Neoliberal Wellbeing: Exploring the Culture of Psychological Meritocracy in Australian Schooling and Education

Keast, Sam ORCID: 0000-0002-8370-7444 (2021) Neoliberal Wellbeing: Exploring the Culture of Psychological Meritocracy in Australian Schooling and Education. PhD thesis, Victoria University.


The recent rise in wellbeing discourses in education can be situated more broadly in the rise generally of psychological and therapeutic interventions into schools in Australia. It also comes against the background of rising public concern about youth mental health. The heightened public concern, coupled with government, economic and departmental imperatives has led to a feverish rollout of wellbeing interventions, teaching strategies, documents, and research to tackle the problem of wellbeing. Within an educational context increasingly under pressure from neoliberalism, government funded secondary schooling also has often been held to democratic ideals about its purpose to produce certain kinds of young people. Wellbeing discourses have emerged in education policy, reports, and research and indicative of these discourses is a heightened focus on personal responsibility, individualised monitoring, and regulation of emotions and behaviours. Often these neoliberal forms of wellbeing subjectivity are sustained by mainstream psychological epistemologies and discourse. This project investigated the historical contingency and conditions of possibility that have given rise to neoliberal wellbeing subjectivities. Informed by historical thinking (Teo, 2015) and a critical community psychology focus (Fox et al., 2009; Kagan et al., 2011; Sloan, 2000) the project investigated the ways in which psychology as an epistemic institution co-constructs neoliberal wellbeing subjectivities that move beyond disciplinary boundaries and into policy and the Australian social imaginary to create certain human kinds (Hacking, 1986). Specifically, through post-structural critical policy analysis (Bacchi, 2009) of the key ministerial education declarations in Australia from 1989 to 2019, it is shown that certain kinds of young people are problematised as being risky citizens. It is demonstrated that wellbeing, as a problem representation in education policy, operates to individualise and responsibilise risk and to bifurcate educational success and failure according to a psychological meritocracy. Furthermore, it is demonstrated that neoliberal wellbeing obscures factors such as social class which have long been indicators of educational marginalisation and inequity. For critical community psychology to be invested in a wellbeing which is responsive to notions of fairness, inclusion and agency, it is proposed that epistemic justice needs to also be included in research and praxis. An example of enacting critical praxis is detailed through an evaluation of a student engagement program for young people from the African-Australian diaspora. Centring the young people as epistemic agents was seen to be an important way to counter the majoritarian stories (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002) of them being at-risk. Their stories offer important insights that disrupt the homogenising, acultural, class-blind neoliberal subjectivities which currently dominate and constrain the space of possibility for young people.

Additional Information

This thesis includes 3 articles for which access is restricted due to copyright (Chapter 5, 6, 7). Details of access to these papers has been inserted in the thesis where possible, replacing the articles themselves.

Item type Thesis (PhD thesis)
Subjects Historical > FOR Classification > 1701 Psychology
Current > Division/Research > Institute for Health and Sport
Keywords thesis by publication; wellbeing; Australia; schooling; education; psychology; young people
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