Literacy and Modernity

My thesis is developed within the perspective of The New Literacy Studies (NLS) as the theoretical framework in discussing Indonesian Domestic Workers’ literacy practices. NLS takes the ideological model of literacy, as opposed to the autonomous one. The model was built up on the basis that reading and writing should be studied as practices in the social and cultural contexts in order to make sense.[1] In order to understand the relation between literacy and modernity, it is essential to look at the development of the concept of literacy itself.

The autonomous model of literacy looks at the connection between literacy acquisition and social mobility and advanced forms of social changes.[2] This “literacy thesis” proposed by Jack Goody perceives literacy as a tool to promote particular aspects of social progress related to modernity.[3] In the view of modernisation, literacy is thought of as “a commodity to be exported by the developed areas to so-called “developing nations,” with an intention to encourage individuals to participate in the continuing process of globalization.[4]

In the field of anthropology, literacy is an indicator frequently used in “colonizing literacy projects” that differentiate between the “civilised” and “primitive.”[5] To be civilised means to be literate from a Western perspective. While literacy exists in the social practices of a non-Western society, it may be considered not equally important as it does not promise enlightenment.[6] Thus, the autonomous model of literacy is obviously in line with the Eurocentric Enlightenment package of modernity. The singular, western concept of modernity puts literacy as one of the elements that indicates the social transformations necessary in the modernisation process.[7]

In contrast to the autonomous model of literacy, NLS perceives literacy as a social practice that did not make society change. Rather, literacy itself was shifted in forms, uses, and meanings in response to its surrounding.[8] To state that literacy does not directly impact on economic advancement is not to claim that there is no relationship between literacy and social progress, but rather, to highlight the need to comprehend the complex nature of the relationship.[9]

NLS’s criticism on the autonomous model of literacy proposed by Goody implies that literacy should be examined as a multi-faceted aspect in social life instead of a monolithic culture-neutral phenomenon. The meaning of literacy may differ from an individual to another and among social groups as well. Literacy is strongly embedded in the ideological system of the society in which it is practiced.  To understand literacy beyond the grasp of modernisation project as proposed in the literacy thesis, we need to turn to other theories of modernity.[10] This will allow us to look at cultural and communicative contexts and anticipate other uses of literacy beyond the one associated with social mobility and self-fulfillment.

Several studies on the connection between literacy and modernity suggest that literacy practices make meaning beyond the project of modernisation. Brian Maddox’s study on a literacy project targeted to women in Bangladesh indicates that women’s ability to read and write poses challenges to gender norms as women were eventually able to manage household financial matters, which were normally men’s responsibilities.[11]

Meanwhile, Eamonn McKeown’ study on literacy practices in a Papua New Guinean community reveals that the initial mission of literacy project for Western-oriented social development opens up other uses of literacy for political purposes, social prestige, and as a powerful tool to claim ancestral histories.[12] The above studies affirm Steve Bialostok and Robert Whitman’s argument that literacy does not necessarily lead to Western-based modernity. In many indigenous communities which were the targets of literacy programs, modernities are actually indigenised through literacy programs. Indigenous people’s use of literacy reflects creative adaptation in ways that literacy is meaningful only when it suits local purposes.[13]

[1] James Paul Gee, “The New Literacy Studies: From ‘Socially Situated’ to the Work of the Social.,” in Situated Literacies: Reading and Writing in Context, ed. David Barton, Mary Hamilton, and Roz Ivanic (London: Routledge, 2000), 180.

[2] Bryan Maddox, “What Can Ethnographic Studies Tell Us About the Consequences of Literacy?,” Comparative Education 43, no. 2 (2007): 254. See Street’s Advanced Resource Book. Check Goody’s original source.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Harvey J. Graff, Literacy Myths, Legacies, and Lessons (New Brunswick, N.J: Transactions Publishers, 2011), 42.

[5] Steve Bialostok and Robert Whitman, “Literacy, Campaigns and the Indigenization of Modernity: Rearticulations of Capitalism,” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 37, no. 4 (2006): 381.

[6] Niko Besnier, Literacy, Emotion, and Authority: Reading and Writing on a Polynesian Atoll (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[7] Gaonkar, “On Alternative Modernities.”

[8] Graff, Literacy Myths, Legacies, and Lessons, 43.

[9] Ibid., 55.

[10] Ibid., 117.

[11] Maddox, “What Can Ethnographic Studies Tell Us About the Consequences of Literacy?,” 262.

[12] Eamonn McKeown, “Modernity, Prestige, and Self-Promotion: Literacy in a Papua New Guinea Community,” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 37, no. 4 (2006).

[13] Bialostok and Whitman, “Literacy, Campaigns and the Indigenization of Modernity: Rearticulations of Capitalism.”

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