READING GUIDE TO: Willis,  P. (1977) Learning to Labour: how working-class kids get working-class jobs, Farnborough: Saxon House 


Working class counter school culture is a place where working class cultural themes are mediated to individuals and groups, and where working class kids reproduce aspects of the larger culture.  This appears (for teachers) as a straight concern with troublesome kids.  For the kids, self-damnation is experienced as true learning with affirmations and resistance (p.3). There is a partial penetration of the reality, but it is constrained from general and ideological processes outside and from flaws within.  Reproduction is ‘the spine of the book’ (p.3).

Ethnography is used to understand cultural practice: twelve kids who are oppositional are studied.  Willis claimed they were typical of the working class.  He compared the results with a group of ‘earoles’ (conforming kids)  and other groups in different schools including a group in a high status grammar school (p.5).  He also got the views of teachers and careers teachers, and finally he followed the kids into work and studied work practices locally.  What he actually did was to interview people in skilled manual work, foremen and shop stewards. 

Ethnographic findings

The kids he studied were anti-authority; they offered a kind of inversion of authority and they expressed their rebellion through style.  They offered a caged resentment just short of outright confrontation including the use of derisive or insane laughter (p.13).  We get quite a detailed picture including some details of the kids who wanted to get on: the so-called ‘earoles’ or ‘lobes’ (who were always ready to listen carefully and obey).  The twelve lads however, coped by ‘having a laff’ (laugh) and  by enjoying a number of little rituals, including sexual initiation, which made you ‘one of the lads’.  They were quite articulate and insightful, (for example one kid in particular called Joey who is quoted quite a lot), and Willis argues that this is fairly representative of that group.  They manifested certain differences among themselves according to the classic three consumer goods of  youth sub-cultures: clothes, cigarettes and alcohol.  Willis insists that their culture is authentic even if it is commercialised.  Sexual attractiveness and denial at school form an unusual double-articulation (p.18).

They stress the informal relations among themselves rather than the formality of school. However, the conduct that they engaged in was governed by rules and traditions -- for example, it was a tradition to get drunk on the last day of school and let off fire extinguishers.  [In fact, some of these episodes seem mythical to me, and it is not clear if Willis actually observed this behaviour, but we will come back to that later].  Willis clearly wants to ‘talk up’ this behaviour as in quotes like this one ‘this self-direction and thwarting of formal organisational aims is also an assault on official notions of time’ (p.28).  ‘Having a laff’ is a tactic of the underdogs and there are some excellent examples of what the lads actually do to disrupt classroom life and resist the official regime: 

‘The chief occupation when we’m all in the halls is playing with all the little clips what hold the chairs together. You take them off and you clip someone’s coat to his chair and just wait until he gets up…’ (Joey, p 30)

‘…they switch on the dynamo on the park-keepers’ bike, “That’ll slow the cunt down a bit”’ (p. 31)

‘Plans are continually made to play jokes on individuals who are not there: “Let’s send him to Coventry when he comes”, “Let’s laugh at everything he says”, “let’s pretend we can’t understand and say ‘How do you mean’ all the time”’ (p. 33)

The point is that these kids are bright enough to actually do school work, but they choose not to.  Listening to their talk and banter, as Willis does, and records it, it is clear that major themes are violence, sometimes racist violence but often directed at other lads, and macho.  Again, Willis is prone to exaggeration here perhaps, as in things like this one - in fights ‘the dialectic of time is broken’ (p.34) The ‘ambience of violence’, as Willis calls it, is at the heart of the whole culture and he notices this behaviour at youth clubs and dances as well. 

‘…we had a fight and we was stopped. I marked him up. He give me a bit of a fat lip and he dropped the nut on me nose, hurt me nose, hurt me nose here. But I gouged his eye out with my thumb, split his head open…’ (p. 36)
The lads also engage in a lot of actual work; they are quite experienced in part-time work outside school and they gain important skills like fiddling and ‘doing foreigners’ (p.39).  It’s this ‘work experience’ that also helps them transfer their resentment to managers as well; they will need this when they go out into work full-time.  For the lads, theft is an exciting pastime, especially if they can steal from school.  Another major theme that emerges is their ambivalence towards women.  Their attitudes towards women are a mixture of desire and fear, or contempt. They like sexy but domestic girls and are quite interested in romance (p.45).  As for the girls themselves, which aren’t the foreground of the study as Willis admits, they ‘collude in the domination’ (p.46).  Another theme in the lads’ culture is racism and this is also described. 
‘There is frequent verbal if not actual violence shown to the “fuckin’ wogs” or the “bastard pakis”’ (p.48)

‘…we were just listening, thinking “Right you black bastard next time you start we’ll have you” – which we will’ (Joey p.48)

They do racialise their own identity and the identity of their victims.  Oddly enough, Willis finds some (unconscious) encouragement in this view from teaching staff, or so the lads perceive it to be [which is really rather an important difference!!] The lads don’t like Asian kids who are both smelly and earoles, whereas the West Indians kids, [as they were called then], are far more like the lads but they are also more promiscuous and stupid. 

Chapter Three

Willis examines the class context in factories by going into the factories and carrying out some ethnographic observation. He comes up with similar findings about what he calls ‘shop floor’ culture.  Shop floor culture is a matter of activity and diversion.  It is  strongly influenced by notions of masculinity. There are a number of informal controls that operate on the men in shop floor culture; these are rather similar to the ones he’s outlined for the kids and there is a similar level of banter.  The shop floor workers have a strong anti-theoretical line, contempt for theory and for anything other than practical knowledge.  Willis describes this as ‘rational’ were it not located in class society (p.57) and offers this as an example of ‘partial penetration’.  He offers us more views of the shop floor men on earoles and qualifications and how pointless they are, and argues that this has weakened working class identity.  Class cultures are misrecognised for Willis, and this leads to local institutional levels of misrecognition as well -- for example, there are regional struggles between members of the overall working class, notably at school. 

There seems to be no conflict in the junior school; the ‘laddish’ culture that he is talking about comes out in secondary schools and this is misrecognised by the lads themselves and by the staff.  The lads experience it as a sort of growth of their own individuality, but really, says Willis, it arises from differentiation, and the different teacher paradigms that teachers use to respond to different categories of kids. 

The basic theme in these teacher paradigms says Willis, is one of maintaining the ideal of teaching, rather than maintaining their personal authority (p.64).  An ideal teacher offers a fair exchange, for example [ a parallel to the old capitalist slogan of 'a fair day's pay fopr a fair day's work'].  The way to gain approval  for your role as a teacher is, in fact, to reproduce the social relations of the school which involves ‘the construction of a range of moral possibilities’ (p.66).  School order is maintained via ritual and it is linked to a class context unknowingly.  Here Willis goes on to some material on disciplining the body, for example, (page 68 onwards).  Different variations can arise within a teacher paradigm --  they include trying to appeal to the lads on the basis of a shift towards the moral benefits of school, rather than the  formal 'educational' objectives of school, especially  via work on [positive] 'attitudes'.  These beliefs are genuinely held by teachers, however, they also often have low expectations, leading them to yield ground to the lads, and to gradually give up the idea of teaching them.This leads them to a [fatalistic] acceptance that they can do nothing, adopting a pragmatic recognition of the fate of the working classes. 

In other words, teachers finally realise that these kids are going to end up in working class occupations.  So, within this framework, the idea of offering 'relevant education' or using 'progressive' teaching methods can really best be seen as coping strategies used by teachers, despite any radical genesis of these ideas.  So, teachers use progressive methods and relevant education really to rescue their idea of traditional authority over kids.  Differentiation at school, for example streaming, does polarise the lads however, and this calls forth active resistance as a response on the part of the lads. 

Class emerges again, a huge reservoir of class feeling is drawn upon at that moment, and it is that that supplies the themes for laddish culture which get reworked.  It is not just 'pupil attitudes' but something more social and contextual --  school culture is different,  and rejection here is part of working class heritage as well. This may not be a very good part of working class heritage, however - and the lads are also engaged in generational  fights and struggles with their fathers as well, who want them to reject it.  Therefore, they adopt a kind of version of working class fatalism suitable especially for kids. 

It is important to realise, says Willis, that middle class culture is not oppositional in this way to school. Occasionally, middle class kids reject school but they are more dependent on parents and can finally be gathered back in again to schooling.  As for the lads, they are genuinely wounded by class insults which they meet quite a lot at school, and this leads them to further support  the class dimension of their own experience.  So what we have here are links between a wider class culture and various institutional meanings.  There are some very good examples on page 78 onwards. 

Inexperienced teachers try to reassert  the old paradigm of 'teaching individuals' and so on, but they look weak, and they rapidly get into trouble and experience a kind of permanent guerrilla war from the lads.  All appeals fail: containment becomes the best option. In these circumsatnces, a certain amount of morale boosting is necessary for teachers.  They need to remind themselves of the relevance of what they do and to try and gain consent for what they do. However,  this does allow space for a counter culture, unlike work.  So schools, ironically, being more tolerant places can strengthen class cultures. 

Lots of kids are neither lads nor 'earoles', although we don’t hear much about them and options can vary.  There are complex mixes of possibilities in school and there are also racial complications. ' West Indian' kids can appear as hyper lads (p.85) because they also have the possibility of  rejecting work as well [ see later work by Hall et al on the controversial political significance of this as a form of cultural resistance]

Chapter Four - Careers Education

This can offer a break from the old academic notion of gradients and ranking and can sometime operate with a more open self-concept of the kid, using for example, client centered psychology as in Rogers (p.90).  Careers teachers can even be critical of industry:  however careers education can also be backed by blunter threats that include the use of discipline if  kids don’t comply.  The lads still resist though and there are some examples on page 92.  The idea of gaining qualifications for work especially gets opposed, discredited and de-valued.  Instead, the lads seem to believe they can rely on imagination or wit, and here the lads' culture is the real guide to their intentions at work.  This leads them to seek out the kind of work that will allow them to express these cultural values.  Particular jobs are not relevant; any job will do and there is an instrumental attitude to work.  Parents' cautions are to be resisted as well.  They realise, in this way, that they are really offering abstract labour says Willis (p.101).  Their inner self is best kept separate and they need cultural diversion and this becomes the main issue in choosing a job. 

Mental work involves too much intrusion into the self and this is claimed by Willis as a correct perception or a 'penetration' of the myth of mental labour being fulfilling.  Labouring itself is dignified by the cultural values of the lads; it seems to offer chances to demonstrate masculinity, activity and, therefore, a kind of masculine power.  The conformists hope that the job itself is satisfying but this is not a main feature of  lads' culture. 

Their actual passage into work is relatively trouble free. They are well prepared in general although they do get disillusioned and then the shop floor becomes a kind of  prison and education can seem the only way out - presumably this is adult education.  However, most kids cope with a mixture of fatalism and accommodation.  Conformists are likely to be more trouble because they have high expectations and no cultural compensations -- they can also be more vulnerable.  However, the lads become self-damning in the process.

Chapter Five - Penetrations

Why do kids choose attitudes that are self damning?  Here Willis says you have to go beneath ethnography to show the penetrations and limitations of culture itself (p.119).

There is a rational core for this self damnation which leads to another ‘double articulation’ of the rational and irrational.  Ironically, all the resistance ends only in the subjective habitation of a certain definition of manual labour power.  There is a collective creative moment in reproduction, but there is also an 'absence' at the heart of it and this is largely unknown  by participants of course.  On a 'methodological' note, there are distinctions between the class centre of culture and its surface forms.  There is direct 'inexplicit consciousness', but that is only a poor guide to what is actually happening and it is not always authentic anyway.  No method can really distinguish however what is an authentic response (p.122).  Willis wants to avoid romantic utopianism and offers instead ‘the hell of its own real present’ to describe working class culture.  There is a note here, incidentally, which enters reservations about structuralism. 

Though the working class is  still best able to break with ideology - unlike middle class groups that still must believe their own ideology [according to classic marxist theory] - an informal working class group can only demystify.  It can do this via cultural work; style rather than words, and thus escape middle class forms.  It can battle on with a language of its own. 

The fact that it is reasonably successful as a form of resistance in school shows  its strength.  Specifically, what the lads succeeded in doing is to deny the equivalence of teacher paradigms, in other words, to deny that teaching can offer a route through school specifically for working class kids.  Working class culture prefers its own knowledge of reality, and of the reality of the job market especially.  Working class culture devalues the myth of qualifications, quite rightly, and it’s also correct to suspect the idea of social mobility as a right for everyone.  There is social mobility, but it arises only from expansion of the labour market.  Working class lads are correct to see most work as meaningless and  de-skilled, to perceive the structural nature of employment.  Therefore, Willis agrees with Bourdieu and Passeron have called the effects of 'cultural capital' or the class basis of knowledge.  The lads are right to see the tensions between the individual and the group.  They are correct  that social mobility is an option  for individuals and they know that not all individuals can succeed. 

The lads are able to see through school attempts to gloss over this contradiction (p.129) and they are not prepared to waste their time on it. They pursue instead refusal and  their own alternative channels of expression.  The lads are correct to see that labour and its use is at the heart of their struggles, including struggles at school. Their refusal at school to co-operate is equivalent to the withholding of labour and so is a form of class struggle (p.130).  The lads can even, apparently, penetrate to a knowledge of labour as a special commodity and Willis believes this confirms Marx’s own discovery about labour (p.131). 

The lads can even expose the 'exchange of equivalents' notion of capitalist social relations.  They know that life proceeds at a collective level rather than an individual one.  They also know that labour is increasingly abstract too - which is another bit of Marx they apparently have discovered.  They are aware of rationalisation and standardisation and are aware of the threat of scientific management and of the increase of time management.  Their perspective is much superior to the official version of these realities supplied by the school (at this point there are eight acknowledgements to the Tel Quel group [Stuart Hall is less keen on       them -- see this piece], nine references to homology [see Willis' other stuff on this concept], and certain reservations about Gramsci's concepts -- on page 137).  [The reservation about Gramsci, incidentally, turns on his denial that working class culture can ever be spontaneously progressive].

Chapter Six - Limitations

The penetrations achieved by working class culture are only partial --  they are distorted,  not pure.  They involve, for example, the rejection of mental activity in the course of the rejection of individualism and, ironically,  this prevents penetrations from being sufficiently deepened.  The lads therefore gain merely  a pyrrhic victory, and, as a result, over-glamorise manual labour, and are also prone to sexism. This connection between glamourising manual labour and sexism works like this: it arises ultimately from the dualism of mental and manual labour. 

The fact that the lads prefer their low status acts as a justification of the whole system, ironically enough (p.148).  This partly arises because of patriarchy; the notion of male superiority, and leads to the issue of why gender might be necessary to class reproduction.  Patriarchy fills empty manual work with meaning.  There is a kind of logic of exploitation here, explained in terms of male virtues of endurance and so on.  Women also work hard and with endurance and stamina -- but housework qualifies as low status work, however, because it is never completed. What happens is solidarity among the lads in order to resist leads to a cult of manual labour and a cult of macho.  Macho can be progressive too but it still offers misplaced criticism, for example, of qualifications.  It is often tied up with racism too, and there is an ideology of superiority of white male workers which makes white manual work slightly better than the manual work offered to ethnic minorities. 

As a result, opting for manual work looks like choice and this enables a kind of division to be set up between white males, black males and males and females.  In other words, we have an explanation of working class culture sets out the relations between race, gender and class.  [It is interesting to explore Willis's notes here, which raise further implications for female working class members.  There are also lots of references to Poulantzas on class, and note 7 says that female resistance also helps girls to compensate --  an idea which was to be taken up by feminists elsewhere, such as McRobbie in this file].

Chapter Seven - Ideology

Ideology is external to culture but dialectically linked with it.  The lads at school can resist dominant ideology.  The themes of dominant ideology are found in the media and these media themes are articulated with similar ones from actual culture. Articulations can take different forms, however.  So, for example, you can get 

  1. confirmations, as in careers education films which offer some story of the fascination of work, the division of labour between the sexes, and how natural the hierarchies in society actually are.  This only strengthens the hegemony of common sense, especially of common sense perceptions of wage labour. 
  2. dislocation or displacement.  The lads know that work is all the same but various careers education films say it is not their fault but that it is natural for them to end in different  destinations.  In this sense, individualism is used to try and split working class solidarity via careers education.  It also encourages immobility and explains that inequality is inevitable and that fatalism is the only stance.
Willis argues that personal experience is inadequate as a resource for struggle against this kind of ideology.  It opens a space merely for informality; offers only exceptions to the overall rule and largely just keeps a silence about the reasons and the analysis of these themes.  ‘It is in to this silence that [well-articulated] ideology confidentially strides’ (p.160).  Ideologies are formal, public and explicit, so they are seen as [technically] superior.  Ideology offers a formal way to retain its power by classifying things neatly and effectively.  It often operates with  a spurious  notion of ‘we’ (note on page 170 that Willis refrains from using the concept of hegemony to explain the origins of dominant ideology, unlike most CCCS alumni, because of the ambiguities raised about it in Anderson 1976 -- see Harris 1992). 

Chapter Eight - General Implications

There is no straightforward determination of the cultural level from work.  School has a specific but still a class effect.  The symbolic power of structural determinance is the real issue: the 'cultural moment' though is crucial [and see later Willis on this].  We need to go beneath ethnography for the role of symbolic systems and their articulations (p 172).  There is a certain amount of general cultural production by working class groups, for example, the style that they adopt, and this does involve a preliminary probing of the world as a basic source of penetrations.  The cultural level constitutes subjectivity.  The moments of penetration and reproduction arise from the limitations of this process [if left at the level of 'common sense']. The penetrations of work, for example, lead only to a cult of masculinity. 

Overall, Willis’s analysis is pessimistic but it does reveal certain possibilities ‘we have the logical possibility of radicalness' (p175).  Certainly there is no neat functionalist reproduction: there is instead a contested settlement which is always risky.  There is a need in liberal capitalism to permit cultural freedom and this can lead to partial penetrations.  There is a great deal of potential struggle among the lads. 

Turning to the education system, education exists and acts beyond the merely functional reproduction of culture.  All institutions have official, pragmatic and cultural levels and these can be contradictory in schools.  A certain amount of cultural demystification can take place in schools although this can still end in a reproduction of the system. For example, you can find ‘progressive practices’ at all three of these levels,  and this refers back to the more detailed discussion of teacher paradigms.   Partial penetrations can actually motivate people and, in that sense, can be used a bit like the 'human relations' approach in work management - a connection noted  in the notes on page 181. 

Chapter Nine

This begins with a quote from Gramsci about every man being capable of acting as a philosopher.  There are implications especially for vocational guidance [-- eg pessimistic ones].  You can’t easily split up the penetrations and the limitations of working class culture [to try and build on the one and minimise the other].  These are determined by the whole context of labour and patriarchy.  We can seek out spaces within capitalism rather than to wait for revolution, to maintain the tension and irony for radical purposes.  The approach can expose the illusions of common sense, and at least working class culture is a valuable culture.  It helps us see behind the apparently simple 'bad attitudes' in working class kids. We can better  see culture as a matter of  reproduction. We should focus on ideological penetrations, limits and limitations and recognise that these have particular limits. 

Vocational guidance is often more knowledgeable about culture than it appears but it does need to break with this notion of individualism and recognise social class as a major factor.  In fact, to encourage the working class in their penetrations --  to ‘act without illusions’ as Willis puts in on page 188. 

Turning to what might be done in classrooms, we need to recognise the need for certain disciplined skills rather than adopting a whole hearted progressivism (p.189)  We should be prepared to support working class kids generally and support the independence of working class education as in the past. (a reference to Johnson’s work on ‘Popular Education’ here - see file).  We need more of a policy directed towards understanding and action, and Willis actually includes some quite detailed descriptions on page 190 -191 including topics for discussion with kids like their sexism, macho, cultural codings and so on.  In other words, teachers ought to take part in a movement to politicise culture. 

In the appendix to the piece there is a final comment on ethnographic accounts.  These are valuable but limited, but nevertheless necessary in order to achieve an initial understanding and there is some indication of how Willis actually validated some of the transcripts that he uses: he actually went back and discussed the results of his work with the kids. 

for later thoughts on this work, see Willis

for a study of parents who were once 'lads', and how their views have changed, see Carspecken