Syed AbbasSyed Abbas

Two weeks afterwards, I am still excited about the week I spent in Cape Town in the beginning of this month at a workshop of health social science researchers. But before I talk about the workshop and why it had such an influence over me, I guess I should tell you where I am coming from.


I started my PhD at IDS in January last year after working for more than six years as a researcher at the Public Health Foundation of India. While I had been doing policy research around health policy for several years, this was the first time in a social science environment.

Chapel window at Goedgadacht, the venue for the workshop

It took a while getting used to newer ways of reading and writing. I got exposed to words I had never considered before: Reflexivity; Participatory; Narratives; Ideational; Governmentality; Deconstruct; Problematize; Critical approaches; Realist approaches, and so on…

Instead of the tightly structured journal articles and technical reports I had been used to reading for my research, I had to now familiarise myself with navigating shelfloads of books as primary references for my literature review.

However, gradually, despite the newness of IDS, I have started thinking of it as an intellectual home for me. Here, I have the opportunity to engage in research topics that have real-life implications. At the same time, I have the freedom to take critical or alternative stances to these issues.

Experiences at Western Cape

However, coming back to the workshop, this was a week-long gathering of researchers co-organized by Chris Colvin at the Division of Social & Behavioural Sciences at the University of Cape Town and Hayley MacGregor from IDS and supported by the British Council and the South African Social Science and HIV (SASH) Programme. It was organized between 9-13 March at the rural retreat of Goedgedacht in Western Cape.

The workshop aimed to bring together a gathering of young researchers using social sciences approaches in the topical area of health from UK and African institutions and discuss the importance of taking a critical stance to our work.

I met researchers from different continents and topical areas. I shared a room with a historian from Tanzania researching STDs and held interesting conversations with a budding social science theorist working on clinical trials! I met humanities scholars working in schools of public health and several doctors transitioning into medical anthropology.

I managed to meet doctors engaging in political mobilization in the UK. I also met anthropologists working on health issues who were willing to discuss my research interests without presupposing a comprehensive understanding of literature and with whom I could have a comfortable discussion around my understanding of the literature without feeling vulnerable.

Maybe because this seemed like a safe place and because any of us had followed similarly meandering career pathways, I had a chance to hold engaging discussions with many participants. I felt that I could relate with many of these experiences of ‘researching at the interface’ even if I hadn’t experienced them myself.

I could understand when someone recounted her experiences of working as a social scientists in a public health settings where many discussions seldom went beyond the justification and relevance of her work. I could also understand what it could feel like for a doctor to feel singled out in an anthropological discussion about health and illness.

Besides the discussions on the sidelines, we also had interactions with established researchers on writing, publishing, building a career in research, combining research with activism. Some of the other speakers included Judith Green, Christina Zarowsky and Steven Robbins.

Life changing?

So how was this a life changing experience for me? IDS as well as the University of Sussex have provided a comfortable and an intellectually stimulating a space for me to explore developing newer ideas about my research interests.

However, I guess you need a critical mass of people to drive certain conversations. The opportunity to interact with so many people working on health research from social sciences perspective proved to be a really useful experience for me in many ways.

It helped me realise, that I am not alone in my experiences. There are others who are facing similar dilemmas as me and many others from similar background who have successfully went on to develop their careers. Also, importantly, there is a value of my individual experiences and perspectives and not to discount their importance.

While these might seem intuitive at one plane, it doesn’t hurt for to get a little reinforcement now and then!

Syed Abbas is a PhD candidate at IDS, working within the Health and Nutrition research cluster at IDS.