Literacy Inequalities: The Power to Name and Define UEA Seminar : Oct 1st 2008Brian V Street (King’s College London)
‘Contribution’ of Ethnographic Perspectives to Literacy Inequalities Debate • What is Ethnography? • Ethnographic perspectives on Literacy • The power to name and define • Literacy Inequalities Debates; ‘Capabilities’ • Data: ‘Hidden Literacies’ in Pakistan • ‘Benefits’ of literacy in Bangladesh • 3 literacies in rural Iran • ‘Capabilities’ and Ethnography: building bridges?
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 ‘Don’t tell us what it isn’t, tell us what it is’. ‘I can’t’ said the turtle, ‘I don’t 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’
What is Ethnography? • The Turtle and the Fish • Epistemology and Reflexivity • Proximity and Distance • Green and Bloome; ethnographic perspective • Mitchell: Case Studies
Ethnographic perspectives on Literacy • ‘Illiteracy’ / ‘Literacy’ • Ideological vs autonomous models • Events and Practices • Cultural meanings, varied ‘thresholds’
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)
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.
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 don’t 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.
Hidden Literacies: case studies from Pakistan • .. several of the case study respondents assert strongly that they are ‘illiterate’, perhaps because they have never been to school or adult literacy class. “I am not educated and cannot read and write”, says Amen the vegetable seller, and he repeats it: “I am not educated and cannot read and write but that does not mean that I am a fool and have no wisdom.” Zia the plumber is stronger in his self-identification: “I told you, I have never been to school, so how can I read and write?” was his answer to the researcher’s question, “Can you read and write?” He was even more assertive when challenged by the researcher: • “You can write very well, why did you say you are Jahil [illiterate]?” • “I do not have any certificate or paper to show that I am literate, which means I am illiterate. People who are educated like you call me illiterate. Educated people's decision about me perhaps is right, I am illiterate.” • I said, “Illiterates cannot read and write but you can, so you are literate.” • He said, “Bibi, I feel good. … when you say I am literate.” • (Rafat Nabi (forthcoming) Hidden Literacies)
Shazia the domestic servant too asserts that she is uneducated: when asked to show something she had written, she replied, “You are highly educated and I have not even attended a school, you will laugh at me”. And Amen repeats himself, as so often: “I did not see the inside of a school. So people regard me as illiterate.” Their lack of literacy skills is perceived as a stigma and a disadvantage. And yet they all write and read many things. • And Zia said, “When [people] ask me, I give them a receipt, and I write down all the names of the parts which I purchased, their cost and my labour charges.”“I am no longer handicapped. I can do my job very well. With on-the-job practice, I am able to read and write”. • ‘Shazia read the schedule in the kitchen on which the family members had indicated their breakfast preferences and the spice container labels; she wrote a brief message about a phone call and a shopping list of ingredients for a meal, and she kept a notebook of the items taken by the cleaner. But if the researcher had asked her what she was doing on each occasion, she would not have said ‘reading’ or ‘writing’ but simply ‘preparing breakfast’, ‘answering the telephone’ or ‘dealing with the cleaner’. The literacy practices were so deeply embedded that they had become unconscious’.
Likewise, the experience of Rozina, a dyer who learned the literacy practices necessary for her trade from colleagues not from a formal class, leads Rafat to reflect on the ways in which literacy programmes, including her own, have been defined and implemented: • How can a literacy course be developed keeping the local knowledge and practices in mind? Can one type of literacy be effective for the entire nation? How can literacy courses preserve indigenous knowledge and transfer this knowledge to the next generation? Is a literacy centre necessary or are there other alternative ways of learning, as Rozina learned from her colleagues? • Are policy makers whole heartedly learning the lessons from Rozina, that literacy can go beyond centres and beyond primers and attendance registers? A profound question to ponder. Where does this example of social literacy fit into the broader literacy scenario?
Literacy Inequalities • Cf Maddox, Nussbaum, Sen • Inequalities approaches: 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).
Reconciling Capabilities and Ethnographic Perspectives • Maddox: field work in Bangladesh; 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
Bridging? • Whilst welcoming Maddox’s 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 and those in Rafat Nabi’s account of Pakistan, 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 people’s 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 Nabi for Pakistan. 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 Sen’s accounts describe ‘the intrinsic and instrumental benefits of literacy’, then where would they and others in the international field locate these people?
Questions • Where do Kamrul and Halima in Bangladesh or Amen and Zia in Pakistan 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?
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, 643-671 • 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 337-356 • Campbell, P. 2007 ‘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 • Heath,S.B. 1983 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. 185-206 • 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, 13:345-65 • Petersen, C 2004 Report on Uppingham Seminar Measuring Literacy: Meeting in Collision November 2003 UppSem http://www.uppinghamseminars.org/report_2003.htm • 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. 2002 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. 23-43 • Street,B Ed. 1993 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.
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. 2001 Routledge: London pp. 137-151 • 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 http://uppinghamseminars.com/page2.htm • Prinsloo,M & Breier,M 1996 The Social Uses of Literacy Benjamins/Sacched • Robinson-Pant, A ed. 2004 Women, Literacy and Development: Alternative Perspectives (Routledge, London) • Robinson-Pant,A 1997 Why Eat green Cucumbers at the Time of Dying?’: The Link between Women’s 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. 31-44 • 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. 234-241(8)