Original Research

Conceptualising the professional identity of industrial or organisational psychologists within the South African context

Llewellyn E. van Zyl, Elzabe Nel, Marius W. Stander, Sebastiaan Rothmann (Sr)
SA Journal of Industrial Psychology | Vol 42, No 1 | a1379 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v42i1.1379 | © 2016 Llewellyn E. van Zyl, Elzabe Nel, Marius W. Stander, Sebastiaan Rothmann (Sr) | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 19 May 2016 | Published: 02 December 2016

About the author(s)

Llewellyn E. van Zyl, Optentia Research Focus Area, Department of Industrial Psychology, North-West University, South Africa; Department of Human Resource Management, University of Twente, The Netherlands
Elzabe Nel, Department of Industrial Psychology, University of South Africa, South Africa
Marius W. Stander, Optentia Research Focus Area, Department of Industrial Psychology, North-West University, South Africa
Sebastiaan Rothmann (Sr), Department of Industrial Psychology, North-West University, Optentia Research Focus Area, South Africa


Orientation: Lack in congruence amongst industrial and organisational psychologists (IOPs) as to the conceptualisation of its profession poses a significant risk as to the relevance, longevity and professional identity of the profession within the South African context.

Research purpose: This study aimed to explore the professional identity of IOPs within the South African context. Specifically, the aim of this study was four-fold: (1) to develop a contemporary definition for IOP, (2) to investigate IOP roles, (3) to determine how the profession should be labelled and (4) to differentiate IOP from human resource management (HRM) from IOPs’ perspectives within South Africa.

Motivation for the study: IOPs do not enjoy the same benefits in stature or status as other professions such as medicine, finances and engineering in the world of work. IOPs need to justify its relevance within organisational contexts as a globally shared understanding of ‘what it is’, ‘what it does’ and ‘what makes it different from other professions’, which is non-existent. In order to enhance its perceived relevance, clarity as to IOPs professional identity is needed.

Research design, approach and method: A post-positivistic qualitative content analytic and descriptive research design was employed in this study. Data from practising industrial and organisational psychology (IOP) within South Africa (N = 151) were gathered through an electronic web-based survey and were analysed through thematic content analysis.

Main findings: The results indicate that IOP in South Africa seeks to optimise the potential of individuals, groups, organisations and the community by implementing scientific processes to support both individual and organisational wellness and sustainability. ‘Work Psychology’ was considered a more fitting professional designation or label than industrial and/or organisational psychology. The industrial psychologist’s major roles related to the well-being and development of employees. A clear distinction between a more dynamic, pro-active approach of IOP compared to a more transactional approach of HRM was also evident. IOP within South Africa appears to have a community development function.

Practical/managerial implications: The longevity, relevance and impact of IOP as a profession requires alignment amongst practitioners as to shared common professional identity.

Contribution/value-add: This study provides a contemporary understanding of the roles, functions, labels and unique value proposition of industrial and organisational psychology within the South African context.


I-O psychology; professional identity; professional roles; human resource management


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