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Contributions to understanding of the significance of class

Examine the work and influence of one social theorist on class and show how this has contributed to our understanding of the significance of class in people’s lives

In this essay I will be illustrating the work of Jay Macleod’s study (1987) ‘Aint No Makin It’ and examining the contribution that his research has accomplished amongst the academic study of the significance of social class in people’s lives. Firstly I will outline the background to his study and state the basis his research was premised on and the main objectives of his research, then we will discuss the main ideas which were associated with social reproduction theory in his study and how this focus point of his research provided the study with influential findings and implications. Then the essay will move on to discuss some other research which can be regarded as work that builds upon Macleod’s key findings before moving on to discuss why the specific methodological choices and theory he combines and draws upon were the best possible way to research his subjects .

Jay Macleod can be argued to be an ethnographic social researcher as his critical research study ‘Aint No Makin It (1995) is premised on the research method ethnography. His influential book is a result of a field research project which began as his undergraduate research thesis which took place between the periods of 1983 and 2007 in a low income housing project called Clarendon Heights situated in America, San Francisco. Macleod’s particular urban ethnography is significant to the study of social class as his research is concerned with the analysis of the aspirations, attitudes, hopes, class and racial barriers that young males encounter through the economic and cultural structure of American Society. In Addition, he examines concepts such as social mobility and the American Dream and the attitudes and perceptions his subjects have in relation to these (Macleod, 1995, p1-9)

Macleod worked as a youth worker in this poor working class housing development in order to study the aspirations of young teenage males in the neighbourhood and explore the reasons and factors which influenced these attitudes. Like typical low income public housing developments in America, Clarendon Heights has an aesthetic structure which represents neglect and decay and consists of predominantly female headed households where majority is of white race and the remaining population are a mixture of black and other minorities. He describes characteristics of the project as ‘over crowding, unemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse, crime and racism’ (Macleod, 1995, p6) as common features of the community.

His study and research sample focuses on two distinct peer groups which he labels as ‘The Brothers’ and ‘The Hangers’ which both have residence in Clarendon Heights. The ‘Brothers’ are a predominantly black group who are hardworking, determined to succeed in the world of work , engage in athletic sports and are optimistic about their futures and upward social mobility . On the other hand ‘The Hangers’ are a youth group of mainly white members and are characterised by their pessimistic outlook on many aspects of their lives such as work, education ,their future position in society and also engage in criminal and deviant activities on a regularly basis(Macleod, p1995,p1-8). It is this clear distinction and division in values that provides Macleod with the framework to study and gain an insight into the different lives of these young males and understand their aspirations. Consequently it can be observed then, that the main focus and objective of his study were based around the following research questions which were: What are the occupational aspirations of the Brothers and the Hallway Hangers? How are these aspirations formed? and their significance for the reproduction of social inequality. More specifically Macleod was interested to research particularly why there was such a variation in values between the groups that lived in the same area and in the same housing project (Macleod, 1995, p8).

More specifically what makes Macleod’s research project an influential study of social class is that he incorporates his own research and findings with key sociological theories of social reproduction which gives his work a great insight and depth of the significance of class in people’s lives. Particularly he looks at Bourdieu’s concept of Cultural Capital and Habitus but also refers to Bernstein & Heath’s notion of Linguistic Cultural Capital to analyse social reproduction and class issues in Clarendon Heights (Macleod, 1987, p13). However before moving on and analysing the relationship between the experiences of the Brothers and the Hangers in relation to these theories it is important to define these concepts that Macleod draws upon in this study.

One of the central social theorists that Macleod draws upon in his research is Bourdieu’s work on Cultural Capital and Habitus. These two concepts were crucial for the study as they formed the foundations to explain the aspirations and attitudes of both peer groups which Macleod reflects upon throughout the research. Particularly Bourdieu was a vital theorist for Macleod to draw his research upon, as like himself Bourdieu was concerned with the objective and external social forces that shape individuals attitudes and behaviours as well as a person’s perception of and action in the world. Before moving on to discuss the significance of these concepts in relation to Macleod’s findings it is important to define the terms (Appelrouth & Edles, 2007, p680-689).

Firstly cultural capital refers to ‘non material goods such as educational credentials, types of knowledge and enterprise, verbal skills and aesthetic preferences that can be converted into economic capital’ (Appelrouth & Edles, 2007, p688). According to Bourdieu it is this general cultural background that is passed down from one generation to the next ,which leads to cultural reproduction amongst the upper and working class. He goes on to state that the upper-class occupy essentially different cultural capital than the working class ,and institutions such as the education system reward the cultural capital of the dominant classes. This represents to us the significance of the education system in creating class based inequalities in society which will be analysed in detail subsequently (Macleod, 1987, p13-16).

Also, Bourdieus concept of habitus refers to ‘a mental filter that structures an individual’s perceptions experiences and practices such that the world takes on a taken for granted common sense appearance’ (Appelrouth & Edles, 2007, p686). The habitus therefore refers to an individual’s perception of the social world and influences their actions and orientations that they produce and accordingly reflects the ‘life chances which are tied to their particular social positions (Appelrouth & Edles, 2007 p686- 689). It is both elements of cultural capital and habitus that has implications for the significant of social class in the lives of both peer groups and for people in society.

Thus, Macleod’s findings symbolize that both these concepts play a meaningful role in not only shaping that attitudes and aspirations of the young adolescents but also impacting their social positions and circumstances in their future life. Whilst both peer groups shared the same social class background the youths differentiated in terms of their own cultural capital and habitus. The Hallway Hangers cultural capital and habitus can be illustrated as individuals who utilised restricted linguistic codes, engaged in a criminal enterprise of drugs and violence and in terms of education they rejected the achievement ideology which Macleod observes as non conformity at school and occupying a pessimistic outlook on life. Furthermore, in terms of their habitus they grew up in families where their parents occupy similar values to themselves where children are not encouraged to go to school and the main concern is bringing home money for the maintenance of the home. The Brothers on the other hand despite inhabiting in the same community as the Hangers occupy considerably different cultural capital and habitus. They are a group of optimistic youths who genuinely believe in the achievement ideology and meritocracy and envisage on building a better future for themselves and family, through hard work and dedication at school (Macleod, 1995, p135-139).

Macleod’s findings indicate that both cultural capital and habitus played a significant role in the differing attitudes the peer groups present to us in relation to their outlook on life, but also found that other factors such as social capital and physical relocation were significant in explaining social mobility and immobility. For example at a later stage in his research when investigating where the peer groups had landed themselves in terms of occupation and location his discoveries had intriguing implications for the significance of social class. He found that out of both peer groups the hangers who originally rejected the ideas of social mobility were slightly more successful in terms of the jobs they occupied and where they lived. Whereas the brothers who invested time in the achievement ideology found that their futures did not live up to their previously aspired middle class lifestyles. They experienced not only class inequality but also became subject to the dimension of racial discrimination which resulted in them living in society where they had very limited opportunities (Macleod, 2009, p411-419).

Furthermore, on the whole Macleod found that the one of the main factors which aided to improve the social position’s the youths occupied were not only educational qualifications but the human capital they utilised in terms of social networks. Findings show that many of the members of his study had found jobs due to the specific resources they had, such as the contacts they knew which helped them gain jobs , increase their social capital and aim for increased social mobility whilst also acknowledging that a lack of human capital can prevent them entering jobs (Macleod, 2009, p411-419).

Therefore from Macleod’s research a key feature which appears to be evident in shaping the social class in people’s lives is the value of social and human capital for creating and allowing social mobility. Particularly the importance of these factors have led to considerable recognition in the academic field concerning social indicators for social mobility and has led to research concerning the role of human capital analysis in shaping social mobility patterns for individuals in society. This can be observed in Land & Spilerman’s (1975) work which examines the relationship between occupational achievement and social mobility, which they illustrate as two closely related phenomenons. Their research demonstrates that an individual’s occupational achievement determines and influences their social class positions, however their occupational achievement is dependent on a variety of features such as a person’s ability, values, ,motivation (Human Capital) which differ from person to person and are also important social indicators for the level of social mobility they are able to achieve . Also, a key determinant for their occupational achievement is the availability of job vacancies and the distribution of opportunities which are available and become accessible for the individual in the economic structure (Land & Spilerman, 1975, p334-344). In relation to Aint no Makin it we can identify where Land & Spilerman’s work is apparent , for example the research indicated that the youths benefited from the economic expansion in the 1990’s but structural factors which accounted for their differences between them were race, class, geographic location are a few amongst many other factors causing inequality. As a result this human capital analysis can without question be distinguished in Macleod’s study where findings represent that the youths specific resources and opportunities shaped their pursuits from early on in the research which in turn led them to disqualify themselves from certain desirable occupations which caused the majority of them to reproduce their original social class positions (Macleod, 2009, p411-415).

As mentioned earlier the study manifests important indications which identify the education system as a key perpetrator which generates and reproduces class based inequalities for individuals in society. For example both the Brothers and the Hangers discover that the educational system was unsuccessful with providing them with the correct skills, contacts, cultural skills etc which would allow them to climb the conventional middle class ladder to economic capital and achievement. This can be observed in the study where this disbelief is proclaimed by a member of the Hangers named Shorty:

Hey, you can’t get no education around here unless if you’re fucking rich, y’know? You can’t get no education.... And you can’t get a job once they find out where you come from. You come from Clarendon Heights? Oh shit. It’s them kids again. (Macleod, 1987, p121)

These particular attitudes are perceived by the subculture the Hangers adopt, where they view their social positions at the bottom of the class structure as a defining element for their future opportunities and regard the American opportunity structure as plagued by unfairness and elitism (Macleod, 1989, 120-121). These ideas of skepticism in the American Education System is exhibited by Sacks (2007) research on Class Matters, where his work focuses on confronting class divisions which continue to persist in American Education in contemporary society. He argues that despite reformation in university admissions systems aiming to create more diverse student populations representing social class diversity, it’s apparent that America’s higher education system is stratified by social class now more than the past 30 years. He also suggests that the opportunity gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged in the U.S have not minimized but in actual fact have become broader between students from affluent backgrounds and those from the lower strata, whilst educational inequalities concerning gender, racial and ethnic lines by a great deal have diminished. In Addition, Sack argues the ‘American higher education system resembles a pyramid’ (Sacks, 2007, p118) where the pinnacle of the structure consists of a few highly desirable and particular institutions whilst the base consists of a larger number of non selective community colleges. These clear divisions has led to the creation of a system of class reproduction where students from upper middle class families dominate the private and public universities and community colleges remain for the disadvantaged groups .This in turn creates an economic structure where two separate systems seem to be in place alongside each other where one is catered for the elite and the other as a post secondary education which is designated for the poor, working class and immigrants who become trained for jobs which are designed to serve the dominant leadership class. As a result, Sacks proposal signifies that differences in income supplemented with differences in social and cultural capital amongst rich and poor families produce inequalities in children’s aspirations and accomplishments. Therefore these implications represent that social class is still a key factor in shaping an individual’s background from a very early age as presented to us with the case of the institution of Education in American Society (Sack, 2007,p111-p119) .

Now that we have closely looked at the theoretical implications of Macleod’s study in relation to the social reproduction theories that he draws upon, it is intriguing to consider his methodological origins and approach to studying social class.

Firstly, it is important to note that his research can be argued to be associated with the academic thought of the Birmingham School also known as the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. The school is associated with developing a cultural field of sociology through utilising traditional methods of ethnography whilst also having its origins in Marxist sociology .Specifically they are concerned with the reproduction of order in capitalist society and adopt the view that subcultures are a form of resistance to dominant ideology and a rejection of the rules of the capitalist ruling class (Downes & Rock, 2007, p235). Therefore it is clear to observe that Macleod’s study can be situated within the Birmingham School tradition as his focus was mainly on the process of the social reproduction of classes in the United States.

As mentioned earlier Macleod’s study is based on the research methodology of ethnography and it is vital to analyse the way he carried out his research as this technique resulted in the influential composition of his research. Firstly ethnography has its roots in the qualitative research tradition and can be defined as a strategy which:

draws on a family of methods, involving direct and sustained contact with human agents , within the context of their daily lives and cultures, watching what happens, listening to what is said and asking questions and results in richly written accounts that respect the irreducibility of human experience (O’Reily , 2004,p3)

Thereby the family of methods that Macleod utilises in his study, range from intensive participant observation, unstructured interviews, group discussions and visual ethnography where tape recorders were used to document interviews. It was these range of methods with the combination of him drawing upon social reproductionist theories that allowed the research to become an all inclusive study of the significance of social class in people’s lives as both theory and data were informed by each other.

In view of that, it is important to illustrate that one of the key methods that was utilised in the study which allowed Macleod to gain a true insight into the culture and nature of the lives of both peer groups was intensive participant observation. Macleod fully immersed himself within the Clarendon Heights community and gradually developed a close relationship with the subjects through the twelve months that he spent in the youth enrichment programme. He participated in various activities that the youths engaged in such as playing sports, helping them with homework, ‘hanging around’ with them in the hallways and participating in other day to day activities within the community. It was only through taking part in these activities that allowed Macleod to develop rapport and be in a position which allowed him to have a respected status and position in the community that allowed the subjects to have trust in him and allow him to complete his research . However a key ethical issue which arises when using this methodology when researching a community is informing the subjects about the nature of the research and within this study Macleod only informed the subjects of the study of his research once he had established a good degree of rapport with them. Informing the subjects about his research allowed him to then more easily study his subjects as the participants were more aware of his true intentions (Macleod, 1987, p270-277).

The findings of the study were primarily found through the use of intensive participant observation which according to Cargan (2007) is a rewarding method that allows the researcher to persistently negotiate with the subject which allows the research to be frequently analysed and informed. Also participant observation allows the researcher to immerse into an authentic life situation and provides the research with concrete examples of the field being studied (Cargan, 2007, p154). More importantly, it can be observed that the choice of this method was a key strength of Aint No Makin it as it allowed the study to have an element of real life significance where the research findings have important implications for not only the subjects of the study but other readers of the study . Implications here which are noteworthy are the impacts of social class and background on the creation of the types of aspirations and attitudes youths adopt ,as well as the degree to which particular social class origins can constrain and limit the opportunities that are available in the economic structure for different individuals (Macleod, 2009,p408-120) .

Also another critical ethnography which is associated with the Birmingham School is Paul Willis’s study (1977) ‘Learning to Labour- How working class kids get working class jobs ‘. This study like Macleod was conducted to understanding how working class attitudes, perceptions and life experiences function as creating oppositional structures to upward intergenerational mobility. Willis’s study in England finds similar findings to Macleod’s as it looks at two distinct subject groups ‘ The Lads and The Ear’oles’ and found that working class students believed that conformity at school would not result in future prosperity. Importantly he found that these expressions at school were produced and reproduced in the homes which led to lower class attitudes about the institution of school contributing to social reproduction of their class position. So like the ‘Hangers’ in Macleod’s study the ‘Lads’ had gained an insight of how society functioned and their attitudes and behaviour in relation to their situation created a working class culture where values of non conformity and rebellion predominated. Therefore both these studies which originate from the Birmingham School tradition represent to us the reasons for the formation of anti – school subcultures in schools and also illustrate to us the structural inequalities that exist in the education system where different values and systems seem to be in place to favour the middle class whilst the lower and working class are alienated from the potential of success due to social class origins (Kinchcloe & Steinberg, 2007, p80-83). However it is also important to keep in mind that the school of thought has been criticized by feminists such as McRobbie (1980) for failing to acknowledge the interests of women in their research and producing male centred studies focusing only on male class culture. This is evident in both Willis and Macleod’s study that focuses on male subcultures , although Macleod in his study acknowledges this gap in his findings (McRobbie, 1980, p66-67).

So Overall, in conclusion it can be can visibly evident that Macleod’s study Aint No Makin it is a successful critical ethnography which creatively combines key social reproductionist theories and research data to illustrate the importance of social class. His findings have important indications of the role social class acts as a structural form which influences and shapes the types of aspirations and attitudes young individuals in society adopt for themselves. He also highlights the crucial importance of concepts such as cultural capital and habitus in shaping social class patterns and by observing other work that has been completed within this field we can learn that these concepts are still of importance in contemporary society and social class still remains a key indicator when considering the potential of social mobility . More significantly, his particular research approach and methodology allows him to form a comprehensive insightful study that has considerable depth as his research was based on real life individuals and real life situations which places his work within a rich context that makes the study accessible to read leading to its international influence.

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