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Ethnography & Symbolic Power

Paul Willlis & the ethnography of relations of domination
"L'école des ouvriers"

The translation of Paul Willis's book for Editions Agone in 2011 inaugurated the launch of the "L'ordre des choses" collection, which I edited alongside Julian Mischi and Etienne Penissat. Although we stopped following this collection in 2018 to take part in other editorial projects, several of my contributions continue to delve into the question of the ethnography of relations of domination.

A study of the relationship between young people from working-class backgrounds and the educational institution, L'école des ouvriers follows a group of young Englishmen as they make the transition from school to work. From the classroom to the factory workshop, from the youth club to late-night outings, the investigation resituates the richness of the lives of students from working-class backgrounds, and the complexity of their relationships with teachers and guidance counselors.

It also reveals the formation of different groups of pupils, the role of parents and the relationship they may have with the school.

This restitution is made possible by the method of inquiry: the researcher's immersion in the environment studied. The aim of this ethnographic method, as conceived by Paul Willis, is not merely descriptive. On the contrary, it is backed by a fundamental theoretical ambition: to analyze the reproduction of class society. The aim is to understand why and how children from working-class backgrounds come to accept blue-collar jobs. Paul Willis puts forward the hypothesis that, in the face of school domination, young working-class children create an anti-school culture, rejecting the behaviors of respect for the school order that govern the world of the petty bourgeoisie.

This survey is one of the flagship studies of Cultural Studies, a research movement that emerged in England in the 1960s and overturned disciplinary boundaries to better understand the relationship between society and culture.

The front and back of domination relationships
Travail manuel 1975.jpg

In the Apprendre le travail issue, which I co-edit with Julian Mischi, we have brought together a number of contributions aimed at updating Willis's approach. An interview with Paul Willis also looks at what could be the theoretical program of an ethnography of relations of domination.


Willis's work is also interesting because it questions a division of labor in the social sciences that might otherwise have operated differently. Conducted from Birmingham's Department of Cultural Studies, Willis's work is nevertheless fully an empirical ethnography of relations of domination. It offers a rare example of syncretism between different research traditions. Yet this approach to cultural relations has become marginalized.

From the 1980s onwards, real epistemological divisions developed among the heirs of Cultural Studies. These disagreements were as much about theoretical issues as they were about how social science could be used to take a political stand.

These separate paths taken by the heirs of Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall can be explained first and foremost by the different forms of expatriation and circulation adopted by this generation of researchers. As Erik Neveu explains, in the 1980s, "the mediocrity of career prospects in the context of the Thatcher years, and the differential in professional prospects with the United States, led to the expatriation of a number of well-known figures in British cultural studies, such as Dick Hebdige, to the United States, Australia and South-East Asia". The intellectual project of cultural studies was diversified and modified in the course of these journeys. Benefiting from the "linguistic turn", some heirs to cultural studies have seen themselves retrospectively established as pioneers of post-modernism and academic post-structuralism. From this angle, Paul Willis t
ook a different path through the creation of the journal Ethnography and the defense of empirically grounded research that engaged the researcher "par corps".


This way of approaching the social sciences means that we don't have to arbitrate on the legitimacy or arbitrariness of cultural signifiers. As Willis explains in his interview:

"Because ethnography produces particular representations via participation in social relations, inscribed in the context we seek to represent. There's a surface of contact with those being represented that doesn't exist with other methods. In other words, there is a concrete overlap of different communities of practice that takes place through your ethnographing body: you are both a member of a community of researchers, and engaged in relations with the social groups you seek to represent. We become half-indigenous through inquiry, for there is a reciprocity of social relationship. Allow me a metaphor: the red/orange/green colors of traffic lights constitute a semiotic system is arbitrary, but that doesn't mean they "float". You can only think they float if you're a passenger or a disembodied seeker. When I'm in the back of a cab in New York, I too like to watch the way the traffic lights change in synchrony as the cab moves down the avenues. I daydream about the lights being like a "stormy sea of green signifiers opening up before me". But through the experience of driving, when you actually drive you quickly learn the shared meaning that has been given to these traffic lights. (...) This does not mean, however, that you have cracked a secret code leading you to material structures. Your experience is always arbitrary, but you have learned something, grasped something about the embeddedness of social relations and material practices. When you investigate in the field, you learn the shared meaning of many traffic lights".


Is an ethnography of social reproduction possible?
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This question of the relationship between ethnography and the reproduction of social relations can be found in a number of contributions and editorial follow-ups I have carried out since 2010.

- S. Laurens, "Is a participant objectivation of elites and symbolic power possible?", Mickael Palme, Bertrand Reau & François Denord, Researching Elites and Power, Springer, (à paraître sept. 2019).

- S. Laurens et J. Mischi, “Apprendre à travailler : The uneasy journey of counter-school culture in the country of cultural capital theory ?”, Ethnography, 2018.

- (Avec Anne-Marie Devreux), Entretien avec Beverley Skeggs, « Comprendre où se situe le féminisme plutôt que d’asséner ce qu’il est » in Beverley Skeggs, Des femmes respectables, Classe et genre en milieu populaire, Marseille, Agone, coll. “L’ordre des choses”, 2014, pp. 337-358.

- (Avec Paul Pasquali), Entretien avec Shamus Khan, « L’omnivorité culturelle comme réponse des classes dominantes aux revendications pour l’égalité » in Shamus Khan, La nouvelle école des élites, Marseille, Agone, coll. « L’ordre des choses », 2015, pp. 357-381.


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