White Working-Class Boys’ Learner Identities in Neoliberal Times

Garth Stahl, now at the University of South Australia, discusses his research in London, UK, on white working class boys. Garth’s book Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration: Educating White Working-class Boys is now available from Routledge.


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.

About the author: Garth Stahl (@GarthStahl) is a Lecturer in Literacy and Sociology at University of South Australia.  He is a theorist of sociology of education. His research interests lie on the nexus of neoliberalism and socio-cultural studies of education, identity, equity/inequality, and social change.  Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of learner identities, gender and youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference, and educational reform.  Of particular interest to him is exploring counternarratives to neoliberalism around ‘value’ and ‘respectability’ for working-class youth.

 References in the text:

Archer, L., Hollingworth, S. and Mendick, H. (2010) Urban youth and schooling: The experiences and identities of educationally ‘at risk’ young people. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Bourdieu, P. and L. Wacquant, 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Brown, P. (2013) Education, opportunity, and the prospects for social mobility. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34(5–6), 678–700.

Burke, P. (2007) Men accessing education: Masculinities, identifications and widening participation. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28(4), 411–424.

Demie, F. and Lewis, K. (2010) White working class achievement: An ethnographic study of barriers to learning in schools. Educational Studies, 33(2), 1–20.

Dillabough, J.A. and Kennelly, J. (2010) Lost youth in a global city: Class, culture and the urban imaginary. New York: Routledge.

Evans, G. (2006) Educational failure and working class white children in Britain. Palgrave: Macmillan.

Gillborn, D. and Kirton, A. (2000) White heat: Racism, under-achievement, and white working-class boys. Inclusion and Special Educational Needs, 4(4), 271–288.

Lucey, H. and Reay, D. (2002) Carrying the beacon of excellence: Social class differentiation and anxiety at a time of transition. Journal of Education Policy, 17(3), 321–336.

McLeod, J. (2009) Youth studies, comparative inquiry, and the local/global problematic. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 31(4), 270–292.

Reay, D. (2001) Finding or losing yourself? Working-class relationships to education. Journal of Education Policy, 16(4), 333–346.

Select Committee on Education. (2014) Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children. 1st Report. Session 2013–2014. London: UK Parliament, House of Commons.

Skeggs, B. (2004) Class, self, culture. London: Routledge.

Stahl, G. (2012) Aspiration and a good life among white working-class boys in London. Journal of Qualitative and Ethnographic Research, 7(8–9), 8–19.

Wexler, P. (1992) Becoming somebody: Toward a social psychology of school. London: The Falmer Press.





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