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Globalizations
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Making Sense of Neoliberal Subjectivity: A


Discourse Analysis of Media Language on Selfdevelopment
a

Salman Trken , Hilde Eileen Nafstad , Rolv Mikkel Blakar & Katrina Roen
a

University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway


Published online: 16 Apr 2015.

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To cite this article: Salman Trken, Hilde Eileen Nafstad, Rolv Mikkel Blakar & Katrina Roen (2015):
Making Sense of Neoliberal Subjectivity: A Discourse Analysis of Media Language on Self-development,
Globalizations, DOI: 10.1080/14747731.2015.1033247
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Globalizations, 2015
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2015.1033247

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Making Sense of Neoliberal Subjectivity: A Discourse Analysis


of Media Language on Self-development

RKEN, HILDE EILEEN NAFSTAD,


SALMAN TU
ROLV MIKKEL BLAKAR & KATRINA ROEN
University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway

A BSTRACT The influence of neoliberalism on culture and subjectivity is well documented. This
paper contributes to understanding of how neoliberal ideology enters into the production of
subjectivity. While subject formation takes place in multiple and contradictory ways and
across multiple social sites, we focus on the increasingly popular media discourse of selfdevelopment, and examine it as a technology of neoliberal subjectification. Drawing on
Foucauldian understandings, we analyze data from two different newspapers from two
different national contexts, both of which are heavily influenced by neoliberalism. Based on
our analysis, we detail four interrelated discoursesrationality, autonomy and responsibility,
entrepreneurship, and positivity and self-confidencedemonstrating how these discourses
constitute the neoliberal subject in ways consonant with neoliberal governmentality. There is
no observable resistance to subject positions offered within these discourses. Selfdevelopment discourse instills stronger individualism in society, while constraining collective
identity, and thus provides social control and contributes to preserving status quo of
neoliberal societies.
Keywords: neoliberalism, self-development, neoliberal subject, discourse analysis, media
Introduction
There have been extensive investigations into the relationship among globalized neoliberalism,
culture, and subjectivity (e.g. Rose, 1999; Walkerdine, 2003). Harvey (2005, p. 3) suggests that,
as a hegemonic discourse, neoliberalism is increasingly taken for granted as common sense and
has pervasive effects on ways of thought. Research shows that neoliberalism has become

Correspondence Address: Salman Turken, Department of Psychology, University of Oslo, Postboks 1094, Oslo 0317,
Norway. Email: salman.turken@psykologi.uio.no; Hilde Eileen Nafstad, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. Email:
h.e.nafstad@psykologi.uio.no; Rolv Mikkel Blakar, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. Email: r.m.blakar@psykologi.
uio.no; Katrina Roen, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. Email: katrina.roen@psykologi.uio.no
# 2015 Taylor & Francis

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2 S. Turken et al.
increasingly influential in such diverse spheres of life as subjectivity development and branding
of the self (Gill, 2008; Hochschild & Garrett, 2011; OFlynn & Petersen, 2007; Petersen &
OFlynn, 2007; Rose, 1999; Walkerdine, 2003, 2006), construction of career identities
(Archer, 2008; Yurchak, 2003), job training programs (Ayers & Carlone, 2007), peoples understandings of unemployment (Kelan, 2008), becoming users of welfare benefits (Morgan & Gonzales, 2008), empowerment projects (Bragg, 2007), exclusion of queer citizens (Peterson, 2011),
and crime control (Monahan, 2009).
Neoliberalism is defined and analyzed in multiple ways: as ideology, economic-political
force, discourse, historical rationality, and/or governance. According to Harvey (2005, p. 2),
neoliberalism is an ideology or a theory of political economy that has become a hegemonic discourse that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private
property rights, free markets, and free trade. For Foucault (2008) and others (e.g. Dean, 2010;
Lemke, 2001; Rose, 1999; Weidner, 2009), neoliberalism is a form of governance, not to be construed as an ideology but rather as a way of doing things, as a principle and method for the
rationalization of the exercise of government. The divergent understandings of the concept
may overlap with and/or complement each other. This paper draws on Foucaults (2008) understanding of neoliberal governmentality. Neoliberal governmentality as conduct of conduct
refers to the ways in which neoliberalism works by installing in society a concept of human
subject as autonomous, individualized, self-directing decision-making agent who becomes an
entrepreneur of one self; a human capital. The individual self in contemporary societies is continually produced through the discourses and practices of neoliberalism (Rose, 1999). It is therefore important to explore discourses in society around self-developmenta central characteristic
of subjectivity offered by neoliberalism. The present study explicates subject positions made
available within self-development discourse and discusses them in relation to neoliberalism.
The main tendency of the research field has been to approach neoliberalism as overarching
hegemonic global discourse or ideology (e.g. Bourdieu, 1998; Harvey, 2005). Scholars are
now wary of this hegemonic conceptualization and are looking for counter-hegemonic discourses (Morgan & Gonzales, 2008; Sullivan, Spicer, & Bohm, 2011), but also for local variations of this discourse in diverse parts of the globe (e.g. Freeman, 2007; Gershon, 2011).
Looking for local variations of neoliberal ideology, we examine discourse on self-development
in print-media in Scandinavian Norway and in Middle-Eastern Turkey and discuss what purposes the subjectivity offered within such neoliberal discourse may serve.
From Solidarity and Welfare Ideology to Neoliberalism and Neoliberal Subjectivity
Following World War II, many European countries initiated strong welfare programs (Rose,
1999), reflecting a historical rationality for the state which, by providing basic services such
as food, education, and health care, would foster well-being (Foucault, 2008). Such welfare
ideology was based on endorsement of collective responsibility for social reproduction and
applied social solidarity to address inequalities (Ferge, 1997). While both Norway and Turkey
aspired to become welfare states, they have had different developmental patterns. Norway
has, during this period, become one of the strongest welfare states worldwide (Esping-Andersen,
1990). Turkey, on the other hand, has struggled to provide basic services to people, experiencing
social unrest, and several military coups in the second half of last century. Statism reflecting
welfare understanding and the manifestation of the collective will has survived as a core principle of the Turkish state, though (Spencer, 1958).

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Making Sense of Neoliberal Subjectivity

Since the 1970s, however, neoliberalism has not only changed the economics and politics of
society with free market fundamentalism as a consequence, it has also influenced societys
value systems (Harvey, 2005), resulting in a convergence of economic and social policies
(Schmidt & Hersh, 2006). Bourdieu (1998) argued that the neoliberal project was a programme
of the methodical destruction of collectives (emphasis in original, pp. 95 96). Neoliberal policies around the globe have replaced the ethics of social solidarity with a tendency to limit
concern only to the self and ones significant others, leading to a more strong individualism
(Layton, 2010; Nafstad, 2002). What neoliberalism in particular encourages is thus individualization of the social (Ferge, 1997).
Neoliberalism attempts to redefine being human, offering a new subjecthood. Neoliberalism
not only reproduces the individualistic subject of Early Modernism and the Enlightenment but
also refashions the individual subject: The neoliberal subject is increasingly construed as a free,
autonomous, individualized, self-regulating actor understood as a source of capital; as human
capital (Bondi, 2005; Foucault, 2008; Gershon, 2011; Kiersey, 2009; Lemke, 2001; Rose,
1999; Walkerdine, 2003; Weidner, 2009). Furthermore, this neoliberal subject is not merely pursuing self-interest but becomes an entrepreneur of herself. Rationally, within this conceptualization, the neoliberal subject is expected to act to increase her value. As Weidner (2009, p. 406)
puts it, perhaps the most important way in which neoliberalism shapes subjectivity is in
suggesting that each individual is the bearer of a human capital, who must seek to maximise
her own self-value . . . . Accordingly, neoliberalism demands a constant reworking of the self
(Walkerdine, 2006) through lifelong learning; a continual self-improvement to fit the
demands of the advanced liberal society, often in terms of a flexible and unstable market
(Olssen, 2006). Replacing traditional coercive disciplinary mechanisms, neoliberalism thus constitutes the neoliberal subject as autonomous yet governable via continual self-monitoring and
self-disciplining (Dean, 2010; Foucault, 2008; Rose, 1999).
Reducing state services and social security systems, neoliberalism calls for more personal
responsibility and self-care (Binkley, 2011; Lemke, 2001). Strengthening individualization of
society (Bauman, 2001; Beck, 1992), neoliberalism works through establishing conditions
under which individuals understand themselves as free, self-interested, and autonomous; as
self-entrepreneurs (Binkley, 2011; Foucault, 2008; Weidner, 2009). Accordingly, autonomization and responsibilization become the disciplinary strategies of neoliberalism (Rose, 1999),
providing social control, and reproducing status quo: While neoliberal developments have
been a destructive force to the status quo of the welfare regimes based on social solidarity,
many current discourses and conduct of conduct under neoliberalism reproduce the status
quo to fit the demands of the present stage of capitalism. Thus, imbalance of power and
wealth in favor of capital over labor, as well as material and symbolic inequalities, remain
largely unquestioned within neoliberal discourses.
Largely responsible for her own successes and failures, the individuals well-being and development becomes the sole responsibility of the neoliberal entrepreneurial subject. Discursively
detached from the structural constraints of society and isolated from contextual and historical
conditions, the neoliberal subject then has no one else to blame but herself if she fails to
achieve goals or make ends meet (Layton, 2010). This makes self-development a cornerstone
of the individuals life and well-being. The individual is morally obliged to engage in the
self-realization project and develop a better version of herself to manage life (Rose, 1999). Neoliberalism therefore strongly promotes self-development as a route to a successful life. This
burden on the self is most notably reflected in the increasing dominance of the discourse on
self-development in neoliberal societies.

4 S. Turken et al.
To better understand how the neoliberal subject is constituted within particular discourses in
different societies, the current paper presents a qualitative analysis of the concept of self-development as reflected in media discourse in Norway and Turkey, as neoliberalism has become
increasingly influential both in Norway and Turkey during the last three decades.

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Research Context: Norway and Turkey


Norway, still a strong welfare state with an extensive public system rooted in strong social democratic values, started, albeit slowly, implementing neoliberal policies in the 1980s and cut back on
high public expenditure. Neoliberalization in Norway led not only to economic restructuring via
deregulation and privatization, but also to a value shift in society, from the collective to the individual, observable in the Norwegian media (Nafstad, Blakar, Carlquist, Phelps, & Rand-Hendriksen, 2007). Neoliberalization in Turkey starting in the late 1970s with economic restructuring and
incorporation into the global economy was accelerated, some argue even completed, in the last
decade (Emrence, 2008). The neoliberal shift brought forth a dynamic struggle between collectivist
values of solidarity and belongingness on one hand, and individualist values of freedom, independence, personal achievements, goals, and entitlements on the other (Aygun & Imamoglu, 2002).
While globalizing neoliberalism is being increasingly visible in both societies, given historical
and cultural differences, we assume that we may observe different ways in which the discourse
of self-development is shaped and related to neoliberalism in the two societies.
Method
This study presents an analysis of how the concept of self-development is constructed in printmedia in Norway and Turkey as media discourse may reveal ways in which neoliberal thinking
is disseminated in society. The search word self-development was chosen as we (Turken, Blakar,
Bruer, & Nafstad, under preparation) have elsewhere discovered that this term has been increasingly used in both Norwegian and Turkish media over time. The analysis is based on material
from the Norwegian daily Aftenposten (published in 2011 and 2012) and the Turkish daily Hurriyet (published in 2011). Although newspapers have editorial and ideological preferences, these
two broadsheet newspapers are typical mainstream papers within each of their national contexts. Both have been part of mass media in their respective national contexts for a long time
(Aftenposten since 1860 in Norway, Hurriyet since 1948 in Turkey). In Norway with a population of 5 million, Aftenposten has a circulation rate of about 250,000 per day, whereas Hurriyet
has a circulation rate of 500,000 in Turkey with a population of 75 million.
To be culturally sensitive, we have chosen as concrete search terms the expression that is most
commonly used in each culture to refer to the concept of self-development: selvutvikling (selfdevelopment) in the Norwegian Aftenposten and kisisel gelisim (personal development) in the
Turkish Hurriyet. In the year 2011, kisisel gelisim appeared in 78 articles in Hurriyet. For selvutvikling, there were 64 entries in Aftenposten in 2011, but only 14 of these were newspaper
articles, 50 were advertisements for different self-development courses. To increase the
number of articles from Aftenposten, we therefore included articles from 2012 as well. For
2012, there were in total 59 entries in Aftenposten: 7 were newspaper articles and 52 were advertisements. In total, 21 articles were analyzed from Aftenposten. The number of advertisements
for self-development courses is in itself interesting and may be seen as an indicator of the
process through which self-development is constructed as a commodity. Articles analyzed
here appear non-systematically in different sections of both newspapers, from news sections

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Making Sense of Neoliberal Subjectivity

to culture and debate pages, and they vary considerably in length from one short news paragraph
to several pages of in-depth analysis. Articles in both newspapers were written by journalists and
different columnists and gave voice to many different individuals such as life coaches, experts
(e.g. psychologists), and course participants, with no systematic variation.
We draw on social constructionist epistemology and Foucauldian understandings suggesting
that the self is produced by, and constituted in relation to, discourse (Willig, 2008). Discourse
analysis can thus be utilized to provide knowledge of how particular understandings of the
self and the world are disseminated in society. Discourse analysis also offers the possibility
of questioning and critically challenging those understandings. Acknowledging that subject formation takes place in multiple and contradictory ways across multiple social sites, we make use
of Foucauldian discourse analysis, as informed by Willig (2008; also Hook, 2001), to investigate
how self-development is constructed in media discourse and explicate subject positions offered
by this discourse.
Mass media is often conceived as a vehicle for culture, providing for the readers ways of
seeing and understanding the world and therefore, arguably, shaping the way they participate
in society (e.g. Fairclough, 2001; Spitulnik, 1996). However, what is made available in media
discourse cannot be directly translated to everyday talk and experience (Fairclough, 2001;
Gill, 2008; Spitulnik, 1996). Yet, Spitulnik (1996, p. 162) argues that media discourse can function as both reservoirs and reference points for the circulation of words, phrases, and discourse
styles in popular culture, thus contributing to meaning construction in society. In this social circulation of media discourse, readers play an active part in the interpretation and appropriation of
messages, the negotiation of meanings and the re-use of words and phrases in new contexts.
However, it is beyond the scope of the present paper to track empirically the dissemination of
subject positions offered in media discourse to the general public and their everyday talk and
experience. Having said that, both newspapers provide us with many different voices: columnists, authors of self-development books, life coaches, psychologists, politicians, and lay
people who have participated in various self-development courses. We investigate the discourses
that are drawn upon and subject positions that are made available in these articles, and discuss
whether or not these discourses work in ways consonant with neoliberal governmentality.
Analysis
The term self-development is deployed in the two newspapers in contexts in which the individual
is faced with mundane problems of life in modern societies: from finding a partner to tackling
divorce, from avoiding unemployment to raising ones own consciousness and achieving a
happy life. Different voices in the newspapers construct self-development primarily as a way
of tackling problems of life. Two constructions of self-development appear in the data: selfdevelopment as a prerequisite for success and self-development as becoming a better
version of oneself. These two constructions, moreover, produced four interrelated frameworks
of how the individual in liberal societies may be constituted. These four frameworks are discourses of (1) rationality, (2) autonomy and responsibility, (3) entrepreneurship, and (4) positivity and self-confidence.
Rationality
In the newspaper articles, much discursive work is done to depict the individual as essentially a
rational being. Rationality is highly valued: knowing what one wants and thus rationally doing

6 S. Turken et al.
the right things would lead the individual to a positive future. The individual is thus constructed as an agent with an inborn potential for rationality:

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. . . highly complex organisms such as us experience the consequences of their choices. Thanks to
our choices, we can reach indefinite number of future scenarios. One of the possibilities we meet
will take us to the best scenario. What is required is only to make right decisions, work and do
the right thing. (Life coach, Hurriyet, 7 January 2011)

Drawing upon a biological discourse, humans as highly complex organisms naturalizes human
rationality. The discourse of rationality deployed in the data thus constitutes the individual as an
inherently rational, calculating subject. This subject evaluates thoroughly her past, learns from
the past, increases awareness, and makes good choices. For her, what it is going to take to
succeed . . . is how much of your time goes to thinking, reflection, self-examination and selfdevelopment . . . (Psychologist, Aftenposten, 19 September 2011). This resonates with Foucaults understanding of how neoliberalism instills a particular kind of subject in modern
society (see also Kiersey, 2009). However, as various life coaches state, not everyone
makes enough use of their potential. Attending various self-development courses will help
anyone increase their awareness and consciousness so that the individual can make the
best choice possible for herself.
Through the discursive work done, especially by life coaches and authors of self-development
books cited in the two newspapers, a range of rather inadequate subjectivities are posited. These
include subjects who are sleeping, subjects who are unaware or lacking consciousness, and
subjects who are illiterate, among others. The rationality discourse employed is a normative
one as individuals are encouraged to attend self-development courses to form themselves as conscious, rational subjects, to realize their inborn potential. For instance, Hurriyet reports that a
large social responsibility project in Turkey with the aim to lift the poor and disadvantaged
youth out of poverty, offers personal development courses to youth, 65,000 participants so
far, to increase their consciousness and to increase financial literacy. Young people interviewed in this article reportedly experience the course as successful and thus accept the subjectivity offered to them. One participant (woman, 19 years) testifies: Thanks to the project, I have
learnt how to achieve a better and more comfortable life. Another participant (man, 25 years),
says No matter what income group you belong to, with a healthy budget it is not impossible to
reach all the needs you dream of. Thus, rational, calculating subjecthood seems to be taken up
by youth who, in making sense of their future possibilities, are encouraged to think that it is all
about making the right choices. For such a subject, any life-problem from finding a partner
(mentioned in the Norwegian Aftenposten) to getting out of poverty (mentioned in the Turkish
Hurriyet) is constructed as manageable within this discourse.
Overall, what is being performed by different voices in the two newspapers is enabling the
position of the rational calculating subject who is autonomous in her choices and thus lives
the consequences of her choices. Implicit in this understanding is a presumption of neoliberal
subjectivity which encourages the belief that individuals are solely responsible for their own
well-being (Rose, 1999).

Autonomy and Responsibility


The construction of the subject as rational necessitates a responsible subject who needs selfcontrol in order to take charge of and to be able to live life. Different voices in our data

Making Sense of Neoliberal Subjectivity

discursively construct the individual as an autonomous subject who is encouraged to take


action, take personal responsibility, and work hard to achieve a happy life.
There is a heavy moral tone in much of the data; different voices prescribe a certain kind of
subjectivity by drawing upon a personal responsibility discourse. This individualist discourse
holds that no matter how difficult life is or has been, no matter where one has to start (e.g. as
a poor person, as a heroin addict), the individual is encouraged to step up, take charge of
own life and never give up in order to succeed. As one life coach, who herself has been a
heroin addict and experienced a personal transformation toward a successful life, puts it:
The fucking childhood is over. Yes it really is over. Now you can take responsibility yourself. (Aftenposten, 20 April 2011)

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Another life coach puts it this way:


Everyone lives the life he/she chooses . . . Never accept that you are beaten . . . blaming others does
not change a thing. Never accept the role of the victim, no one can beat you so long as you do not
accept you are beaten. (Hurriyet, 7 January 2011)

Both quotations, normatively, fabricate a certain kind of subject, a personally responsible


subject. Rhetorical work in the first excerpt aforementioned, as the speaker draws upon
notions of childhood as deficient, prescribes growing-up for individuals to become independent, self-reliant agents who can take responsibility and take care of themselves. An unfavored position is posited for those who are dependent on others. Such dependence would
apparently make the individual less than a moral being. The second quotation even more
strongly depicts the individual as living the life of her choice and thus as being the sole
person responsible for how she lives. According to this construction of the subject, if one
fails, there is no one to blame but oneself. The discourse employed here bears parallels to
Baumans (2001) understanding of the individualized society in which the individual is
the one to blame for ones own misery, seeking causes of ones own defeats nowhere
except in ones own indolence and sloth, and looking for no remedies others than trying
harder and harder still (p. 106). Thus, the personal responsibility discourse exposed in our
data resonates well with the widespread discourse of individualism promoted by neoliberalism (Rose, 1999; Walkerdine, 2003).
Our analysis demonstrates how media discourse operates discursively in the construction of
the autonomous responsible subject who is encouraged to save herself. While the welfare
state is systematically reduced in neoliberal societies, leading to less social solidarity, there is
at the same time a growing discourse of personal responsibility (Gershon, 2011; Harvey,
2005; Layton, 2010), which is increasingly deployed in various settings. For instance, Kelan
(2008) reports that employees in information technology, understanding themselves as selfdirecting agents, felt guilty and found themselves responsible for getting laid off: Many
seemed to justify and rationalize the changes brought by neoliberal capitalism by seeing them
as an inevitable part of their working world (p. 1192).
zdemir (2012) discusses how the current neoSpecifically for the Turkish context, Yucesan-O
liberal influence has affected social policy, downgrading a welfare state model which allegedly
creates a dependency culture and replacing it with the superior morality of individual responsibility and self-reliance. At the same time, the gap between haves and have-nots has been
increasing in Turkey (Emrence, 2008). The neoliberal development has also led to precarious
zdemir, 2012). The discourse
work conditions for many, creating constant anxiety (Yucesan-O
of personal responsibility may thus be used to justify growing inequalities.

8 S. Turken et al.
Placing the responsibility for well-being on the shoulders of individuals, neoliberalism instills
a rational calculating self-reliant subject who needs to work on herself to achieve success and
well-being. Work on the self implies an entrepreneurial subject who must continually develop
herself to accommodate the demands of neoliberal society (Foucault, 2008; Rose, 1999).

Entrepreneurship

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Self-development is to continually widen and better our behavior- and value-repertoire. It comes
with the fact that we train and practise alternative ways of dealing with the tasks of life. Self-development demands a lot of practice . . . (Psychologist, Aftenposten, 29 April 2011)

As the aforementioned quotation illustrates, the self-developing subject has to be inventive and
continually work on herself to increase her ability to meet the demands of contemporary society.
Both newspapers make available to their readers a personal transformation narrative, illustrated
by success stories of individuals who have changed from being inadequate in one way or another
(disadvantaged, poor, fat, etc.) to being accomplished and successful. Self-development is constructed as providing the individual with the possibility to work on oneself and save oneself
through personal transformation. Success in all spheres of life is posited as possible once the
individual starts working on herself and is willing to change. The message for the individual, no
matter how accomplished she might be to begin with, is clear: become a better version of
yourself.
Through the discursive work of various voices in the two newspapers, particularly by socalled self-development experts, a range of failing subjectivities are posited. Individuals are
constructed, for example, as struggling, underprivileged, unaware, sleeping, childish
and thus not capable of realizing their potentials. These constructions close down the possibility
that those individuals may feel satisfied with life. Individuals are continually encouraged to
wake up, work hard, and fight to change themselves in order to achieve a better and
happy life. Framing self-development as a solution for these subjects opens up all kind of possibilities to work on the self. What is performed here by different voices is illustrative of the neoliberal discourse that enables the entrepreneurial subject. A participant of such a selfdevelopment course tells the newspaper Hurriyet (18 May 2011):
. . . I have realized many things we thought were right were wrong, and I started the change with
myself . . . (emphasis added)

The emphasized part of the quotation is indicative of the subjectivity offered by neoliberalism.
The individual is constituted and constitutes herself as someone to be worked on (Gershon, 2011;
Rose, 1999). Constructions of work on the self in the data demand two types of change from the
individual: a more abstract change at a psychological level and a more concrete change at the
level of skills. First, in both newspapers, individuals are encouraged by life coaches to
change the way one thinks, create ones own truths and belief systems, and thus change
the way one makes sense of the world. As one life coach formulates it: I used to think when
people insulted me, I had to feel humiliated. But I dont have to. I can choose how the words
will affect me. Isnt it great! (Aftenposten, 20 April 2011). Thus, the entrepreneurial subject
is expected to individualize anything to render it manageable. What is here prescribed for the
individual is to develop herself to a more robust subject with mental strength and increased
self-confidence. The individuals psyche is framed as a trainable and transformable product providing the individual with the necessary tools to manage life. This understanding reflects a

Making Sense of Neoliberal Subjectivity

reductionist thinking in which the social influence mechanisms are ignored and the individual is
made solely responsible for managing the problems of life.
Secondly, self-development discourse demands, through the construction of work on the
self, that the subject has to continually reinvent herself and develop skills which increase her
value and make her a more competent member of society. The data show that a variety of
skills are demanded. To illustrate, a self-development course offered by a research institution
in Turkey aims to:

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. . . educate managers and leaders who are initiative-taking . . . who make fewer mistakes and
produce more efficiency, who are persuasive, and cogent, who perform successful presentations
and sales, who can manage the stress in todays demanding work life, who have good relations to
media . . . Our goal is to grow people with leadership characteristics who have the armour to fit in
an all time competitive work life with a dazzling speed of our time . . . (Hurriyet, 12 November
2011)

As shown here, modern working life is characterized as rather demanding for the individual.
What is offered as a solution is that the individual develop herself as a particular kind of
subject who is equipped with what it takes to meet all these demands. The social, political, historical, and economic conditions of society are taken for granted. The construction of self-development as contributing to individual competence may appear empowering, but it puts all the
attention onto the entrepreneurial subject who must endlessly develop herself to accommodate
the changing demands and tasks of working life. Self-development discourse posits this particular subjecthood as possible and available to all: We all have in fact the potential to do and
achieve whatever we want (Life coach, Hurriyet, 3 April 2011). The discourse of self-development in the two newspapers thus functions as strongly individualizing and psychologizing,
closing down any possibility of system-level critique.
Foucaults (2008) understanding of neoliberal influence on the self remains important in
making sense of how self-development discourse constitutes modern subjectivities. As also
observable in our data, neoliberalism demands a constant remaking of the self (Gershon,
2011; Walkerdine, 2003). To illustrate, Ayers and Carlone (2007, p. 474) showed when studying
neoliberal influence in a local job training program in the USA that the entrepreneurial subject
has to be a lifelong learner to accommodate ever-changing employer demands by continuously
pursuing educational credentials. Furthermore, as our data indicate, the entrepreneurial subject
is promised a happy future full of possibilities if she is willing to better herself. There is a
discourse of boundaryless careers in the two newspapers analyzed. As Roper, Ganesh, and
Inkson (2010, p. 663) argue, the entrepreneurial subject of neoliberalism is led to perceiving
a boundaryless future regardless of structural constraints, which strengthens the idea that individuals must take greater responsibility for reinventing themselves to be successful in contemporary society. OFlynn and Petersen (2007, p. 469) argue that this discourse is currently so
strong that, when internalized, it might lead the individual to self-manage and engage in
useful activities all the time mak[ing] her into a more desirable/marketable product. The entrepreneurial subject thus sees herself as the portfolio self (Walkerdine, 2006) who continually
has to increase her value and make herself marketable and employable according to the constantly changing demands of society. Accepting neoliberal conditions as inevitable, the portfolio self will blame no one else but herself if she fails to stay employed (Kelan, 2008).
Self-development as education, a supplement to the formal education system is indeed a
strong construction in our Turkish data. Hurriyet reported in several articles in 2011 that
there were civil society organizations offering self-development courses to the disadvantaged

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in society (poor, uneducated, orphans, youth, etc.). In these articles, self-development is constructed as the solution to lift them out of their disadvantaged position, thus producing entrepreneurial subjects who are promised a better future if they take responsibility for developing
themselves into portfolio workers. Walkerdine (2003, 2006) argues that neoliberalism constitutes its subject in the image of the middle class. Our analysis of self-development discourse similarly illustrates how the individual, as Foucault (2008) points out, is constituted as human
capital whose value can seemingly be increased through work on the self, allowing social mobility upwards in a marketized society. Consistent with our analysis is the work of Celik (2008)
who studied how young people cope with unemployment in Turkey. In the last few years, the
rate of unemployment among youth (aged 15 24) has been under 20% in Turkey (Statistics
Turkey, 2012), while 39% of college graduates (aged 20 24) are seeking work (Celik, 2008).
Such statistics conflict with self-development discourse that makes entrepreneurial subjecthood
available for youth, as we observe in the Turkish Hurriyet, who are promised a better future
thorough becoming entrepreneurial subjects. The unemployed youth who have a college education in Turkey are left to seek further education to render themselves more marketable/
employable.
As argued, workings of neoliberalism produce a constantly failing subject who has to understand their position in essentially personal and psychological terms (Walkerdine, 2003, p. 241).
As the entrepreneurial subject constantly needs to improve, a satisfied subjecthood is constrained. Any failure in life has to be explained in terms of ones own shortcomings. For
instance, Petersen and OFlynn (2007) showed how neoliberal entrepreneurial subjecthood,
when taken up by students to assess their life, led to a strong sense of guilt and self-dissatisfaction. One participant in their study, who prioritized time to relax rather than spending all her time
to develop herself, came to see herself as someone who desires and lives inappropriately and
unproductively, as less than a moral being (p. 209). Similarly, Aftenposten (4 March 2012)
reports that number of retired people (over the age 60) enrolled at Norwegian universities has
been steadily increasing (733 retirees in 2011). Seeking further higher education beyond
working life is seen as pursuit of personal development, which may be taken to illustrate
that satisfaction is constrained for the neoliberal subject who feels the need to continually
develop oneself. Hence, within neoliberal discourse, continual self-development is expected
not only to help individuals become marketable (Walkerdine, 2003) but also to contribute positively to the psychological make-up of the individual, to their self-realization (Rose, 1999).
Positivity: Self-esteem and Self-confidence
The newspaper articles analyzed here construct the individual as a self-directing subject, implying that she will need to find within herself the strength to render life manageable, rather than
expecting support and help from others. She needs better self-insight, better self-esteem,
higher self-confidence, inner peace, more balls!, mental strength, and positivity. The
message in both newspapers is clear: Everything begins with you. The individual is thus
encouraged, on one hand, to have a positive attitude toward life in general and think positively,
see the glass half full rather than half empty, and on the other hand, to have a positive attitude
to oneself and to indulge in self-love, praise oneself, and treasure oneself. Increasing selfconfidence and self-esteem emerged in our data as a strong aspect of the discourse of
self-development. The talk about self-confidence is saturated with the idea that increased selfconfidence and self-esteem will not only help the individual accept oneself but will also
help her manage negative thoughts and cope with stress of life. A life coach explains:

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Sometimes, life sucks! . . . I can help you train your self-esteem so that you stand better equipped
when the bad days come. Self-esteem functions as protection against the silly [bad stuff] . . .
What I can do is to cheer people . . . to save themselves. (Aftenposten, 20 April 2011)

Self-esteem is here framed as a protective toola common understanding throughout the data in
both Hurriyet and Aftenposten. Within this discourse, higher self-esteem, increased self-confidence is achieved through self-love and accepting oneself: how the neoliberal subject feels
becomes more important than what she does (Rose, 1999). What self-development discourse in
our analysis offers is a happy, satisfied subjecthood. Seeing things in a positive light and feeling
good about oneself are posited as the solution to problems of life. Be positive!, a self-development expert demands, it is such an important thing that can change your life (Hurriyet, 9
August 2011). A psychologist summarizes the message of self-development discourse: positive
thoughts can get you where you want (Aftenposten, 20 April 2011). The positivity discourse we
observe in the data seems to be permeated by the Psy-complex infiltrating the common sense of
society and contributing to fabrication of the neoliberal subject (Binkley, 2011). Psychological
or psychotherapeutic language as used in self-development discourse proposes a self-help
culture in which the therapeutic imperative appears as much a matter of healing ourselves as
it is of being cured (Rose, 1999, p. 218). Paradoxically, in Turkey, this understanding also
seems to permeate solidarity and social responsibility projects initiated by civil society organizations and political parties that offer personal development courses to empower disadvantaged
groups in society. In particular, unemployed youth constitute a special target group. For instance,
the project manager of GenceArti, a personal development project for poor and unemployed
youth, run by a political party, explains the aim of the project:
We want to inject self-confidence into the youth who have not been able to find jobs. We know a lot
of them have been feeling helpless after searching for jobs for years and have given up. (Hurriyet, 3
March 2011)

Again we see that social and economic problems, unemployment and poverty, are individualized. What is offered to the unemployed youth, constructed as helpless, is a highly individualized solution. Injecting self-confidence and teaching them personal development skills puts
all the attention on the psychological make-up of the individual, constraining alternative ways of
addressing these societal problems. This reminds us of the process to which Beck (1992) draws
our attention: seeking individual solutions to systemic problems becomes the expected conduct
in individualized societies. Accordingly, the responsibility for social and societal problems such
as getting out of poverty and finding a job is exclusively left to the neoliberal subject.
Concluding remarks
Neoliberalism posits that social problems are best alleviated through free market processes and
through the activity of responsible individuals, rendering collective solutions unnecessary
(Bourdieu, 1998, Harvey, 2005). Rose (1999) argues that autonomisation and responsibilisation
may function as disciplinary strategies of neoliberalism which encourages action on the self by
the self as a means of providing individual well-being. The rhetoric of self-development, as
revealed in our data, underpins such neoliberal discourse, indicating the degree to which individualization of the social is promoted in parts of Norwegian and Turkish media. Our analysis
indicates that the discourse of self-development may thus work as a technology of neoliberalism.
The four frameworks that emerged in our analysis resonate well with Foucaults (2008) theory of
governmentality which posits that citizens in neoliberal societies are constituted as autonomous,

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S. Turken et al.

rational, calculating, self-directing agents who understand themselves as entrepreneurs continually acting to increase their value; their human capital.
Although media is a powerful tool to disseminate meaning and thereby influence subjectivity
in society, people do negotiate their own understandings and may even oppose medias positioning of subjecthood (Fairclough, 2001; Gill, 2008). The present study does not investigate how
media discourse on self-development is negotiated by the readers. This could be a fruitful
approach for future studies. The aim of our study has been to explicate the subject positions
that are made available within the media discourse of self-development and discuss how this discourse relates to neoliberalism. As we see it, it can be fruitful to place the media discourse on
self-development, revealed in this study, within a global self-help discourse that has become
increasingly influential in the last few decades (Binkley, 2011; Rose, 1999). Indeed, promotion
of self-help has been intended as a device to save public expenditure and encourage individuals
to take greater responsibility for their own well-being in neoliberal societies (Cheshire, 2006).
Self-help discourse has been increasingly infiltrating everyday thinking and contributing to
instilling the idea of the entrepreneurial subject in both the Norwegian (Madsen, 2014) and
Turkish (Can, 2013) societies. Regarding the Norwegian context, for instance, a study by
Turken, Carlquist, and Allen (in press) revealed similar discourses to the ones we found in Aftenposten in a Norwegian debt TV show: individual debtors are positioned as sinners who can save
themselves only through self-development. Turken and colleagues argue that neoliberal discourses in such TV shows contribute to the individualization of the social, and discipline participant debtors as well as the public/viewers. Stretching the argument of self-help to modernity,
self-development and self-mastery become characteristics of the modern self (McGee, 2005),
a thought in line with Giddens (1991, p. 75) claim that we are, not what we are, but what
we make of ourselves.
Constructions of self-development as becoming a better version of oneself and a prerequisite
for success, as exposed in our analysis, imply a transformable or malleable subject. This is also
the idea on which the global self-help discourse is based (Binkley, 2011). Both constructions
normatively state what society prescribes for its members: to become a self-directing successful
subject who needs to continually improve herself. Individuals are cast into a binary opposition
between inadequate subjecthood and successful subjecthood. The moral aspects of the
current discourse of self-development make it clear to the individual what is expected of her.
The failing subject is constituted in such a way that she feels the need to improve herself
toward becoming a successful subject. If the rational autonomous individual takes responsibility
to refashion herself with enough self-confidence, there would be no hindrance on her way to
success. The individual is constituted as the master of her life (Bauman, 2001) who is thus
obliged to work on the self to accomplish life (Rose, 1999).
Underlying both the negatively and positively weighted subject positions is the fundamental
assumption of strong individualism: none of the positions offered allows for collectivity, citizenship, or group identity. Everything is focused on the individuals personal (ir)responsibility,
(un)awareness, and (un)willingness to change. These are powerful ways to frame the future
selves of, for instance, young people, setting up a constraining binary (positive self/negative
self), and impressing upon the reader her personal responsibility to make her dreams come
true or be consigned to endless struggle and disadvantage. Strengthening individualism, neoliberalism provides social control, as Foucault (2008) argued and preserves parts of status quo,
legitimating and reproducing social structural inequalities in a neoliberal system. In this
sense, discourses of self-development may reinforce neoliberal values and frames of understanding. Morgan and Gonzales (2008) argue, for instance, that even the daily workings of the welfare

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13

state in the USA paradoxically subject the beneficiaries of welfare services to neoliberal discipline, promoting individual success narratives and individual behavioral modifications.
Our analysis reveals a certain contradiction within media discourse on self-development in
each of the national contexts: While the social and structural nature of life conditions (e.g. unemployment) is acknowledged, the burden of tackling these problems is placed on the shoulders of
the individual. Equally important, we found no resistance to the subject positions offered within
the discourses explored in our empirical data. In the Turkish case, moreover, the collectivist
values of solidarity and social responsibility seem to be reproduced, within the discourse of
self-development, to make way for projects that aim to empower and equip the individual
with more resources rather than seeking collective solutions to the systemic problems that
produce disadvantaged subjectivities. Such empowerment privileges individual autonomy and
thus works in ways consonant with neoliberal subjectivity as Bondi (2005) concludes.
Harvey (2005) suggests that today neoliberalism has become the modus vivendi. Many scholars (e.g. Bourdieu, 1998; Foucault, 2008; Rose, 1999) agree with him. Neoliberal hegemony is
persistent despite its many visible failures and limitations (Scholl & Freyberg-Inan, 2013). Much
research from different fields of study provides insights into the ways in which subjectivity is
constructed by discourses which may work to reinforce neoliberalism (e.g. Archer, 2008;
Ayers & Carlone, 2007; Bragg, 2007; Kelan, 2008; Nafstad et al., 2007; OFlynn & Petersen,
2007; Walkerdine, 2003, 2006): the dominant individualistic subject of contemporary society
is reproduced and refashioned as an entrepreneur of herself. The specific discourses of selfdevelopment in the two distinct media contexts, as our analysis reveals, offer an individualistic
subjectivity which fits well with neoliberal governmentality and mostly limits communality and
collective identity.
As argued by Bourdieu (1998) and Harvey (2005), neoliberalism has been successful in constraining system critique. The discourses of self-development revealed in our analysis, to conclude, may be argued to contribute to reproduction of status quo to fit the demands of the
current neoliberal stage of capitalism. Yet, hegemony does not require unanimity, and neoliberalism needs to be produced and reproduced continually. Although there might not be a coherent
or consistent alternative political vision available for the majority of poor and working-class
people (Bourdieu, 1998), there are today examples of counter-hegemonic struggle in global
uncivil society (Sullivan et al., 2011). Thus, we need to pay more attention to counter-hegemonic perspectives which reveal ideological and political possibilities that are closed down when
neoliberal ideology is theorized as seamless and complete (Morgan & Gonzales, 2008, p. 233).
Disclosure Statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
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Salman Turken is currently a Ph.D. student at the Department of Psychology, University of


Oslo, Norway. As a cultural, community, and critical psychologist, he is interested in investigations of discourse and subjectivity, globalization, ideology, and especially neoliberalism.
Hilde Eileen Nafstad is Professor of Social and Developmental Psychology at the University of
Oslo, Norway. Together with Professor Blakar, she is leading the Oslo Ideology Project where
they investigate ideological changes as reflected in public language. In particular, they have been
analyzing the influence of neoliberalism across the past decades, undertaking cross-cultural
studies in several countries.
Rolv Mikkel Blakar is Professor of Social Psychology, University of Oslo, Norway. See Nafstads biography for a presentation of his projects.
Katrina Roens research spans critical psychology and gender studies, with a focus on youth,
discourse, identities, and embodiment. She has been working within Cultural and Community
Psychology at the University of Oslo for the past 7 years. Previous work by Katrina Roen has
been published in journals such as Psychology & Sexuality, Body & Society, and Social
Science & Medicine. She has coauthored a book, Troubled subjects, troubling norms, concerning
youth subjectivities and self-harm, due to be published in 2016 by Palgrave.