READING GUIDE TO: Willis P, (1983) ‘Social Production and Theories of Reproduction’, in  Barton, L. & Walker, S. (eds.) Race, Class & Education, London: Croom Helm.

We have to steer a path between resistance and left functionalism.  Learning to Labour was too functionalist; too neat in terms of penetrations and limitations and their effects, and in this piece Willis wishes to emphasise cultural production as opposed to reproduction.  He agrees that the contradictions involved in a social democratic settlement leads to crisis and that this may show some long-term tendency towards reproduction.  Learning to Labour did show that working class culture is not pathological though, and that education is not simply capitalist. 

From a cultural studies perspective there is a cultural moment, cultural work which lies between positioning or determinism and reproduction as an active and collective activity.  There is creativity but it is constrained and this leads to the dangers of being dragged back into reproduction.  The cultural moment has its own practices and symbolic systems and this is what he means by cultural production.  This process includes penetrations and ‘anarchic power arising from irreverent association’ (p.114).  Lets take the concept of reproduction in Althusser’s ISAs essay ( which see) . This famous piece ignores the cultural moment.  It ignores the actual formations of classes and it ignores the profane level rather than the formalist.  There is really a contest involved here rather than pre-given positions.  Bowles and Gintis ( see this too) also ignore the cultural moment in terms of their correspondence theory and this leads them to one problems -- if correspondence is so total, where do activists come from?  . 

There is no imprinting of social requirements at the cultural moment -- for example, there may be a minimal habituation to work.  There are often connections with gender and this leads to the view that there are other sites of reproduction rather than just schools. 

Bourdieu is an advance on these reproduction theories; at least he focuses on culture and how its neutrality is spurious and how working class kids are ‘coded out’ (p.118).  Education in Bourdieu’s work is relatively autonomous but culture is, if you like, too autonomous.  The economic level is merely an abstract set of power relations that applies to any society; this is an a-historical way of thinking. We need a notion of cultural production to explain the origins and struggles, the process of uneven socialisation for the bourgeoisie, and to answer the question of why proletarians accept the dominance of cultural capital.  Bourdieu assumes that they simply lack culture rather than that there is a contest between cultures.  His work is sociologistic --  it’s also too gloomy. 

On Bernstein - Class, Codes and Control (vol. 3).

Willis argues that there is some sort of disjunction between the educational code and the industrial code in Bernstein’s work leading to school as being some sort of site of contradiction.  Production is both dominant and subordinate to cultural production.  This work is still formalist, especially in terms of how the economy works, and it is still dominated by class rather than patriarchy and race.  Bernstein’s work is still abstract in terms of power and is still pessimistic. Learning to Labour was also too pessimistic, Willis now thinks: 

  1. Schools are much more specific than he had allowed them to be.  Cultural production is their particular theme and they produce culture as well as reproduce it.  It so happens that school culture leads to reproduction rather than that it must do. 
  2. There are specific detailed ranges of possibilities rather than a general abstract one.  Ideology and capitalism does work on school culture but they do not simply determine school culture (p.125).  It all ends in reproduction but only after similar processes in labour via the state, police, media and leisure. 
  3. 'The lads'' own form of reproduction is still not the best form for capitalism; it’s still dangerous and not very efficient  -- eg their lack of motivation for work could lead to crisis.  So, the connection between cultural production of the kind that goes on in schools and reproduction of the whole society is not automatic. 
  4. Penetrations and limitations now should be seen together.  We should beware of seeing penetrations merely in terms of ‘libertarianism’ or ‘triumphalism’ (p.128).  Cultural production is contradictory. 

The very strength of resistance strengthens ideology and Willis goes on to rehearse the main themes from Learning to Labour including the rejection of individualism and the famous connection between sexism and masculine authority.  He points out that the rejection of individualism also leads to a rejection of  the possibilities of mental labour for the lads.

However, in this article he wants to go on to develop new terms to grasp the links between cultural production and reproduction and the first of these is locking.  This is where you get a direct correspondence between, for example, school attitudes and those attitudes needed for work.  Secondly, there is de-stressing.  This is where you find a success in resisting capitalist culture but at the expense of doing other kinds of conformity to it, for example conforming to sexism.  Third is transformation; this involves coping strategies.  Fourth, isomorphism is making the future familiar, for example, by choosing jobs where other proletarians can be found.  The struggle exists through and in these contradictory processes. There is a real effort to be optimistic as a result. 


The structures of capitalism are also produced through struggle.  The working class contributes to capital and, for example, also has a stake in the system.  The resistance of people like Willis’s lads exists really apart from the notion of free wage labour [one step in de-coupling them from an analysis that stresses class as the major variable]. Cultural production shows an inter-linking of class, race and sex rather than occupying some formal category where submission to one form reveals or resists another (p.135) [ i.e. class is no longer the most basic or essential form].  Only after empirical study can we discuss the ways in which these forces align.  Combinations of possibilities of resistance produce concrete subjects.  We can use any discourses at hand to do struggle, for example,' race' can be a prism through which class is experienced, and youth culture can be one form to resist one consequence of capitalism, youth unemployment. The overall picture therefore is complexity rather than reduction.  Struggles, even if they are not revolutionary ones, do not necessarily produce accommodation.  The notion of ‘general human practice’ is involved here (p.137) and this is always unpredictable.  There is now ‘scope for change and for politics’ (p.137) [So Willis is going back on the pessimism -- or realism --of Learning to Labour and joining the ranks of the activists. I have discussed this changed view, and its strong similarity to Hall's own approach, in my 1992 book].