by Carli Ria Rowell, LSE Review of Books: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2013/10/27/the-books-that-inspired-carli-ria-rowell/
Carli Ria Rowell is a Economic and Social Research
Council doctoral student in the department of Sociology at The
Univeristy of Warwick.
You can follow her on Twitter, Academia.edu or visit her E-Portfolio.
Carli’s primary research interests lie in the fields of social justice,
social inequality especially in relation to gender, class and
ethnicity, the sociology of education, social stratification and moral
Continuing our Academic Inspiration
series, ESRC doctoral student at the University of Warwick and Post
Graduate Ambassador for the British Sociological Association Carli Ria Rowell
reflects on how the work of Bev Skeggs, Pierre Bourdieu, and Paul
Willis have influenced her interest in studying class and identity.
was during my time as an undergraduate at Loughborough University that I
was first introduced to Bev Skeggs’ seminal publication Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable.
Central to Skeggs’ work is the examination of class positions,
identity, and subjectivities; a microscopic exploration and analysis of
the ways in which class is experienced and lived.
It was while reading
Chapter 5, “(Dis)Identifications of Class: on Not Being Working Class”,
that I was introduced to the work of Bourdieu and was also struck by
the realization that sociology wasn’t just what I wanted ‘to do’, but
what ‘I had to do’.
More intimately, this chapter explores the way in which the white
working-class women of Skeggs’ ethnography attempted to pass
(unsuccessfully) as not being working-class.
Informed by Bourdieusian
social theory, Skeggs writes of the way in which the bodies of the women
in her study bared - through dress, speech and disposition - the
hallmarks of their social class positioning.
“The surface of their
bodies is the site upon which distinctions can be drawn. Skills and
labor such as dressing-up and making-up are used to display the desire
to pass not as working-class …”, writes Skeggs (p.84).
Whilst it is true that the writings of
Skeggs resonated with my own experience of class, there were
nevertheless discrepancies. Throughout my time at university, my own
embodied class positioning came under continuous ridicule.
I often found
my choice of aesthetics, use of spoken language, dialect, and
dispositions mocked. Even my sister, visiting from her studies at the
University of Warwick, was told “you look like you’re from a council
estate with that Croydon facelift”. Silence spread across the kitchen
when she responded with the piously composed utterance of “I am”.
However, unlike the women of Skeggs’ study, of which being
working-class was something in which they sought to conceal, for myself
my working class-ness serves as a continuous source of pride and value.
Despite all its sociological riches there is so much more I credit
Skeggs’ work with than merely igniting my sociological flame.
emotional politics of class aside, it was upon reading Formations of Class and Gender that
I discovered Bourdieu’s metaphorical framework of capitals, his seminal
class distinction thesis and was directed to his concept of habitus:
social theory that not only influences but is central to the way in
which I now envisage and study the social world.
Throughout my time as a student I often found myself drawn to
sociological literature that explored, validated, and enlightened my own
My earliest memory of such intimate occurrence was when I
was introduced to Paul Willis’ Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs.
a rich infusion of case study analysis, participant observation, group
discussions and interviews, Willis ethnographically surveyed the
school-to-work transition of a group of ‘non-academic’ working class
boys (or as Willis terms them, ‘lads’) in an attempt to unearth the
reasoning as to why so many of the working-classes end up on the shop
In doing so, Willis concluded that it is the boys’ “own culture
which most effectively prepares some working-class lads for the manual
giving of their labor power’ (p.3).
Aware of the illusionary nature of
equal opportunity within the capitalist system and the false promise of
education for the ‘lads’ of Willis’ study, “the possibility of real
upward mobility seems so remote as to be meaningless” (p.126).
is in this vein that for Willis the lads’ “refusal to compete, implicit
in the counter school culture, is therefore in the sense a radical act:
it refuses to collude in its own educational suppression” (p.128).
Despite the fact that Learning to Labor was published some four decades prior to my own experience at school, the study rung true.
Learning to Labor
for me was much more than an eloquent illustration of the way in which
the “lads”’ commitment to a working-class identity resulted in their
subjugation. Learning to Labor was reality, my reality and the reality of those around me.
At the crux of Learning to Labor lies the argument that a
working-class culture precludes academic success.
This premise is one
that has influenced me so much so that it was central to the formation
of my undergraduate dissertation Working-Class and Educationally Successful: Reconciling The Dichotomy (awarded
the Professor Albert Churns Memorial Prize and publicized by the
British Sociological Association).
As a book, as a thesis and as one of
the most influential social science ethnographies of all time, Learning to Labor
is one in which I experience as a paradox. Whilst it is true to say
that I have witnessed first hand the “lads” I have also experienced
first hand working-class academic success.
It is perhaps for this reason
that Learning to Labor has compelled me to explore the other
side of the working class coin, the one rarely tossed: that of academic
After all, what becomes of those working-class born academics
that value their working-class culture? How are they able to overcome,
to reconcile, if at all such dichotomy?
Similarly, I am equally moved by Arlie Russell Hochschild’s publication The Managed Heart, The Commercialization of Human Feeling.
I had spent six years as a checkout girl and shop floor assistant
throughout my time as an A Level and undergraduate student and had
discovered Hochschild’s influential emotional labor thesis at a time
when my alienation and frustration as a front line worker was most
In exposing the harm wrought by the commodification of human feeling The Managed Heart
made me realize that it was okay to ask customers how they were, how
there days were going and not really care.
The publication drew
attention to the fact that I was just one of a wider community of
‘robots’ that regularly found themselves directed by ‘feeling rules’ and
divided by ‘feeling and self’.
For me, this is what is most inspiring
about social science texts, for they bring with them the capacity to not
only connect to the lives of their readers but to grapple with, break
down and elucidate intimate personal histories in a way that connects
inextricably to the lives of readers.
Recently I purchased hard copies of Skeggs’ Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable and Paul Wills’s Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs
with a book token that I was awarded as part of the Professor Albert
Churns Memorial Prize. The action of doing so was symbolic.
publications are there to draw upon as a resource of comfort, motivation
and inspiration during times of isolation and intellectual stagnation
that come as part and parcel of the journey and challenge that is a PhD.
Excited by and indebted to the sociological writings of Skeggs and
Willis, both publications currently occupy pride of place on my
They serve to remind me of the moments and reasons behind
pursuing sociology, and just like each book’s author, of the
distinguished, passionate and potent sociologist that I aspire to be.