Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Class Dismissed? Student Opposition in Ontario

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Class Dismissed? Student Opposition in Ontario

Article excerpt


The link between youth culture and social class is a perennial topic for sociologists of education. Classic studies such as James Coleman's The Adolescent Society (1961) depicted a 'classless' adolescent culture bound by shared interests in consumerism, peer popularity, and other youthful pursuits. Coleman and others traced the development of new teenage subcultures to youth's prolonged isolation in schools, and stressed the 'youthful' features of adolescent culture that distinguished it from the adult world. While not denying differences along socio-economic, racial or gender lines, these theorists emphasized the common experiences imposed by age, implying that other divisions within youth culture were secondary. Sociologists in the 1970s, however, declared this to be misleading. Influenced by the resurgence of Marxism in the social sciences, many triumphantly declared youth cultures, like their parent cultures, beset with class divisions (Murdock and McCron, 1976). Birmingham's Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in particular emphasized the class nature of youthful subcultures (see Brake, 1985 and Frith, 1985 for reviews).

Notions of class-specific youth cultures are consequential when used to explain class inequalities in education. The Birmingham school has over the past two decades influenced a resurgence of explorations of class, youth culture and education. The most famous of these studies, Paul Willis' pioneering Learning to Labour (1977), has spawned a generation of neo-Marxist field studies and theoretical commentaries on schools (e.g., Anyon, 1981; Apple, 1985; Connell et al., 1982; Giroux, 1983; Liston, 1988; Luttrell, 1989; Macleod, 1987; McLaren, 1986; McRobbie, 1981). It is the set of substantive ideas from this now voluminous literature that I term Resistance theory.

Resistance scholars begin from the assumption that social reproduction in any sphere is not uncontested. Socially disadvantaged groups produce cultural forms to make sense of their subordination and struggle against dominant institutions. In analyses of state-run schooling, these scholars spotlight working class anti-school subcultures that allegedly produce disparities in educational attainment. While noting ephemeral subcultural styles and argot, Resistance studies focus on more enduring acts against schools. Truancy, petty drug use, poor relations with teachers, devaluing schooling compared to work, and expending little effort in school work are considered the concrete manifestations of resistance. For instance, Eckert (1989: 3) portrayed the two major high school subcultures, 'Jocks' and 'Burnouts,' in her suburban Detroit field study as follows:

In the early 1980's, the stereotypic Belton High Burnout came from a working class home, enroled primarily in general and vocational courses, smoked tobacco and pot, took chemicals, drank beer and hard liquor, skipped classes, and may have had occasional run-ins with the police; the Jock was middle class and college bound, played sports for the school, participated in school activities, got respectable grades and drank beer on weekends. The Jock had a cooperative, the Burnout an adversarial relationship with the school.

However, this is more than a theory of delinquency. Resistance theorists offer a more politicized account of pupils' subversive practices than previous Youth theorists. Namely, Resistance theorists stress the class politics of student opposition. They contend that peer groups mediate their inherited class cultures in the context of the school. Willis' classic study (1991), subtitled How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, argued that schools provoked oppositional responses from working class peer groups that activated certain class themes. By absorbing their parents' practices and world views, youths creatively produce a working class culture in the form of anti-school subcultures. For instance, both Willis (1977) and Everhart (1983) trace the subversion of school's demands to shopfloor culture. …

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