Paul Willis's research on class culture sets him apart as one of the foremost British cultural theorists. He was born and educated in the United Kingdom. He received degrees from the University of Cambridge and the University of Birmingham (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies). He was lecturer at the latter, and also at the University of Wolverhampton. Willis became a professor of Social/Cultural Ethnography at Keele University before leaving for Princeton University in 2010.
Willis's main work is a book called "Learning to Labor" in which he studied a group of working-class children in working-class families. He wanted to find out why working-class kids get working class jobs. During the study he interviewed and observed children at a school in a central England.
The book was a project financed by the Social Science Research Council from 1972 to 1975. Willis chronicled working-class boys through their transition from their final two years of school into the first few months of work. He obtained data from case-study work, interviewing, group discussions and participant observation.
There are two parts to the book. Part I reveals the empirical data and the main findings of the study. Part 2 presents the theoretical findings. Some of the subjects that Willis discusses in the book are: opposition to authority, sexism, racism, labor, power and counter-culture.
One of the difficult problems that Willis encountered in the study was trying to determine why middle-class children are not encouraged to seek employment in other sectors of the work society. And how come they are not motivated to look for other kinds of work.
Willis found that there was a self-made counter-culture within the school. Counter-culture is best defined as a resistance to influences that would lead people to make different choices. There was no unique connection with the broader working class. In order to understand the significance of counter school culture we must look at its achievements against the working-class culture at large. Only then can we comprehend its true significance.
The counter-culture members are destined for what Willis calls shop-floor culture. This means they end up working in jobs that consist of manual labor. Despite finding themselves in harsh conditions, people do look for meaning in their work. Even in an environment that is controlled by others, they seek enjoyment in their work.
The subjects studied by the author were found to harbor personalized opposition to authority. Willis observed the students in a group discussion about teachers.
The students expressed resentment toward the teachers because the students thought that the teachers stand for a bigger establishment. The students found this establishment to mistreat them and their natural reaction was to rebel and reject it. The students also regarded the teachers as having an "I'm better than everyone else" attitude. This attitude led students to believe that the teachers were not trying to help them and this caused a sense of opposition to authority and rejection within the school.
The school system is also seen as a rejection of individualism. The pupils feel that they are in a certain class of people and they have no one to help them climb the ladder. Therefore they are destined to wind up in a working-class job no matter how hard they apply themselves to their studies. The rejection of individualism contributes to attitudes of the students such as "the human world is divided into those who are good with their hands and those that are good with their heads."
Another factor that contributed to the results was the the impact of external forces, institutions and ideologies on working-class children. Willis concluded that the students were able to find identity through manual labor. They were able to feel better about themselves as people through their work.