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Limits of the Local: Explaining Perspectives on Literacy as a Social Practice

Deborah Brandt
Katie Clinton
University of Wisconsin Madison

ABSTRACT  

This essay on how the social practice model of literacy, social practice, under-theorizes certain aspects of literacy, making it hard to account fully for its workings in local contexts. We trace this theoretical blind spot to the ways that the social practice model was formulated as a challenge to the “great divide” or “autonomous” models of literacy as a deterministic force, the revisionists critique veers too far in a reactive direction. By exaggerating the power of local contexts to define the meaning and forms that literacy takes and by under- theorizing the potentials of the technology of literacy, methodological bias and conceptual impasses are created. To open new directions for literacy research we suggest more attention be paid to the material dimensions of literacy. Drawing on the work of Bruno LaTour (1993, 1996), we seek to theorize the transcontextualizing potentials of literacy - particularly its ability to travel, integrate, and endure. Finally, we propose a set of analytical constructs that treat literacy not solely as an outcome or accomplishment of local practices, but also as a participant in them. By restoring a “thing status” to literacy, we can attend to the role of literacy in human action. The logic of such a perspective suggests that understanding what literacy is doing with people in a setting is as important as understanding what people are doing with literacy in a setting.

* Journal of Literacy Research, 34(3), pp. 337-356, 2002.

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