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Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses

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Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses
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  LINGUISTICS AND EDUCATION 3, 275-278 1991) zyxwvutsrqponmlkjihgfedcbaZYXWVUT Book Review zyxwvutsrqponmlkjihgfedcbaZYXWVUTSRQPONML Social Linguistics and Literacies ROB GILBERT, REVIEWER Education Department James Cook Universi~ of North Queensland Towws~illr Q 481 I Australia zyxwvutsrqponmlkjihgfedcbaZ JAMES P GEE 1990). Social Ling~i~f~cs and Literacies: i~eu~og~ in LXwour.ses. Basingstoke: Faimer Press, 203 pp. This book, the first in a series on Critical Perspectives on Literacy and Educa- tion, is a worthy introduction to the field, for it explores the significance for school literacy practices of the social concept of language use increasingly en- capsulated in the term discourse. Aiming to further our appreciation of language in its social context. Gee establishes a critical theory of discourse as a basis for a theory of literacy, a socially based Iinguistics, and an educational program that would build on these insights. In its comprehensiveness and its specific applica- tion to literacy teaching, it is a welcome stocktaking of the sociolinguistic and other work on language and social context; in its more detailed explication of the concept of discourse, it is a useful attempt to clarify and apply the concept, which, like ideology, culture, and so many others, is at risk of losing its explana- tory value in a myriad of undefined uses. The book is engagingly simple and direct in style, despite the complexity of its subject, and woufd serve well as a text for those entering the field. On the other hand, the attempt to set out an integrated position on discourse, combining work from philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, sociology, and literature, is a challenging task that will interest more advanced readers. In fact, the range of sources is impressive, not only in its scholarly breadth, but also in its wide geographical reach. On the journey to a discourse theory of literacies we visit language studies in Liberia, Sweden, Canada, Argentina, the United States, and Britain, meeting Plato, Napoleon, Marx, Bahktin. Vygotsky, and a host of Iin- guists along the way. That the argument succeeds in building from this a broadly consistent perspective and a relatively clear concept of discourse is quite an achievement. Gee sees his project as driven by a moral obligation to discover a theory of language and language teaching that will serve the interests of all students, or at the very least not act against the interests of those who are not among the dominant cultural groups. Success in this involves seeing language and literacy 275  276 ook Review as part of social reality, and theories of language teaching as social theories that state or imply human beliefs, values, and choices and how these constitute and sustain social relationships. Explicating such social theories is, for Gee. part ot the field of discourse analysis, a branch of linguistics. At the root of the problem is the literacy myth that reading and writing arc abstract procedures that give rise to forms of thinking and behaving that are inherently more rational, productive, and humane, characteristics distinguishing civilized from primitive societies. This myth is deconstructed by the new literacy studies to show that the primitive-civilized. oral-written, speech-writing di- chotomies and their respective associations with fragmented-integrated and involved-detached forms) overlook the real complexity of language use in cul- tural practices in which both oral and written texts combine these forms to varying degrees in different contexts. What is important is not zyxwvutsrqponmlkjihgfedcbaZYXWVUTSRQPONMLKJ itrruc y itself. but what comes with it through socialization into reading particular texts in particular ways. for literacy practices are interwoven into, and constitute part of, the very texture of wider practices and their talk, interaction. values. and beliefs. In the case of the spread of mass literacy, the result has been “a highly stratified social ranking, based not on literacy per se, but on the degree to which one controls a certain type of school- based literacy in speech and behavior, as well as writing) associated with the values and aspirations of the middle classes” p. 40). To understand how this has happened, and how it can be corrected, we need to see the production of meaning as a socially contextualized process involving both choices within constraints) about what will be excluded and included in a text and assumptions about the contexts in which the texts are produced. Similarly, comprehension by the reader or hearer involves guesses about these choices and assumptions. Both production and interpretation occur within a larger framework of social relationships and social institutions, and this combination is analyzed as a discourse system. Gee illustrates the system in an analysis of a conversation transcript, identifying five subsystems of the discourse system: prosody. cohe- sion, discourse organization. contextualization signals, and thematic organiza- tion. Gee distinguishes discourse, any passage of text which has some cohesion and makes sense to a community of language users. from Discourse, the broader concept of “a socially accepted association among ways of using language, of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing, and of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or ‘social network’ p. 143). The concept is close to what Wittgenstein called “a form of life.” and Gee’s discussion is a useful summary of how discourses arc implicated in sus- taining social relationships by grounding sets of values and beliefs, excluding opposing views, marginalizing nonconforming groups, and building power relationships.   ook zyxwvutsrqponmlkjihgfedcbaZYXWVUTSRQPON eview 277 The educational significance of seeing Discourse in this complex way is tied to the important distinction between acquisition and learning. A Discourse is mastered, not through learning, but by acquisition, by experiencing it in natural, meaningful, and functional settings- “ a master-apprentice relationship in a social practice.” p. 154) Learning, on the other hand, involves conscious knowledge at a meta-level and results from the teaching of processes of explana- tion and analysis of the structures of domains of knowledge. The consequences of this are that, although acquisition-type strategies are necessary for teaching people how to master the practice of a Discourse and thus must be the basis for teaching literacies), learning-type strategies are also neces- sary for the kind of understanding that enables people to critique a Discourse. “For a literacy to be liberating, it must contain both the Discourse it is going to critique and a set of meta-elements language, words, attitudes, values) in terms of which an analysis and criticism can be carried out” p. 156). This is a fruitful framework from which to address a key problem for language teachers: To engage in a Discourse is empowering, in that it enables people to work with the resources of the Discourse, but it is also disempowering, in that any Discourse constrains what can be said and done within it. This is especially significant for nonmainstream cultural groups, whose very identities are at risk in taking on mainstream Discourse and language practices, practices Gee feels they are unlikely ever to master top the point of complete acceptance and identifica- tion. For such groups Gee recommends three things, beginning with the use of acquisition-type strategies, active apprenticeships in actual academic social prac- tices not in abstracted language or composition classes). This should be com- bined with the development of institutional know-how to strengthen the ability of minority groups to use elements of Discourse in strategically successful ways, even when their mastery of them falls short of complete acquisition as, in Gee’s view, it most often will). Finally, the metaknowledge from learning is important so long as it is coupled with a liberating literacy, a theory of society and one’s position in it, a base for resistance to oppression and inequality. The case for a Discourse perspective on language and language learning and all learning for that matter) is overwhelming, and Gee’s explanation of the perspective is informed and clear. The theoretical framework connects well with the linguistic elements of texts on the one hand and the institutional practices of society on the other, offering a comprehensive map of how Discourses operate at macro- and microlevels. This achievement in developing a framework is not quite equaled in the specific analyses with which Gee illustrates the application of the theory. In his illustrations of the five subsystems of the discourse system, for instance, the discussion remains couched within the words on the page and is analysed from the point of view of the speaker. It does not do justice to the social context or the way in which the text would be read and, hence, fails to instantiate the broader  278 ook Review Discourse perspective being advocated. In a later analysis of students’ responses to a moral dilemma, a quite different set of elements is used, but the relationship with the earlier subsystems is not explained. Some sections of the book are more closely related to the developing argu- ment than others. In one chapter, which Gee describes as a “~lini-introduction to linguistics” f p. 130), there is a lengthy and rather idiosyncratic discussion of the discourse subsystems and perspective taking that, for this reader, was not always clearly related to the task in hand. Similarly, the last chapter, in illustrating further the application of the theory, fails to give full effect to the important arguments developed in earlier sections, and it will disappoint those who, like me, look to conclusions for some form of culmination and closure. This problem may be due to the fact that most of the material is based on previously published papers. On the other hand. both these sections will interest those with a particular linguistic interest. Gee is convincing in calling for a Discourse perspective on education and literacy, but the book points also to the challenge yet to be fully addressed by those working within a discourse perspective: the development of an analytical framework for discourse as a whole that is as precise and concrete as the analyses of its linguistic elements. It is probably the lack of such a framework that explains why discourse analysis is so often nothing more than the textual analysis of transcripts, while, at the same time, those advocating it emphasize the impor- tance of the extralinguistic elements of discourse. This is an interesting. informative, and persuasive book, hampered only by some structural problems. Its theoretical perspective is productive, offering valu- able guidance to anyone seeking to understand in a comprehensive way the relationship between schooling, literacy, and society.
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