Dynamics of identity and space in higher education: an institutional ethnographic case study of a transforming university

Doctoral Thesis


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Higher education globally is characterised by persistent inequality, which is particularly acute in South Africa. Due to the enduring legacy of colonialism and apartheid, students from certain categories of identity are marginalised, whereas others are privileged. An essential element of these dynamics of power is space. Intersections of identity such as race, class, ability and gender are axes of power in differential experiences of space. Despite this, space is often neglected in research into higher education transformation in South Africa. Through an institutional ethnography, this study examines the dynamics of space and identity at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The study involved a photovoice project, roving interviews and surveys with students; the collection of multimodal data in which space is documented; campus observations; and semi-structured interviews with staff and policymakers. The first analysis chapter involves a multimodal discourse analysis of the identity discourses produced for the Jameson Plaza by the students in the study, specifically as a place of belonging and connection and a place of alienation and discomfort. The second analysis chapter examines the institutional power geometries at play at the UCT across three specific dimensions: 1) spatial memory and material familiarity; 2) material campus symbolism; and 3) spatialised social practices and relations. The findings illustrate how space and power across these dimensions engender experiences of spatialised belonging or spatialised alienation on campus. The affective potentialities of campus, in turn, influence the types of identities students construct for themselves across campus space. Emerging from these considerations, the final analysis chapter explores what student do across, within and through campus spaces. The chapter focuses on everyday use of space by students at the individual level, and specifically spatial coping strategies students use to negotiate and manage their daily lives on campus.