, and middle class young adults and cohabitation began with 115 cohabiting individuals. It eventually included almost 400 people—individuals as well as couples in various types of relationships—and used a combination of one-on-one interviews and focus groups. That qualitative work, along with further quantitative studies, provided important new insights into the meaning of cohabitation.

For one thing, the decision to cohabit is often less deliberate than researchers had assumed, Smock says; many of those interviewed said they didn’t choose to cohabit, they simply drifted into it. The research also suggests racial differences: Black women were less likely than Hispanic or white women to say they expected to marry their live-in partners. And 45 percent of whites had discussed marriage when they moved in together, compared to 33 percent of Hispanics and only 16 percent of blacks.

Smock and Manning found that financial insecurities kept couples from marrying—especially because cohabitation exists as a practical alternative. Their research also showed that economically strapped couples were simply more likely to break up than wealthier couples, whether they were cohabiting or married. That finding served as a strong push back to those who argued that encouraging poor couples to marry would substantially reduce poverty. “I feel very comfortable saying—not just based on my own work but based on lots of work—that marriage does not solve the problem of poverty,” Smock says. “Family patterns reflect broader inequalities in society.”

Finally, more recent research has thrown into question the earlier finding that cohabitation before marriage increases the risk of divorce, Smock says. Some studies show no effect; others show that the effect is limited to certain racial or ethnic groups. But cohabitation does decrease family stability, she says. Kids born to cohabiting couples are twice as likely to see their parents break up as children whose parents are married—a serious finding given that some 40 percent of births now take place outside of marriage. Moreover, nearly 70 percent of young people cohabit at some point, and about that many newly married couples have lived together first. “We will shortly be in a world in which everybody, except those with strong religious convictions against cohabitation, will cohabit either before marriage, instead of marriage, or after divorce,” Smock says.

To her academic colleagues, Smock is probably best known for this work on cohabitation. “She’s one of the senior leaders in the field,” confirms Bill Axinn. But Smock sees her research as just one aspect of a larger academic calling. She is, for example, an enthusiastic mentor. As such, she tries to demystify academic practices—to make sure students understand the system better than she did. (Smock says she accepted the faculty position at Louisiana State, the first offer she received, because she didn’t realize she was likely to get others. In retrospect, she says, she should have held off awhile, and negotiated more.)

Smock chairs and sits on numerous dissertation committees, co-authors papers with students, and serves on the steering committee of MORE (Mentoring Others Results in Excellence), whose mission is to enhance and support graduate student mentorship at the University. She is also just finishing a two-year term as graduate director in the sociology department. Smock has thrown herself into that last task with typical gusto: Last year, for a skit in the annual cabaret put on by 1st year grad students, she channeled former American Idol judge Paula Abdul. “I’ve never seen American Idol,” says 4th year doctoral candidate in sociology and assistant research scientist Kristin Seefeldt, “but I think she nailed it.” According to Seefeldt, Smock’s commitment to her role as director helped energize graduate students, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Similarly, Smock sees her role in sociology not just as a researcher, but as one who serves the field. Her work on review panels for the National Institutes of Health has been singularly “satisfying and rewarding,” she says. Currently Smock is principal investigator for the Integrated Fertility Survey Series, an ambitious five-year project supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to harmonize—or make comparable—data from ten fertility surveys dating back to 1955. She has also been associate director of ISR and associate director of the Pop Studies Center.

Now, as she takes over as center director, Smock looks forward to a new kind of learning and growth. “I love my field, and believe my colleagues are doing fantastic work, so it’s an honor to be the next person to serve as director.” Wendy Manning predicts Smock’s impact will be measurable. “Everything she does she takes on in a big way,” Manning says. “She’ll be a great center director because she’ll ask people questions that will make their research better. She’ll challenge people to think a little differently.”

And, no doubt, Smock will sometimes do things a little differently, as well, even as she continues her quest for knowledge and insight. “I know I’m probably never going to figure all of it out,” she says, “but I’m going to give it the best that I’ve got.”