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We strive to be a globally recognised centre of transformative social and economic research excellence that contributes towards a fairer, more just and equitable society through championing African-led enquiry, innovation and knowledge-sharing.


The ISER is a dynamic African hub of high quality and pioneering social and economic research that is opening gateways for community-rooted knowledge to be recognised and incorporated in policy and practice aimed at improving the natural environment and quality of human life.


Leading research for Africa


The ISER currently focuses on multidisciplinary research across varied socio-economic challenges in rural and urban spaces, locally, nationally and on the African continent. These include socio-economic research activities on the interface of the use and consumption of agricultural land and environmental water resources, cross border trade, rural to urban livelihoods, informal to formal economic sector activities, digital skills development and education issues for youth employment and productive activities under the leadership of Prof. Cyril Nhlanhla Mbatha, who joined the ISER in 2020.  More on research


Excellence in groundbreaking, ground-up, rigorous and multi-faceted research
We strive to achieve excellent and effective results through policy-relevant, community-led research that can be practically applied. We are equitable, transformational and inclusive in our subjects and methods.

Social transformation and environmental sustainability
We champion socio-economic justice for sustainable and improved livelihoods, ensuring equitable access and the preservation of bio-cultural diversity. Our research informs policy that recognises multiple and evolving values, including local natural resource stewardship, spatial justice and community sustainability. We provide platforms that promote diverse expressions and facilitate knowledge-sharing towards finding common ground. 

Advancing and sharing Africa-led knowledge

We create, connect and enable knowledge networks across South Africa and the African continent. We support dynamic socio-economic research, innovation and development that comes from the continent rather than to the continent.

Social commitment and community engagement
The real value of what the ISER does depends upon the long-term, positive impact that we can make on the economic vitality of people, organisations, and communities through engaged and transformative research.

We are open to ideas that challenge conventional views and drive innovation. We believe that in order to stay relevant, we must constantly improve with society's changing needs to develop work that pushes forward the boundaries of research.

We are accountable to society, marginalised communities, the research community, Rhodes University, our funders, our respondents, and all stakeholders. We accept personal responsibility and accountability for our actions and results. We respond to the needs and expectations of our research partners with urgency, exercising good judgement in addressing changing circumstances.

We are driven by our commitment to enabling vulnerable groups to overcome poverty and improve quality of life, and not by personal gain or alliances with vested interests. We are honest, and act with integrity. We do not tolerate unethical behaviour; we challenge it as a matter of personal responsibility.

Respect, diversity and equality
We treat our colleagues, partners, donors, research and community partners with fairness, respect and sensitivity. As part of this respect, we share co-engaged learning with all contributors. We value diversity and draw upon the different strengths, cultures, ideas, experience and talents of people. 

Collaboration and partnership
Collaboration with internal and external partners is necessary to increase the effectiveness and relevance of our work and research.


The Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) was established in Rhodes University in 1954. Strongly grounded in the Eastern Cape since its inception, the ISER soon developed a diverse portfolio of research initiatives involving its own staff and staff members of other Rhodes academic departments. Throughout its existence, engagement by academics from a range of departments within the university in the work of the ISER contributed not only to the content and quality of ISER’s research work, but also enriched teaching within those academics’ home departments.

Scholars associated with the ISER in the early period of its establishment produced a series of scholarly volumes comprising the Keiskammahoek Rural Survey (1947–1952) and the Border Regional Survey (1956–1964) amongst others. Although the former documented changes in Keiskammahoek since the establishment of the apartheid regime in 1948, the ISER, in its early years, generally did not engage with the consequences of apartheid for the well-being of the black majority, and did not challenge the status quo of repressive, white minority rule. This approach gradually changed in later years, when the ISER came to engage more actively with the social conditions and development problems of the Eastern Cape through empirical research and public policy engagement.

Under Prof Peter Vale’s Directorship from 1984, the ISER’s research agenda directly and indirectly exposed the consequences of the apartheid political economy on the black inhabitants of the Eastern Cape. The ISER developed a research specialisation on well-being studies under Professor Valarie Møller, a leading internationally recognised scholar in the field and Director of the ISER between 1998 and 2006. From 2006 to 2010, the ISER was led by Professor Greg Ruiters, who introduced a vibrant, large-scale programme of research rooted in concerns of political economy and municipal service provision in the Eastern Cape. Prof Ruiters also introduced an annual ISER Winter School, which drew together community-based organisations and leading academics into in-depth discussions on topical social, developmental and political concerns for the province and the country. 

In 2009, the ISER started developing Social Policy as a core research and teaching focus area, joined, in late 2012, by labour studies. Led by Prof Robert van Niekerk, the Social Policy focus area developed into a number of collaborative research programmes including programmes on health, social policy and the developmental role of the state and social citizenship. The Social Policy focus area was strengthened by the appointment of Prof Rebecca Surender in 2014 until her departure in 2015. Work on Social Policy as a distinct focus area was discontinued in mid-2018. 

The Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) was established in 2012 under the leadership of Dr John Reynolds and formally launched in 2014. NALSU, a hub for labour studies at Rhodes University, was relocated out of the ISER in 2019.

The ISER has had an abiding influence on a number of institutions within Rhodes University and the wider Eastern Cape. In 1979, the International Library of African Music was moved to Rhodes University under the auspices of the ISER, where it was hosted until its incorporation into the Rhodes Department of Music and Musicology in the mid-nineties. Also in 1979, a Development Studies Unit, headed by a Chair in Development Studies, was started; that unit was discontinued in 1994, when Prof Bill Davies joined the new Eastern Cape Provincial Government, where he built an economic planning and research unit in the Department of Economic Affairs, Environment and Tourism. An International Studies Unit was established in the ISER in 1988 and, in 1992, was migrated to the Rhodes Department of Political Studies, into which it was fully incorporated in the early 2000s, changing the name of the department to the Department of Political and International Studies. In 2003, the East London branch of the ISER was incorporated into the University of Fort Hare as the Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economic Research (FHISER). The ISER is now under the leadership of Prof. Cyril Nhlanhla Mbatha, who joined the ISER in 2020.

Last Modified: Thu, 23 Jun 2022 15:55:08 SAST