I sit down with a heavy heart and with great sadness to write of the death of my friend Gareth Williams. I first encountered Gareth when I was cutting my teeth in medical sociology; now a distant memory and long before he was aware of me. Each year a diverse and ragtag band of medical sociologists would make their way to York for the annual BSA medical sociology conference and Gareth would always be there; sun tanned and relaxed and dazzling people with his good looks, knowledge and erudition. He was a great speaker who could capture an audience like an old Methodist preacher but with humour and wit and always rooted in a total command of his subject and research. I recall at one symposium he described himself as a ‘kind of Marxist Merleau-Ponty’; capturing in a pithy phrase his concerns for addressing inequality and injustice and the lived experiences of illness and suffering in ordinary people’s lives.
Gareth had made a name for himself through his pioneering work on narratives of chronic illness where his detailed research on people with arthritis revealed how their beliefs and understandings of the causes of their condition were a complex and imaginative amalgam of different accounts and re-telling of stories of illness. He coined the term narrative re-construction and the work set in train a rich and fruitful field of research. He was filled with the sociological imagination and through his work he showed how, when people talked about the impact of chronic illness and disability on their lives, their stories also represented and reflected the social structures and processes behind their suffering. He threw light on the connections between personal troubles and public issues.
Following this, his work with Jennie Popay at Salford was path breaking and inspiring to many. Their focus was on lay knowledge as a means of exploring how people made sense of illness and how their stories and accounts shaped their responses and actions. This body of research was an incredibly important counter narrative to dominant models of ‘risk factor’ epidemiology and provided a basis for sociologists to develop critiques of linear explanations of health inequality and the policy focus on patterns of individual behaviour. Instead Gareth’s work pointed to the need to consider the creative capacities of individuals in their historical and biographical contexts. Through his fruitful partnerships with a number of colleagues, Gareth opened up new ways of looking at the relationship between social structures and health outcomes and made a lasting contribution to public health approaches to research including; the development of new approaches to qualitative research synthesis in public health research, tapping the potential for health impact approaches for a public sociology and engaging with publics and audiences in new and exciting ways.
This research was stimulated by his move in 1999 to Cardiff University as Professor of Sociology, where he threw himself into working with Public Health Wales. This proved to be a lasting and rewarding relationship for both sides and, as Director of the Cardiff Institute of Society, Health and Wellbeing (CISHeW), he instigated a highly successful programme of research, addressing community health and well-being, based on principles of social action, collaborative research and social justice. This was far ahead of its time and, under his leadership, the institute secured major research council grants, bringing diverse communities and academics together in creative ways, to explore how the arts and humanities can develop health and wellbeing.
It was at this time that Gareth’s energies turned to drawing together a small group of people in Wales to be the editorial team for Sociology of Health and Illness. The journal had always been close to Gareth’s heart and as the incoming editor in Chief he gave it a clear vision to publish sociological research on all aspects of health and illness. With a mixture of wisdom and cheerful exuberance he gave the journal a new impetus and life. He was at the height of his powers and it was therefore a great shock to us all when he received his first diagnosis and, with great bravery he embarked on a long and painful journey of treatment. Gareth maintained his humour and intellectual curiosity throughout his illness.
He loved Wales and Rugby, and had a passion for music, arts and literature. One of the last pieces he wrote set out some new thinking on the contribution of John Berger to the Sociology of health and illness. His warmth and humour will always stay with me. I fully realise that my thoughts and words are inadequate to the task of capturing the myriad ways he made his mark and touched so many people. He leaves Eva and three wonderful children and in his last days he told me how proud he was of them all. We have lost a brilliant sociologist and a warm and generous man.