From victims to warriors: collective identity construction at cancer movement assemblies in South Africa

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Interest in this topic was awakened by the rapid growth of Relay For Life in South Africa and its striking ability to bond people during mass cancer gatherings. Questions were raised about the generation of collective identities during these assemblies, the nature of the activated identities, and how these relate to the broader debates about cancer and identity. This inquiry investigates the unexplored intersection of cancer and identity in the context of a burgeoning solidarity movement that has found a strong following countrywide. A contemporary hermeneutic perspective allowed a dual focus on the micro-sociological dimensions and the structural elements that converge to generate collective identities at assemblies. A theoretical scheme was synthesized out of the work of theorists who deal with collective identity, spaces set aside for people in crisis, social interaction during focused gatherings and illness narratives. A non-comparative case study was used to investigate the phenomenon at 20 cancer assemblies. Short-term ethnography, focus group interviews, photographs and YouTube videos provided the data that was analysed using the hermeneutic circle of interpretation. The findings showed that personal illness identities and situation-specific role identities interact with a potent cocktail of elements - ephemeral space, a shared focus on cancer, collective action, illusion and emotions - to activate three symbolic identities: a dominant collective identity that relies on heroic warrior mythology, a secondary collective identity that draws upon a transformation ideal, and a hidden identity which has its roots in the notion of being wounded. It is argued that assemblies rely on a dominant collective identity which is symbolic in nature and imposed on participants by the cancer movement. Participants are portrayed as positive, hopeful heroic warriors tasked with vanquishing cancer. Although ubiquitous at cancer assemblies, the dominant collective identity is nevertheless sufficiently fluid to allow a measure of hybridization, inversion and contestation. This inquiry gives credence to other work on cancer and identity which recognizes that the dominant identity provides benefits not offered by a victim representation. It also expresses reservations about the wisdom of expecting affected people to maintain a brave exterior in the face of an illness that causes emotional disequilibrium.

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