In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Literacy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Oral and Written Language
  • Schooling

Anthropology Literacy
Laura Sterponi, Paul F. Lai
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0123


Prior to representing a concern of academic inquiry and national and international policy, literacy defines the conditions of possibility for any disciplinary or policy enterprise. Playing a central role in social and institutional functioning, while holding significance at the personal level, literacy has become a trope of modernity, a metaphor for our relationship with the world. This bibliography traces literacy’s emergence as a scientific subject and the different theoretical perspectives that developed the field of literacy studies. Literacy studies have always been multidisciplinary, where contributions from historians, anthropologists, psychologists, linguists, folklorists, educational researchers, and literary critics have converged and collided. This bibliography begins with General Overviews accounting for this variety of literacy research, followed by a sampling of Journals. The Historical Studies section lists essential, broad histories as well as specific historical case studies of literacy in diverse settings, exhibiting the variety and complexity of reading technologies and practices throughout time. The emergence of literacy as a scientific subject is primarily associated with the works of anthropologists, psychologists, and classicists who conceived of literacy as a “technology of the intellect.” These works, listed in Tracing the Literacy Debate, characterized literacy as a causal, transformative force, deemed to propel advancements of unprecedented import in societal organization and individual cognition. In light of ethnographic and historical work carried out since the late 1970s, our understanding of literacy has shifted toward a situated perspective, a Social Practice approach, that acknowledges the sociocultural and ideological nature of reading and writing. No longer necessarily promoting societal progress and cognitive sophistication, literacy is appraised for its involvement in the reproduction of power relationships and its role in forming identities and subjectivities as well as institutions, as explored in Critical Literacy. A critique of literacy also requires investigating the profound relationship between literacy and Schooling. The literacy debate also advanced claims about orality and literacy, another point of departure, as numerous studies have complicated the relationship between Oral and Written Language. These reflections on communicative modalities intersected with social practice perspectives in efforts to track the enormous changes to literacy wrought by a new media age. In Emerging Texts and Contexts, multilingualism, multimodalities, and multiliteracies provoke reconsiderations of the situated locations of literacy practices in light of the contemporary mobility of agents and texts in an increasingly digitalized and globalized world. Undoubtedly the study of literacy will remain central to our efforts to illuminate meaning making, human sociality, and cultural processes.

General Overviews

This section includes several overviews of the field of literacy studies. A useful starting point, Collins 1995 concisely retraces divergent, influential approaches to literacy theory before introducing a synthetic perspective. A more inclusive, article-length review is provided in Bartlett, et al. 2011, which draws on Collins’s categories but also discusses critical literacy and more recent concerns. Street and Hornberger 2008 is a full-length volume that covers a broad range of topics with an emphasis on education-related issues. For an overview that also interrogates the construct of literacy from an epistemological perspective, the readers are invited to consider Brockmeier, et al. 2002.

  • Bartlett, Lesley, Dina López, Lalitha Vasudevan, and Doris Warriner. 2011. The anthropology of literacy. In A companion to the anthropology of education. 1st ed. Edited by Bradley A. U. Levinson and Mica Pollock, 154–176. Blackwell Companions to Anthropology 12. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444396713

    A thoughtful review of most influential strands of anthropological research on literacy and their contribution to discerning literacy’s relationship to structures of power, language, identities, and technology.

  • Brockmeier, Jens, Min Wang, and David R. Olson, eds. 2002. Literacy, narrative and culture. World of Writing. Richmond, UK: Curzon.

    An important contribution to the multidisciplinary study of literacy, this collection suggests a perspective on texts as cultural artifacts and literacy as a form of cultural organization itself. Such cultural theory of literacy is articulated in this volume through historical and developmental analyses.

  • Collins, James. 1995. Literacy and literacies. Annual Review of Anthropology 24:75–93.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    An influential review that draws on a poststructuralist approach to discuss the contribution of historical and ethnographic research to the articulation of the relationships between literacy and power, epistemology, and social formations.

  • Street, Brian, and Nancy H. Hornberger, eds. 2008. Literacy. Encyclopedia of Language and Education 2. New York: Springer.

    This collection covers a broad range of topics through the perspectives of historians, anthropologists, linguists, and educational researchers. In addition to key theoretical frameworks, the volume offers insightful studies of literacy practices in educational institutions as well as other social settings in an impressive variety of geographical areas (including Africa, Australia, Latin America, Nepal, the United Kingdom, and the United States).

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