Social Justice, Education, and Identity

By Carol Vincent | Go to book overview

Chapter 6

Male working-class identities and social justice

A reconsideration of Paul Willis's Learning to Labour in light of contemporary research

Madeleine Arnot


Introduction

The publication of Paul Willis's Learning to Labour in 1977 represented a landmark in the study of social identities and social justice in education. Willis's seminal thesis about why working-class boys get working-class jobs, when first published, was described on its back cover as 'an uncompromising book which is certain to provoke considerable controversy'. Twenty-five years later, the book is still one of the most cited texts in the sociology of education. In an extraordinary way, Willis's text links the 'problem' of working-class education which has framed social democratic policy discourses since 1944 with contemporary concerns about identities, culture and social change. Re-reading Willis, I want to argue, has significance beyond the immediate concerns of the book. The various re-readings of the book, only some of which I refer to in this chapter, exemplify some of the complex theoretical and methodological shifts in the study of identities and social justice. I shall argue that, despite the numerous rigorous criticisms of Willis's theory of working-class culture and the social-cultural reproduction of working-class inequalities, the themes of his study still represent an important symbolic marker in the study of gender and social class identities and in the development of critical research methodologies associated with transformative politics. Arguably, the book also represents a more grounded and situated analysis of identity than is currently on offer. Re-reading the text therefore proffers the chance to reflect critically upon our current theoretical project on social identities, social justice and schooling. I begin that discussion by illustrating three rather different readings of the book, before exploring how male class identities are now being researched and related to issues of social justice.


Connecting identity, agency and structure

Willis's research was conducted with a group of 12 working-class boys attending Hammerton school in the huge industrial conurbation in the Midlands. The town was then working class with only eight per cent classified as professional middle class. The population was around 60,000 with one of the highest activity rates in

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