Navigating the neoliberal discursive environment: an inquiry into the experiences of employees in the voluntary and community sector

Choudary, Natasha (2020) Navigating the neoliberal discursive environment: an inquiry into the experiences of employees in the voluntary and community sector. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


This doctoral thesis explores how neoliberalism as a mode of governance impacts on the experiences of front-line employees in the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS). The political and economic context, largely underpinned by a neoliberal ideology, has led over the past 30 years to changes in the funding environment for the VCS. There is a substantial body of research on the implications of these changes at organisational and management levels which has noted negative effects, such as financial instability, increased demands for the implementation of performance management frameworks and the drive for organisations to adopt commercial values and strategies to survive in an increasingly competitive market. However, there has been less focus on how these changes affect the experiences of those operating at the sharp-end: the front-line employees.

This multi-site instrumental case study examines the discursive environment of two medium-sized VCS organisations, through the lens of Foucault’s notion of neoliberal governmentality. Adopting an ethnographic-informed approach, interviews and observation methods were used to collect data from managers and front-line employees to explore how neoliberal governmentality operates through technologies and everyday practices to create the neoliberal subject. The selected theoretical framework provides scope to go beyond the existing literature, which primarily highlights the material impacts of changes for front-line employees, by providing a detailed analysis of how macro-level changes are consolidated within organisations and impact on the micro-level experiences of front-line employees. This is achieved by illuminating not only the material impacts but also the discursive and subjectification effects for front-line employees. The theory is operationalised through the use of Bacchi’s (2009) ‘What’s the Problem Represented to be?’ (WPR) approach, by examining how contextual challenges are problematised within the organisations and identifying the solutions adopted at management level to govern employees in a way which accords with neoliberal values.

The findings suggest that the management’s proposed solutions to challenges facing the organisations, such as financial uncertainty and the demands to professionalise, were largely underpinned by the political rationality of neoliberalism. Problems caused by external issues were constituted as being remediable by changes in employee behaviour and attitude, through developing a sense of resilience when faced with an unstable context. The neoliberal discursive environment elicits a new type of employee: one who is agile and responsible for structural constraints. The new subject is refashioned through a range of technologies which have material, discursive and subjectification effects for front-line employees. The research highlights how forms of technology serve as disciplinary mechanisms, creating division in the workforce and leading to the stigmatisation of some employees and the decollectivisation of the workforce.

Choudary-Natasha_Prof-D-in-Researching-Work_09.11.20 _Final.pdf - Published Version

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