Ain’t No Makin’ It

– Book review –

Originally conceived as a graduation paper, the trigger for Jay MacLeod’s research was to discover why Achievement Ideology did not seem to be embraced by an 11-year-old child from Clarendon Heights, a low-income social housing neighborhood. His aspirations contradicted the American dream, according to which anyone can become president. The paper brings to the fore the topic of social mobility between classes, arguing that mechanisms such as family, education, race, social class, social and cultural capital, and labor market opportunities play a key role in setting young adolescents’ expectations regarding their future. These factors will determine their success in overcoming the conditions of the social class they were born in.

The author studies two groups of teenagers from Clarendon Heights. The members of The Hallway Hangers are mostly young white adolescents of Irish and Italian descent, while The Brothers is a group of young adolescents of color. If the achievement ideology worked, the two groups would have equal chances at the start in climbing the social ladder, especially the socio-economic one. However, the author aims to highlight the influence that the mentioned structural and cultural mechanisms exert on the reproduction of social inequality, the emphasis being placed on the link between occupational aspirations and the reproduction of class inequality.

The book has three parts, each presenting the two groups in different periods of time: 1983, 1991, respectively 2006. The first two parts are written in narrative style, the author analyzing and paraphrasing discussions and interviews with the subjects. The third part consists mainly of the subjects’ perspectives on their lives and ends with a sociological analysis of their evolution, conducted by Katherine McClelland and David Karen.

The theoretical framework of the book addresses different perspectives on social reproduction. The author mentions:

  • Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis – they argue that the education system determines students to occupy similar working positions as their parents,
  • Pierre Bourdieu – emphasizes the role of cultural capital and habitus in perpetuating social inequality,
  • Basil Bernstein and Shirley Brice Heath – they discuss the role of language, as part of cultural capital, in spreading social inequality in the education system,
  • Paul Willis (author of a similar study on a group of English, white, working class high school students) – argues that working class groups tend to develop their own culture, which challenges, opposes the dominant culture and ideology, and
  • Henry Giroux – postulates the idea of ​​a two-way relationship between social structures and people, influencing each other.

An increased attention is paid to habitus, interpreted as “a conceptual bridge between the subjective, inner consciousness of individuals and the outer constraints of the material world” (MacLeod, p. 15). From the author’s perspective, the level of expectations of individuals is strongly influenced by habitus.

By conducting interviews with The Hallway Hangers and The Brothers during their adolescence (1983), Jay MacLeod highlighted the role of certain mechanisms in leveling occupational expectations, including social reproduction within a class, which leads to poor chances of mobility on the social scale. The findings are as follows.

Family plays a key role in setting expectations

Most of The Hallways Hangers came from families where the father was mostly absent, and most family members had trouble finding a well-paid job or maintaining existing ones. Family landmarks caused The Hallway Hangers to reject the achievement ideology because it would imply to accept that their family members were either incompetent or lazy. In addition, their family members avoided instilling very high expectations in them in order to protect them from future disappointments in a society where, for them, the achievement ideology did not work.

On the other hand, Brothers strongly believed in this ideology and hoped to climb the social ladder through education, being encouraged in this endeavor by parents as well. For this reason, they were hardworking and tried their best to integrate into the social life and school. The author’s motivation for their behavior was closely linked to the history of African Americans and their struggles against discrimination and racism. Thus, for The Brothers, who now live in a much more favorable period than the older members of their families, there was no reason why, through hard work and proper education, they should fail to climb the social ladder. In their families, in most cases, the father was an authoritarian figure and played an important role in guiding the expectations of their children.

Another factor that contributed to the different perspectives of the two groups was the seniority of the family living in Clarendon Heights. Thus, The Hallway Hangers came from third-generation families in the neighborhood, while most Brothers members had only moved there a few years prior. What was the lowest step in the social structure for The Hallway Hangers, for The Brothers was an evolution, which strengthened their confidence in the achievement ideology.  

The education system has a fundamental role in leveling expectations

The American education system, as the main promoter of the ideology of achievement, had a fundamental role in leveling the expectations of the studied adolescents. Starting from Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, the author suggests that, although he practices an apparently meritocratic system, by using grades to reward performance, in reality, the American education system favors the cultural capital of the middle class, inaccessible to the social class below. This aspect was internalized differently by the two groups: The Hallway Hangers perceived the “rules of the game” as unfair and decided to withdraw by dropping out of school, while The Brothers, followers of the achievement ideology, strongly believed that they were solely responsible for the weak results obtained in school.

It should be noted the effect that this mechanism had on the sub-cultures of the two groups, building on their desire to protect their self-esteem and gain the respect of those around them: aware of the fact that the effort they had to make at school for good results was too great for the opportunities that the labor market offered later, most Hallway Hangers members had dropped out of school and had developed a reactionary sub-culture against the mainstream one. Based on drug use, alcoholism and crime, the bad boys image helped them maintain their self-esteem. On the other hand, The Brothers wanted to dissociate themselves as much as possible from the Hallway Hangers, and so embraced the mainstream culture.

Opportunities in the labor market influence expectations

With more experience in the labor market than The Brothers, The Hallway Hangers strongly believed that school success did not ensure a stable and well-paid job. This aspect was closely correlated with their inadequacy to the education system’s requirements. Aware of the unequal opportunities on the labor market, regardless of the level of education, they believed that the effort should not be made. On the other hand, The Brothers, who had experienced mainly part-time or summer time jobs, did not internalize these external forces, and therefore, their desire to work hard in school for good results did not diminish. But it had a considerable impact on their self-esteem: unaware that the “rules of the game” were not correct (opportunities in the labor market were not equal for all, and the education system favored a higher cultural capital than the one they had access to) they held themselves responsible for school failures, which led to lower confidence in their abilities, and to a gradual decrease of their expectations about future occupations in the labor market.

Racism had a much lower impact than social capital

Racism and social capital were other factors brought into question by the author. Although perhaps contrary to the expectations of the readers, who would expect for The Brothers (mostly young people of color) to feel the impact of racial discrimination stronger than The Hallway Hangers (mostly young white people), the study found the opposite. The latter considered themselves victims of racism, in the form of positive discrimination against people of color. Their perception was that the opportunities of the labor market favored the people of color. The paradox of this aspect was highlighted in the second part of the book. Analyzing how the members of each group evolved on the labor market eight years later (1991), the research showed the importance of social capital (the people network) in obtaining a job, which proved to be much richer in the case of whites.

The initial study ended with a rethinking of the initial theoretical aspects, emphasizing the two-way relationship between social structures and individuals. Thus, although structures considerably influence individuals’ expectations and decisions, the latter are more than passive recipients of these influences. They interpret them and act on them.

If the first study left readers with the impression that chances of social mobility were higher for The Brothers members, given their school involvement, appropriate social behavior and confidence in the achievement ideology (as opposed to The Hallway Hangers – absentees, “bad boys” who abuse drugs and alcohol), the second study shows the 15 subjects far from their initial expectations. Although both groups dreamed of stable jobs with incomes that would allow them to leave Clarendon Heights and support their families, eight years later the subjects were still struggling on their way up to the social ladder. And in this respect, the differences between the two groups were not as big as in the beginning. Most of them had become parents and were struggling to make ends meet. The Hallway Hangers were reconsidering their decision to not get involved enough in school, and The Brothers were more aware of the external forces that determined their chances in the labor market.

In the last part of the book, Jay MaLeod depicts the subjects twenty years after the first study. Of the four most successful subjects, three were white, one was of color, two belonged to The Hallway Hangers, two belonged to The Brothers. It is worth noting the conclusion of Katherine McClelland and David Karen, who emphasize that the greatest success was achieved by those who decided to work on their own (one of them moved to another state and developed his own construction company, the other became a real estate broker), thus managing to diminish the influence of structures (institutions, organizations) on their evolution.

In conclusion, with the limitation that the research was conducted only on 15 subjects belonging to the low-income class, the book suggests that social mobility in the American society is much more difficult to achieve (not impossible, however) for the low-income class than for the upper ones. More importantly, in Ain’t No Makin’ It, Jay MacLeod manages to highlight the diversity of structural and cultural factors that influence an individual’s evolution on the social ladder.