Monday, May 4, 2009

The New Literacy Studies By Brian Street

Brian Street sheds new light in the way that literacy is studied. Street begins by giving a definition of literacy; as the social practices and conceptions of reading and writing. He explains how one can be biased when we think about literacy because we have different views on literacy that we have derived from our own culture. This assumptions make us impose our own “cultural practice into other people’s literacies”. Street seeks to show how literacy is an ideological term. In doing so he notes two different models in which literacy is viewed. The first is the “Autonomous” Model, which treats literacy as independent of social context. The second model is the “Ideological” Model which recognizes the cultural practices that are associated with reading and writing in different contexts.

The autonomous model of literacy shows that social development and progress in individual cognitive processes are a result of literacy. Meaning that written thought gives literacy its distinctive properties namely that it is used as a neutral tool. Increased autonomy in literacy has led to radical change. Street points out that this model creates a problem because it pins what he calls a “great divide” between modern and traditional societies. This made Street to look for a new model and this is where the “Ideological” Model emerged from. In the Ideological model, the ethnographer has to interpret power, authority, and social differentiation in literacy. Street says that an ethnographic study is biased and it’s better to show what ideologies are hidden behind them. He points out that it ideologies remain hidden behind the observation it will be difficult for that observation to be Scrutinized, challenged and refined. Street offers a definition of ideology as, “ the site of tension between authority and power on one side and resistance and creativity on the other.” This tension is observed in different cultural practices, this includes language and literacy. The ideological model understands literacy as it is practiced within the culture and does not deny technical skill or cognitive aspects of reading or writing. The model enables one to think about the concept of oral and literate practices as a cross-cultural unit rather than comparing literacy and orality in another divide.

Street derived the Ideological Model from linguistics and anthropology, showing that these two forms of methodologies replace the concept of the “great divide” with discourse analyses. From these emerges new approaches to literacy. These approaches are “literacy events,” “literacy practices,” and “communicative practices.” Literacy events are occasions in which writing is an essential part of the participant’s interactions and interpretive processes. Literacy practices refer to both behavior and concepts related to reading and writing. Communicative Practices are seen in social activities where language or communication is produced. The discourse in anthropology and linguistics then refers to “the complex of conceptions, classifications, and language use that characterize a sub-set of an ideological formation.” In observing discourses it is crucial to show what is correct and what is meaningless. To do this there is a need for a method that can be sensitive language better than ethnography has been. With this Street concludes that when the ethnographic method is intertwined with an emphasis on ideological and power processes it can be successful in being sensitive to social context.

Posted by Isabel

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