In Ain’t No Makin It: Leveled Aspirations in a Low-income Neighborhood, Jay MacLeod challenges the ideas of economic determinism and meritocracy by expanding the definition of habitus to explain an individual’s aspiration of social mobility as determined by their cultural capital. MacLeod begins the article with the assumed idea that America is a meritocracy, or that, in American society, those who work hard or are naturally gifted are rewarded by advancement in the social stratification system. Education gives everyone the tools they need to make this happen.
In this theory, lack of motivation or natural talent means that individual will become the proletariat, while the individual who works hard or is naturally intelligent will become the bourgeoisie. However, this ideal is not reality.
In America, lower classes are disadvantaged in a cycle which few break free. The idea that community and family almost exclusively determine social reproduction, or the expectations and aspirations of an individual’s social mobility, mean that the individual rarely thinks about social mobility, let alone achieves it.
This is due to cultural capital, or an individual’s social tools, such as education or skills, that give one agency and social mobility in society. However, this concept is more complex than simply considering the individual’s expectations and aspirations as the same throughout their social class.
This economic determinism is challenged when MacLeod examines two groups of boys in a low economic neighborhood. The Hallway Hangers, a group of young white boys, were found to have very low expectations of life and little to no aspirations.
The Brothers, a group of young black boys, were found to have high aspirations, despite their further disadvantages due to systemic racism. MacLeod applies an interpretation of Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, or the dispositions that are due to class-specific behaviors or social practices, to this situation, in order to explain the incongruities between the two groups.
According to Bourdieu’s theory, since both groups come from the same social class, they would reflect the same habitus. MacLeod suggests a redefinition or interpretation of the habitus, where these dispositions do not stem solely from class, but also from the microcosms within that class, such as a school, or a family unit. In this sense, the Brothers and the Hallway Hangers have formed their own microcosm and their own habitus due to the social disadvantages that they face in the outside world. Another essential aspect that previous theories, and even the children themselves have ignored is the presence of race in this discussion.
The world outside of their group, or the external “meritocracy,” holds no place for their aspirations. It encourages them, through learned social reproduction, to think that the expectation for social mobility is non-existent. The reality is similarly unjust; however, it raises a question about motivation. If the Hallway Hangers had the aspirations of the Brothers, would they achieve social mobility? What would happen if the Brothers had the aspirations of the Hallway Hangers? Is aspiration an intentional habitus to counteract the disadvantaged cultural capital of people of color?
In MacLeod’s essay, cultural capital is the agency of one’s habitus, gained from a specific, microcosmic social reproduction, as it relates to how one views or obtains social mobility and participates in the “meritocracy.” However, this is a severely discriminatory system, in which the sociological imagination illustrates the near impossibility of social mobility and overcoming culturally ingrained social stratification, and the American ideal of the meritocracy is reduced to an unattainable dream.