The Study of the Learner Identity in Neoliberal Times

by Garth Stahl

Class, gender, and ethnicity, while contested areas, all play a role in the constitution of identity as the self is not fixed. Identities are not distinct from discourses but instead produced by and through them. As collections of meaning imbued with symbolic connotations, discourses define objects set parameters on what we can think, feel, and be (MacLure 2003), where we may ‘make ourselves but not in conditions of our own choosing’ (Archer et al., 2010). Neoliberalism, as an extension of human capital theory which suggests that individuals and society derive economic benefits from investments in people (Sweetland, 1996, p. 341), was a step toward eliminating ‘class as a central economic concept’ (Bowles & Gintis, 1975, p. 74). Current iterations of neoliberalism function as a political, economic, and ideological system that gives considerable credence to the market as the best, most efficient platform for distributing public resources. This macro-level structural framework attributes greater consideration of individual duty than government responsibility (Gillborn & Youdell, 2000; Reay, David, & Ball, 2005; Zipin, Sellar, Brennan, & Gale, 2013).

Archer and Francis (2007) write that in the neoliberal reading ‘there are no foundational aspects of selfhood such as “race” or gender that preclude an individual from taking up the opportunities available to them – failure to do so simply reflects an individual lack of enterprise’ (p. 19). Within a neoliberal discourse it is argued that the self is malleable, constantly made and re-made as people must become ‘entrepreneurs of the self.’ Neoliberal ideology privileges the reflexive modernisation thesis where historic conventions of femininity and masculinity can arguably be reinscribed in new ways (cf. Adkins 2000; Kenway and Kelly, 2000) and where historic and gender-based inequalities exist simultaneously with evidence of changed expectations (Adkins, 2000). In our neoliberal times, Davies and Bansel (2007) have claim:

The so-called ‘passive’ citizen of the welfare state becomes the autonomous ‘active‘ citizen with rights, duties, obligations, and expectations—the citizen as active entrepreneur of the self; the citizen as morally superior. This is not simply a reactivation of liberal values of self-reliance, autonomy and independence as the necessary conditions for self-respect, self-esteem, self-worth, and self-advancement but rather an emphasis on enterprise and the capitalization of existence itself through calculated acts and investments combined with the shrugging off of collective responsibility for the vulnerable and marginalized. (p. 252)

The neo-liberal rhetoric, where context is ignored for the sake of the entrepreneurial self, has the ability to create conditions of heightened fixity especially if one lacks certain capitals. Within neoliberalism, risk is always pervasive where today young people often seek to manage the riskiness of transitions from school to work through a range of strategies including cultivating certain identities. Saturated in labels of success/failure and active/stagnant, education today is infused with the neoliberal prerogative which increasingly fixes identities within rhetoric is risk.

The neoliberal education experience

The neoliberal policy which permeates classroom discourses becomes a powerful mediating force in the identity construction of all students (Phoenix, 2004). Neoliberalism, with its promotion of ‘efficiency’, ‘productivity’, ‘targets’, and ‘choice’, enables competition and market-driven results without strategic consideration to the gross economic inequalities it creates, particularly for marginalised communities (Ball, 2009; 2012;). Working-class students both present learner identities and have learner identities imposed upon them within a highly pressurized and stratified educational environment.

As pedagogic processes become influenced by neoliberal logic, there are overt and subtle consequences for gender identities. The presence of a competitive ‘performance-oriented culture generates anxiety, especially among boys whose gender identity needs to be based on achieving power, status, and superiority’ (Arnot, 2004, p. 35). In terms of gender, we must consider the sublimation of certain elements of the self as particularly potent for working-class boys who construct their masculinity around traditional models of ‘breadwinners’ in economies where their employment ‘choices’ are increasingly limited. In contrast, femininity seems to be less impacted by neoliberal logics as young women have been documented as ideal, flexible, neoliberal subjects (McRobbie, 2008; Walkerdine 2003).

In considering the identity work of students, the concept of ‘positioning’ raises the question of possible selves which are contradictory both to other selves and to internal selves (Davies, 1989, p. 229). The production of the self, our subjectivity, involves learning inclusive and exclusive practices and positioning oneself in relation to these practices to establish a sense of belonging (Davies & Harre, 1990). Further, it is argued that human beings ‘are characterized both by continuous personal identity and by discontinuous personal diversity’, where selfhood is the product of discursive practices and these processes lead to a multiplicity of selves (Davies & Harre, 1990, p. 46). As a result, individuals are active agents who position themselves (‘reflexive positioning’) and are positioned by others through social interaction (‘interactive positioning’) as gendered, classed, and ethnic individuals (Davies & Harre, 1990). Therefore, identity work involves grappling with both subjective constraints and the constraints of accepted discursive practices (Renold, 2004), often within powerful neoliberal discourses (Francis, 2000).

When considering an analysis of learner identities with engagement/disaffection, the emotional power of education is in the creation of the self. In schooling, the self is increasingly sublimated through neo-liberal agendas, where ‘it is the duty of the individual to be sufficiently flexible to maximize the opportunities available to her/him, and any failure resides in the individual rather than in the socio-economic structures’ (Francis, 2006, p. 191). When considering identity as negotiated through school contexts, it is essential to consider the ‘web’ of numerous and complex factors that contribute to disaffection toward school (Stevenson & Ellsworth, 1991). Therefore school failure/success is bound up with the process of students doing ‘identity work’, where young people’s engagement with schooling ‘depends in part on the sense they make of themselves, their community, and their future and in part on “the adaptive strategies” they use to accept, modify, or resist the institutional identities made available’ (Smyth, 2006, p. 290). Within or beyond the classroom, identity is positioned through conceptions of the collective and the individual and in a constant form of negotiation as it is constructively articulated, debated, and problematised.

Works Cited:

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About the author: Garth Stahl (@GarthStahl) is a Lecturer in Literacy and Sociology at University of South Australia. He is a theorist of sociology of education. His research interests lie on the nexus of neoliberalism and socio-cultural studies of education, identity, equity/inequality and social change. Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of learner identities, gender and youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference, and educational reform. Of particular interest to him is exploring counternarratives to neoliberalism around ‘value’ and ‘respectability’ for working-class youth. His book, entitled Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration: Educating White Working-class Boys is now available from Routledge.


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