April 2, 2017
Judith Green and Carol Dixon, Professors Emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara
[This guest post was adapted from Green, J. & Dixon, C., (2002) Literacy in Context. In Barbara Guzzetti (Ed.), Literacy in America: An Encyclopedia. Denver: ABC-CLIO. It’s is as relevant and poignant today as when first published.]
by Judith L. Green and Carol N. Dixon
What counts as context in understanding literacy? This is one of the key issues facing educators and researchers alike. Rex et al (1998) found little consistency in how the term context was used, few attempts to define it, and little to no overlap in articles citations. They saw context:
- was often preceded by another term (e.g., the political context).
- was sometimes used in multiple ways within a single article.
- was sometimes theoretically defined but usually, assumed to be understood.
That’s a problem.
Duranti and Goodwin view context as crucial to both qualitative and quantitative studies and as having a shifting set of definitions. In language study, context:
• is viewed as a product of language use.
• is key to understanding relationships between language, culture, social organization and language structure.
They see context as tied closely to theoretical positions on what counts as literacy and the units of analysis resulting from different theoretical stances.
In traditional views of literacy, context is often viewed around single reader with a single text. This view takes context as
• words around the particular bit of text where readers are making meaning.
Context has also been equated with setting and treated as a variable
• defined in terms of socioeconomic status.
• a physical place (home context, classroom context, or community context).
Here, context is a source of influence represented by surrogates, reduced to a single aspect and assumed to remain the same in all ways it is used. When home context is a variable, there are differences in:
- quality and size of the space.
- the number of people living in the space.
- relationships of the child to those in the home.
Variation inherent makes the conceptions of context problematic..
In anthropology, pragmatics, sociohistorical psychology, sociolinguistics, and sociology, context is treated as
- part of the social construction of everyday life: people and their actions.
- a product of interactions of people or between a person objects (artifacts).
Erickson and Shultz (1981) argue that context is not given in the setting (e.g., at the dinner table) but in what people are doing with each other. From this perspective Gumperz (1986) argues people read contextualization cues, of pitch, stress, intonation, gesture, eye gaze, kinesics and proxemics as well as objects that accompany the words.
Bakhtin (1986) argues people speak/write with an “other” in mind and hear/read with the speaker/writer in mind. Here context is
- represented in the choices of lexical items and speech genres.
Research from this perspective examines how people socially organize and interact moment-by-moment in and through languages in use. What counts as context is signaled in participants’ discourse and actions.
Then there’s intertextuality. It is recognized principally as linking one text to another; how texts relate across time and languages; representing concepts along with historical implications; reflected in juxtaposition of texts and in people’s everyday actions. From this perspective, context
- is both developing-in and brought-to the moment.
Golden (1988) argues it is important to understand how the theoretical position of the researcher inscribes a particular set of relationships from the outset. Studies distinguishing literacy as a set of skills or processes and as a sociocultural phenomena include contexts of:
- local, national and international study cohorts.
- how people learn and develop literacy practices and processes within a community, across time and events.
So, which is it?
Without an understanding of what each researcher or each reader of research understands context to be, the influence of context remains invisible. So next time you read, ask yourself “what is the author’s contextual context?” And when you write, ask yourself, “How can I make my definition of context clear?”