Ain’t No Makin’ It

Assignment for Approaches to Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

If you’re looking for a gripping and highly readable (though depressing) sociological study, I strongly recommend this one.

Ain't No Makin' It

The purpose of MacLeod’s study is to understand how class inequality reproduces itself, using the example of two groups of young men living in a housing project. He asks how these young people reconcile America’s dominant ideology of individual achievement, where success is based on merit, and economic inequality is due to differences in ambition and ability, with the reality of the participants’ own limited choices and opportunities. In particular, MacLeod addresses the question of whether education ensures equality of opportunity as it is purported to do.

It’s an article of faith among Americans that education is a ladder of social mobility available for anyone to climb if they are sufficiently motivated. However, class inequality is persistent across generations. MacLeod attributes this to the flattened aspirations of poor and working-class youth. “[O]ccupational aspirations, as a mediating link between socioeconomic structures (what society offers) and individuals at the cultural level (what one wants)” play a crucial role in reproducing class inequality (22) because if young people don’t even attempt to attain higher status, it’s exceedingly unlikely that their material condition will improve. MacLeod urges us to understand how the achievement ideology that supposedly motivates us can act as a psychological barrier to the aspirations of lower-class young people. He cites Weber’s argument that privileged people develop an ideology that explains their privilege as natural, and over time non-privileged people come to accept it as well. Achievement ideology serves the interests of the middle and upper classes in naturalizing their privilege, and blunts the motivation of less privileged Americans to challenge the situation.

MacLeod surveys the proponents of reproduction theory, the mechanisms by which the rich get richer. These theorists differ in their idea of how deterministic social reproduction is, and what role (if any) individual autonomy might play. The Marxist theories of Bowles and Gintis point to the structural requirements of capitalism in which individuals are required to play predefined roles, which is a purely deterministic stance. Bowles and Gintis, as Marxists, argue that the function of schools in a capitalist society is to produce skilled labor, to legitimize the meritocracy, to reinforce stratified status groups, and to generally train young people to accept the social division of labor, to train the wealthy to manage and the poor to be managed. Bowles and Gintis argue in favor of the correspondence principal, that power relations in the school mirror power relations in broader society. They point out that schools serving working-class communities are more regimented and emphasize behavioral control, while schools serving middle-class communities are more open, and put more emphasis on students’ autonomy. In this context, the term “executive function” takes on a significant double meaning.

Bourdieu’s conception of reproduction theory is less deterministic. Schools do not directly oppress the poor; instead, they subtly reward upper and middle class cultural capital. Schools are “the trading post where socially valued cultural capital is parlayed into superior academic performance” (14), which in turn can be cashed in for good jobs. We nevertheless imagine schools pretend to be purely meritocratic, as part of the way that established orders always naturalize their own arbitrariness. Academic performance gets cashed in for good jobs. The middle class habitus creates an expectation of academic and economic success, while the poor/working class poor habitus fosters no such expectation. MacLeod points out that while Bourdieu shows how habitus accompanies behavior, he does not quite explain how (or whether) habitus determines or shapes behaviors.

Bernstein and Brice extend the concepts of cultural capital and the habitus by examining language patterns. Working class language uses a “restricted code” made up of local conventions, where meanings are implicit and context-dependent. By contrast, middle-class language uses “elaborated codes to express the unique perspective and experience of the speaker; meanings are less tied to a local relationship and local social structure and consequently are made linguistically explicit” (17). Schools reward this kind of explicit analytical language. Heath further extends the class-based analysis of language to address its intersection with race. She observes that while white middle class parents frequently ask their children questions, black working class parents speak to their children in imperative statements. The white children continually practice the language habits they will use in school. The white working class operates somewhere in between. Their language habits prepare children well for elementary school, but do not teach the integrative skills necessary for high school and beyond.

The culturally attuned models of Willis and Giroux are the most concerned with individual autonomy. They begin by examining individual experiences, and then connect those to demands of capitalist social relations (12). Willis argues that while economic forces might put bounds on reality, people make sense of that reality in the cultural milieu. The “lads” in his study reject school because they recognize that there is nothing to be gained by repressing themselves in order to fit into its behavioral strictures. The lads equate manual labor with masculinity, and mental labor with femininity, so they cheerfully embrace their class status rather than mobilizing against it. In Willis’ model, the means of production influence the cultural sphere, but do not completely determine it. While Willis beautifully explains the lads, MacLeod observes that he does not address the complicit majority of kids, the “ear’oles,” necessarily making his theory incomplete. “If economic determinants have the overriding importance that theorists such as Bowles and Gintis suggest, how can two groups from the same social location embody two distinctly different cultural orientations” (22)?

Giroux presents a theory of behavior as a tension between determinants and autonomy, both of which are equally real factors. He argues that school resistance is an expression of moral and political indignation, not psychological dysfunction (21). “[O]ppositional cultural patterns draw on elements of working-class culture in a creative and potentially transformative fashion… the mechanisms of class domination are neither static nor final” (22). It is this theoretical framework that most strongly informs MacLeod.

MacLeod’s research asks, what is the relationship between structural determinants like the blue-collar job market and cultural practices like rejection of school in perpetuating class inequality? Given that the Hallway Hangers and the Brothers experience such similar socioeconomic and family circumstances, why are their attitudes about their own prospects so different? And why are the mostly black Brothers so much more optimistic and ambitious than the mostly white Hallway Hangers, in defiance of popular stereotypes? Are the flattened aspirations of the Hallway Hangers merely symptomatic of social dysfunction and personal failure, or are they a reasonable (if counterproductive) reaction to the Hangers’ lived experience? And are the Brothers’ aspirations be sufficient to overcome the structural obstacles they face? How does ethnicity influence the meanings that the young men in the study attach to their experiences? What are causes and consequences of racism? And what potential is there for nonconformity and resistance to disrupt the process of social reproduction?

MacLeod’s methodology consists entirely intensive participant observation. He actively participates in his subjects’ lives more actively than most ethnographers, because he functions both as a youth worker and a researcher. His method is consistent with the value that he places on understanding the subjective experience of class structure as felt by poor/working class youth, as he seeks to understand the interplay between their individual agency and the economic realities constraining it.

MacLeod’s main operating theory is that individuals and groups respond to structures of domination “in an open-ended manner” (138). Macro models of class reproduction set the context of individual choices, but do not determine them. Otherwise it would be impossible to explain the wide divergence in attitudes toward schooling expressed by the Hallway Hangers and the Brothers. MacLeod points to the degree of autonomy that these young men exercise at the cultural level, regardless of their nearly identical socioeconomic status.

MacLeod’s basic finding is that the Hallway Hangers and Brothers follow two substantially different paths within the strictures that social reproduction places on them. This finding challenges theories of economic determinism, which can not account for the counterintuitive differences between Hangers and Brothers. The Hallway Hangers reject achievement ideology and are largely hopeless, which severely limits their aspirations. The Brothers have middle-class aspirations. How did this disparity arise? MacLeod points to several factors. The Brothers understand themselves to be on the way up, since their families have only been in the projects a short time. The Hallway Hangers’ families have lived in the projects for many years or even many generations. Also, the Brothers are buoyed by then-recent civil rights progress and affirmative action. Finally, the Brothers’ ethos is to some extent a reaction to the existence of the Hallway Hangers, who the Brothers recognize will not present much competition for any opportunities that do exist.

However optimistic their outlook may be, the Brothers lack the cultural capital to translate their attitudes into attainment of their goals. The faith that they place in their schooling as a ladder to success turns out to be substantially misplaced. For example, the Occupational Education program in their high school overtly prepares students for manual labor (116). By embracing achievement ideology, the Brothers internalize their failure. In this context, MacLeod finds that the Hallway Hangers’ rejectionism is rational. “The desire of these boys to go for the fast buck, to focus only on the present, becomes understandable in light of the uncertainty of the future and their bona fide belief that they may be in prison or dead” (107). They regard the benefit of school, supposedly improved prospects for social mobility, as not being worth the psychological, social and opportunity costs. They correctly view themselves as “physically hard, emotionally durable, and boldly enterprising” (119). However, the Hangers’ subculture is not isolated from the norms of broader culture that views them as failures and fuckups. They are ambivalent, trying to reconcile achievement culture with a sense of the structural obstacles they face. They resolve some of this cognitive dissonance with racism, which unfortunately soaks up whatever activist energy might come out of their perceptive read on their structural barriers. This is an example of how “cultural innovations can be at once both functional and dysfunctional for social reproduction” (152).

The only solution that MacLeod sees to the reproduction of class inequality is a genuine open society, one that offers realistic prospects of upward mobility. Significant wealth redistribution would be a good start. In order for that to happen, Americans will need to develop a more skeptical attitude toward achievement ideology and embrace class struggle as a reality. Political parties and labor unions are not equipped to foster the necessary class consciousness and solidarity. Education can fill the vacuum by adopting Paolo Freire’s praxis: “when learners perceive the structural roots of their own plight, they develop a sense of personal dignity and are energized with a new hope” (266). Schools need to help poor and working class students build positive identities, not shame or lie to them with achievement ideology.

MacLeod presents another possible avenue for change with the story of Stoney, the only vaguely happy ending among the Hallway Hangers. Stoney is “saved by the drum”, motivated to overcome his obstacles by his discovery of a love of rock drumming. He reflects on being a drum tech and playing in bands at age forty: “I’ve met so many people, worked big shows, hung out with bands, playing in bands… it’s kept me out of trouble. I love to see music and kids. Music is just so positive for people. It just makes you feel good. With music, anybody can really do it if you practice hard enough” (318). In other words, it is an area where achievement ideology actually makes sense. Music also enables transgression of class and race boundaries. As a music educator, I see this story as genuine reason for hope.