Department of Social & Policy Sciences

Researcher insight

Asha Abeyasekera-Van Dort

Asha Abeyasekera-Van Dort joined our Department in September 2008 to study a PhD research into marriage, middle-class identities, and modernity in contemporary Sri Lanka. She is being supervised by Dr Sarah White, an expert in the field of sociology and international development and Dr Kate Woodthorpe an expert in the Sociology of Death.

Prior to joining the University of Bath, Asha studied in Massachusetts, USA for her BA in English Literature at Mount Holyoke College and then at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka for her MA in Women’s Studies.

Speaking about her attraction to Bath, the PhD student cites the University’s substantive support, office spaces and access to various postgraduate skills training as excellent. She also believes the staff in the SPS department to be very approachable and happy to help when asked. In terms of the writing process, Asha states that she has been lucky to have “an extremely supportive advisor who understands that life happens while doing a PhD”.

Commenting on how she chose her research area, Asha said;

I have been interested in feminist issues from the time I graduated from Mount Holyoke College (a liberal arts women’s college) in 1998 and have worked on women’s issues and concerns in various areas starting with being the writer for a women’s rights programme for Young Asia Television (‘Space to Let’)

“I have also completed several research projects on gender and development concerns and have been the editor of a feminist magazine called ‘OPTIONS’, which was aimed at engaging young women in contemporary feminist debates”.

Asha further explains that she has always been interested in understanding how women negotiate their wellbeing and identities while playing their familial roles of daughters, sisters, wives and mothers.

In order to be successful as a researcher, Asha considers that “you have to be really interested about your work because without passion and an ‘intellectual itch’, it is difficult to survive the incredibly challenging journey that is the PhD. My advisor once told me that ‘you need to be stubborn’ and I agree that a PhD requires a certain quality of ‘doggedness’”.

Her position as a researcher studying her own community has shaped the methodology of her research “it determined the kind of information I was able to gather during my field work. Very early on in my work I found that as a researcher attempting to study a social group that I belonged to and a social world that I had inhabited all my life, I could not ignore the social norms that informed the way relations are conducted in Sri Lanka”.

As an ‘indigenous anthropologist’ Asha had to constantly negotiate between social norms and ethical considerations, which she thinks poses an on-going set of ethical questions about studying one’s own community.

Furthermore her research reveals that the everyday work of producing, expressing, and reproducing class identity within the family is largely undertaken by women:

Women play a critical role in channelling family resources in educating children in ‘good’ schools and guiding them to ‘respectable’ professions and, ultimately, to making the ‘right’ choice of marriage partner

“Within an intensely commercialised milieu, this has meant the display of knowledge, taste, and discrimination through one’s lifestyle. Women see education and employment as having enabled them to cast aside traditional gender identities and present themselves as thinking actors involved in crafting their identities in relation to the ideologies of modernity that emphasise egalitarianism and progress”.

Asha continues her research into the intersection of gender and class in producing difference within the context of globalisation, and believes it raises critical questions regarding the shaping of gender identities in Sri Lanka and complicates meanings of women’s agency.

In spite of the challenging journey Asha is currently undertaking, the main reason she is undertaking a PhD is so she can “teach and inspire young people to think critically about the social world they inhabit. The opportunity to teach is what I most enjoy about my work”.

Looking to the future Asha hopes to gain a teaching position at the University of Colombo as well as publishing several articles and writing a book.