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Reflections on life stories by post-graduate students : intersectionality and agency.

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This study explored the reflections of post graduate students who completed a semester course called the Personal is the Professional, aimed at facilitating a reflexive and critical thinking. By working with their lived experiences students explored the intricacies of the society they live in and how this influences how they view the world and their professional lives. These include the intersection of gender, race, class and culture as dominant social discourses. In the telling and witnessing of life stories, the study traced how the students’ engagement with personal discourses created shifts in understanding how context shapes how they experience themselves and others. Through narratives, the study showed how students engage in and at times unintentionally contribute to dominant social discourses in their everyday lives. The results suggest that with increased reflexivity, there was a greater sense of personal and collective agency. This was evidenced by students’ ability to recognise and deconstruct their sense of self by looking deeply into the discourses as well as how they have impacted other students in the cohort. This study used qualitative methodology and was theoretically based on Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) Ecological perspective model and Bandura’s social cognitive theory (1989), which allowed the participants to locate themselves in different levels and structures that have impacted their lives. Data was collected through participant observation during class presentations and interactions; written tasks completed by the students throughout the module; and unstructured interviews to explore how students’ understanding of self and others had shifted over a five-month period. The sharing of personal stories in a safe space created the possibility to discover similarities and differences across different cultures, race groups and gender and resulted in a spirit of unity and collective agency. It also created a platform for deeper reflexivity. The written assignments provided a language and framework to create awareness and voice to articulate their experience resulting in a sense of freedom and confidence leading to a perception of greater agency in their personal and professional lives. The findings were discussed in relation to the existing literature, which was aligned to both local and international contexts. Implications of the study are discussed together with recommendations for further study in support of developing critical reflexivity and agency.


Master of Social Science in Health Promotion. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 2016.