READING GUIDE TO: Willis, P. (1990)  Common Culture.  Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Chapter 1 - Symbolic Creativity
The idea is that every person is a semiotician,  that we are all capable of considerable creativity and we express this in our language, our bodies, in drama and in practice.  The main social differences here are obliterated; between us we all possess this human quality.  That goes for unemployed youth especially --  symbolic creativity is, in many ways, all they have because they have been separated from normal ways of expressing their own creativity.  The young unemployed occupy a space which is patrolled by government agencies like Y.T.S. (Youth Training Service) and the Employment Tribunal and so on.  Leisure and play is a important for them especially as work is so dull for this peripheral group.  Formal art is no good however and even leisure isn’t really appropriate because it involves a notion of free time which doesn’t really apply to the unemployed. 

Very often this situation ends in some spectacular examples of sub-cultures.  Class, gender and race are still important and consumption is much more closely connected to production for this group via the notion of ‘informal everyday culture’.  What happens, ironically, is that the market, and consumption, releases creativity while work suppresses it (p.19).  This is Willis at his most populist, for example, referring to ‘bedroom decoration as a field of aesthetic realisation’ (p.20) or using the term ‘grounded aesthetics’ to describe particular forms of popular cultural activity including sticking posters on your wall.  Indeed, there is quite a lot of ‘fine writing’ [ what I have called elsewhere 'talking up the data']--  for example on page 22 ‘doing nothing’ is really 'shaping a grounded aesthetics'!!  The role of fun and festivity is stressed here, and  fantasy.  Cultural commodities are at least popular and therefore ‘a cultural pessimism offers us only road blocks’ (p.26) and this includes post-modern pessimism. 

Chapter 2 - The Media
The young re-shape and re-work popular television.  This follows a familiar line first developed by Fiske and is reflected in some actual field work.  There is, for example, a widespread understanding of the commercial aspects of popular T.V. among the young unemployed and there are some examples on page 33. 

There is a lot of work on the relation to realism -- for example, the young unemployed seem to reproduce a number of points about the 'active' Dallas viewer [capable of critical and ironic readings, according to Ang's famous study], and they talk a great deal about the issue raised by popular television. They seem to feature a playful, active reading and use their own VCR’s to accomplish this, together with micro computers and games.  The skilled ones, Willis tells us, are even able to write their own programmes.  As a result, it is possible to see developing a ‘community based data store’ according to Willis. 

There is a lot of optimistic policy implications for youth and community television as well.  Films are not popular, however -- although the young unemployed like going to the cinema for its atmosphere.  Horror films often involve the audience participating in ‘mutual symbolic construction’.  They can also parody and imitate, and the young happen to be especially good at this.  Popular songs are quoted in advertisements but, of course, the kids see through this and still don’t buy things.  Consumption becomes a signal of individuality.  Teenage magazines are still liked but the young unemployed can ‘take the piss’ out of these too.  For example, they can use the photographs in them to construct their own identities.  'Bedroom culture' still seems to be alive and well and is developed in a skilled way.  Magazines can empower, and become a sign of powerlessness -- so some sort of encouraging policy is needed to make them more empowering. 

Chapter 3 - Pop Music
The young unemployed display a sophisticated knowledge of this, again, and this is another case where production and consumption are bridged.  Here, Willis refers to an sample of 20 people taken from the Birmingham area -- these people apparently collected old records and were even able to do some home editing while home taping.  Popular music apparently does have an affect on their perceptions and lives; they like the beat and the rhythms and they like to dance.  There is an example of how dance styles have been developed in this region.  Of course dance is still gendered.

There is a great deal of popular knowledge about song lyrics including ‘the semantic complexities and nuances’ (p.69).  Young unemployed people use the lyrics of popular songs to make sense of their lives and they can pursue multiple interpretations.  There are many meanings, especially for black kids, in reggae even though this has been incorporated by white people.  Even recorded music can lead to actual musical production, for example, in the use of Caribbean sound systems - toasting and rapping or do it yourself mixing and DJ-ing. Rap, in particular, for Willis is a form of ‘oral poetry’ (p.74)

Chapter 4 - Style
The young exhibit skilled buying even if they have no money.  They use the things they buy to develop sub-cultures and styles of their own.  These include punk 'cut-ups' [collages]  which then led to a retro style says Willis, where older traditions were ransacked and re-inserted and re-invented.  Again, the key here is a degree of playfulness with the signs. This kind of activity is used to mark the boundaries between home and work and also to signify gender -- for example, the girls dress up for other girls [not to attract blokes?].  Gender distinctions however are changing.  Hairstyle is important (p.92) especially for black kids.  There is much more diversity now.  Activities include making clothes, going to jumble sales and re-designing your own look.  This is referred to as ‘ clearly part of the whole active process of symbolic work and creativity to do with producing your appearance’ (p.95)  There is a deconstruction of gender promised in this work too. 

Chapter 5 
This chapter encounters, at last, some anti-social activities among the young unemployed, like excessive drinking and fighting.  Even here Willis is a bit apologetic -- he refers to the centrality of pubs as alternative locations and talks about the attractiveness they offer in terms of music and TV too. They offer  illicit pleasures as well, including competitive drinking and risk-taking (overthrowing of conventions). 

In the conclusion the whole book ends with a plea for sponsorship of community arts on the grounds that the young unemployed are creative and are capable of producing their own cultures and they should be funded and assisted to do that, especially in terms of encouraging the constructive dimensions of their culture.