Book review - Literacy and Literacies: Texts, Power, and Identity

From: Phil Chappell (
Date: Mon Mar 29 2004 - 02:41:39 PST

This book review, and indeed the book, may be of interest to some here.


AUTHOR: Collins, James; Blot, Richard K.
TITLE: Literacy and Literacies: Texts, Power, and Identity
SERIES: Studies in Social and Cultural Foundations of Language 22
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2003

Sally Wellenbrock Hinrich, Oklahoma State University


Collins and Blot build an argument that literacy is not merely an
independent skill for comprehending texts, measured by an arbitrary
institutional standard, but ''inseparable from values, senses of self,
and forms of regulation and power'' (page xviii). Integrating themes
from the French post-structuralists, the authors analyze ethnographic
and cultural studies to illustrate how literacy has been interpreted
in various points in history and in numerous societies.

Chapter 1 introduces the concept that, in a
ddition to printed text,
literacy also relates to other cultural forms that hold meaning for
the specific cultural group (p.3). Literacy is defined as an absolute
concept related to educational development as well as the required
skills needed to comprehend texts. Literacies, in contrast, represent
''sociocultural or situated models'' that incorporate historical
and/or cultural variables (p.4).

Chapter 2 delves into the development of the ''literacy thesis'' which
promotes writing as the key to development of a superior form of
civilization (from Halverson, 1991). The authors critically examine
arguments by Goody (1986), Goody & Watt (1963) and Olson (1997, 1974)
who diminish the status of oral-based cultures while privileging
literate-based, Greco-European, cultures. Collins & Blot argue that
those who recognize only in the context-independent nature of written
text (um...) ignore the existence of the interpretive nature of both
and oral cultures. The authors invoke
  deCerteau's (1984) position that
oral and written texts are ''complimentary (oops),'' existing on a
rather than as objective absolutes (p. 30). Their argument concludes
that it is necessary to shift from the literacy thesis view (that only
a formal text represents literacy) in order to focus on the post-
structuralist view where multiple literacies develop from everyday
practices in addition to institutional criteria.

In Chapter 3, the authors argue that situated literacies need to be
developed and enhanced within each social context to create a local
construction of meaning rather than through the application of
arbitrarily defined skills . Drawing on geographically diverse work,
Collins & Blot blend the original ethnographic focus of work done by
Heath (1983, United States), Finnegan (1988, Sierra Leone) and Street
(1984, 1993, Iran), with a critical analysis of the implications of
each group's efforts to maintain an identity while resisting the power
of institu
tional literacy.

Chapter 4 focuses on the historic shifts in the interpretation of
literacy during the rise of European nation states. Beginning in
Renaissance Italy, the authors contend that the rise of printed text
and writing was employed to separate society by class as well as by
concept (written text over oral). Synthesizing historical accounts
with deCerteau's (1984) concept of the ''polarizing'' effects of
writing, Collins & Blot recount the 18th and 19th century growth of
American public schools where the primary function of literacy was to
inculcate discipline (while excluding women and slaves). Gradually the
addition of basic skills training in the curriculum created ''a
literature of national lore and self-improvement'' (p. 78). The
authors then outline how the definition of ''illiterate,'' was again
revised to represent not just a lack of learning prescribed texts, but
also assigned to any form of non-standard learning, suggesting another
shift in meaning that cr
eated disparities affecting personal power and identity for social and
ethnic groups.

In examining the historical development of institutional literacy in
the late 1880s through the 1960s, the authors describe the effects of
the increasing standardization of technology and schooling that
ultimately developed into establishing testing standards to rank
students in the school systems. By the 1950s & 60s, students were
tracked into academic or vocational coursework based on aptitude and
achievement test scores. Accompanying this structuring of coursework
was the reinforcement of Standard English grammar and composition that
reduced other forms of language to non-standard status. Collins & Blot
suggest that, as a result, literacy and achievement became equated with
the number of years a student stayed in school.
Collins & Blot suggest that standardized testing began ''quantifying
literacy,'' serving to enhance the ''quintessentially American desire
to provide technical descripti
ons and solutions to complex problems''
(p. 86). The resulting literacy policies permitted the rise of
faceless administrative power to rank and direct students into
specific coursework while at the same time claiming education was a
means of improving one's place in society. At the same time,
resistance to this standardization was realized with the development
of distinctive African-American oral literature and music using
language in direct conflict with institutional standards. Based on the
literacy thesis, emerging Black/African American dialects were
associated with an ''illiterate'' use of Standard English.

In chapter 5, Collins & Blot suggest that issues of literacy and
language were externally shaped in the 1960s through large,
government- driven programs to develop and promote a national image of
a well- educated citizenry. The concurrent emergence of social
movements (such as rights for women and minorities) allowed
individuals to engage in a search for alternate i
dentities in order to
construct solidarity within a particular social or ethnic group. The
authors point out that while the schools promoted certain literacies
in a non-inclusive way, the schools also failed to provide literacies
that would help students in their lives outside and beyond
school. Collins & Blot demonstrate conflicts of identity developing
from ''schooled literacy'' using studies by Heath (1983), Rose (1985,
1989) and Gilyard (1991). The authors contend that a contradiction
exists in modern American education which endorses ''recognition of
difference'' while it simultaneously imposes standardized programs,
such as literacy requirements and testing norms, on all students in
equal fashion (p. 121).

Chapter 6 begins with examination of historical texts for
transformations of the cultural history of indigenous peoples of Latin
America framed in the rhetoric of colonial languages. Through literacy
programs originally targeted to create a localized workforce,
enous groups were forced into using colonial languages to live
within and to form resistance against the dominant culture. Using a
post-structuralist view of writing the authors look at forms of local
opposition in the histories of Hispaniola, the Andes, and
post-colonial Aztec/Mayan cultures to examine the meaning of
literacy. The authors revisit anthropological and ethnographic records
to show how certain groups reshaped the received literacy to meet
their needs on an everyday basis in spite of the legal and historical
motives behind the existing texts of conquest.

In the final chapter (7), Collins & Blot argue for the importance of
valuing local ''social memory'' in addition to creating a ''textual
preservation'' of memory (p. 163). The authors refer to the rise of
''computer literacy'' and technology as transformation of texts to
cybertext as another step in the history of literacy, not the final
phase of text. What is at stake is not the form; rather it is in
ing that ''meaning is not in a text, but in an
interpretation'' (p. 172). They caution that any derived meaning is
ultimately affected by the ''power'' and ''identity'' of the
interpreters (p. 173). The authors outline two principal definitions
of literacy used in current practice.  First, the ''unitary account''
derived from traditional literacy, where drill, behavior and testing
form the basis of education, ''which foreground carefully measured and
quantitatively ranked progress'' (p.  173). The other model is ''whole
language relativism'' that includes plural literacies, where printed
text is not the solitary form, but a form which also accepts
literacies based on cultural symbols, visual arts and computer
technologies as well as the ''child's home-based discourses''
(p. 173).

Collins & Blot close with the comment that any complete definition of
literacy needs to account for ''the long-term historical pattern''
that is absent in either of the present interpretations
(p. 1
74). Concluding that the definition of literacy is still
politically and socially contested, the authors predict further
interpretations and implementation of policies related to the
relationship between literacy and literacies will remain at the
forefront of debates in education.  The final chapter did not propose
any conclusions about what should be done to resolve the questions;
rather the reader is left to ponder the implications of the authors'
arguments in the ongoing debates.


For those interested in delving into the implications of the orality-
literacy dichotomy, Collins & Blot have added an intriguing
perspective into the ongoing debate. The authors' discussion of the
historical development of local practices in Latin America and Africa
added a new dimension to the more frequently cited studies of British
colonial expansion and subsequent domination of the English language
around the world (Pennycook, 1998; Kachru, 1992; and many
others). Multi
ple studies and detailed references presented in the
text, however, require the reader to pay close attention to the
authors' arguments in order to follow some of the more complex lines
of reasoning. There are two related subjects that I would like to see
expanded in any future edition or in another volume. First, throughout
the text, the groups cited in the examples were based on homogenous
cultures within a given society. How are multiple literacies to be
realized when communities must address the needs of citizens
representing many different social and linguistic practices? I would
like to see an analysis of studies describing groups working together
to construct a local framework that recognizes multiple situated

Second, although Collins and Blot make a strong argument against
standardized testing, how would the authors suggest that all children
be assessed fairly? need to present some means of demonstrating how
students are progressing. It would have been he
lpful to have an
additional chapter or subsection focused on groups developing
assessment practices that incorporate the concept of multiple

In closing, I can also recommend the book as a worthwhile resource for
those interested in the continuing discussion of literacy issues as
well as for those interested in cultural diversity and language


DeCerteau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley:
University of California.
Finnegan, R. (1988). Literacy and orality. Oxford and New York: Basil
Gilyard, J. (1991). Voices of the self. Detroit: Wayne State
University Press.
Goody, J. (1986). The logic of writing and the organization of
thought.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goody, J. and Watt, I. (1963). The consequences of literacy.
Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5(3), 304-345.
Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in
communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press
Kachru, B. B. (Ed.).(1992). The other tongue: English across cultures
(2nd ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Olson, D. (1997). From utterance to text: the bias of language in
speech and writing. Harvard Education Review, 47, 257-81.
Olson, D. (1974). The world on paper. New York: Cambridge University
Pennycook, A. (1998). English and the discourses of colonialism. New
York: Routledge.
Rose, M. (1985). The language of exclusion: Writing instruction at the
university. College English, 47, 341-359.
Rose, M. (1989). Lives on the boundary. New York: Penguin.
Street, B. (1984). Literacy in theory and practice. New York:
Cambridge University Press.
Street, B. (1993). Cross-cultural approaches to literacy. New York:
Cambridge University Press.


Sally Wellenbrock Hinrich is a doctoral student and teaching associate
in TESL/Linguistics at Oklahoma State University. Her dissertation
focuses on cross-cultural issues in plagiarism. She is also inter
in World Englishes and collaborative learning.

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