Chapter 3 - Problematising traditional (print) literacy

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Wordle of Chapter 3
“Those who speak with sense must rely on what is common to all, as a city must rely on its law, and with much greater reliance.” (Heraclitus)

Human beings are tasked with making sense of the external world. We feel the need to decipher and communicate oft-repeated experiences and sensations, allowing other minds to share the same (or similar) conceptual space to our own. For example, research in Phenomenology tells us that two individuals may have two markedly different sensations when viewing a red pillar box. If, however, they agree on the category 'pillar box' to refer to approximately the shape they see before them, and that the colour sensation they are experiencing will be called 'red', then meaningful discourse can ensue.

All human activity is subject to habitualization. Any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be reproduced with an economy of effort and which, ipso facto, is apprehended by the performer as that pattern. (Berger & Luckmann, 2002, p.42)

Every form of human communication must begin in this manner. We train toddlers and young children to be able to understand the world around them by allowing them to use the constructs we ourselves use. These constructs we largely inherited from our parents, and they from our ancestors. There comes a need, however, in each generation to create and agree upon new ways of understanding the world. This can be as a result of natural changes in the environment, new (disruptive) technologies, or some other way - usually involving politics or economics - that alter human relationships.

Almost every living being, whether animal or human, has found a way of communicating in real-time its understanding of the world through sounds and/or gestures. For information and meaning to be disseminated when the information-giver is not present, however, requires a different approach. Language must be coded into symbols. These symbols have developed from pictorial cave paintings symbolising objects or simple ideas to sentences conveying meaning. These have subsequently evolved into the ability of humans to convey abstract concepts through an agreed and socially-negotiated written language. The person wishing to understand the information and meaning disseminated must be able to decode the symbols used. It is akin to giving someone a locked box: they must have the correct key in order to unlock it.

Literacy, then, at its most basic, includes the ability to decode symbols used for the purpose of disseminating information and meaning. But literacy has traditionally been seen as being more than this, as the 'ability to read and write'. That is to say, the individual must have the means not only to decode but encode symbols for the purpose of disseminating information and meaning. In the physical sphere when we are dealing with printed or written documents, this is straightforward; deciding who is 'literate' or 'illiterate' is relatively unproblematic. Tests can be written and decisions taken.

Members of every culture and society have the world of everyday experience mediated by technologies, traditions and cultural norms or expectations.<ref>See Petrina, 2007, p.168 and Achterhuis, 2001, p.71</ref> This shapes what counts as being 'literate' within that society. I, for example, cannot use a quill pen in the same way a medieval monk would in order to create a manuscript; he, likewise, would be baffled by the QWERTY keyboard upon which I am currently typing. The medieval monk uses a technology relevant to his time period to produce culturally-relevant documents in a particular idiom. I, in the 21st-century, do likewise.

Defining literacy in relation to the tools used to encode and decode the symbols involved can therefore be difficult. Theorists must ensure that literacy is not defined so broadly so as to include almost any activity, but not so narrowly that it is almost impossibly prescriptive. 'Literacy' must apply equally to instant, informal electronic communications and the creation of formal, written, laboriously-created documents that have been handed down through generations. That is to say a balance must be found so that technologies used in the past as well as those that will be used in the future for reading and writing are included within definitions of 'literacy'. If this cannot be achieved, then it may be best to use a different term or way of framing the concept.

One way in which theorists appeal to a particular use of a communicative technology as a 'literacy' is by widening the definition of 'text'. Postmodernists in particular are keen to stress that images and films can be considered as such. Given that technology opens up new possibilities and opportunities for communication it can be difficult to decide what the product of encoding symbols should be known as. For example, is the following informational diagram a 'text'?

Figure 2 – Diagram from Wikipedia article on Cell Respiration

The diagram does, after all, require 'decoding' and interpreting. To the non-specialist who is without the tools, to do such decoding is akin to a foreign language. The same, it could be argued, goes for paintings, maps and web pages. Many have attempted to be as inclusive as possible with the term 'text' giving, in effect, 'literacy' a metaphorical aspect. For example, Gee, Hull & Lankshear (1996) boil down 'literacy' to reading something:

Whatever literacy is, it [has] something to do with reading. And reading is always reading something. Furthermore, if one has not understood [made meaning from] what one has read then one has not read it. So reading is always reading something with understanding. [T]his something that one reads with understanding is always a text of a certain type which is read in a certain way. The text may be a comic book, a novel, a poem, a legal brief, a technical manual, a textbook in physics, a newspaper article, an essay in the social sciences or philosophy, a "self-help" book, a recipe, and so forth, through many different types of text. Each of these different types of text requires somewhat different background knowledge and somewhat different skills. (Gee, Hull & Lankshear, 1996, p.1-2, quoted in Lankshear & Knobel, 2008a, p.5)

If image-based 'texts' are included in definitions such as the one above, this leads to the possibility of using modifiers such as 'visual literacy'. As almost anything can potentially be considered a 'text' this opens up a Pandora’s box of literacies.

Literacies are metaphorical if what is denoted is used to connote something else. For example, if ‘text’ is applied more widely to non-textual sources, or if non-traditional texts (such as programming) are included under the banner of ‘reading and writing’. This metaphorical use of 'literacy' has the knock-on effect, however, of creating an unfortunate elision between the 'functional' aspect of literacy (skills of reading and writing) and the 'evaluative' aspect (what is culturally valued). Presupposing a background knowledge and requiring 'understanding' of a text for it to have been 'read' presents difficulties. Literacy becomes more that a state that can be achieved and more of a socially-negotiated process through which individuals pass. It is less the grasping of something objectively ‘out there’ and more a habit of mind. To avoid the elision, as well as being as inclusive as possible with the term 'text', those considering literacy have sought to define new forms of literacy. This is true especially in areas relating to new technologies where traditional definitions of literacy seem somewhat anachronistic. Instead of being modifiers to an existing 'traditional' form of literacy, these are seen as new literacies that result from interaction with new technologies. As we will see in Chapter 4, from 'computer literacy' to the more recent term 'digital literacy’, theorists have attempted to carve out a form of literacy that is bounded in some way yet with a descriptive power that makes the term useful.

The problem of literacy

Literacy is a characteristic acquired by individuals in varying degrees from just above none to an indeterminate upper level. Some individuals are more or less literate than others but it is really not possible to speak of illiterate and literate persons as two distinct categories.”

(UNESCO, 1957, quoted in Holme, 2004, p.7)

The concept of 'literacy' is akin to the Wittgenstinian problem surrounding the concept of a 'game': the audience is aware of what the speaker means by the term, but pinning it down in a more formal sense is extremely difficult (Hannon, 2000, p.36). Simply conceiving of literacy as 'the ability to read and write' not only sets up a false dichotomy (between those who 'can' and those who 'can't'), but makes no allowance for reading and writing using various tools and for different purposes. Those who subscribe to this definition of literacy conceive it as being a state: despite mention of 'varying degrees' literacy is considered to be akin to a staircase climbed by individuals. Even the Oxford English Dictionary equivocates between two definitions of 'literate': “one who can read and write” and “a liberally educated or learned person”.

Literacy is a term that seems straightforward until one looks at it more closely, in a similar way to Wittgenstein's problem of defining what is meant by ‘game’.<ref>See the entry in the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy on ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein’ for an introduction to this:</ref> Upon doing this it can be seen that definitions of literacy reside somewhere on a continuum. At one end of the spectrum are functional definitions of literacy that focus on the acts of reading and writing. Gurak (2001, p.13) labels as ‘performative’ these popular definitions of literacy: it is the ability to do something is what counts. Gunther Kress is a thinker at this end of the spectrum, believing that “literacy is the term to use when we make messages using letters as the means of recording that message” (Kress, 2003, p.23). Literacy is seen “as a competence (as opposed to performance), that is, as a cognitive capacity capable of generating numerous specific forms' (Rodríguez Illera, 2004, p.49-50). It is this definition that “has generally dominated curriculum and pedagogy” (Dighe & Reddi, 2006).

Brian Street outlines two different models of literacy, the autonomous and the ideological. The autonomous model, as exemplified above “construes literacy as existing independently of specific contexts of social practice” and “as independent of and impartial towards trends and struggles in everyday life” (Street, 1984).

At the other extreme come conceptions of literacy as a critical activity, the ideological aspect, also known as the ‘social practice’ model. Instead of there being “an essential literacy lying behind actual social practices involving texts,” literacy “consists in the forms textual engagement takes within specific material contexts of human practice.” Literacy becomes “an active relationship or a way of orienting to the social and cultural world” (Lankshear, 1999, no page). Widening the conception of literacy even further, some such as Kathleen Welch define it as relating directly to consciousness as:

an activity of the minds... capable of recognizing and engaging substantive issues along with the ways that minds, sensibilities, and emotions are constructed by and with communities whose members communicate through specific technologies. (Welch, 1999, p.67 quoted in Gurak, 2001, p.9)

This tension between the autonomous and the ideological comes because of an even more fundamental dichotomy at the heart of literacy: either as a “tamer in the hands of rulers and the church” or, on the other hand, as “one of the cornerstones of individual and social emancipation” (Rantala & Suoranta, 2008, p.95). On the autonomous view literacy is something that can be used as a weapon and tool of oppression in the establishment and maintenance of hegemonic power. As we will see in Chapter 8, it is a view of literacy predicated upon a ‘scarcity’ and deficit model of literacy. The ideological view, on the other hand, would claim that literacies (in a plural sense) are socially-negotiated and culturally situated. They emerge rather than being dictated.

Literacy's relationship with knowledge

Holme (2004) uses the analogy of wave/particle duality in physics to explain how 'literacy' can have more than one nature yet still be a single concept. This, simply stated, is the idea that light exhibits both wave-like and particle-like properties. Instead of this being a problem caused by the human race still discovering nature, physicists believe such duality to be a fundamental property of the universe. It is not clear, however, whether this analogy has sufficient explanatory power. Can literacy (an unseen metaphorical concept) be compared to something that can be seen - namely, light? I shall explore the ambiguities surrounding models of digital literacies in more depth in Chapter 5, where I shall introduce a continuum of ambiguity. This particular metaphor of wave/particle duality, however, is probably more indicative of our lack of understanding of traditional (print) literacy rather than the changing literacy landscape. I would argue that rather than having a dual nature, literacy has a multiplicity of natures, which can be more or less foregrounded by their position upon a spectrum of ambiguity.

There are two central questions to the literacy debate, believes Holme, namely: (1) How much does one have to know about reading and writing to be literate? and (2) What does it really mean to read and to write? As Holme comments, these are seemingly simple questions yet are very difficult to answer. The first of these is a question about the importance of reflection and intention in literate practices whilst the second (of more relevance here) concerns reading and writing as (potentially) metaphorical activities.

Holme has a view of literacy that is predicated upon literacy's relationship with knowledge, as alluded to in his first question about the role of reflection and intention in literate practices. This is manifest in his brief treatment of the components of 'new literacies' such as 'computer literacy':

For example, a core feature of literacy's meaning is 'a knowledge', often of the basic skills, of 'reading and writing'. Now we use the term to refer simply to basic knowledge as in 'computer literacy'. Though even more confusingly, computer literacy is also bound up with reading and writing skills. (Holme, 2004, p.1-2)

The simple fact that one uses a computer does not then, for Holme, constitute a new 'literacy.' Instead, reading and writing skills (usually developed elsewhere) constitute part of what it means to be defined as 'computer literate.' Knowledge from one domain informs literate practices in another with traditional (print) literacy being transposed into a digital world with varying levels of success.

This link between literacy and knowledge is taken up by Gunther Kress in Literacy in the New Media Age (2003) in which he asserts, “Literacy remains the term which refers to (the knowledge of) the use of the resource in writing” (Kress, 2003, p.24). Kress believes that the communication of ideas and meaning-making are covered by the terms 'writing' and 'speech'. Knowing how to read and write, and then actually going about doing so to communicate meaning, is something above and beyond mere 'literacy' for Kress. The 'literacy' comes from knowledge and use of computers, for example, is simply putting that knowledge into action for the purposes of communication.

Despite Kress' erudition and attempted defence of equating literacy with knowledge, problems nevertheless arise. The first of these is perhaps best summed up by Carneiro when he states,

New knowledge is undergoing constant metamorphosis. The most important change concerns the transition from objective knowledge (codified and scientifically organized) to subjective knowledge (a personal construct, intensely social in its processes of production, dissemination and application). (Carneiro, 2002, p.66)

Equating literacy with knowledge is relatively unproblematic if the latter is a static concept. However, if knowledge is 'undergoing constant metamorphosis' and is social in its aspect, then literacy must do likewise. Kress assumes literacy is a fairly static concept with only the methods of communication differing. However if, as Muller (2000) believes, knowledge is intrinsically social, then this places pressure on conceptions of literacy that are tied to a knowledge-based definition.

The two differing approaches can be represented as follows:

Figure 3 - Different approaches to equating knowledge with literacy

Literacy's relationship with knowledge is complex. In the evaluative sense literacy suggests having a valuable knowledge of what is written. In the functional, however, literacy is solely about the skills and meta-skills of reading and writing. The difficulty comes in making sense of both the 'knowledge' and 'skills' aspects of literacy. In effect, these are two sides of the same coin but it nevertheless presents difficulties when attempting to come up with a working and all-encompassing definition of 'literacy'. In addition, given that knowledge has “broken away from its moorings, its shackles” (Siemens, 2006), it is difficult to know what kind of and which knowledge is relevant to a definition of literacy.

Taking a 'static' view of literacy is difficult in a world of fast-paced technological change. Whilst proponents could feasibly argue that the 'knowledge' aspect of literacy can remain reasonably constant despite innovations in reading and writing technologies, they would be hard-pressed to argue the same for the 'skills' aspect. Reading and writing using a word processor on a screen is very different from using a quill and parchment. As we will see in Chapter 6, a methodology for investigating, analysing and evaluating conceptions of new and digital literacies needs to take into account this relationship between skills and knowledge. Not only is writing using a word processor infinitely revisable, but it allows for the content and style of the writing to be altered separately.

Literacy as a social process

Given these problems, other writers have contended that literacy should be understood not as a 'state' which an individual has managed to reach, but instead as a 'process'. Rodríguez Illera believes that we should rethink literacy in terms of 'literate practices,' that we should see it as “a process and not only as a state, and [emphasise] its multiple character and, above all, its social dimension.” (2004, p.58-59) Viewing literacy as a social process gives rise in the literature to much discussion about social and cultural practices upon which literacy may be predicated. “Literacy is not simply knowing how to read and write a given text but rather the application of this knowledge for specific purposes in specific contexts” Rodríguez Illera quotes Scribner and Cole (1981) as saying. This would seem to allow for Kress' concern about literacy's relation to knowledge, whilst allowing for the social context that so many writers on literacy believe to also be important. It does not, however, move far from a knowledge-centred definition of literacy.

The 'proof of the pudding' in terms of whether someone should be designated as 'literate' is the production of texts. An illiterate person, after all, would not have the tools or skills to be able to create such texts. Allan Luke gives a concise overview of the three-step process by which texts are created:

Literacy is a social technology. That is, literate communities develop varied social, linguistic and cognitive practices with texts. These require the development and use of implements, ranging from plumes and ball point pens to keyboards. The objects and products of such practices and tools are recoverable texts arrayed on tablets, notebooks or other visual displays. (Introduction to Tuman, 1992, p.vii)

That is to say communities:

  1. Decide what a ‘text’ consists of.
  2. Use implements to create such texts.
  3. Arrange for texts to be ‘recoverable’ by various means

The text is co-constructed (albeit sometimes implicitly) within a community, it is 'written' using one of a number of technologies, and then it is displayed. With this social aspect of literacy come several issues and problems. Not least of these is the ethnocentric problem of being 'literate' according to the norms and practices of one community, yet not so according to those in another - even another community speaking the same language. Is it enough to assume that because communities share common tools or a common language that an individual from one would be understood by everybody from another? I will explore this in more depth in Chapter 6 through the work of Richard Rorty but, for now, a brief thought experiment should suffice. A situation could arise where an individual was more able to communicate with a person from a different community than one from his or her own. Would so doing constitute a new literacy or simply the using of one already established and socially-negotiated? Is the literacy in the use of the tool they used to communicate, or in something else? What constitutes a 'community'?

The second problem is that it would seem rather problematic to identify literacy as depending solely upon the literacy practices of a community. We talk almost exclusively of individuals being 'literate' rather than literacy being situated at the level of communities. This is potentially problematic as literacy has historically been tied very much to individual communication, self-expression and identity. Anthony Giddens has a useful theory of Structuration giving primacy neither to individual ‘actors’ nor to the structures within they act. This ‘third way’ (as embodied in the results of his advice to the Blair government) understands community as constraining individual action, but these individual actions as ultimately providing the structure to the very communities that constrain them. Defining literacy as residing solely within individuals or, conversely, solely within communities, seems problematic.

Third, if literacy is a 'cultural expression'<ref>Freire & Macedo, 1987, p.51-52</ref> then it would be possible to be literate at one point in a culture, but not when the culture evolves and changes. A response may be that literacy changes at the same speed as culture, meaning that individuals are not left behind by the community. However, this would lead to the problematic conclusion that we could not allow an individual from a particular time period could to be truly 'literate' in the literacy artefacts of that time. For example, whilst the average person in the 21st century may have some difficulty understanding 14th century Chaucerian language, we would still want to allow that experts could be 'literate' in the language of that time period. The same goes for Egyptian hieroglyphics. Separating out time and culture, therefore would mean that literacy is dependent upon the latter but not the former. It would have to be agreed that the historian could be 'literate' in the language of a past time because of their immersion in that culture. The first of these problems is a somewhat philosophical one in terms of the problem of 'other minds' - does the other person think the same thing as the creator of the text when they read it? As we saw earlier, Welch has argued that literacy is not just the ability to read and write but constitutes an ‘activity of the minds’ which takes place through specific technologies.

This interaction, and indeed the ability to do so, is for Welch what makes an individual 'literate'. Note that this definition is predicated upon technology - whether that be pen and paper or digital technologies such as email. Literacy involves the ability to read and write: merely speaking about and showing an understanding of what one has read does not completely fit the criteria.

It is available technologies that bind literate practices. The lack of a surface to write on other than stone limited the transportability and circulation of 'texts' produced by prehistoric hunter-gatherers, for example. The spread of ideas during the Renaissance was limited by the speed at which the technologies bounding literacy practices - in this case manuscripts moving at the 'speed of horse' - could travel, be copied, and be disseminated. As soon as texts could be transmitted (rather than carried) technology no longer remained a limiter to the dissemination of texts and the spread of ideas, but became a catalyst. Thus, as Standage (1998) points out in The Victorian Internet, moving texts over large distances quickly and easily resulted in a qualitative shift in communication. Since the 19th century, new and better ways of disseminating texts have been discovered, leading to a rapidly-evolving semiotic environment. In such an environment the medium becomes at least part of the message, as McLuhan famously argued.<ref>I discuss McLuhan’s work on tetrads in Chapter 8.</ref>

If literacy involves not only the creation of texts but their communication, then each method of communication could be said to involve a separate literacy. Others would argue that literacy is one step removed from this and that a concept such as 'digital literacy' would, for example, cover the elements that are similar in transmitting texts via (for example) mobile phones and computers. Grouping together 'similar' technologies and methods of communication could, however, be seen as somewhat arbitrary. Such considerations depend heavily upon context and are a reason that, in Chapter 9, I propose a matrix of essential elements to digital literacies rather that an overarching, static definition. The second problem mentioned above - that of seeing as problematic literacy being dependent upon the literacy practices of a community - is dealt with more easily by thinking of communities of literate practice. Although in this quotation Carr (2003) is referring to more generic skillsets, it can easily be applied to literacy and literacy practices:

...there are going to be skills and activities (such as literacy and numeracy) that all need to acquire because no modern person can adequately function without them, as well as skills (of auto-repair and secretarial work) that some but not all individuals will require for particular vocations. (Carr, 2003, p.18)

Likewise, there are going to be some particular literacy practices - perhaps centering around professions or interests - that are specific to smaller communities, but this does not preclude there being a wider 'literacy' that all recognise as being relevant in a generic sense to all of these sub-communities. To be literate, therefore, can mean to build upon the literacy practices of one or more communities, without leading to the somewhat absurd conclusion of identifying the communities themselves as 'literate'. The literacy practices of a community are a necessary but not sufficient condition for an individual to be counted as 'literate'. The individual must bring something to the table, must do something with those literacy practices, to be considered literate.

A problem remains when requiring literacy to be predicated upon such practices of a community. If social forms, structures and methods of communications are relatively stable, then literate practices are likewise obvious and can be built upon. When, however, society itself is in flux, then such practices become more difficult to pin down:

Society is being transformed by the passage from the ‘solid’ to the ‘liquid’ phases of modernity, in which all social forms melt faster than new ones can be cast. They are not given enough time to solidify and cannot serve as the frame of reference for human actions and long-term life-strategies because their allegedly short life expectation undermines efforts to develop a strategy that would require the consistent fulfillment of a ‘life-project’. (Bauman, 2005, p.303)

Individuals during such 'liquid' phases of modernity therefore become alienated from one another, as the structures upon which literacy practices are normally built are not stable and long-lived enough to do so. Definitions of what it means to be 'literate' in such a community therefore become somewhat problematic. This is also discussed in more detail in Chapter 8 through the organising concept of ‘Flow’.

The third and final problem identified above was that literacy is a 'cultural expression' and is therefore historically situated. It would seem that this problem can be solved rather straightforwardly with a couple of thought experiments. First, imagine that an individual living in the 21st century is taken as they are and dropped in the middle of a village in a country whose language they do not know how to speak or read. That individual would not be able to read anything that the village community had written down, nor write themselves in a manner which the villagers would understand. The individual would not be 'literate' in that community.

The second thought experiment is similar, but involves a time frame. Imagine an English monk from the 10th century somehow being transported to modern day England. Although some words in Old English and Latin are similar to their modern-day equivalents, still the monk would struggle to communicate. Not only that, but he would be limited to being able to use, at least initially, those technologies available to him in the 10th century. As a result he would not be fully 'literate' in a 21st century sense of the term. Given these two examples, it seems relatively clear that literacy does depend upon culture and has an historical aspect. In fact, it must include the latter for community and cultural cohesion: generations have to be able to communicate with one another effectively. Literacy evolves rather than is created anew. 'Participation in culture' is perhaps the best term to use as one can participate in something without actively creating or altering what is there. Thus, the historian could 'participate' in the cultural life of a past community (and therefore be 'literate' in regard to the texts produced) without actually having lived at that time.

It may be argued that an individual is still literate when apart from a community and in isolation. This may be the case, but his or her literacy skills are predicated upon those learned when within a community. The critic may rebut this argument by thinking up a thought experiment of their own where an autodidact stranded on a desert island teaches himself to read and write by discovering a library. Again, this may be possible but, as Lemke points out, we employ community-constructed social practices even when nobody else is around:

Even if we are alone, reading a book, the activity of reading - knowing which end to start at, whether to read a page left-to-right or right-to-left, top-down or bottom-up, and how to turn the pages, not to mention making sense of a language, a writing system, an authorial style, a genre forma (e.g. a dictionary vs. a novel) - depends on conducting the activity in a way that is culturally meaningful to us. Even if we are lost in the woods, with no material tools, trying to find our way or just make sense of the plants or stars, we are still engaged in making meanings with cultural tools such as language (names of flowers or constellations) or learned genres of visual images (flower drawings or star maps). We extend forms of activity that we have learned by previous social participation to our present lonely situation. (Lemke, 2002, p.36-37)

The three problems relating to literacy being predicated and depending upon the literacy practices of a community, therefore, can be seen as solvable. In fact, to try and define someone as 'literate' without reference to something produced for another to read would be extremely difficult. Now that the problems surrounding literacy as a community activity have been discussed and, to some extent, resolved, let us turn to the nature of literacy.

Unitary and pluralist views of literacy

Hannon points out a distinction between 'unitary' and 'pluralist' views of literacy. The unitary view, he states, is predicated upon the idea that literacy is a 'skill' and that there is an 'it' to which we can refer - a single referent,

According to this view the actual uses which particular readers and writers have for that competence is something which can be separated from the competence itself. (Hannon, 2000, p.31)

In contrast, the pluralist view believes there to be different literacies. Hannon quotes Lankshear who links social literacy practices with a pluralist view of literacy:

We should recognise, rather, that there are many specific literacies, each comprising an identifiable set of socially constructed practices based upon print and organised around beliefs about how the skills of reading and writing may or, perhaps, should be used. (Lankshear, 1987, quoted in Hannon, 2000, p.32)

Pluralists believe not only that we should speak of 'literacies' rather than 'literacy', but reject the notion that literacy practices are neutral with regard to power, social identity and political ideology. By intentionally or unintentionally privileging certain literacy practices hegemonic power is either increased or decreased (Gee, 1996). The pluralist conception of literacy is, to a great extent, similar to the postmodernist movement in the late 20th century. Whilst adherents are clear as to what they are against (in this case a 'unitary' conception of literacy) it is not always clear what they stand for. What constitutes a 'literacy'? What do 'literacies' have in common? Hannon attempts to bring some clarity by appealing to the notion of 'family resemblence', much as Wittgenstein did for the concept of 'game'. His argument is that although we cannot define 'literacy' in a way that would satisfy every critic, we can nevertheless know what it means in practice. This fits in well with the Pragmatic methodology I outline in Chapter 6.<ref>I believe that one of the fundamentally important difference beteween considering ‘literacy’ and ‘literacies’ is that the latter foregrounds human agency in a way that the former does not.</ref>

Hannon, however, does not position himself as either a 'unitary' or 'pluralist' thinker with respect to literacy. After suggesting that theorists prefer unitary or pluralist conceptions of literacy depending upon whether they focus on literacy as a skill (psychology) or as a social practice (sociology), he questions why we need to choose between these two conceptions. “A full conception of literacy in education requires awareness of both”, he states (Hannon, 2000, p.38). This is closer to the spectrum of ambiguity I will explore in Chapter 5 than the ‘wave-particle duality’ we saw proposed by Holme earlier.

Although Hannon does not give a name to this 'third way' of dealing with literacy, it is difficult to argue against his rationale. 'Literacy' becomes 'literacies' and yet the latter can still, in some way, be separated from and identified from its cultural production. That is to say that, although created with norms and methods (implicitly) negotiated with communities, 'literacy' and the texts produced using 'literate practices' can be separated from one another. Indeed, without such a position, the concept of 'literacies' could collapse into solipsism as there would be no agreed way of talking about such practices and cultural constructs.

Those working more recently than Hannon have indeed given a generic name to the types of literacies mentioned above. Known simply as 'New Literacies', their study is now a distinct and separate strand of literacy research. They seek, as Durrant & Green put it, to describe a more '3D' model of literacies including “cultural, critical and operational dimensions” (quoted in Beavis, 2002, p.51). Attempting to describe and, to some extent, promote the new opportunities that digital, collaborative technologies afford society, 'New Literacies' theorists focus on new ways individuals can express themselves. They debate and try to explain how using these new technologies and methods of expression fit within, or complement, existing literacies. Although New Literacies is a new field of research there is nevertheless some debate and differing positions that can be taken. I shall explore this in more detail in Chapter 7.

Requirements of a ‘literacy’

From the above, it is clear that for a term or concept to be considered a ‘literacy’ and useful in practice it must meet certain criteria. These criteria must be derived from conceptions of traditional (print) literacy and related literate practices. Without being grounded and bounded by this it would be difficult to see how the word 'literacy' could form part of a definition for, example, ‘digital literacy’.

First, a definition including ‘literacy’ must have explanatory power and make a difference in practice. Although by its very nature it is likely to be metaphorical in nature, the term must be 'useful in the way of belief' (James, 1995). This Pragmatic element will be explored in more detail in Chapter 6 but, for now, I shall take it that literacy has to be for a purpose.

Second, a definition mentioning ‘literacy’ must deal with the retrospective nature of literacy, either by including past (and future) instances of literate practice, or by explaining why the retrospective element is not required. A definition must deal successfully with the historical component and legacy of the 'literacy' element of the term. In other words, if the word literacy’ is used in new domains in ways not congruent with existing practice, then it would be better that another word was used. This will be important in Chapter 8 when we come to analyse what, in fact, ‘digital literacies’ are.

Third, any definition that involves ‘literacy’ needs to explain adequately its relation to other metaphorical terms in the 'literate practices' arena. Proponents of a definition must explain whether the proposed term or concept is a derivative term, whether it stands in its own right, what it is predicated upon, and whether it includes other forms of literacy. This relates directly to what was latent in Chapter 2 and the concept of ‘umbrella terms’ and micro literacies’ explored in Chapter 7.

Finally, anyone wishing to define a term including reference to ‘literacy’ needs to explain to what the modifier (such as 'digital' in ‘digital literacy’) pertains. For example, a broad definition of 'digital' would include calculators, whereas a more narrow definition may deal solely with devices that can (for example) access the internet. This can be difficult to ascertain as it is often merely assumed or implied, as we will see in Chapters 8 and 9. The definition does not have to go into much detail about this, but some kind of explanation of the ‘digital’ element should be present in some form.

These, then, are the four conditions by which I will judge definitions of digital literacy under the Pragmatic method employed in this thesis. Those who propose definitions must deal adequately and convincingly with the following elements:

  1. ‘Cash value' or utility
  2. Retrospective element
  3. Metaphorical element
  4. Digital element

The first of these, the utility of the method will be explained in the methodology section (Chapter 6). I will argue in Chapter 9 that attempting to define a single ‘digital literacy’ (or any other new literacy) in an objective, contextless manner is doomed to failure. Instead, after applying a Pragmatic methodology and considering the world of McLuhan, Ong and Csikzentmihalyi, I conclude that a matrix of configurable and contextualised core elements is more appropriate for scaffolding new literacy practices.


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