Literacy and Identity

As a number of studies have argued, Indonesian Domestic Workers (IDWs) overseas are subject to subordination due to their imagined lack of English, which is linguistic capital.[1] This clearly indicates the close connection between language and identity. The correct use of language in a social context refers to saying and doing the right thing, as it expresses the correct values and manners that conform to a particular social identity.[2] Just as language is interwoven with identity, so is literacy closely connected to identity. Gee’s concept of Discourse can be used to reframe the relationship between literacy and identity. ‘‘A Discourse (with a capital D) is a sort of ‘identity kit’ which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk and often to write, so as to take on a particular social role that others will recognise.’’[3]

From a sociocultural perspective, one’s identity is formed not only by one’s self-making, but also by others’ perceptions of one’s self. We identify ourselves with the world we live in and the groups in which we are members, and we continually construct our identities on the basis of sameness and differences within the society and culture we belong to.[4] This understanding is parallel to Holland et al.’s concept of positional identity, which refers to the way one identifies oneself in relation to “power, deference and entitlement, social affiliation and distance−with the social-interactional, social-relational structures of the lived world.”[5] Positionality is “inextricably linked to power, status, and rank.”[6] When a domestic worker is not allowed to eat or sleep before other members of her master’s family do so, this is more about positional identity. However, one’s identities also involve figured elements that are culture-related. In Holland et al.’s words, “figurative identities are about signs that evoke storylines or plots among generic characters.”[7] Positional identities may place an individual in a disadvantaged positioning, yet he/she use the figured elements of their identities, in order to negotiate the positional identities and gain a more influential social positioning.[8]

Positional and figurative identities are coined as identities in practice, and are part of a bigger concept of figured world, itself part of Holland et al.’s theory of self and identity. Figured worlds can be defined as a space in which people attribute meaning to their experiences and interpret relationships between people, acts, and goals.[9] Activities related to figured worlds are characterised by familiar social types by their participants, and people produce their understanding of who they are through cultural artefacts. Therefore, people are distributed or recruited in particular figured worlds on the basis of who they are and their personal social history. Holland et al. further suggest that we may or may not enter some figured worlds because of social status, or even deny outsiders to enter the figured worlds we belong to. Figured worlds are enacted and contested through cultural artefacts, activities, and identities in practice.

Bartlett and Holland extend the concepts of figured world, cultural artefacts, and identities in practice in theorising the space of literacy practices. Literacy, including creative writing, is also a figured world that may differentiate good readers from bad readers, literate people from illiterate ones.[10] In this case, literacy can be embodied in a number of figured worlds through the use of cultural artefacts, which can be in the form of material aspects and/or ideas and concepts. In the figured world of literacy, cultural artefacts may assume material things like books and pens and/or conceptual aspects like language ability and digital capital. Cultural artefacts’ functions are two-fold. They are collectively constructed by human activity and are used as signifiers in the figured world, and in turn, also serve as tools in the processes of cultural production.

Several studies on negotiating positional identities through the adoption of figured elements argue that the use of cultural artefacts can help learners contest or maintain their social identities. Drawing from interviews with adult literacy students in Brazil and sociocultural studies of literacy, Lesley Bartlett’s study shows that cultural artefacts help students develop stronger cultural identities.  Similarly, Mary Scanlan’s study of literacy among school children reveal that cultural artefacts can reveal pupils’ identity, as Holland et al would call figurative identity. The adoption of those cultural artefacts also help students reconstruct more powerful identities in relation to others, or in Holland et al’s term, positional identities.[11]

The growing use of the Internet in our everyday lives has shifted the trend from ‘read-only’ to read-write literacy.[12] While the traditional meaning of literacy placed reading before writing, the development of the Internet has given way to writing as the focal point. In a digital world, every user can be a producer, and thus media consumption becomes a mode of literacy,[13] in which both producers and consumers can engage in an interactive, peer-to-peer manner.[14]  Donna Alvermann uses the term online literacies, which refers to “the socially mediated ways of generating meaning content through multiple modes of representation (e.g., language, imagery, sounds, embodied performances) to produce digital texts (e.g., blogs, wikis, zines, games, personal webpages) for dissemination in cyberspace.”[15] Literacy practices that are associated with the Internet include blogging, chatting, instant messaging, social networking and gaming.

A number of studies on online/digital literacies have shown that digital literacy practices encourage writing fluency,[16]and offer a potential to present multiple identities to the users.[17] Cheryl McLean’s study of digital literacy practices poses attempts to reveal the way an immigrant adolescent employs literacy practices to construct her diasporic identity. McLean argues that digital literacy practices help people maintain their old identities in relation to their home countries, and at the same time, displays a new identity in relation to the new country they live in.[18]

In the context of Indonesian domestic workers, their positional identities as domestic helpers overseas tend to put them in disadvantaged position in terms of power, status, and rank. However, I will argue that IDWs who carry out literacy practices, either in printed or digital forms are actually creating, rather than just imagining, a different figured world which enables them to claim more powerful positional identities not only in front of their masters, but also before a wider audience. The works in any forms of writings (published works, blogposts, social media posts) by IDWs are therefore considered cultural artefacts that serve as tools for identity formation, and are used both to challenge the prevailing figured world of domestic work and that of Indonesian creative writing.

This concept of cultural artefacts as both representing and shaping one’s social identities in relation to power that characterise the figured world provides an excellent framework to explain how IDWs’ literacy is produced, represented, consumed, and regulated.

[1] Lan, Global Cinderellas : migrant domestics and newly rich employers in Taiwan 70. Lan’s study reveals that her Filipino informants have better linguistic capital than IDWs, which is not merely a result of personal effort, but the cultural meaning and social value. English is considered more intellectual and modern than local languages in the Phillippines.

[2] Gee, Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses: 140.

[3] Ibid., 142. By Discourse, Gee refers to the means we use to identify ourselves with members of a particular social community or network. Those means include “words, actions, values and beliefs.

[4] Chris Barker, The Sage Dictionary of Cultural Studies  (London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2004), 94.

[5] Dorothy Holland et al., Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 127.

[6] Ibid., 271.

[7] Ibid., 128.

[8] Ibid., 40-41.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lesley Bartlett and Dorothy Holland, “Theorizing the Space of Literacy Practices,” Ways of Knowing Journal 2, no. 1 (2002): 12.

[11] Lesley Bartlett, “Identity Work and Cultural Artefacts in Literacy Learning and Use: A Sociocultural Analysis,” Language and Education 19, no. 1 (2005): 35; Mary Scanlan, “Opening the box: literacy, artefacts and identity,” Literacy 44, no. 1 (2010).

[12] Hartley, The uses of digital literacy. , 17.

[13] Ibid., 13.

[14] Ibid., 15.

[15] Donna E. Alvermann, “Why Bother Theorizing Adolescents’ Online Literacies for Classroom Practice and Research?,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 52, no. 1 (2008): 9.

[16] Diane Penrod, Using Blogs to Enhance Literacy  (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2007). In the blogosphere, Penrod argues, bloggers must possess the capacity to write to be able for their posts to be read by their audience. In the field of education, blogging has been highly recommended for classroom use since it encourages writing fluency, cooperative learning, critical thinking, and performance-based learning.

[17] Cheryl McLean, “A Space Called Home: An Immigrant Adolescent’s Digital Literacy Practices,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 54, no. 1 (2010): 15. l McLean uses MySpace and Facebook as examples of social networking sites in which users are engaged in multimodal consumption and production of various texts comprising images, videos, and symbols.

[18] Ibid., 14.

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