Literacy and Social Action

This Area is my treatment of the field of literacy studies.  Literacy is a concern for many different disciplines, which of course have a different take on literacy.  For neuroscientists, for instance, literacy is a human mental action or function that can be studied for how it works, what it triggers neurologically, etc.  For philosophers, thinking about literacy involves the use of written signs that somehow compete with or combine with other forms of language and communication, making words and what they convey into material things detached from speakers.

My study of literacy is an attempt to harmonize two different perspectives of literacy.  One is the study of literacy as a sociocultural phenomenon, based on historical and anthropological work that conceptualizes literacy as an evolved, human cultural practice.  This body of work has itself evolved over time, and spawned a sub-field called literacy studies.  Overlapping with this kind of study of literacy is another, the perspective suggested by the term critical literacy, which has some relationship to critical pedagogy more generally, and even more generally than that, critical theory.  What I will try to argue in this area is that, from a pedagogical perspective, critical literacy efforts, which have a commitment to fostering literacy as a type of social action (in the sense that organizing a union, staging a protest, or writing a subversive poem is social action), need to grasp some fundamental insights of literacy studies.  In addition, literacy studies as a research field is theoretically interested in literacy as social action in a different sense, in the sense of social action as a means that humans engage in cultural and communicative interaction.  Insofar as literacy studies wishes to make sense of contemporary dynamics of texts, readers, and writers, it also has to do business with critical literacy as a force and factor shaping who reads and writes and what it means to read and write.

This argument begins with some definitional works on the meanings of “critical,” “sociocultural,” and “social action” from the research literature.  First, I will review some readings that describe the pre-history of Paulo Freire and critical pedagogy, and trace how a certain idea of the meanings and purposes of literacy evolved part and parcel with late 20th Century revolutionary movements which were a reaction to modern forms of domination, political, institutional, and cultural.  Then, I will analyze some key texts of Freire himself, and subsequent critical literacy and critical pedagogy works, to demonstrate that critical literacy is full of contradictions owing to the particular sociocultural circumstances of its emergence and development.

Then, I will present readings that summarize the development of the field of literacy studies, which began by trying to apprehend the landmark shifts in human communication, cognition, and society that resulted from the spread of literacy.  This trend of proclaiming how literacy changed everything eventually gave way to an alternative view, the “New Literacy Studies,” which argued for more carefully contextualized and particular ways that literacy made a difference than the grand, universal claims of previous works.  The New Literacy Studies (NLS) more carefully and descriptively detailed the uses and effects of literacy, with studies that identified how literacy operated as a social practice in particularly situated ways– not “literacy equals this or that,” but “in this context, literacy meant this and literacy meant that.”  But that perspective is increasingly challenged by its shortcomings in accounting for the dynamics, movements, and scales of influence that actually constitute what literacy is and how it is practiced today.  I offer a reading of New Literacy Studies that the field itself contended with contradictory conceptions and roles of power and knowledge.

Then, I arrive at a more careful review of various syntheses of the critical literacy and sociocultural literacy perspectives.  These works try in different ways to reconcile the divergent theoretical frameworks, knowledge commitments, and objectives of literacy studies and critical literacy.  These various works, taken together, represent my view of literacy as social action–both a descriptive research approach and a pragmatic social project.

I end by pointing to some various avenues that I think take up this challenge of treating literacy as both a sociocultural phenomenon and as a social-critical task.  These include some forms of participatory and action research, some forms of discourse analysis, and some kinds of teaching practice.  In sum, I hope to demonstrate that literacy “can’t be neutral on a moving train,” to use Howard Zinn’s phrase, and literacy researchers and educators must recognize and act on that.

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