The 'new' sociology

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The 'new' sociology

  • Paul Corrigan, 'Schooling the Smash Street Kids'
  • Paul Willis, 'Learning to Labour'

Both of these books are examples of a particular genre that emerged during the 1970s. A particular political stance is adopted by both writers, which leads them to a distinct view of the purposes of schooling.

Review of two examples

Both books are ethnographic accounts of the activities of white, working class males. Both are set in industrial towns, and both concentrate on groups of boys in their last year of compulsory schooling. In addition, and of particular importance to the genre both authors adopt, the boys that they study have a strong aversion to school.

In both books, the impression comes over very strongly that the boys regard schooling as an imposition, and as an attempt to change them. As a result, both books are shot through with the anti-school sentiments expressed by the boys. No attempt is made in either book to balance the account by considering the views of boys not opposed, or perhaps even in agreement with, the aims of schooling. Both books attempt an analysis of why the boys feel the way they do about school and then try to present a more general theoretical approach that argues that the experiences and reactions of such boys are not the result of localised factors but the inevitable result, not just of school but of a class based society.

'It is no accident that different groups in different schools..come up with similar insights, even though they are the products of separate efforts, and thus combine to make distinctive class bonds. All the groups are penetrating through to roughly the same really determining conditions which hold their present and future possibilities.' (Willis).

Ethnography is not a particularly new method of gathering data but these books do have a number of features that distinguish them from previous work. Dale (1982) refers to this new stance as the 'resistance' approach, which he argues is different to 'traditional' ethnography. An initial clear distinction is that radical ethnography is openly politically committed. Both Willis and Corrigan are quite open as regards their antagonism to the present form of state schooling, and similarly they are openly on the side of the boys they study. They have taken sides.

Green (1980) provides a number of further differences between radical and traditional ethnography. First, there is the intended audience. For radical ethnographers the audience is:

'Radical sociologists and activists within the state sector of cultural production who have got it wrong, or, at least only partly correct about working class male youth culture.'

The more traditional audience as spoken to, for example by Woods, The Divided School, is:

'the professional liberal sociologist and the sociologically informed and hard pressed school teachers.'

These divergent interests result in a different prime focus of study. Traditional ethnography takes as its main concern the teacher and the classroom, Corrigan and Willis take the pupil to be the main focus. The classroom is viewed as just one site in a class struggle.

The classroom
'..the research and the whole of this book are about the boys at school not about the teachers at that school. It was impossible to get at the information about the boys if you were seen talking to teachers too often; I had to make an early choice in the school and did so in favour of learning more about the boys' situation'.

Neither Corrigan or Willis have much interest in teacher attitudes. The problems they uncover in schools are not to be solved by an analysis of working class underachievement or by subtle organizational changes in school. The possibilities for schools to tackle the problems are seen as minimal. What both seem to argue is that a greater understanding of the role that the school plays in the reproduction of cultural forms and economic divisions is needed.

Both Corrigan and Willis present a critique of traditional ideas as to the purpose of schooling in capitalist societies. Corrigan, in fact, details his own conversion to the neo-Marxist cause:

'I went into the research with a view of education which could loosely be called the liberal social-democratic view. I thought education was a 'Good Thing'... The reasons for questioning it are found in the kid's experience... they seem to regard it with extreme dislike and far from a good thing.' (Corrigan)

Given their interest in unmasking the way that schooling has contributed to the maintenance and reproduction of a class-based society, Willis and Corrigan concentrate their research on those pupils who resist the official orthodoxy. However, a curious paradox develops. They both expose what they consider to be all pervading systems of social control, yet at the same time point to ways in which this control is not total, or at least not very efficient, in that the boys they study spend a great deal of time trying to sabotage, sometimes quite effectively, the smooth running of the school.

Neither account isolates schools from wider society, and anti-school behaviour is not considered as simply a reaction to school culture, but also strongly influenced by forces outside the school. Traditional ethnographers, in contrast, tend to view pupil cultures as something created by schools, hence the importance given to streaming and teacher attitudes, for example. Willis and Corrigan see pupil culture as fully fledged external cultures partially dammed and channelled by the school.

A further important distinction to be drawn between the work of Willis and Corrigan and more traditional ethnographers such as Hargreaves, Lacey and Wood, concerns the nature of the pupil aspirations that they wish to uncover. Traditional ethnography has been concerned with individuals within groups, their private goals. Willis and Corrigan both make the jump from these individual aims to group ideas, and there is an attack by both on the confusion between the two.

Individual mobility and academic success, possible for the few, is contrasted with the impossibility of educational achievement ever being a route of upward mobility for a whole class. Hence the emphasis on studying their subjects as a group. The importance of the group is expressed by Willis as follows:

'The group is special and more than the sum of its individual parts... the power that is thus generated in the group, and its unspecified open nature, constitutes an important social force. It is partly from this source that wider symbolic cultural articulations are generated.'

Finally, the conflict that Willis and Corrigan find in schools is not one that can be solved by internal school manipulation. It is not capable of school solutions because it is not caused by the particular practices of schools as schools, but by the place that schools occupy within the structure of domination, and principally the demands that schools make on pupils time.


Corrigans book is based on a group of boys in Sunderland. Originally, he had intended researching into the reasons for, and remedies to, the apparent rejection of school values by white working class boys. However, the attitudes of the boys led him to question the assumptions he had made in formulating his research. He had assumed that the boys were rejecting the moral values of the school, principally because they had tried and failed to succeed in school terms, and so reversed the school values. In fact, Corrigan came to believe that the boys were not reacting against school values but against the power of the school to enforce attendance. Corrigan structures his book around the central question of why pupils are forced to attend school and what this forced attendance does to the boys' attitudes to the school, as revealed by questions such as: why do kids play truant? And: why do kids muck about in class?

The 'new' sociology

What emerges in Corrigan's account is the rejection by the boys of the traditional middle class concept of success achieved through hard work. But, even if in class terms this is an understandable, even accurate decision. Corrigan provides nothing by way of a working class alternative.

In his summary, Corrigan pictures working class youth as a large section of the population, that sees itself being pushed around with neither the consciousness or power to get out of the situation on their own. The book ends on a fairly pessimistic note with resistance to the state by working class pupils seen as a puny fight back against the determinism of the state machine.

Willis, unlike Corrigan, is primarily concerned with the cultural, as opposed to the educational. In particular, the experience of the:

'Cultural processes of being male, white, working class, unqualified, disaffected and moving into manual work in contemporary capitalism.'

His main concern is contained in the subtitle of his book, how do working class kids get working class jobs?, or more precisely why they not only let themselves get such jobs but positively embrace manual labour. They choose working class jobs. Willis wants to know why.

What intrigues Willis is the way that their own culture so effectively prepares working class kids for manual labour, while at the same time it is seen as resistance to, and partial penetration (understanding) of the real determinants of working class material existence. Fighting the system only ends up in confirming it.

Willis attempts to understand this paradox with an ethnographic study of 12 working class boys who are in open opposition to the cultural values of their school. Unlike Corrigan, Willis is far stronger in his rejection of conventional explanations for the boys' occupational destinies because they ignore the element of choice. The 'lads' consciously choose their labouring jobs and reject middle class careers.

Within school, the lads' rejections of middle class cultural values are lived out as a style that Willis describes as 'caged resentment'. It normally stops short of outright confrontation and instead employed wearing down tactics based on the idea of having a 'laff', smoking, drinking, and through clothes. Willis uncovers two exceptionally important points that differentiate the lads from the conformists in the school.

Caged resentment

First, the lads' reactions to school are group reactions, the values are collective rather than individualistic. Second, there is a glimpse of an attitude towards masculinity, adopted by the lads, that Willis later uses to good effect when he tries to explain what the main constraint is that prevents the lads breaking out of the cycle of working class absorption into manual labour.

Willis dismisses the notion that the lads' preference for manual labour is just a case of false consciousness. In fact, he argues that in important respects the lads are right.

First, the lads are clearly very aware of the sacrifices they would have to make in cultural terms in order to attempt to secure any limited amount of social mobility. It would cut them off from their roots and the security of their group of friends. Both in school and later at work, they feel they would have traded a slight rise in prestige and status in institutional terms for the loss of their freedom and masculinity. The school would turn them into 'cissies'. Second, they have grasped the fact that in reality, all the jobs for which they could apply are more or less the same, that the particular form of work matters very little. Consequently, the notion that the school can prepare them for a career fades into disbelief.

The power of these penetrations is however limited. The limitation is the result, argues Willis, of patriarchy. This limitation ensures the success of class reproduction. What the lads are rejecting in school is not just the idea of individual striving for success in favour of a group response of collective academic failure, but also the femininity of mental labour in favour of the masculinity of manual labour. This then is the inversion of the dominant ideology's evaluation of the worth of mental and manual labour and it traps them. Because the lads associate manual labour with masculinity it is positively embraced by them and thus ensures their absorption into manual labour.

What the boys in Willis' study disliked was the pointlessness of school. Having rejected what the school has to offer, time in school is wasted time and the only way to improve it is through generating excitement by causing disruption.

If these books are important it is because of the new direction that they give in considering pupil behaviour. The attempt to add a cultural dimension to the already well argued structural accounts of Althusser and Bowles and Gintis considerably enriches our knowledge of schooling, and serves notice on over-deterministic accounts of reproduction and social control.