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 Thomas Lister

Thomas Lister

PhD Student

 College House 1.23


College House, University of Exeter, St Luke's Campus, Heavitree Road, Exeter, EX1 2LU, UK


I joined the Medical School in 2017 as a Ph.D. student working on the Wellcome Trust funded project, Exploring Diagnosis. As part of this team, my research explores how and why people come to be labelled, or label themselves, as autistic in adulthood, and the consequences of doing so. This involves interviewing people who have been diagnosed or self-identify as autistic in adulthood. I am supervised by Professor Christabel Owens (UEMS), Dr. Ginny Russell (UEMS & Principal Investigator), and Professor Susan Kelly (Sociology, Philosophy, and Anthropology).

My substantive interests include the sociology of diagnosis, medical sociology, the sociology of knowledge and social theory. I also take an interest in the public's engagement with science and the development of impact evaluation methodologies (see publications). My methodological interests (and "expertise") are in qualitative methods. I'm particularly focused on using 'situational analysis' to analyse qualitative data and extant discourse materials (e.g. text, images). I am currently in the process of building a UK network of researchers focussed on using situational analysis in disciplines like sociology, human geography, epidemiology, and education studies. If you would like to get involved in this group, drop me an email. 



B.A. (Hons.) University of Warwick

M.Phil. Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge 


Research group links


Research interests

Paper abstract for the annual British Sociological Association Medical Sociology Conference, Glasgow Caledonian University (Sep, 2018)

'Situational analysis: An introduction'

In traditional grounded theory (GT), social processes are often abstracted from the social context in which they are embedded. This means that the wider social, structural and discursive settings that both constitute and shape social processes are side-lined in the analysis. Situational analysis (SA) is a newly emerging extension of GT that aims to explicitly situate social processes by bringing the wider social context squarely into the analysis. Using the ‘situation’ as the unit of analysis - the contextual whole in which a person, object or event is situated, which is made up of human, non-human and discursive elements – social processes are analysed in relation to the most salient elements that condition them. This is done by creating maps of the situation of interest, which plot all the analytically pertinent factors, as framed both by those in the situation and by the analyst. Understanding these elements and their relationality is the primary goal of SA. In this talk, I will present an overview of SA and how I am using it in my PhD research, which aims to understand how people come to be labelled, or to label themselves, as ‘autistic’ in adulthood. This involves situating it amongst the various actors, structures and popular discourses surrounding what autism is and what it means to be autistic. By foregrounding the social factors that play a role in the acquisition of particular labels and identities, SA can help to specify analytically who and what really matters in this situation. 

Poster abstract for the Annual Research Event, The University of Exeter Medical School (Feb, 2018)

'Diagnosing and labelling autism: An illustrative example'

This study seeks to understand how people come to be labelled, or to label themselves, as autistic in adulthood. A person can receive a medical diagnosis, they can label themselves by self-identifying as autistic, and they can be labelled by other autistic and non-autistic people. How somebody acquires a label is complex, and involves different types of knowledge, experiences, and encounters with other people. In this study, I want to learn what processes are involved in acquiring such labels, and the impact those labels have on peoples’ lives. Using a postmodern development of grounded theory, data are being collected using in-depth, qualitative interviews. Participants are being recruited from various organisations across the South West using theoretical and snowball sampling. Situational analysis (Clarke 2005) is being used to map the key human, non-human, and discursive factors that contribute to somebody becoming labelled, or labelling themselves, as autistic. These maps plot who and what is involved in the process, and are used in conjunction with traditional grounded theory analysis. This presentation tells the story of how three generations of the same family came to be labelled, to label themselves and/or each other, as autistic. Their story illustrates three different ways of acquiring the label, based on different types of knowledge (both medical and lay) and different ways of knowing. The consequences of each label, and how each is used or not used by members of the family will be discussed.  

Paper abstract for the Annual Research Event, The University of Exeter Medical School (May, 2017)

‘What’s in a label? The functions and consequences of a diagnosis of autism’

A diagnosis constitutes the naming of a disease or disorder through the recognition of signs and symptoms located in the body. It is a critical feature of the medical profession, simultaneously identifying the nature of the ‘problem’ and determining treatment options. Self-diagnosis is a newly emerging and under-researched phenomenon. With a wealth of information and diagnostic tools available online, there appears to be a growing number of adults diagnosing themselves as autistic. This project aims to understand (1) why people seek a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in adulthood, and (2) what determines whether they self-diagnose or seek a medical diagnosis. The first question relates to the functions of a diagnosis: what do individuals hope to gain from the identification of ASD in adulthood, particularly as there are no treatments and few specialist services available? What social benefits might the label confer? The second question will allow me to examine core beliefs and assumptions about the epistemic authority of the doctor and challenges to it, and also about the nature of autism itself. If an adult self-diagnoses, do they see this as a precursor or an alternative to medical diagnosis? In this study I will use a qualitative design involving individual in-depth interviews with people who have identified themselves as having ASD in adulthood, both those who have sought or are seeking a medical diagnosis and those who eschew that route and choose to self-diagnose.


Supervision / Group

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