Negotiating constructions of success and failure: women in mid-life and formations of subject, subjectivity and identity

McAvoy, Jean Marie (2009). Negotiating constructions of success and failure: women in mid-life and formations of subject, subjectivity and identity. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis explores constructions of success and failure for women in mid-life in Britain in the early 21st century. It takes a discursive approach to social psychology, understanding language as social action constituting subjects and subjectivity. Data from 20 interviews, including 4 conducted with women in pairs, supported by loosely structured questionnaires and a collection of photographs of women including celebrities and unknown women, were used to generate talk of selves and others. Key objects marked out as sites of success and failure included family; work-life balance; possession of psychological capitals of happiness, security, and decorum around material affluence; exercise of choice, evaluated as good or bad choice and implicated in responsible citizenship. Such sites were seen to be issues of interactional negotiation as analysis attended to ideological dilemmas and contested positions, to rhetorical negotiations of troubled and untroubled positions, such as dilemmas of adequacy and sufficiency for the passing subject.

Engaging with sociological narratives of individualisation and neoliberalism, this psychological study provided an empirical illustration of how these grand narratives appear in mundane talk in the context of constructions of success and failure, with implications for making sense of selves and others. Analysis showed more nuanced deployment of discursive resources than much previous literature suggests: talk was threaded with argumentation and contest.

The thesis also considered how discourse studies might take life history and personal order seriously. It presents an empirical analysis of personal order, extending this to interpersonal orders and habits of engagement accruing for subjects in ongoing relationships. It adds to debates on the nature of the psychosocial, with concepts from psychoanalytic psychosocial readings, such as imagination and projection, re-worked empirically as discursive productions embedded in shared resources for making sense of the world, deployments also rooted in sedimented personal history.

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