by Madeline Burdine

Wesley James headshotWesley James is currently serving his 11th year as a professor of sociology at The University of Memphis.

In his time at Memphis, he has been recognized both for his teaching and research. In 2013, he was named the recipient of the W. Russell Smith Award, the highest teaching honor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University. He also recently received an invitation to Capitol Hill to brief congressional members and staffers about health issues in rural America.

James credits the birth of his research to his time at the Social Science Research Center and Director Arthur Cosby and he continues to focus on rural health and mortality disparities.

Prior to his move to The University of Memphis, James spent eight years at Mississippi State University and the SSRC. During this time, he earned his master’s and PhD in Sociology with an emphasis in Demography. While earning these degrees, James served as a Research Associate at the SSRC, where he later spent the summers of 2009 and 2010 as a Postdoctoral Fellow, and a visiting Research Fellow after his move to Memphis. James remains a Research Fellow at the SSRC today.

“We (Dr. Cosby and I) published a bunch of things together, and I still do a lot of work in that area (the rural mortality penalty),” he said.

The rural mortality penalty is the basis of major projects that James and Cosby collaborate on, analyzing mortality rates among rural America. Most recently the two, along with other co-authors, published Growth and Persistence of Place-Based Mortality in the United States: The Rural Mortality Penalty in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH). The paper was recognized as one of the top papers at AJPH in 2019.

“This has remained my primary area of work even after leaving MSU and arriving at Memphis,” said James on the rural mortality penalty.

“I think it’s important work for people in rural America, which is a lot of Mississippians and a lot of Tennesseans, too,” he said. “They have a lot of built-in disadvantages like living farther away from doctors and specialists, having fewer resources than people who live in cities. So, I think there is an important mission in doing work for rural people who are sometimes ignored.”

“It was the people and my mentors at the SSRC,” said James when asked how he found himself on this path, specifically naming Lynne Cossman, Art Cosby, and Ron Cossman as wonderful mentors. “Everything I do now started because the three of them pulled me in on the work they were doing. I really enjoyed it, and it just grew into more and more.”

These research interests and mentors in the field are not the only things James cultivated at the SSRC. When remembering of his time there, he spoke of lifelong friendships developed at the Center.

“Some of the best friends I have today are from the SSRC, and that means a lot to me,” he said.

James’ passion for this field continues to grow and has earned a national reputation for his work on rural health.

In addition to his recent Congressional briefing on the rural mortality penalty, James has also spoken on rural health at the National Cancer Institute, Auburn University, and at national conferences.

James serves as the director of graduate studies for the Department of Sociology and is an active member of the Southern Demographic Association and Population Association of America. His research has been published in American Journal of Public Health, Social Science and Medicine Population Health, Population Research and Policy Review, Journal of Rural Health, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Sociological Spectrum, Demographic Research, N-IUSSP, and others.

Continuing Interest in Rural Health Drives James’ Work
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