Dialectic between Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction – Review on Paul Willis

Roland Lucas

Culture, Identity and Education

CUNY Grad Center



Views of social reproduction (from introduction)

1)    Radical Marxists “Reproduction” theory

  1. Expressed through the work of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America.
  2. Schools were assigned by capitalist with the task of reproducing the labor power for an industrial order whose jobs were organized hierarchically. 
  3. The curriculum, the authority relations, and the life in the classroom all conspired to persuade the working classes and the poor that their destiny was to remain on the bottom of the social, economic, and political rungs.
  4. What happens in schools then is determined by macro and meso level structures of inequality.


2)    The Paul Willis’ Cultural view – How reproduction of labor power becomes subjectively apprehended.

  1. He is in agreement with the reproduction theories on the function of schools; but he focuses on the cultural processes that produce these results in ways that are unique to the local context.
  2. The local culture (working class lads or workers), through their own ideologies (rebellious, disaffection with dominant societies rules) and subjectivities, reproduce / constitute themselves as working class subjects of the dominant culture.

3)     Ethnographic method (pgs 4-6)

  1. Ethnographic account of a main group of 12 white, non-academic working-class, counter-culture ‘lads’ in both the school and work settings
  2. The location was an all-boys school in British industrial town, Hammertown during inter-war years.
  3. Willis assumed the role of ‘participant-observer’

                                                               i.      Conducted Interviews, group discussions, participant observations with groups of working class boys in their last two years of school and early months of work.)

                                                             ii.      Conducted Interviews with shop floor workers and parents of working class kids.

Essential Questions:

  1. How do we reconcile the formal equality of the educational system with the persistence of class inequality? How do we account for the strong tendency of working class children to end up in jobs similar to those of their parents?
  2. b.      How is the ruling-class hegemony maintained in school, if not by the direct imposition of the dominant ideology on a passive working class?

Essential Claims:

  1. Existing liberal and radical explanations of this phenomenon have tended to be over mechanistic and over deterministic, stressing variously socialization factors, theories of correspondence between school and society and the imposition of a dominant ideology on a largely passive working class. (i.e. Bourdieu concept of cultural capital). These approaches have concentrated on mechanistic, recurring features of class-based school failure, and have produced positivist views of society, which are quite unable to account for contradiction, transformation or change.
  2. It is absurd… to think that something called capital could coherently think out its list of tight social conditions-these and no other; still less could it imprint them on a malleable class. (p. 50)
  3. His case is that the ethnographic method, with its emphasis on the subject, necessarily uncovers aspects of social reality which are not prefigured in the theoretical structure: Although it involves the general form of *(dominant structures), it does not include specific explanation; especially concerning the manner, the ‘how’ or the degree of external determination of a given social region. Nor does it anticipate the particular meaning of the future flow of data. (p. 90)

4)    Theory of Culture for analysis – Key components

  1. a.      There are significant points of contact and similarities between the counter-school culture and the larger pattern of working class culture. Local cultural production must be put in context of surrounding cultural currents.
  2. The essence of social reproduction in schools reside not merely in some dominant and invincible institutional determinants, but also in the cultural forms, which are partly produced within as an expression of the lived contradictions of non-dominant cultures within institutional frameworks.
  3. ‘Penetration’ is described as: “impulses within a cultural form towards the penetration of the conditions of existence of its members and their position within the social whole”. However, these penetrations are never total. (p. 119).
  4. Limitation – Structures that tend to constrain / determine possible outcomes of social, political and economic activity.
  5. The term ‘partial penetration’ denotes the interaction of penetrations and limitations within the concrete culture of the working class. The crucial importance of this concept is that it attempts to describe how ideology is both partly produced and incorporated within the counter-school culture.
  6. Cultural forms are produced by the differential assimilation, rejection and subversion of dominant meanings or ideologies at particular sites in the social system. *(how is this different from the meaning of penetration?)
  7. Ideology – prevailing ideas (collective consensus), explanations / rationalizations for established relations that also guide choices of action. They can emanate from macro institutional levels down through local levels, or from the local to the macro levels.  Where ideologies finally get enacted is a dialectic between the macro and micro level sources. 
  8. h.     What is culture? Culture is formed by the active, collective use and exploration of received symbolic, ideological and cultural resources to explore, make sense of and positively respond to ‘inherited’ structural and material conditions. (1983, p. 112)
  9. i.        The most important aspect of cultural processes for Willis is not that they actively contribute to social reproduction, but that they create meanings within structures; ‘culture’ is a form by which agents become ‘connected’ to, and part of, structure.
  10. j.        Cultural Production: The transformative aspects of cultural production, that is of the meanings that agents create within structures, is of importance to Willis: Cultural production, then, insists on the active, transformative nature of cultures, and on the collective ability of social agents, not only to think like theorists, but act like activists.


5)     Dialectical relationships: Limitations / Penetrations; Deterministic reproduction / transformation; Cultural Reproduction / Social Reproduction; Structure / Agency

  1. The crucial division, distortions and transferences, which have been examined, arise not so much from ideas and values mediated downward from the dominant social group, but from internal cultural relationships. Certain aspects of the working class cultural affirmation of manual labor considered here are profoundly important both ideologically and materially, and are, if anything, exported upwards to a largely uncomprehending official ideological apparatus. (p. 60)
  2. Willis suggests that there is no clear separation between agency (transformative action) and structure; these cannot be understood in isolation from one another.


  1. c.       ‘Cultural production’, reproduction and social reproduction

                                                              i.      Each class in the capitalist social formation develops its own cultural forms, in relation to its position in the social system. These cultural forms contribute, in different ways, to the maintenance and reproduction of existing social relations.

                                                            ii.      These cultural forms do not co-exist happily in peaceful consensus. Rather, within each generation, the cultural level is a site for contestation, resistance and compromise between dominant and dominated classes.

                                                          iii.      The objects of conflict are the contradictions, which are inherent within the capitalist mode of production. (e.g. structural inequalities, economic crises, contested work relations etc.) Thus the cultural level is constantly dialectically constituting and dynamically reproducing itself.

                                                          iv.      In order to constitute a reproduced social relationship as a dynamic and contested one, we must explicitly recognize the somewhat independent logics of cultural production, the different meanings they play across the social relationship, and the ideological and limiting processes which produce cultural reproduction from production and link thereby, with social reproduction. (1981, p. 49)


6)      Generalizable Claims

  1. a.      There exists a relationship of ideology at the cultural level (i.e. partial penetration) to a broader social framework (i.e. ideology in material formation)


  1. b.      Cultural processes are ideological, but not merely the ‘received’ ideology of dominant institutions; dominant ideologies are partially incorporated and partially subverted in the working-class culture. Thus, although the mode of production maintains a ‘powerful formative influence’ on their development, which mediates a tendency towards cultural and social reproduction, this is in no way a mechanistic or pre-determined process.


  1. There is no certain or predetermined connection between this form of reproduction and social reproduction. Although it is clear that reproduction (in the above sense) occurs, and also that social reproduction continues, he argues that culture is produced and reproduced ‘in between’ the two processes.


  1. Culture stands between the two: structures are “produced through struggle, and in the collective self-formation of subjects and the working-class”, and “the working class is formed in and through… the structures and characteristic forms of a capitalist society”.


  1. Cultural production can never be merely a process of assigning simple meanings to events, but rather of trying to understand interwoven, contradictory and often ‘uncontrollable’ aspects of social life. The essential point that Willis makes is that cultural choices made in one direction may bring about, in profound yet unperceived ways, unintended effects in another.


7)    Implications for Identity formation

Cultural production, the active process of mitigating macro and meso level structures through agentic enactments to achieve individual and collective goals, will no doubt have significant implications for identity development of actors, individually and collectively, in the fields of their social activity.


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