Learning to labour is an ethnographic study of 12 working class white boys who attended one boys only secondary school which Willis called ‘Hammertown Boys’ in the Midlands in the early 1970s. Willis used a mixture of overt participant observation and group interviews to describe and understand the counter-school culture which the boys formed while at school.
Willis began his fieldwork in 1972 and followed the boys for six months in their second to last year of secondary school. He also interviewed them periodically up until 1976, by which time the boys had transitioned from school to work, most of them going into manual factory jobs.
He applied a neo-marxist framework to explain why these working class lads went on to get working class jobs.
Wills recognised as legitimate the boys’ own interpretation of school as an institution which was irrelevant to their lives as 15-16 year olds because they didn’t need qualifications to move into the manual work they perceived as superior to academic work.
However, while rational in one sense, the counter school culture they formed which resisted the power of the school in the end led to what he called their “self-damnation: their own choices to spend their time ‘having a laff’ by confronting school authority resulted in them achieving no qualifications and having no choice other than to move into working class jobs, which meant class inequality was reproduced despite their class consciousness.
The Counter School Culture
In the first half of the book Willis mostly describes the Counter School Culture the Lads formed.
Willis used participant observation and group interviews to study the lads over several years, and he was thus able to produce a rich or thick description of their ‘antics’, their banter and their attitudes towards school and future wok, providing an in-depth account of their own interpretation of their lives within the counter school culture they formed.
The counter school culture was one of rebellion against school rules and focused on disrupting school life, with status being gained within the group for ‘bad behaviour’ such as not doing homework, disrupting lessons, playing pranks on teachers, and harassing conformist students.
The lads strongly identified against the school and the fact that it valued academic work and non-manual, or mental labour more highly than the manual labour they saw as real work and more appropriate for real men.
The lads identified against conformist students who they derided as feminine or gay and the lads were also homophobic.
The lads smoked and had sex with girls, and being known to be sexually active was important in their culture which was patriarchal and sexist and excluded girls. The counter-school culture was also racist, as non-whites were excluded too and the lads made common usage of racial language against ethnic minorities.
While the lads did truant they mostly preferred being at school because it was such a laff and the disruptive behaviours which confronted authority built a sense of shared identity and solidarity. In fact the lads could have left school at 15 but they chose to stay on for an extra year!
By the end of the study in the autumn of 1976 most of the lads had gone into the manual jobs they wanted and perceived as empowering, including bricklaying, plumbing and machine work, and only one could not find a job.
How working class kids get working class jobs
In the second half the book Willis develops a theoretical analysis of how working class kids go on to get working class jobs, and the role the counter school culture plays in this process.
Wills accepted the lads’ own interpretation of their counter-school culture as a form of resistance to school authority, but it also led to what he called their self-damnation, as it ultimately laid the foundation for their acceptance of their subordinate role in capitalist society in lower paid, manual work.
The counter school culture acted as a kind of ‘conscious bridge’ (author’s term) between the working class culture which it reflected and the shop-floor culture of many manual work environment, both of which it mirrored, and being part of the CSC played a role in the reproduction of class inequality, helping to explain why working class kids went on to working class jobs!
Willis saw the Counter School Culture as a distorted version of class consciousness, it resisted the authorities of capitalism but was short lived and never amounted to anything that would help improve the lads’ subordinate position in the capitalist system.
The Counter-School-Culture emerges from working class culture and helps the lads understand some of the injustices of capitalism, but it also offers a limited framework of understanding rooted in immediate gratification of having a laff which prevents them from developing effective resistance.
Penetration and Limitation
Two concepts Willis developed to understand the lad’s world view were penetration and limitation.
He argued that the lads had legitimate insights into the truth of their own class position (‘penetrations’) such as recognising that the school was a middle class institution designed primarily to help middle class kids into middle class jobs in exchange for their conformity, of which they were having none!
However their penetrations were limited and failed to fully blossom into a full, effective, radical class consciousness:
- Their culture was more emotional than intellectual. It was all about the buzz of having a laugh, not serious resistance that was going to go any further.
- It was also a means to accomplish a masculine identity, and in embracing patriarchy and traditional gender divisions of labour, they also limited their capacity to build effective resistance.
Schools play a role in ideological control
Schools play a nuanced role in performing the function of ideological control in capitalist society.
By operating as middle class institutions and serving the needs of middle class students by focusing on academic qualifications relevant to middle class jobs they make working class rebellion more likely, hence they are unintentionally complicit in the counter school culture emerging.
The counter-school culture then does the rest – the lads ‘choose to fail’ and the school isn’t to blame, at least at the surface level of reality, but deeper down it is because it is failing to meet the needs of working class students who do not want middle class academic jobs.
Wills also made a number of policy suggestions for schools to help make them more relevant to working class kids and break the role they played in ideological control and the reproduction of class inequality
- Recognising that schools have a middle class teaching paradigm which disadvantages working class students.
- Showing more respect for working class culture and perspectives.
- Ceasing to communicate to working class kids that their identities are inferior.
- Discussing the role of culture in students’ lives more, and actually showing an interest in the role of working class norms such as immediate gratification and having a laff.
Angela Mcrobbie criticised Willis for being too forgiving and accepting of the patriarchy and sexism inherent in the counter school culture, however Wilis did recognise that this was a limitation of their culture.
Willis’ methodology is not that clear which raises questions of reliability. It is unclear for much of the time the specific contexts Willis was in and the exact nature of the group interviews isn’t always specified.
Teachers in other schools pointed out that there were no cultures of resistance in their schools, raising issues of representativeness. However Willis responded by saying such cultures may not be immediately obvious and that there may be weaker individual manifestations of what he found.
This is a difficult study to repeat and validate given the amount of times it took, the depth of it and the special access Willis had.
Focus on Research Methods
Learning to Labour by Paul Willis (1977) is an ethnographic study of twelve working class ‘lads’ from a school in Birmingham conducted between 1972 and 1975. He spent a total of 18 months observing the lads in school and then a further 6 months following them into work. The study aimed to uncover the question of how and why “working class kids get working class jobs” (1977: 1) using a wide range of qualitative research methodologies from interviews, group discussions to participant observation, aiming to understand participants’ actions from the participants’ point of view in everyday contexts.
Participant Observation in the Context of Education
Given the practical and ethical problems of conducting participant observation in a school setting, there are only a handful of such studies which have been carried out in the UK, and these are mainly historical, done a long time ago. They are, nonetheless interesting as examples of research. Below I consider one classic participant observation study in the context of education – Paul Willis‘ Learning to Labour (1977)
Willis concentrated on a particular boy’s group in a non-selective secondary school in the Midlands, who called themselves ‘lads’. They were all white, although the school also contained many pupils from West Indian and Asian backgrounds. The school population was approximately 600, and the school was predominantly working class in intake. He states that the main reasons why he selected this school was because it was the typical type of school attended by working class pupils.
Willis attended all school classes, options (leisure activities) and career classes which took place at various times. He also spoke to parents of the 12 ‘lads’, senior masters of the school, and main junior teachers as well as careers officers in contact with the concerned ‘lads’. He also followed these 12 ‘lads’ into work for 6 months. NB He also made extensive use of unstructured interviews, but here we’re focusing on the observation aspects.
Participant observation allowed Willis to immerse himself into the social settings of the lads and gave him the opportunity to ask the lads (typically open) questions about their behaviour that day or the night before, encouraging them to explain themselves in their own words…which included detailed accounts of the lads fighting, getting into trouble with teachers, bunking lessons, setting off fire extinguishers for fun and vandalising a coach on a school trip.
Practical Issues with Learning to Labour
The research was very time consuming – 2 years of research and then a further 2 years to write up the results.
It would be very difficult to repeat this research today given that it would be harder to gain access to schools (also see reliability)
Funding would also probably be out of the question today given the time taken and small sample size.
Ethical Issues with Learning to Labour
An ethical strength of the research is that it is giving the lads a voice – these are lads who are normally ‘talked about’ as problems, and don’t effectively have a voice.
An ethical weakness is that Willis witnessed the lads getting into fights, their Racism and Homophobia, as well as them vandalising school property but did nothing about it.
A second ethical weakness is the issue of confidentiality – with such a small sample size, it would be relatively easy for people who knew them to guess which lads Willis had been focussing on
Theoretical Issues with Learning to Labour
Validity is widely regarded as being excellent because of the unstructured, open ended nature of the research allowing Willis to sensitively push the lads into giving in-depth explanations of their world view.
Critics have tried to argue that the fact he was obviously a researcher, and an adult, may have meant the lads played up, but he counters this by saying that no one can put on act for 2 years, at some point you have to relax and be yourself.
Something which may undermined the validity is Willis’ interpretation of the data – he could have selected aspects of the immense amount of data he had to support his biased opinion of the boys.
Representativeness is poor – because the sample size is only 12, and they are only white boys.
Reliability is low – It is very difficult to repeat this research for the reasons mentioned under practical factors.
Signposting and Related Posts
This post was written primarily for students of A-level sociology, specifically focussing on the problems of researching in schools using Participant observation, to get students thinking about the Methods in Context part of paper 1.
However the study is also relevant to the education topic more generally, and research methods.
You might also like this summary of more recent research on why the white working classes continue to underachieve in education.
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