The failed promise of neoliberal education: social class and the making of youth futures in Concepcion, Chile.

  • Marisol Olaya Verdugo Paiva

Student thesis: Phd


In this thesis, I investigate the promises that education implies for young people concerning how educational qualifications and personal efforts are enough in meritocratic societies to achieve upward social mobility and a good life. In doing so, I interrogate the role of formal education in the consolidation of the neoliberal consensus and its unfolding crisis. I take Chile as a case study for the social tensions produced by educational promises of meritocracy, social mobility, and social justice in the context of a highly marketised educational system that produces pervasive social inequalities and critically challenges the funding of public (state) schools. I explore how the transformation of the schooling system into a new sector of the market economy in Chile develops hand-in-hand with the remarkable expansion of the promises of education for individual and social improvement. Drawing on fieldwork conducted in the deindustrialised city of Concepcion, Chile, between February 2017 and January 2018, I analyse the everyday discourses and practices of primary and secondary school students, teachers, and families in two working-class public schools. I pay attention to how they attempt to become somebody in life and to have a future amidst profound and uncertain economic transformations. I pay particular attention to the ethnographic and theoretical question of how it is that young people are aware and even critical of the social and economic inequalities that structure their lives and schools while, at the same time, they (and their families) invest their time, effort, and hopes in educational futures. This requires an investigation into the social relationships in schools and beyond that sustain such promises of education. My ethnography then engages with anthropological debates concerning neoliberal reforms, education, youth, social class, gender, and hopes for the future, while rethinking theories of social reproduction. The ways in which these young people hope, negotiate, and work in the present towards their imagined futures speaks to scholarly work that aims to comprehend the promissory character of advanced neoliberalism. With this aim, I propose a reconsideration and articulation of two theories of social reproduction: social class theories of social reproduction in education, and feminist theories on the life-sustaining processes of reproductive labour. I argue that understandings of social mobility through education as an individualistic aspiration miss how this might actually be a collective endeavour that requires relationships of family dependence and female intergenerational solidary labour. I claim that the same market-oriented reforms that have expanded educational promises are making families the (gendered) subject of responsibility for the fulfilment of such promises, and the fate of state education itself. My overall argument is that these promises of education have been crucial for the promissory legitimacy of neoliberal capitalism and liberal democracies. Yet, ultimately, when these promises are broken, they are also central to comprehending the contemporary fracture of this legitimacy.
Date of Award1 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAnthony Simpson (Supervisor) & Gillian Evans (Supervisor)


  • gender
  • neoliberalism
  • education
  • social class
  • future
  • meritocracy
  • social mobility

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