Sally McManus is a Research Director in the Health Team at NatCen Social Research. In this interview she talks about her varied career, ranging from the gay bars study of the mid 1990s, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, a study looking at the factors linked to mental health through to work with sight loss organisations. Read the interview on the SRA website.

As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Cagney - from Cagney and Lacey.

When did you first turn towards a social research career?
At university every English or history essay ended up as a piece of social enquiry, and I realised I should’ve done a social science degree.

What was your first professional job? And first project there?
As a researcher at BMRB International. My first project was the fun, but serious and important Gay Bars study. It was mid-90s and the Health Protection Agency (as it was then) needed to test HIV awareness advertising. We spent a lot of time interviewing in gay bars and cafes up and down the country.

Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
To NatCen/SCPR, and the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which also combined great importance and fun. But in recent years my real passion has been for the Department of Health’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, one of the worst named but most incredible survey series on the planet. The great thing about studying mental health is getting to examine everything that’s linked with it: working conditions, relationships, housing, poverty, disability, violence and more…

What has been your best professional moment?
I’m pleased with recent reports for the Welsh Government and Department of Health on subjective wellbeing. And I’m really taken with applying population segmentation in different contexts, eg using latent class analysis to typologise people’s histories of violence and abuse in England. I’m also proud of the work I’ve been doing with sight loss organisations in recent years. The sector makes great use of existing survey and routine data to profile and track inequalities by sight loss, a useful model for other disability sectors to adopt.

...and worst?
Discovering an error in the archived Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2007 dataset. I found out about it in mid-December, and a miserable Christmas followed.

Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
On a personal level, the late Howard Meltzer, who worked for 20 years at ONS and another 10 at Leicester University. As others have said, he had a generous tendency to share credit and take the blame.

Also reading urban sociologist William Whyte made me realise research can have great practical application. His passion was making public space liveable. By observing New York City lunch crowds he calculated the preferred dimensions for a wall to be good to sit on, the sun/shade ratio for an optimal lunch, the right distance between benches for best balance of privacy and sociability. Of course, corporate architects then applied his findings to design city squares that would discourage people from sitting and congregating!

Do you have a favourite quote?
I rather like Harry Frankfurt observation in ‘On Bullshit’ that: “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”

What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
With social research there’s no need to be limited to one topic or activity. Do it if you want to be a muckraker journalist exposing social inequalities, a writer, detective, epidemiologist, lecturer and data scientist all in one.

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