Department of Sociology

Dr. Debra Umberson Wins Investigator Award in Health Policy Research

Mon, April 9, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas - With the need for innovative health policy more apparent than ever, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research are encouraging scholars to tackle some of America's most difficult health concerns to better inform policy on these issues.

Ten award recipients, affiliated with major institutions across the country, receive awards of up to $335,000 to support their innovative research projects. Debra Umberson, professor of sociology and faculty affiliate of the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, is one of this year’s recipients.

“The RWJF award is one of the most prestigious prizes given to behavioral health scientists in the U.S.,” says Christine Williams, chair of the Department of Sociology. “This award recognizes the outstanding scholarly contributions of Dr. Umberson.  Her achievement cements our status as one of the top sociology departments in the country.” 

Assessing the health effects of marriage for gay, lesbian, and heterosexual couples, Umberson’s proposal, “Marriage, Gender and Health In Lesbian, Gay and Heterosexual Couples,” has substantial implications for public policy and debates over gay marriage.

“Married heterosexuals are healthier and live longer than the unmarried; however, since same-sex couples cannot legally marry in most parts of the United States, we know very little about the health implications of marriage for gay and lesbian couples,” Umberson said.  “My project will provide the first in-depth and systematic analysis of legal marriage, cohabitation, and health to compare heterosexual, gay and lesbian couples.”

Umberson will conduct in-depth interviews with both partners in same-sex and heterosexual married couples in Massachusetts to consider how individuals perceive and experience their marriage with regard to health behavior, informal care for a partner during periods of illness or injury, and the use of formal health care systems. By comparing cohabiting and married gay, lesbian, and heterosexual couples, she can explore further how legal marriage differs from cohabiting unions in shaping relationship dynamics around health.

Innovative in her inclusion of both married and cohabiting gay and lesbian couples—groups that have been neglected in health research—Umberson also aims to uncover how people in different types of committed relationships care for one another, both informally and through health care systems. She will examine the challenges as well as benefits of committed relationships for health.

“I hope that this project will inform health policy involving when and how marriage and cohabitation influence health behavior, and how partner dynamics around health care at home and in formal health care settings vary for different union types,” Umberson says. “Policy strategies that result in more health-promoting habits, more effective partner participation in health care, and more efficient use of health care systems have the potential to reduce health care costs, while also improving the health and well-being of individuals and couples.”

The Investigator Awards were created by the RWJF to support talented scholars, like Umberson, throughout their careers, recognizing that cross-cutting and bold new ideas from accomplished researchers can contribute meaningfully to improving U.S. health policy.

 “Dr. Umberson pioneered our understanding of how social relationships impact health," Williams says. "She has demonstrated that key life course transitions, such as marriage, childbirth, and widowhood, have consequences for individual health and well-being. This award is a fitting tribute to her long career of distinguished scholarship.”

In winning this highly competitive award, Umberson joins a select group of scholars from a wide range of fields including nursing, public health, economics, psychology, history, law, ethics, journalism, public and social policy and others.

“I feel very honored to be joining a special group of scholars from a range of academic disciplines," Umberson says. "The main thing that these scholars have in common is their interest in using innovative research to inform U.S. health policy,” Umberson said. “This award makes it possible for me to devote the considerable time and effort needed to carry out such a large scale data collection and analysis effort and then to use those findings to inform health policy efforts.”

Umberson plans to write a book based on her research, to be titled "In Sickness and in Health: American Stories of Gay, Lesbian, and Heterosexual Marriage."

Courtesy of the College of Liberal Arts

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  • Department of Sociology

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