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On the cusp of context and profession : an interpretive phenomenological analysis of identity negotiation and compromise amongst South African psychologists employed in student counselling.

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Student counselling services are a recognizable feature of higher education both in South Africa and abroad. The service is globally acknowledged for the role it plays in supporting holistic student development as well as the academic retention and throughput objectives of higher education institutions. However, a review of the relevant literature reveals a lack of enquiry into the identity experiences of student counsellors working in higher education. The present study sought to address this lacuna by conducting a qualitative investigation into the identity experiences of South African psychologists working in the context of a broad and diverse student counselling practice. The study was concerned with how and why these professionals come to perceive their identities in a particular way, as well as the influences impacting on this identity experience. A phenomenological-constructivist framework was adopted and Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) selected as the most appropriate methodology with which to explore this specific, localised experience. Convenience sampling was employed to access participants. A total of fourteen psychologists from the clinical, counselling and educational registration categories, participated in the study. Salient themes emerging from the research findings include the notion of the student counsellor as “wearing many hats”; the student counsellor as developmental specialist; the student counsellor as institutional “stepchild”; student counselling as a ‘battleground’ between context and profession, as well as the notion of student counselling as a territorial compromise. Research findings reveal a precarious and ambiguous position located in-between the context of higher education and psychology profession. This unique position consequently engenders a great deal of ambivalence and conflict for the student counsellor, whose primary allegiance is to the psychology profession. Participants’ experiences indicate that they value their identity as psychologists and seek to maintain a connection to the profession whilst working in student counselling. However, the study also highlights powerful systemic influences unique to higher education and the South African social context, which compel student counsellors to re-evaluate and revise. The research findings further suggest that student counsellors’ negotiate an amicable compromise by variously assuming ‘Preferred Self’ and ‘Compliant Self’ identity positions in the context of work activities, power dynamics and relationships with significant professional, community and institutional others. On a broader level, the identity negotiation and reconstruction processes undergone by student counsellors serves as a metaphorical illustration of how a once-divided South African population may be reconciled. Research findings have important transformative implications for higher education and the profession of psychology in South Africa, with student counsellors’ work experiences suggesting a revision of current Eurocentric psychological models of training and practice in the South African context. This study specifically calls for a review of current registration categories and scopes of practice in South Africa, particularly its relevance to the South African student population and broader society. Strong parallels are drawn between student counselling, with its flexible, contextually-relevant approach and the systemically-driven principles and values of community psychology; student counselling therefore appears to bridge the gap between mainstream psychology’s narrow, Eurocentric approach and community psychology’s systemic understanding of South African realities. The “step-child” status of the student counsellor draws attention to a disjuncture between government legislation designed to promote institutional transformation in post-apartheid South Africa, and the actual policies and practices implemented by higher education institutions themselves. This study highlights, in particular, a perceived conflict between higher education’s narrow, traditional academic orientation and student counselling’s broader cognizance of the complex socio-historical needs and challenges of a diverse South African student population. The “step-child” status of the student counsellor further highlights areas for potential institutional reform in South Africa, including institutional classification of student counsellors, career development opportunities, remuneration and benefits for professional staff in the support sector.


Ph. D. (Psychology) University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College 2015.


Student counselors -- Professional ethics -- South Africa., Psychology -- Practice -- South Africa., Counseling in higher education -- South Africa., College student development programs -- South Africa., Theses -- Psychology.