Professor James Thomas, Institute of Education, London

Why dJames Thomasid you decide to get involved in social medicine?
I didn’t plan to get involved in social medicine to begin with, but the reason I have stayed in the field is that it’s clearly fundamental to people’s health: we can improve technology to the certain degree, but unless we understand the factors which shape people’s health, we won’t be able to use it effectively. It’s also a very interesting area, and there are some inspirational leaders in this field, with whom it’s a privilege to work.

What was your first ever publication about, in 30 words or less?
‘Women and abortion in 1930s Britain’ with Susan Williams: we reanalysed survey data which contain rich and detailed information about the circumstances of working class women including the impact of poverty, overcrowding, reasons for avoiding pregnancy and contraception.

Which piece of research are you are most proud of and why?

I find the binary polarization between qualitative and quantitative research unhelpful, divisive, and attracting energy which would be better deployed elsewhere. The piece I’d choose then, is a systematic review from 2003/4 in which we combined research from different traditions in the same analysis, demonstrating how utilizing their distinctive strengths makes for a more powerful and explanatory synthesis than either could on their own.

Where do you see social medicine heading in the next 20 years?

I fear we are moving into a period of increasing inequalities in health, despite knowing more than ever about its social and economic determinants. In research, we need to develop better ways of knowing (consigning the qual / quant divide to history!), which connect more effectively with the social and political environment, in order to equip decision makers – and society in general – with the knowledge they need to improve people’s health.

What three pieces of advice would you give to an early career researcher looking to have a career in social medicine?

Develop a wide range of skills: don’t be a ‘one trick pony’. If you favour statistics, make sure you can undertake a critical analysis of the theories and assumptions that underpin the variables in your models. If you favour collecting ‘qualitative’ data, make sure you understand the methods and theory underpinning statistics.

If you had to recommend one book or research paper for an early career researcher in social medicine to read, what would it be?

“Experiments in Knowing” by Ann Oakley

What is the best course you have been on and would recommend to ECRs?

I know I should probably say the course in Bayesian decision-modeling I attended a few years ago (which was good); but the Royal Yachting Association’s ‘Competent Crew’ course tops it in terms of future behaviour change (!).

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