Book Review: Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration – Educating white working-class boys

garthreview by Sadia Habib

Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration – Educating white working-class boys

by Garth Stahl

Adopting a culturalist approach and a Bourdieusian lens, the book focuses on research conducted in London to learn about  white working-class students’ experiences, identities and aspirations in the multiple sites of school, home and community, with the underlying theoretical approach that “identity is always residual, refracted, emergent and contested” (p1).  Identity is constructed and contested in spaces such as schools and communities, and thus the book successfully explores the nuances involved in white working-class boys’ social and learner identities as they strike a balance between sometimes fluid and sometimes fixed identities.  Neoliberalism encourages “competitive, economic and status-based” aspirations and subjectivities (p2), and these boys’ lives are inevitably shaped by neoliberal systems of schooling, where the boys want to do well, but not too well.  In the contemporary globalised world, where identities are fluid, flexible and hybrid, Stahl also points towards how some white working-class youth experience identities and subjectivities that are “fixed in place by both circumstances – material, economic, familial, cultural” and by “neoliberal discourses” (p159). The boys become neoliberal subjects “enmeshed in processes of individualisation and individualised failure”, yet they work towards presenting themselves as “valuable individuals where egalitarianism becomes a process of amelioration, contestation or resistance” (p133).

Following contemporary theories and empirical studies on classificatory struggles, Stahl too discusses social class as cultural and ideological, rather than solely concerned with wealth and occupations, thus the research highlights in great detail how white working-class boys are socially positioned in schools.  Aspiration and subjectivities are thoroughly explored in order for us to gain a deeper insight into the shaping and re-shaping of learner and social identities.  Stahl shows how white working-class boys’ subjectivities and aspirations are intricately meshed with social, structural and economic factors, and he problematizes what he refers to as common and crude conceptions of white working-class culture – for example, poor aspirations, poor parental attitudes, poor work ethic and poor attendance.  The boys’ aspirations are shown to be deeply intertwined with neoliberal educational practices, all the while schools’ policies and practices regarding ability and achievement, through certain fixed assumptions, can result in racist and classist ideological structures.  The research explores the contradictions and ambivalences in identity issues as the boys fear academic failure but simultaneously they fear academic success. Stahl offers recommendations of ways in which schools and teachers could better engage white working-class boys in order for them to enjoy and benefit from the curriculum and general schooling in order for them to enhance their learner and social identities.  Having taught for in white working-class communities for many years

Part One of the book reviews contemporary education debates and literature on the educational policies which impact upon white working-class communities, in particular, drawing upon Bourdieu, Stahl raises key concerns about aspirations and identities of white-working class boys.  In keeping with contemporary revival of Bourdieu’s theoretical frameworks, Stahl advocates multiple and nuanced readings of gendered/classed identities and aspirations through a detailed examination of interrelated and interdependent capitals, habitus, field and associated disjunctures. Part Two of the book then goes onto examining the site of the school and the identity work therein – how identity construction and contestation impacts upon the boys’ definitions and discourses of everyday experience of social class, and as a result the consequences for their learning and aspirations.  We learn about how these boys have become adept in evading “labels, judgements and distinctions” (p7), and how they adopt strategies to reaffirm their own respectability through a process of ‘othering’ boys they deem different.

The book is timely, accessible, engaging and thoroughly grounded in extensive empirical work conducted in contemporary south London sites of schooling with boys whose voices come alive as we learn about their conflicting experiences, aspirations and identities, and their everyday experiences of the negative discourses imposed upon them.  The boys know shame, self-doubt and poverty, as they reveal their ambivalent relationship with their locality, and make meaning through identifying boundaries.  Thus Stahl’s ethnographic study is an urgent and necessary read for teachers, educationalists, researchers, policy makers and sociologists interested in the interplay between intersections of whiteness, social class, gender and identity issues in the lives of young boys.

Garth Stahl completed his PhD at Cambridge in July 2013 while working as a teacher in a traditionally white working-class section of South London. He currently works as a Lecturer at University of South Australia.

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