This thesis arose out of my professional engagement as a therapist, with people
suffering depression, and from my recognition of the significance of such people’s
workplace experience in times of significant workplace change. Worker depression is
now widely identified as a significant and growing problem by employers, by
governments and by international authorities such as the World Health Organisation. By
the end of the 20th century, it had become a significant site for policy, leading to the
collection of data and the development of management ‘tools’ at all these levels.
Actions formed by such new policy range from workplace interventions to the
establishment of government-funded bodies, such as beyondblue and the Black Dog
Institute in Australia, charged with both research and information dissemination.
An understanding of the context in which depression is increasing requires an
exploration of two 20th century phenomena: on the one hand, the changing workplace of
the advanced capitalist societies; and on the other, the ways in which depression itself
has come to be diagnosed and treated, and consequently understood, as a medical
phenomenon. There is a substantial literature on the contemporary workplace, and on
the diagnosis, treatment and management of depression. Very little is available,
however, dealing with the experience of individual workers who have been diagnosed
with depression. This is the area the thesis is concerned to explore.
In order to undertake this task, two significant methodological moves have been made,
away from the ‘realist’ orientation of much of the available literature. The
‘genealogical’ move, drawing on Foucault, is the move concerned to understand how
things are as they are and not otherwise, to ask questions such as: How has depression
come to be a more and more common diagnosis in the late 20th - early 21st centuries?
What is it about workers’ experience of the workplace that is making such diagnoses
more likely? Might it be the case that more workers are increasingly unhappy and that
unhappiness, particularly manifested somatically, through bodily ‘symptoms’, is
increasingly likely to be diagnosed and treated medically, as depression? The
‘discursive’ move, drawing on Foucault, together with Nikolas Rose and Judith Butler,
is the move that works with the understanding that selves are not simply given, existing
autonomously. Rather, persons are constituted as selves – as subjects – in and through
their active participation in the social worlds they come to inhabit. The mechanisms of
this participation are the characteristic ways of acting and speaking – the discourses – of
social institutions. Learning such discourses involves not only learning how to act
appropriately but also to become a certain kind of self.
For workers in the neoliberal workplace, this means learning to be the autonomous,
flexible worker of overt requirements while simultaneously learning to live with
increased demands for hours of work and levels of work output, together with escalating
levels of surveillance. It is not surprising that many workers experience this workplace
as increasingly stressful. Such stress, when medically diagnosed and treated as
‘depression’, offers a new kind of subject position to those affected.
The heart of the thesis is an interview study which explores the narrative stages a set of
workers diagnosed as depressed detail as they account for their progressive
‘resubjectification’ as depressed workers. Five stages, involving the narrative
positioning of different selves or subject positions, are identified from detailed readings
of the interview data: these are the narrating of psychologising, internalising,
somatising, medicalising and pharmacologising positionings. The identification and
naming of these stages draws substantially on the work of Nikolas Rose and his
identification of key 20th century selves. The identification of these as narrative or
discursive stages in the retrospective reconstruction of resubjectified selves is the
original contribution of this thesis.