Paul Willis Essay

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Paul Willis is a British cultural theorist and critical ethnographer whose landmark book, Learning to Labour (1977), is credited with transforming critical studies of education through its use of ethnography to theorize how social class is reproduced through the “lived culture” of youth.

Through an exploration of counter school culture among working class “lads” in an industrialized English town in the 1970s, Willis demonstrated that, in contrast to deterministic Marxist analyses prominent at the time, social class status was not reproduced passively through schooling; rather, structural forces were mediated through the cultural milieu of social agents who could see through the conditions of their existence. In the lads’ case, their critique of meritocracy, individualism, and credentialism manifested in an opposition to school authority that was expressed through stylized resistant practices aimed at both teachers and conformist students. The limitations of their critique, along with their virulent racism and sexism and an embrace of the masculinity they attributed to manual labor, ultimately consigned the youth, ironically through their own complicity, to working-class futures.

Learning to Labour was critiqued for its lack of theorization of the lads’ brutal sexism and for being too beholden to neo-Marxism despite protests otherwise. Willis responded to these criticisms in his extensive body of ethnographic and theoretical work focused on the creativity and radical potential of cultural production within powerful structural constraints. His books include Profane Culture (1978), Common Culture (1990), and The Ethnographic Imagination (2001). Willis, of working-class origins himself, was among the first generation of scholars at the legendary Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (as a student and later a research fellow). He has subsequently worked in public policy and in academia in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.


  1. Dolby, N., & Dimitriadis, G. (2004). Learning to labor in new times. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

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