12.2114, Review: Street, Literacy and Development
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LINGUIST List: Vol-12-2114. Mon Aug 27 2001. ISSN: 1068-4875.
Subject: 12.2114, Review: Street, Literacy and Development
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Date: Mon, 27 Aug 2001 15:05:03 -0500
From: Dennis Malone <dennis_malone at sil.org>
Subject: Review of Street, ed., Literacy and Development
-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------
Date: Mon, 27 Aug 2001 15:05:03 -0500
From: Dennis Malone <dennis_malone at sil.org>
Subject: Review of Street, ed., Literacy and Development
Street, Brian V., ed. (2001) Literacy and Development: Ethnographic
Perspectives. Routledge, paperback ISBN 0-415-23451-4, hardcover ISBN
Dennis L. Malone, Ph.D., International Literacy Consultant,
Brian Street, the editor of this volume, has played a
critical role in the development of literacy studies that
problematize the traditional view of literacy as a
necessary and pivotal ingredient in a society's
intellectual, social, economic and political development
(cf. Goody & Watt, 1968, Olson, 1977, Ong 1982). In his
1984 publication, "Literacy in Theory and Practice," Street
developed the "autonomous" and "ideological" models of
literacy. Countering the conception of literacy as a
neutral set of communicative technological skills and
attitudes that "automatically" lead to development, Street
contended that in reality, literacy is a social practice
that differs significantly from society to society, and
even among social classes within the same society.
In Street's conception (frequently cited by the ten authors
in this collection), "Literacy" (big-L literacy, in
Street's phrase), when defined as a single set of skills,
cannot account adequately for the multiplicity of literacy
practices that can be identified in ostensibly "illiterate"
communities. Street refers to these practices as "multiple
literacies" or "local literacies" (cf. Street, 1993) In
one sense the current volume can be considered a sequel to
his 1993 set of studies, albeit refocused toward the
linkages among literacy, development and ethnographic
As Street asserts, ethnographic research is "more concerned
with attempting to understand what actually happens than
with trying to prove the success of a particular
intervention or 'sell' a particular methodology for
teaching or management" (p. 1). In this volume,
ethnographic research shares equal billing with literacy
SUMMARY OF CONTENT
The book begins with an Introduction by Street. This is
followed by the ethnographic studies that are divided into
two sections: "I. Literacy and development: ethnographic
perspectives on schooling and adult education" and "II.
Literacy and development: local literacies and development
agendas." Each of the two sections is preceded by its own
"Introduction" which serves as a friendly review of the
articles in that section. The volume concludes with an
"Afterword: problematising literacy and development" by
In his Introduction to the volume (pp. 1-17), Street sets
out the main themes that unite this collection of 10
ethnographic views of literacy uses and practices in Africa
(Namibia, Eritrea, and Ghana), Asia (India, twice, Nepal,
Bangladesh, China and Pakistan) and South America (Peru).
He argues that only an ethnographic approach can focus on
the local meanings of literacy/literacies while addressing
the larger issues raised by what are called the "New
Orders" and the "New Literacy Studies" His editorial aim is
"to operationalise these approaches as a basis both for
research purposes and for practical applications" (p. 6,
Section I includes four studies.
(1) Dyer & Choksi (pp. 27-39) present a thoughtful and
engaging account of a "failed" literacy intervention with
the nomadic Rabari of India. Reminiscent of Hornberger's
(1987) account of "Bilingual Education Success, but Policy
Failure" in Peru, the authors discover that an innovative
nomadic literacy program is quite possible but not
congruent with the understanding and aspirations of the
Rabari with respect to formal education. The Rabari see the
latter ideologically as a door opening into the modern
world in which they have access to alternative and more
viable ways of living or at least to the economic, cultural
and symbolic "capital" that leads to them (p. 37).
(2) Although disclaiming any evaluative intent, Papen (pp.
40-60) presents a critique of the National Literacy
Programme in Namibia (NLPN) and its claim to providing
Namibians with their "key for a better future". The
author's detailed account of the NLPN and a "Literacy Day"
event provides her with ample opportunities to apply the
theoretical concepts of the "New Literacy Studies" to
problematize the motivation and implementation of the NLPN.
(3) Wright (pp. 61-77) provides readers with a detailed
account of the change in her perception of the "chanting"
pedagogy typical of primary education in Eritrea. She
finds that what seems on the surface to be mindless and
monotonous rote instruction actually connects in meaningful
and effective ways with the cultural background of the
(4) Chopra (pp. 78-91) narrates an introspective
("reflexive") account of her interpersonal relationships as
an ethnographic literacy researcher among participants in a
literacy center in a north Indian village. She analyzes
her interactions with research subjects in a previous
fieldwork site, which she renames her "homework" site (pp.
79-80). The account suffers a bit in lack of clarity from
that type of word play but does offer the reader an
insider's view of the ethical dilemmas facing ethnographers
of the "new literacy".
In Section II the studies are more focused on the
relationships between literacy and development.
(5) Aikman, (pp. 103-120) presents an historically
contextualized account of "self-development" in the
Harakmbut language community in Amazonian Peru. She
parries concepts of development from a missionary and
governmental perspective with the concepts of Harakmbut
self-development as revealed through the activities of a
local community organization.
(6) Herbert and Robinson (pp. 121-136) provide an account
of the relationship between languages and literacies in
northern Ghana, pointing out the ways that different
community literacy practices often involve--in some cases,
require--different languages. They raise and respond to a
significant question: Do the differences observed among the
various literacies in northern Ghana "depend on language"
(7) Maddox (pp. 137-151) describes economic uses of
literacy among peasants in Bangladesh, where "poor" and
"illiterate" are considered synonymous. The author
considers the practical uses of literacy and numeracy among
the peasant population of northwestern Bangladesh "to be
undervalued by politicians and development planners" (p.
149) when they should be the foundation on which effective
adult education programs are built.
(8) Robinson-Pant (pp. 152-170) provides an insightful and
probing account of the problematic relationship between
ethnographer and development agency with respect to
research undertaken for a Western NGO in Nepal. She raises
a significant issue when she questions "how far
ethnographic research can be packaged and sold as a product
to the developers" (p. 152).
(9) Stites (pp. 171-187) provides readers with detailed
descriptions of the literacy uses and practices he
discovered during visits and interviews in 100 households
in southeastern China. He seeks to understand the
disparate literacy rates between men and women in three
rural communities, as well as the apparent disjunction
between the national adult literacy curriculum and the home
environments in which most women, who comprise the majority
of learners, use literacy.
(10) Zubair (pp. 188-204) contributes an account of the
power issues involved in the acquisition of literacy and
formal education by women in a rural Pakistani community.
Although she includes the "voices" of the research
participants themselves, her conclusions are the least
convincing of this group of articles, partially because
they are generalized far beyond the small and localized
research community, and partially because the author is not
clear about which language(s) was(were) used in the
collection of data (cp. Robinson-Pant).
Alan Roger's "Afterword" (pp. 205-221) provides a critique
of the ethnographic points of view presented in the volume
in terms of the degree to which they have increased our
understanding of the linkages of literacy to development.
As Rogers points out, the purpose of this volume is to
provide literacy and development practitioners with useful
insights into what actually is--and is not--happening in
literacy and development interventions. Rogers is
nevertheless left with an unquiet sense of what he calls
"unfinished business": "Time and again, I was tempted to
ask at the end of a chapter, 'So what?'" (p. 217). Rogers
goes on to assess the "missing practical implication" (pp.
220-221). (See below for reviewer comment.)
A CRITICAL EVALUATION
Brian Street is to be commended for providing this
collection of ethnographic studies of literacy and
development in diverse contexts. Unlike his 1993
collection of studies, these are all informed by recent
research and possess a unity of perspective not apparent in
the previous volume. Street is also to be commended for
including Alan Roger's insightful review and critique of
the collection. Having made rather extensive notes of each
article as I reviewed the book, I was personally impressed
at how many of my questions and concerns were raised by
Rogers in the "Afterword".
>>From my point of view as an applied linguist and
practitioner of literacy and development in multilingual
contexts, I value this volume for demonstrating the
strengths and weaknesses of an ethnographic approach to the
study of literacy and development in diverse ethno-
linguistic communities. It is highly unlikely that any of
the findings revealed in these studies could have resulted
from traditional survey or other quantitative forms of
But again as an applied linguist, I was disappointed that
while several authors made clear reference to multilingual
research contexts, they failed to discuss adequately the
issue of language in those situations. For example, Zubair
writes about Seraiki-speaking women's literacies in three
languages--Arabic, Urdu, and English but she does not probe
the fact that none of these three is the women's mother
tongue (p. 192). Stites, in his introduction, emphasizes
the predominance of "non-Han minority groups" in remote and
underdeveloped regions of China but does not then address
language issues in his discussion of adult literacy
programs at his research site (p. 171). Chopra refers to
the use of a local language, Hindi and English (pp. 82-83)
by different research participants. However, she ignores
language as a factor in her discussion of the unequal power
relationships among the participants (including the
The failure to address the issue of language in those
articles is somewhat balanced by the Herbert and Robinson
and the Robinson-Pant articles. Herbert and Robinson
discuss the affect of language choice on four literacy
practices in northern Ghana. Robinson-Pant describes
incidents of language clash between Maithili (participants)
and Nepali (facilitators) in some communities (p. 159).
She uses those incidents to evaluate the impact of language
use on literacy instruction and the development of literacy
A final word: the authors' frequent dichotomous
characterization of languages and literacies as either
dominant or dominated ("subaltern") implies an active
antipathy between the promoters of dominant literacies and
the users of local literacies. In my own experience,
ignorance and indifference is as much a factor as active
opposition in the failure of the dominant society to
support local languages and literacies. Frequently, the
problem is less the muteness of the marginalized people in
promoting their needs and aspirations as it is the deafness
of the powers that be. Perhaps the most significant
contribution of ethnographic research in literacy and
development contexts is to give a public voice to the
people who have traditionally been excluded from active
participation in the development process. In that respect,
this volume is certainly a step in the right direction.
Goody, Jack and Watt, Ian. (1988/1968). The Consequences
of Literacy. In Eugene Kintgen, Barry Kroll, and Mike
Rose, eds. Perspectives on Literacy, Southern Illinois
Olson, David. (1988/1977). From Utterance to Text: The
Bias of Language in Speech and Writing. In Eugene Kintgen,
Barry Kroll, and Mike Rose, eds. Perspectives on Literacy,
Southern Illinois University Press.
Heath, Shirley Brice. (1983). Way with Words: Language,
Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms, Cambridge
Hornberger, Nancy. (1987). Bilingual Education Success,
but policy failure. Language and Society 16, 205-226.
Ong, Walter. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The
Technologizing of the Word, Routledge.
Street, Brian. (1984). Literacy in Theory and Practice,
Cambridge University Press.
Street, Brian V, ed. (1993). Cross-Cultural Approaches to
Literacy, Cambridge University Press
Dennis Malone earned a Ph.D. in Education at Indiana
University and is currently working as an International
Literacy Consultant with SIL International in the Asia
Area. His research interests are mother tongue education,
sociolinguistics (especially language maintenance and
endangerment issues) and literacy studies in general. He
has extensive experience in ethnic minority education in
Asia and the Pacific. He is currently serving as visiting
lecturer at Mahidol University-Salaya (Bangkok), advising
on several mother tongue education projects in the Asia
Area, and consulting with the Ministry of Education and
Training and World bank on a pilot project on ethnic
minority primary education in Vietnam.
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