Posted at 11.29.2018
Keywords: understanding how to labour paul willis, paul willis marxist
Much has been written in the social sciences with regard to the role the training system plays within our society. Early on investigations in to the sociology of education tended to be written within the functionalist traditions with public thinkers such as Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons composing their theories within this framework. This perspective often viewed the education system as necessary for sustaining efficient monetary growth and for creating a meritocratic modern culture - a society where in fact the most gifted and able individuals can grow through the public hierarchy according to their own capacity. However, lately, social researchers have found the Marxist point of view more useful in understanding the connection between education, world and the current economic climate. This perspective in general sees society to be a site of conflict between different groupings; with education being another battleground where this conflict is acted out. The primary function of education then in this framework is to keep to replicate the labour push. But moreover that the training system favours and can benefit one communal group over another - namely the prominent and ruling school within the subordinate. This is perhaps a crude oversimplification of the Marxist circumstance but it's important to have some understanding of this perspective in regards to to education as this is the academic context in which Understanding how to Labour (1977) was undertaken. It is in this particular perspective that a lot of this essay will focus, as indeed it is the theoretical construction that Paul Willis is writing from. The purpose of this paper is to critically engage with the designs and perspectives shown by Willis in his groundbreaking study on the sociology of education.
Before we go on to discuss Understanding how to Labour it is perhaps important to begin with some knowledge of what came up before; in order to emphasize how Willis' results broke new earth and pressed the controversy around education frontward. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (1976) were writing just before Willis and their strategy was virtually identical for the reason that the thrust of the thesis was concerned with how education prepares pupils for their future jobs within the labour market. However, their theories were very much formulated around the notion of 'direct duplication' and for that reason they have revealed themselves to the usual criticisms of economical determinism. Willis offers a far more sophisticated description. Although he acknowledges the living of turmoil within education he does not quite show Bowles and Gintis' view that there is a straight forward relationship between education and the current economic climate. For Willis, colleges are not nearly as successful in churning out a docile workforce as Bowels and Gintis suggest. There is always the opportunity for resistance. The 'lads' of Understanding how to Labour have managed to see through the ideological 'smoke screen' of the institution and reject it, while at the same time creating their own 'counter-school culture'. The training system then is not only a niche site for cultural duplication but also a niche site of production; for the reason that it has quite unintentionally created factors (in this case the counter-school culture) which are not particularly beneficial for the duplication of capitalism.
The school employed by Willis can be found in a working class housing house in an industrial town in the Midlands. Willis concentrated his research on several 12 working-class boys whom he adopted through their last year of college and into the first couple of months at the job. Willis soon discovered that these boys, who he referred to as the 'lads', had a distinct attitude towards their teachers and the school. Willis detected that they had developed their own unique culture which was diametrically opposed to the worthiness system of the institution. This counter-school culture of the 'lads' blatantly turned down the power of the school and ascribed no value to educational work and observed no use in the gaining of skills.
Now it's important to understand what Willis means by the counter-school culture. The acknowledgement associated with an emergent counter-culture within the institution is not alone new (see Hargreaves, D. 1967) but what's significant about just how Willis uses this idea is the fact that he examines the counter-culture within its wider social framework. He quite brilliantly observes that the counter-school culture is "not accidental, nor its style quite unbiased, nor its cultural skills unique or special" which it must be recognized within the larger construction of working-class culture, particularly with regards to shopfloor culture. For Willis, the counter-school culture is abundant with symbols and signals of resistance against the formal zone of the school. The 'lads' have, in a symbolic function of sabotage, inverted the worth that the institution espouses and created their own value system which is at defiant opposition to the institution. This opposition is mainly countenanced through style, Willis notes:
It [the counter-school culture] is lived out in countless small ways which are special to the institution institution, instantly recognised by the educators, and an almost ritualistic area of the daily cloth of life for the kids. (Willis, P. 1977:12)
The counter-school culture is a very masculine area where overt sexist and racist views are quite frequently indicated. The 'lads' regularly search out weakness in others and are skilful at undermining the expert of the instructors without it boiling over into outright confrontation. The conformist students will be the 'lads' main target after the instructors. The 'lads' feel superior to them because they, unlike the 'ear'oles', never have surrendered their freedom to the school - they remain in a position to have a 'laff'.
It is this capability of being able to have a 'laff' that is clearly a defining characteristic of being a 'lad'. In addition, it marks them out from the 'ear'oles': "we can make sure they are laff, they can not make us laff". For Willis the 'laff' "is a multi-faceted put into action of incredible importance in the counter-school culture" which is a vital weapon in the 'lads' arsenal in their continuing have difficulty of the informal (counter-school) over the formal (school). This being successful of symbolic and physical space from the institution is illustrated further in the manner that the 'lads' seem to create their own timetable. Through 'wagging off' from classes and always looking to get away with doing minimal amount of work, the 'lads' have become very skilled in exploiting and seizing control of the formal area of the school. Cigarette smoking and openly drinking have also become valuable symbols of rebellion as it further grades the 'lads' right out of the school organization and instead shows them as owned by the larger men working-class world. Indeed Willis pulls our focus on the similarities between the counter-school culture and shopfloor culture. He creates:
The really central point about the working-class culture of the shopfloor is the fact that, despite severe conditions and exterior path, people do look for interpretation and impose frameworks. They exercise their abilities and seek fun in activity, even where most manipulated by other. They certainly, paradoxically, thread through the lifeless experience of work a living culture which is definately not a simple reflex of beat. This is the same fundamental taking your hands on an alienating situation as you locates in counter-school culture and its own attempt to weave a tapestry through the dried up institutional text message. (Willis, P. cited in Blackledge & Hunt 1985:184)
When the 'lads' reach the end of their final term and the chance of work awaits them they continue to be indifferent to the sort of manual unskilled labour they will go on to do. They understand that most manual work in industry is actually the same; hardly any skill is necessary and will be offering no satisfaction. The very best the 'lads' can expect is an apprenticeship or clerical work, however "such jobs seem to offer little but take a lot". But the 'lads' might not be able to articulate it, in some respects they are doing have some understanding of the workings of capitalism. Willis telephone calls these insights 'penetrations', where in fact the 'lads' have been able to look out of the ideological fog created by the capitalist system. A good example of this is present in the way that the counter-school culture places no value in the attainment of skills through certificates. The conformist college student may be convinced by education's meritocratic faade and the promise of upward mobility however the 'lads' know better, they know that "a few can make itthe course can't ever follow". They understand that individual success will not ultimately change the positioning of the working-class, and that only through the collective action of the group will this be achieved. This is articulated by the 'lads' in the way that they place an important emphasis on loyalty within the group, as Willis observes "the substance of being 'one of the lads' lies with the group". The group always comes first and the rejection of qualifications is a rejection of the individualistic nature of the institution, which creates competition between class mates with the proliferation of specific awards through examinations. As Willis puts it: "it is unwise for working-class kids to place their rely upon diplomas and certificates. These exact things act not to thrust people up - such as the official account - but to keep there those who find themselves already at the very top" (Willis, 1977:128).
Although they may have some understanding of capitalism, Willis contends that although some 'penetrations' have been made the 'lads' still have not fully seen through all of capitalism's ideological justifications. They don't possess a whole overview of how capitalism works to exploit them. In some respects the 'lads' are unwitting conspirators in their own exploitation for the reason that they are far too willing to enter into the world of manual work; and in doing this they type in an exploitative system that will eventually entrap them. Their attitude towards women and ethnic minorities is also destructive. They serve and then separate the working-class rendering it that much better to control. For Willis then, "it is quite wrong to picture working-class culture or consciousness optimistically as the vanguard in the fantastic march towards rationality and socialism".
The 'lads' of Understanding how to Labour may have realised their own alienation but in the end it is their own decisions that have caught them in these exploitative jobs. Willis has attempted to inform you that somewhat than being a site for the duplication of one dominant ideology; the school can be a place where contradictory ideologies get together in conflict. With this research Willis shows us that it's the 'lads' level of resistance to school, with the forming of a counter-school culture, that has ready them for his or her future roles within the labour pressure. Their indifference to university and their behavior in school has paradoxically prepared the 'lads' for the manual unskilled work which they will go on to do. So in this sense education does reproduce the labour drive required by capitalism. Nonetheless it is done in a roundabout way as well as perhaps unintentionally - & most importantly of most; not with out a degree of amount of resistance and have difficulty.
The counter-school culture of the 'lads', as we've seen, is not beneficial to the duplication of capitalism, but at the same time it is not particularly harmful. Willis shows that duplication is not a simple process with external economic buildings manipulating submissive themes. He's very critical of these structuarlist accounts. As he says: "Social real estate agents aren't passive bearers of ideology, but dynamic appropriators who reproduce existing buildings only through struggle, contestation and a partial penetration of these structures".
Paul Willis' ethnographic analysis has been hailed a landmark analysis by educators and public theorist equally (Giddens 1984, McRobbie 1978). Indeed any precise discussion on the sociology of education, subcultures or even deviancy within world would appear redundant if there is no mention of Learning to Labour. One article writer has remarked that Willis "has provided the model which most subsequent social studies exploration within education has been based". However, this does not mean that he is exempt from criticism.
David Blackledge and Barry Hunt (1985) take issue with a number Willis' conclusions. Firstly they find some of his research unconvincing - can the 'lads' really be representative of the working-class generally? All the pupils at the institution are from working-class young families including the 'ear'oles' (who are plainly in almost all); surely they can be more representative of working-class principles and behaviour. Blackledge and Hunt dispute that the values of the conformist students, using their emphasis on academic work, are just as much working-class in nature as those of the counter-culture. To aid this claim they indicate a similar study by David Hargreaves (1967) in which he found a significant delinquent sub-culture existing in a second school. Like the university of Willis' analysis, the pupils where predominantly working-class (their fathers were in manual occupations) and he witnessed that the institution was split into two sub-cultures: the 'delinquescent' and the 'academics'. However, unlike Willis, Hargreaves does indeed note that there may be a blurring of the two categories with some students within the educational group displaying delinquent behaviour from time to time. But moreover Hargreaves keeps that the behaviour of the academics group are constant with the values of a huge section of the working-class. So in this light Blackledge and Hunt stay unconvinced that the values of the 'lads' will be the same as the working-class as a whole. They also have trouble excepting the 'simple dichotomy' which reaches the heart of this study - that there is just two main teams, the 'lads' and the 'ear'oles'. For the coffee lover this does not do justice to the variety of the real world for the reason that "[Willis] would have us believe in a one-dimensional world where there are those who want an education, and the ones who enjoy life. It never seems to occur to him these pursuits can be merged, and that the individual who takes an interest in his / her education is not, thereby, dreary, obsequious and a sociable conformist".
Despite these criticisms Understanding how to Labour has continued to be an influential and far discussed text. In fact despite being written from a cultural studies perspective its affect is particularly strong within sociology. It really is within Marxism that its relevance has been most far reaching however. It includes encouraged Marxist authors to re-evaluate their method of the knowledge of education; paying specific attention to the several factors at play rather than providing simplistic explanations of the role of education within contemporary society. Willis is very critical of structuarlist accounts which have a trend to see subjects as "passive bearers of ideology" who mindlessly reproduce the status-quo. Willis has given sociable agents the ability to reject the dominant ideological discourses and resist in the reproduction of existing exploitative structures. Learning to Labour has sometimes been described as a pessimistic publication but I can't help but bring a confident interpretation to the written text. It is true that ultimately it's the 'lads' own choices that cause them to some of the most exploitative careers that capitalism has to offer. But by simply having that choice it does allow for the likelihood of change. As Willis himself says "there is always the possibility of earning practices not unavoidable by understanding them". This, I'd argue, is the key thread which operates through Learning to Labour; by understanding the reasons for the forming of a counter-school culture can we lead to positive changes which will be good for everyone and not merely the 'lads'.
Perhaps Willis is guilty of using too many Marxist terms uncritically. Just how he employs the group of social class within Understanding how to Labour is maybe a little obsolete now. It isn't a stable, predetermined build - it is more fluid than Willis allows for with an interlinking between race and gender etc. Similarly at times he is probably guilty of slipping back into traditional Marxist territory with the thought of the state being subservient to capitalist class - is the fact still (if it ever before was) the reality? Within a globalised world ability is more dispersed rather than focused in the hands of 1 ruling bloc; but instead there are perhaps different organised communities competing for electric power. Economic and informational 'moves' can easily transcend national limitations - it is argued (Giddens 1994) that globalisation has acted to decentralise power preventing anybody group from wielding too much monetary and ideological control. However, it is to the credit of Paul Willis that his analysis has continued to be relevant and important twenty-eight years after it was first published. It really is still considered a model exemplory case of ethnographic research and has prompted a great many other ethnographic studies whose emphasis was on style, amount of resistance and social symbols (See McRobbie 1978, Hebdige 1979). Indeed, Anthony Giddens' (1984) structuration theory - which views subjects as educated and active realtors - owes a significant arrears to the insights made by Willis in Understanding how to Labour.