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Ignacio Schiappacasse B
What were you doing before you came to ODID?
Before coming to ODID, I was doing a masters degree in Latin American Development at King’s College London. That was a key experience in my academic life since the programme gave me the opportunity to achieve a long-desired goal: to study Latin America, which is my region of origin, from different perspectives. It was inspiring indeed given that the masters programme integrated knowledge from disciplines such as history, economics, political science, and sociology. Indeed, that year at King’s, from September 2014 to August 2015, was a turning point for me. Somehow, I was concluding a long, exploratory journey. Since I finished my secondary school, I had been attempting to integrate my personal interests, my passion for politics and social science, with my professional career. ODID has given me the opportunity to carry on working on the research agenda that I am passionate about.
Tell us a bit about your research.
For my PhD dissertation, I am looking at the political economy of the old-age pension system in Chile. The original project considered the analysis of the Chilean system from its origin in 1924 – when the Congress passed the first mandatory social security act – to contemporary discussion. In short, I want to understand the role that different actors have played in this exciting story. That includes analysis of players such as unions, the private sector in general, private providers of pensions in particular, different governments, and the state. The final aim is to understand the Chilean case very well for my dissertation, and then to carry out comparative analyses with other Latin American countries.
What drew you to your field of study?
Latin America is a region with a complex history. Most Latin American countries have high levels of poverty, inequality, and job informality, and have had in their past repeated political conflicts. Many such conflicts have ended up in bloody outcomes and pervasive wounds, which heal very slowly (if they heal at all). I wanted, therefore, to understand the roots of these widespread social tensions. I do think that the only possible way to understand such conflicts is to mix different sources, different ways of looking at these social conflicts. So now I am doing research that could be considered closer to political science, but it is also rooted in history and sociology. Indeed, the opportunity to mix all these different perspectives is what makes the field of development studies unique. Especially for people who have diverse interests and are eager to understand the complex phenomena of our societies.
Why did you choose ODID/Oxford?
People who have influenced my academic career suggested that I apply to ODID. I first heard about ODID in 2012, when my friend José Carlos Orihuela, Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at the Catholic University of Perú, told me about the PhD programme in International Development taught here. At that time, he was working with Rosemary Thorp (former director of ODID and the Latin American Centre), so he knew the academic profile of our department very well. He was the first person who encouraged me to apply since he thought this department would suit my academic skills and interests. That year I was teaching and researching in the Department of Economics at the University of Concepción, Chile. I was very much focused on applying econometrics and microeconomics to environmental issues. In that context, I think we both were seeking for more integrated views and methods; we were trying to cross disciplinary boundaries. Especially me, given that José Carlos was already conducting exciting research on the political economy of development.
Then, in 2014, while I was doing my MSc at King’s, I met Ingrid Bleynat, my advisor, and Paul Segal, my thesis supervisor. As lecturer of the module 'Latin American in the Twentieth Century', Ingrid taught me that history is a powerful tool for understanding complex, long-term processes. Thanks to Ingrid I discovered the rich history of my continent (I used to share, with many of my fellow Chilean citizens, a lack of interest in other Latin American countries). Paul was very supportive during my thesis work and encouraged me to work on the political economy of Latin America. He had got a PhD in economics at Oxford, so he knew about ODID as well. He is an academic mainly interested in heterodox economics, and in issues such as inequality and the economic history of Latin America. When I was dubious, Paul decisively encouraged me to apply. In one of our meetings, Paul recommended that I read the work of Professor Diego Sánchez-Ancochea. By a quirk of fate, just a few weeks before that conversation I had come across a couple of Diego’s papers. Afterwards, Paul helped to make contact with Diego, and then Diego and I started our academic relation.
What do you particularly value about ODID?
First of all, I have found people who are truly interested in my work and learning process. That, I think, is a crucial ingredient for having both a productive and pleasant PhD journey, which at some points may be extenuating and demanding. Among such people, I would like to mention my supervisor, Diego Sánchez-Ancochea, and Alan Angell, an expert on Chilean politics and former member – and director – of the Latin American Centre. As supervisor, Diego has been persistently generous, patient and supportive of my research process. My research has significantly improved over the course of dozens of meetings and his written feedback to my reports. As for Alan, he has long been involved with Chilean issues and carrying out concrete actions to help many Chileans during troubled times. He has been very generous as well, sharing his knowledge, his readings and contacts in Chile.
Secondly, the other great thing about ODID is the diversity of its students. In the DPhil programme, I have mates from all over the world, and that constitutes an excellent opportunity to expand my knowledge and culture. Somehow, for me, that diversity has become one of the central sources of my learning process during my PhD. Here, for sure you will meet people from many different regions and countries of the world, who, in turn, are working on many exciting topics applying a whole range of analytical frameworks and methodologies.
In third place, the facilities for PhD students at ODID are fantastic. This aspect could sound trivial, but it really makes a huge difference. DPhil students have access to what we call 'The Loft', which is a massive room with almost 40 desks. The Loft is a very comfortable, calm area, perfect for undertaking our work as graduate students. The Loft is the place where we exchange ideas and support each other. Furthermore, being a student at ODID gives you access to the University’s library system (formed by more than 100 libraries). The University and the different Colleges hold a unique, endless collection. That collection speeds up one’s work, since here you have access to almost every book and paper that you may need during your research. By using these amazing libraries, in some way, one becomes the inheritor of a tradition shaped during centuries by scholars who through their research have enhanced the libraries adding new volumes. For instance, in my case, I have been directly benefited by the previous work on Chile carried out by Alan Angell. During his career, he developed a rich collection of books, primary documents and Chilean magazines. When he retired, he donated his collection – developed over decades of work – to the University. Now, I have been fortunate enough to work with Alan’s collection, which has allowed me to go faster in my research.
Finally, I would like to remark on the collaborative environment that exists among PhD students. I have rarely seen such a collaborative atmosphere in other academic departments, in which high levels of competitiveness usually impair collaborative efforts. Here, there is a genuine sense of community. I do think that such a collaborative environment arises from the diversity of this academic community. That sense of community among students is crucially supported by ODID’s support staff, who are always kindly willing to help us. In summary, I have to say that I feel truly fortunate for studying here.
What would you say has been your best experience at Oxford?
Oxford is a city which has been very generous not just with me but with my whole family. Several months after our arrival, my wife, Margarita, got a job at the Blavatnik School of Government in the admissions team. That job was immensely important because it gave her the chance of shifting her professional career as well. We first met in 2001 in the School of Agricultural Sciences at the Catholic University of Valparaíso. Since then, she had worked as an agriculture engineer in the field. The University of Oxford, therefore, has also become for her a place for learning and advancing her new professional interests. Moreover, our first child was born here. Tomás was born in December of last year. Here, we were able to plan his birth as we wished, which is not an easy task in our country yet, and during all Margarita’s pregnancy we felt supported and cared for by NHS personnel.
What are you hoping to do after you finish?
I would like to expand my current research to other Latin American countries aiming to carry out comparative analyses. The political economy of social policy development is an exciting topic: it acts as a sort of magnifying glass. Sometimes it is necessary to trace the trajectory of specific policies to be able to understand the 'big picture', the history of a specific country in a specific period. In such a context, I want to find a place in academia as researcher and lecturer.