Happiness in search of a politics: How does positive psychology understand and enact social justice?

Year: 2016

Author: Barron, Rosie Joy

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Positive psychology is a movement that focuses on “the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing of people, groups, and institutions” (Gable & Haidt, 2005, p. 107), with the objective of recognising and enhancing human strengths (Harris & Thoresen, 2006). Over the past two decades, the field has become increasingly influential in educational policy and practice in Australia (Waters, 2011; CESE, 2015). Positive psychologists claim that, owing to its scientific basis, the movement does not offer ‘moral prescriptions’, but only a ‘description’ of the ‘good life’ (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). However, more recently, some have argued for the mobilisation of positive psychology in agendas for social change (e.g. Cohrs et al., 2013; Sherman, 2011). This paper characterises these arguments as enacting a politics of recognition (Fraser, 2001), which places positive psychology in a moral domain, and thus stakes a claim for social justice. A Foucauldian genealogical approach is adopted to explore the constituent discourses and logics of this justice claim, and interrogate whether its conditions are satisfied in an empirical instance of ‘positive education’ in an Australian school, captured in a documentary film. It is argued that this instance contains a moment of ‘misrecognition’ (Fraser, 1997), which compromises the justice claim by breaching the condition of parity of participation (Fraser, 2013). This paper challenges the politics associated with positive psychology’s approaches to social justice by reinterpreting the moment of misrecognition with reference to Biesta’s (2014) conception of an emancipatory politics of education, which is shown to be more amenable to this condition. Critiques of this sort are argued to be of significant consequence for positive psychologists seeking to challenge the orthodoxies of the field, and venture further into moral and political issues.