At the crossroads of the identity (re)construction process: an analysis of 'fateful moments' in the lives of Coloured students within an equity development programme at UCT

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Sociology has made valuable contributions in the area of identity theory. Recent research into the identity transformation process has seen much emphasis being placed on developing specific conceptual tools to unpack the variable nature of these transformations. These conceptual tools have been extremely efficient. Their focus, however, has tended to be either too macro-social or micro-social at times. As a result, not enough attention has been given to developing existing conceptual tools that can address individual identity transformations at both the macro and micro levels. This study attempts to address this need. What is illustrated here is the extent to which the application of a particular conceptual tool can be enriched by selectively drawing on other identity concepts so as to offer a fuller and more context-laden understanding of the identity transformation process. In this study I use Anthony Giddens' (1991) notion of 'fateful moments' as an anchor concept. Giddens uses this concept to unpack the existential basis of identity transformations. I draw on additional concepts from cognitive, lifespan and phenomenological approaches to identity and show how these can be used conjunctively to enhance the efficiency of the 'fateful moment' concept for exploring the existential dimension of identity transformations. I demonstrate the use of this 'fateful moment' concept by employing it to examine the identity transformations undergone by three Coloured students participating in an equity development programme at the University of Cape Town (a historically White institution). I show how their location within an equity development programme allows them to engage in a particular type of reflexivity, through which they strive to create meaningful continuity in their lives. My focus was to gain insight into these students' significant relationships with others and to show how these relationships impacted on the ways in which they experienced their sense of location in the world. As a result, the issue of 'self' and the desire on the part of the research participants to locate an 'authentic self' became an important driver in the research process. What is illustrated, therefore, is how an existential focus is able to offer new perspectives on Coloured identity, especially in relation to its inclusion under the racial category of 'Black' in post-apartheid SA. This thesis adopts a qualitative case study approach. The experiences of three Coloured UCT students are presented as three individual case studies. I examine their home, school and university contexts to develop particular biographical narratives for each of them, so as to better locate the circumstances under which their 'fateful moments' occur and the impact thereof on their sense of self. An in-depth qualitative analysis of each of these students' identity transformation experiences was conducted, which revealed new ways in which to think about, use and define the 'fateful moment' concept. My data included reflective essays, semi-structured interviews and observational field notes. I used my initial analysis of the reflective essays and observation notes as a means to develop some of the more open-ended interview questions. The interviews therefore served as a means of triangulating the data. I drew on a combination of content analysis and constructivist grounded theory for analysing the data. I established that these students' continued classification as Coloured in their everyday social interactions, impacted negatively on their perceptions of self. The inclusion of Coloured in the overarching descriptive category of Black, surfaced as a particular source of contention, resentment and guilt for the Coloured students represented here. These students were all searching for a way of expressing an authentic sense of self that was unencumbered by the restrictive and limited possibilities that was bound up in traditional constructions of Coloured identity in SA. What becomes apparent is that the 'fateful moment' concept, when used in conjunction with other selected theoretical perspectives, offers a much more nuanced understanding of the identity transformation process. As such, the strategic use of 'fateful moments' as illustrated in its application to Coloured identity in this thesis, allows us to get a much better understanding of how race feels, thereby adding value to the way in which sociological theory constructs meaning in the world. The conceptual framework for unpacking identity transformation developed here, makes available a particular sociological lens for assessing and measuring the transformational impact of equity development programmes at institutions of higher education. It also allows a more critical stance to be developed towards the tendency to homogenise the Black South African student experience. Doing so allows institutions the space to reflect more deeply on how to strategise around issues of social justice, equity and transformation.

Includes bibliographical references