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Literacy Inequalities in Theory and Practice: The Power to Name and Define Literacy Inequalities An International Conference, September 1-3, University.

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Presentation on theme: "Literacy Inequalities in Theory and Practice: The Power to Name and Define Literacy Inequalities An International Conference, September 1-3, University."— Presentation transcript:

1 Literacy Inequalities in Theory and Practice: The Power to Name and Define Literacy Inequalities An International Conference, September 1-3, University of East Anglia. Norwich, UK. Brian V Street (Kings College London)

2 Literacy Inequalities in Theory and Practice: The Power to Name and Define Naming and Defining: in theory and practice; Culture is a Verb; Theoretical perspectives: Goody and Street Policy Perspectives: Unesco; Sen; Nussbaum; Ethnographic Perspectives: The Turtle and the Fish; Literacy as Social practice; Ethnographies of Literacy Capabilities and Ethnography: building bridges?

3 Theoretical Perspectives Goody: the power the written word gives to cultures logic and abstraction causality Street: relativism? which literacies? Ethnocentrism vs Ethnography

4 Policy Perspectives Unesco: GMR – modernisation syndrome, literate environment Inequalities approaches: Nussbaum, Sen, Maddox Returns; rights; capabilities The capabilities approach is fully universal; the capabilities in question are held to be important for each and every citizen, in each and every nation, and each is to be treated as an end (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 78). Sen also notes the incompatibility of inequalities in basic capabilities with effective human development (Maddox, 2008,p. 189).

5 The Power to Name and Define: eg Culture as a Verb Part of the problem that besets our current efforts to understand culture is the desire to define it, to say clearly what it is. To define something means to specify its meaning clearly enough so that things which are like it can be clearly distinguished from it. Clear definitions are an essential part of any successful science, or of good speech and clear thought'. (Thornton, 1988:26). However, the problem is that we tend then to believe the categories and definitions we construct in an essentialist way, as though we had thereby found out what culture is. In fact 'there is not much point in trying to say what culture is... What can be done, however, is to say what culture does'. For what culture does is precisely the work of 'defining words, ideas, things and groups… We all live our lives in terms of definitions, names and categories that culture creates'. The job of studying culture is not of finding and then accepting its definitions but of 'discovering how and what definitions are made, under what circumstances and for what reasons'. These definitions are used, change and sometimes fall into disuse'. Indeed, the very term 'culture' itself, like these other ideas and definitions, changes its meanings and serves different often competing purposes at different times. Culture is an active process of meaning making and contest over definition, including its own definition. This, then, is what I mean by arguing that we should treat Culture as a verb. (Street, B 1993)

6 The Power to Name and Define: Literacy and Inequality Similar arguments can be made with regard to the definitions of literacy. Those who hold an autonomous model of literacy, for instance, might claim that it is not a cultural perspective they are adopting but rather a natural, known or even objective account. When they compare their own literacy practices with those of, for instance, Indian villagers or working class youths in the US, they can claim that they are not being ethnocentric, they are not simply being fish demanding that everything look like it does from their own wet environment, but rather that this is how it is – the others are in deficit, they lack literacy – or proper literacy, or functional literacy or other labels that qualify the term but retain its narrow focus on one way of doing things. This autonomous view – that literacy in itself, autonomously, defined independently of cultural context and meaning, will have effects, creating inequality for those who lack it and advantages for those who gain it – is, of course, itself deeply ideological. One of the most powerful mechanisms available to ideology is to disguise itself (Street, 1993). People are rightly suspicious if someone claims we should define a phenomenon or act towards it in policy terms because it conforms to their own cherished customs and beliefs. But if they can claim that it is nothing to do with their own preconceptions but is instead a natural, objective account, then others can be encouraged to act upon it, to provide funds to develop this view, to agree policy. With respect to literacy this means that the power to define and name what counts as literacy and illiteracy also leads to the power to determine policy, to fund and develop literacy programmes in international contexts, to prescribe ways of teaching, development of educational materials, texts books, assessment (cf Campbell, 2008) etc.

7 The autonomous model of literacy is in fact an ideological model, precisely using the power to disguise its own ideology, its own ethnocentrism. The ideological model of literacy (Street, 1984) seeks to make explicit such underlying conceptions and assumptions. Ethnographies of literacy drawing upon the ideological model have recognised the variety and complexity of what counts as literacy, both for the observer and for the participant. From this perspective, just as 'there is not much point in trying to say what culture is... What can be done, however, is to say what culture does', so, it may be less important to say what literacy is than what it does. Literacy, like culture, then, is an active process of meaning making and contest over definition, including its own definition. But international agencies and, I would argue, those in the Inequalities and the Capabilities field, try to define what literacy is, not just what it does, in order to be able to then say what are the benefits of having it and to argue for the deficit in the lives of those who dont have it. In terms of universal values, as Nussbaum would have it, equality depends upon having first defined what it is that is unequal. What counts as inequality in this case, however, depends crucially on who has the power to name and define what counts as literacy and what theoretical and conceptual frames they draw upon. So, from this perspective, inequality is not simply a given that we, as moral and committed reformers need to respond to, but a construct that needs careful analysis and justification. Practitioners, policy makers and researchers alike, then, need to address, both the construct of literacy and the construct of inequality. I will argue that if the Inequalities proponents were to shift perspective from what literacy is to what literacy does there may be more scope for such a questioning and for a meeting of the two fields – that of Literacy Inequality and that of Ethnographies of literacy.

8 The Turtle and the Fish To illustrate the error of ethnocentrism Buddhists relate the story of the turtle and the fish. There was once a turtle who lived in a lake with a group of fish. One day the turtle went for a walk on dry land. He was away from the lake for a few weeks. When he returned he met some of the fish. The fish asked him, "Mister turtle, hello! How are you? We have not seen you for a few weeks. Where have you been? The turtle said, "I was up on the land, I have been spending some time on dry land." The fish were a little puzzled and they said, "Up on dry land? What are you talking about? What is this dry land? Is it wet?" The turtle said "No, it is not," "Is it cool and refreshing?" "No it is not", "Does it have waves and ripples?" "No, it does not have waves and ripples." "Can you swim in it?" "No you can't" So the fish said, "it is not wet, it is not cool there are no waves, you cant swim in it. So this dry land of yours must be completely non-existent, just an imaginary thing, nothing real at all." The turtle said that "Well may be so" and he left the fish and went for another walk on dry land. In another version the fish said Dont tell us what it isnt, tell us what it is. I cant said the turtle, I dont have any language to describe it. This is the version that can help us understand what is involved in ethnography. If we go to another place, our first inclination is to describe it in terms of what it does not have that we are used to – wet land, waves, for the fish; maybe science, or coca cola for westerners travelling in the East; religion or rice for Easterners travelling in Europe; etc. An Ethnographic perspective shifts us out of this mind set and helps us firstly to imagine things that do not exist in our own world and then to understand them in their own terms rather than to see them, in our terms, just as deficits. Ethnography helps us untie the (k)not

9 Reconciling Capabilities and Ethnographic Perspectives: Maddox Two field sites where local people – Kamrul a rickshaw driver and Halima a married woman - both struggle with poverty and attain some literacy to try to overcome it. In both cases they made some gains, such as confidence and engagement with shopkeepers credit systems, although they were both living in poverty still when he revisited them some years after his initial fieldwork. He uses this evidence to try to link ethnographic perspectives with the Capabilities approach. For Kamrul, for instance, despite remaining vulnerable to accidents and ill health Nevertheless as a threshold of capability, literacy had contributed to his well being and that of his family. Some of the changes were linked to doing literacy, instrumental functionings and their benefits. Other benefits were less tangible, namely those related to self-confidence and social status (Maddox, 2008, p. 199). For Maddox, then, there may be more than one threshold for literacy

10 Reconciling Capabilities and Ethnographic Perspectives: Questions Whilst welcoming Maddoxs attempt to bridge the divide between the Capabilities approach and Ethnography, I wonder how far Nussbaum and Sen would be willing to make a similar move in his direction, to accept multiple literacies and multiple thresholds for instance. The people Maddox describes in Bangladesh would I suspect be unlikely to count in their single threshold definition of literacy capabilities. Their accounts depend on literacy rates which are already pre-defined as a particular kind. The very local and often minimal uses of literacy described by Maddox and Nabi would not pass the tests set by agencies assessing peoples literacy skills. As Campbell notes in Measures of Success (2007), the Types of Assessment Tools used in one size fits all standard measurements can be characterised as standardised, diagnostic, competence and performance. The importance of statistically normed definitions of universal literacy are not at all the same as ethnographic accounts of the uses and meanings of literacy in different contexts, of the kind described by Maddox for Bangladesh and others at this conference. If for Nussbaum adult literacy rates indicate the number of people who have (or have not) been able to achieve the minimum threshold of capability (p. 201), and Sens accounts describe the intrinsic and instrumental benefits of literacy, then where would they and others in the international field locate these people?

11 Questions Where do Kamrul and Halima in Bangladesh and others cited during this conference as using local literacies figure in the debates about literacy inequalities? Do they fit claims about literacy and its impact? Do they have the capabilities defined by Nussbaum and Sen? Do they pass the threshold defined for universal good? Are the ethnographers being relativist Should policy and programmes start from local meanings or universal definitions? Does the literacy debate signal issues that need addressing with regard to other capabilities – poverty, gender, power?

12 Literacy Inequalities: Some References Barton,D & Hamilton,M (Eds.) 2000 Situated Literacies: Reading And Writing In Context Routledge: London Barton, D, Ivanic, R, Appleby, Y, Hodge,R And Tusting, K 2007 Literacy, Lives And Learning Routledge: London Blommaert, J 2004 Writing As A Problem; African Grassroots Writing, Economies Of Literacy, And Globalization Language In Society 33, Brandt,D & Clinton,K 2002 'Limits Of The Local: Expanding Perspectives On Literacy As A Social Practice' In Journal Of Literacy Research Vol 34 No 3 Pp Campbell, P Measures Of Success; Assessment And Accountability In Adult Basic Education Ed. Grass Roots Press: Edmonton, Alberta Doronilla,M.L 1996 Landscapes of Literacy: an ethnographic study of functional literacy in marginal Philippine communities UIE: Hamburg EFA 2006 Literacy for Life: Global Monitoring Report Unesco: Paris Goody, J 2000 The Power of the Written Tradition Smithsonian Institution Press: Washington and London Heath,S.B Ways with Words CUP: Cambridge Maddox, B 2008 What good is literacy? Insights and Implications of the Capabilities Approach Journal of Human Development Vol. 9 No. 2 pp Nussbaum, M 2006 Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Belknap, Harvard MA Pahl,K And Rowsell, J (2006) eds Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies: Case Studies in Practice. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Parkin,D (1984) 'Political Language', Annual Review of Anthropology, 13: Petersen, C 2004 Report on Uppingham Seminar Measuring Literacy: Meeting in Collision November 2003 UppSem

13 Prinsloo, M & Baynham, M 2008 Literacies, Global and Local J Benjamins; Amsterdam Robinson-Pant, A 2004 ed. Women, Literacy and Development: Alternative Perspectives Routledge, London Rogers Alan 2002 Teaching Adults Buckingham: Open University Press Rogers Alan 2004 Non-formal Education: flexible schooling or participatory education? Dordrecht: Kluwer and Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press Rogers, A and Street, B (forthcoming) Practitioners As Researchers: Adult Literacy Facilitators In Developing Societies And The Letter Project Studies in the Education of Adults Sen, A.K Rationality and Freedom Harvard UP: Cambridge MA Street, B 1984 Literacy in Theory and Practice CUP: Cambridge Street, B 1993 Culture is a Verb: Anthropological, aspects of language and cultural process Language and Culture 1993 ed. Graddol. D, L. Thompson and M. Byram. Clevedon: BAAL and Multilingual Matters, pp Street,B Ed Cross-Cultural Approaches To Literacy CUP Street, B and Lefstein, A (2007) Literacy: an advanced resource book Routledge: London English Language and Applied Linguistics Street, B and Hornberger, N N ed (2007) Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Volume 2: Literacy. Springer (Nancy H. Hornberger General Editor) Thornton,R (1988) 'Culture: a contemporary definition', in Keywords, ed. E. Boonzaeir ~ J. Sharp. Cape Town: David Philip.

14 Ethnographic Accounts of Literacy Aikman,S 1999 Intercultural education and literacy: an ethnographic study of indigenous knowledge and learning in the Peruvian Amazon Benjamins: Amsterdam Besnier,N 1995 Literacy, emotion and authority: reading and writing on a Polynesian atoll Cambridge University Press: Cambridge Collins,J 1998 Understanding Tolowa Histories: western hegemonies and Native American response Routledge: NY Doronilla,M.L 1996 Landscapes of Literacy: an ethnographic study of funcitonal literacy in marginal Philippine communities UIE: Hamburg Hornberger,N (ed.) 1998 Language Planning from the Bottom up: Indigenous Literacies in the Americas, Mouton de Gruyter; Berlin Kalman,J 1999 Writing on the Plaza: mediated literacy practices among scribes and clients in Mexico city Hampton Press: Cresskill NJ King,L 1994 Roots of Identity: language and literacy in Mexico Stanford University Press: Stanford Maddox,B 2001 Literacy and the market: the economic uses of literacy among the peasantry in north-west Bangladesh in Street,B ed. Literacy and development ed Routledge: London pp Nabi, R (with Rogers, A and Street, B) (forthcoming) Hidden Literacies; ethnographic studies of literacy and numeracy practices in Pakistan. Nirantar 2007 Exploring the Everyday: ethnographic approaches to literacy and numeracy Delhi; Nirantar/ ASPBAE Prinsloo,M & Breier,M 1996 The Social Uses of Literacy Benjamins/Sacched Robinson-Pant, A ed Women, Literacy and Development: Alternative Perspectives (Routledge, London) Robinson-Pant,A 1997 Why Eat green Cucumbers at the Time of Dying?: The Link between Womens Literacy and Development Unesco: Hamburg Rogers, A ed 2005 Urban Literacy: communication, identity and learning in Development Contexts UIE: Hamburg Street, B, Baker, D.,Rogers, A 2006 Adult teachers as researchers: ethnographic approaches to numeracy and literacy as social practices in South Asia Convergence Vol XXXIX (1) pp Wagner,D 1993 Literacy, Culture and Development: becoming literate in Morocco Cambridge University Press: Cambridge Wagner D.A 2004 Literacy(ies), culture(s), and development(s): The ethnographic challenge Reading Research Quarterly, 1 April 2004, vol. 39, no. 2, pp (8)

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