Moment by moment: contexts and crossings in the study of literacy in social practice

Kell, Catherine Leicester (2006). Moment by moment: contexts and crossings in the study of literacy in social practice. PhD thesis The Open University.



The concept of literacy practices has occupied a central place in the New Literacy Studies. It is seen as enabling the conceptualisation of literacy beyond the single instance 'event', and therefore the making of claims about literacy, power and social structure. In this thesis I draw on multi-site ethnography to trace movement beyond the single instance in an exploration of the role of literacy in carrying meanings across contexts. The data was drawn from a 'participatory development' project in South Africa, where homeless people were building houses, interacting with NGOs, architects, engineers and suppliers. A language of description was derived, in which contexts (at micro and macro levels) were conceptualised as activity systems and sequences of activities identified as meaning making trajectories.

Recontextualisations of meanings within trajectories were analysed as strips and the identification of nodes within these strips demonstrated that a focus on crossings across instances illuminates the study of communication and power (with writing seen as one amongst many modes of communication). The work extends theoretical and methodological categories in the New Literacy Studies and locates concepts of multimodality firmly within social practice. The idea is explored that entextualisation processes and text artifacts can be reified or naturalised in an ongoing interplay between sociality and materiality. The claim that recontextualisation leads to more durable forms of meaning making and to stability and permanence within human environments is scrutinised, and an argument developed that within economies of signs and meanings characterised by inequality, disrupted lives and pre-bureaucratic practices such claims need to be treated with caution. It shows, however, that in the tracery of chaining of meanings, reification tends to occur in chaotic processes where there is no standardisation, while naturalisation occurs in more predictable text-regulated processes. The study therefore has implications for theories of bureaucracy and complexity.

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