White Working-Class Boys’ Learner Identities in Neoliberal Times

by Garth Stah
from Gender and Education Association

In recent years there has been growing concern over the pervasive disparities in academic achievement that are highly influenced by ethnicity, class and gender. Within the neoliberal policy rhetoric, there has been concern over the underachievement of working-class young males in the United Kingdom, specifically white working-class boys. The historic persistence of this pattern, and the ominous implication of these trends, has led to a growing chorus that something must be done to intervene.  However, as evidenced by Parliamentary hearing on the Underperformance of White Working Class Children in February 2014 (Select Committee on Education, 2014), the phenomenon of white working-class ‘underperformance’ is incredibly complex.

My research examines the identities of white working-class boys in school and problematises some of the barriers that are commonly (and crudely) associated with white working-class culture in educational contexts, such as lack of aspiration, parental attitudes toward school, insufficient work ethic and poor attendance (Evans, 2006; Demie and Lewis, 2010). We must consider how high levels of so-called ‘disaffection’ towards education in white working-class communities actually represent a certain struggle to negotiate an identity out of limited repertoires of social and cultural resources within these institutions. My focus is on how white working-class boys make sense of social mobility and aspiration in their school contexts and how it shapes their subjectivities (Gillborn and Kirton, 2000; McLeod, 2009).

Today’s urban youth construct their identities in ‘local/global contexts’ (McLeod, 2009) and the participants of this study are ‘working out their “place” and “legitimacy” within urban arrangements that are, at their best, residual spaces of surplus meaning pointing to previous forms of intense working-class resilience’ (Dillabough and Kennelly, 2010: 105). Such identity negotiations may result either in them ‘finding’ or ‘losing’ certain traditional working-class identities (Reay, 2001; Skeggs, 2004).

The data collection for this study occurred immediately following the financial crisis of 2007–2008 and during the July 2011 riots in London, Manchester and Birmingham. Both events shaped discourses around economic austerity, benefit culture and anti-social behavior.  The young men in my study exist in urban spaces which are continually pathologised as ‘“unfit” and undesirable’ (Archer et al., 2010) or ‘rubbish’ and ‘shit’ (Lucey and Reay, 2002). Therefore, the intermeshings of ‘place’, ‘legitimacy’ and ‘respectability’ are considered to be crucial components of both social and learner identity construction.  It has become increasingly difficult for these young males to establish a so-called ‘good life’ within an era of high neoliberalism (Stahl, 2012).

The current neoliberal discourse, which prioritises a view of aspirations that is competitive, economic and status-based, shapes the subjectivities of these young males and contributes to the formation of counternarratives. Through observation, interviews and focus groups over the course of nine months, I collected evidence which strongly indicated how boys centered their ‘identity work’ on what I call egalitarianism, an egalitarian habitus, defined as the internal process of reconciling dispositions, which allowed them to constitute themselves as ‘having value’ in the hegemonic neoliberal discourses of ‘best’ and ‘worst’ where they are often devalued.

Egalitarianism is defined through a disposition toward ‘fitting in’ and being ‘loyal to oneself’, where everyone has an ‘equal say in the world’ and where ‘no one is better than anyone else’ or ‘above their station.’  With egalitarianism, there are strong echoes here of traditional working-class dispositions toward historic, solidarist, communal values.  The boys often articulated their desire to disassociate themselves from being classified as aspirational subjects; interestingly, such disassociations came from their conceptions of their own social class and masculine identities.  As a counter-habitus to the neoliberal ideology, egalitarianism is how the boys come to understand the cards they have been dealt in life. I explore egalitarian habitus as a process of internalizing future academic failure where there are overlaps with Bourdieu’s theoretical framework of symbolic violence (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992).

With this investigation of white working-class boys we see the tangled relationship between school structures and practices. I am interested in how social class is (re)formed through identities and historic cultural practices rather than a simple reflection of economic capital and occupations.  In investigating classed identities I consider how white working-class boys are ‘socially positioned and discursively constituted subjects within educational sites’ (Burke, 2007: 412).  Simultaneously, the research considers the influence of different discourses of aspiration that youth draw upon.

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