Learning to labour
The question of the existence of class and where it derives from is an on-going argument between Marxists, Weberians and functionalists alike. As Andy Medhurst mentions; ‘class is never simply a category of the present tense. It is a matter of history, a relationship with tradition, a discourse of roots. ‘ (2000:20). Class is not an object that we can see and visualise, yet we know it exists within society. All human societies have some form of social inequality, where particular individuals and social groups have more power and prestige over others which can be related to wealth and economics.
This essay will look at cultural values and how they impact on our class positions within society. I will draw upon different examples in order to examine whether class still exists and how we relate structural factors to our own identity and attitudes. Finally, I shall discuss how these cultural values and social identities are related to economic and social reproduction over time. From a Marxist perspective, a class is a social group whose members share the same relationship to the means of production. Marx talks about class splitting and describes this in terms of class consciousness.
‘Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature; it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat’. (Marx 1848:222) He distinguished between a ‘class in itself’ and a ‘class for itself’ (Marx 1848:223). The latter, Marx argues, is when a social group fully becomes a class. The class struggles in society Marx analysed were in terms of their basic structures of economic organisation.
Therefore, due to the class relations that are in place, the Bourgeoisie can exploit the Proletariat. Marx describes society as a system which has its’ own internal logic and which no-one has control over. He explains how the Bourgeoisie produce ‘grave-diggers’ so that ‘its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable’ (Marx 1848:231). The Meritocratic system reproduces itself using the idea of nature. Therefore, some people are not capable of doing more interesting work and those that are, can get better jobs.
We understand the word ‘culture’ to ‘refer to that level at which social groups develop distinct patterns of life and give expressive form to their social and material life-experience’ Culture is not only the social relations of a group are structured but ‘the way those shapes are experienced, understood and interpreted’. (Clarke et al 1975:10). Social stratification is a particular form of social inequality. ‘Members of a particular stratum have a common identity, like interests and a similar lifestyle. ‘ (Haralambos 1991:24). The formation of subcultures is based on this structure and helps to produce and reinforce class culture.
Studies into the cultural meanings of class have often focused on whether the working class would play a role in overthrowing capitalism (Devine and Savage 2005). Paul Willis’ ‘Learning to Labour’ (1979) is a neo-Marxist approach to education and describes how it can have ‘unintended consequences on pupils which may not be beneficial to capitalism. ‘ (Haralambos 1991:249). Willis’ study of twelve working class boys recognises a particular conflict within the education system. He ‘rejects the view that there is any simple, direct relationship between the economy and the way the education system operates’ (Haralambos 1991:248).
Willis uses an ethnographic format within his research in order to look at ‘the cultural’. Willis states that he sees the cultural as ‘the product of collective human praxis’ (1977:4). Hence, he wanted to blend into the environment to gain a better picture of what he was studying rather than leaving it to what he thought was the case. He analyses how the boys’ attitude to education and work was understood through their class culture and which actually reinforced their class location in economic terms, through reproducing their own subordinate position in society.