Literacy should be viewed not as a monolithic phenomenon but as a multi-faceted one, whose meaning, including any consequences it may have for the individual and society, depends crucially on the social practices surrounding it and on the ideological system in which it is embedded

To what extent does literacy transform societies?

I will argue that literacy has an extremely complex relationship with society. I suggest that while literacy can and does to some extent transform societies, it is far too simple to argue this in isolation of social and political factors as some theorists have done in the past. Viewing literacy as a mere transformation of society also does not capture the full scope of literacy experiences across different societies. I argue instead to see literacy and society as having a complex relationship by looking at how literacy can both constitute and create power dynamics, as well as how it can also be transformed by society itself. These however are also only two dimensions through which to explore the relationship between literacy and society, consequentially revealing how important context is when analysing literacy. 


I will begin with language theorist, Goody to show how viewing literacy as a transformation of society along universal lines does not present the full reality of societal experiences of literacy. I will then begin to explore this complex relationship between literacy and society through ethnography and two key points. The first will argue that literacy often does not transform society in a neutral or universalist way as suggested by Goody and is actually able to express and constitute power dynamics. This will raise questions regarding who can use literacy to their advantage and who actually does? I will use Bakhtin’s dialogicality and Whorf’s theory of the shaping effect of language alongside ethnographies of a Rwandan refugee in the UK and the Hopi language to highlight this. The second key point regards how societies are not always passively transformed by literacy but can also transform literacy themselves. Transformation suggests that societies are merely passive receivers of literacy and have no control over its impact and the way it is used and perceived. This will be brought to life by ethnographies of the Gapun in Papua New Guinea and the Hindi Hijra community in North India. By showing how literacy can be both constitutive of power in society and also transformed by societies, I conclude by urging for a context dependent study of literacy. The lived reality of literacy is much more colourful than universalist ideas suggest and ultimately literacy cannot be studied independently of the relationship it has with society and its social, political, historical and religious dimensions.


Goody emphasises that the advent of widespread literacy transforms societies and creates three defining changes to human life; historical memory, forms of knowledge and social organisation, revealing a sharp dichotomy between literate and non-literate or oral societies (1968). He argues first that, historical memory in human life is radically changed with literacy because "in oral societies the cultural tradition is transmitted almost entirely by face-to-face communication; and changes in its content are accompanied by the homeostatic process of forgetting or transforming those parts of the tradition that cease to be either necessary or relevant. Literate societies, on the other hand, cannot discard, absorb, or transmute the past in the same way" (Goody and Watt 1968, 67). Goody goes on to imply that not only are literate and oral societies starkly opposed but that alphabetic writing and ‘primitive’ writing systems are as well. Alphabetic writing in contrast to syllabic or logographic writing (also described by Goody as the most ‘inefficient technology of literacy’) is implied as the most evolutionary change to society (Street and Besnier 2002). This idea is reflected in Goody’s second defining change to human life, enforcing that because literacy allows the accumulation of interconnected ideas, forms of knowledge also change in literate societies because humans are now able to construct more complex arguments. Goody argues that this is because “the kinds of analysis involved in the syllogism, and in the other forms of logical procedure, are clearly dependent upon writing, indeed upon a form of writing sufficiently simple and cursive to make possible widespread” (Goody and Watt 1968, 68). Goody implies that more complex writing systems will not promote such widespread literacy, therefore likening alphabetic writing to the top of an "evolutionary order" as argued by Street and Besnier because it is logical and easy to adopt (2002). Finally, Goody argues that because literacy unifies access to both logical and critical modes of thinking it has made institutions like democracy possible.


While Goody is not necessarily wrong, many aspects of his theory are problematic. This is because Goody views literacy through a lens of transforming societies across only three dimensions, removing the complex realities that societies often take on in different contexts of literacy. Goody’s three universal changes assume that literacy’s advent will transform all societies in the same way and his implication that alphabetic writing is at the top of an evolutionary scale ignores why other societies use the writing systems that they do. In line with this, Street and Besnier argue that “evolutionary models of writing systems… are frequently based on more enduring stereotypes than on empirical observation” (Ibid, 531), showing that Goody fails to understand how social context plays a role in literacy. Goody also does not acknowledge that alphabetic writing is actually also often involved in the constitution of power dynamics, which will be furthered below. Street and Besnier raise these issues in their critiques of Goody to counter his great divide approach and suggest a more ideological one. While both agree that literacy does have major impacts on society, they argue that what actually constitutes literacy for different societies is extremely variable and cannot be based on a universal theory. “Literacy should be viewed not as a monolithic phenomenon but as a multi-faceted one, whose meaning, including any consequences it may have for the individual and society, depends crucially on the social practices surrounding it and on the ideological system in which it is embedded" (Street and Besnier 2002, 533), stressing the need for context and that literacy and socio-political processes are very much interconnected. Goody’s theory does not anticipate how the advent of widespread literacy has the ability to enforce socio-political processes such as the establishment of power dynamics, which is my first key point through which to discuss the complex relationship between literacy and society. Goody’s work suggests a neutral and universal transition from oral to literate and does not delve into the complexities of literacy in real life. Bakhtin’s dialogicality theory becomes extremely relevant in this context as it explains how the social positioning of voice has an impact on both cultural presentation, which will be explored through the Hopi, as well as dialogical power dynamics, which will be explored through Rwandan refugee, Joseph. 


Dialogicality is the idea that all utterances do not live in isolation of each other as everything that has ever been uttered is embedded in history and social life (Holquist 1990). All social life therefore, past and present, according to Bakhtin exists on a continuum between monological and dialogical speech. Bakhtin’s work consequentially raises some issues in anthropology, including the dialogical nature of ethnography. This argument suggests that dialogue between anthropologists and interlocutors is not as neutral as it appears and actually takes on a more monological form with the ethnographer’s voice being the one dominantly heard. This comes to life in Whorf’s comparison of Hopi and Standard European Languages (SAE). Whorf argues that "there are connections but not correlations or diagnostic correspondences between cultural norms and linguistic patterns" (1956, 204) proposing that language can shape human thought and behaviour but does not determine it. He uses this theory to demonstrate how language habits in a society can hold certain ontological assumptions, which influence how literate societies present ethnography. In this example ethnography acts as a form of literacy that SAE use to present Hopi. Therefore, when we combine Whorf and Bakhtin’s theories, a question is raised: what power dynamics are at play in a monological presentation of another society? If humans have ontological assumptions as a result of the language they speak and if ethnographic presentation is often monological, then the ontologies of an ethnographer will inevitably dictate what is being presented ethnographically. Cultural translation therefore has power dynamics embedded within because the social positioning of the ethnographer’s voice is the one that is heard over the interlocutors’. Further, the fact that language can shape human thought and behaviour implies that the ethnography presented will also not be a neutral translation but one painted in the ethnographer’s pre-existing ontological assumptions written into their language. 


Bakhtin’s dialogicality and Whorf’s language shaping can also be applied to Blommaert’s piece to show how literacy does not only create power dynamics through ethnographic translation but also within socio-cultural dialogues. Blommaert argues that modernist processes cannot keep up with post-modernist realities featuring globalisation as the world’s ultimate and current narrative (2009). His ethnography focuses on Joseph, a Rwandan refugee in the UK "whose nationality was disputed by the Home Office because of his 'abnormal' linguistic repertoire" (2009, 415). Joseph was exposed to a complicated array of languages as a result of growing up during "deep political crisis in Rwanda" (Blommaert 2009, 418). When Joseph was six his family was killed, so he ran away from Rwanda to Gisenyi to be with his Uncle. During this time, Joseph was in hiding and did not go to school or receive any formal literacy education, only meeting with his Uncle's Runyankole rebel friends therefore learning to speak both English and Runyankole. The fact that Joseph was literate in Runyankole made him appear foreign from Rwanda and the Home Office ascribed him Ugandan nationality, deporting him there. Joseph’s complex literacy experience challenged his claims to Rwandan citizenship, as it was an unusual literacy context for the Home Office. His story however was not unusual for Rwanda at the time. 


The Home Office’s treatment of Joseph’s complicated literacy background demonstrated no awareness of the ability for history and transient political turmoil to shape someone’s social and literate life. The history of Rwandan political instability was absent in the picture of Jospeh’s literacy story, which alongside Whorf’s theory suggests that the UK may have had some ontological assumptions about what kind of languages should be spoken in which parts of Africa. It may also reflect some wider national turbulence towards immigration in the UK. Literacy can consequentially be used to create and enforce power dynamics within a society because certain people are able to use literacy to their advantage. Bakhtin’s theory can explain this complex and dialogical nature of culture to discuss how even though all people are literate in the same language in a given society, which people’s voices are actually heard and which literacy’s take on more power? The Home Office’s monological voice was heard over Joseph’s despite both being literate in English, demonstrating how foreign literacy’s can pose a threat to the “national sociolinguistic order of things” (Blommaert 2019, 424). It also demonstrates how socio-cultural hegemony can be enacted by a middle-class academic elite to maintain this national sociolinguistic order (Street and Besnier 2002). Furthermore, if according to Goody, literate societies can record human history and have the power over oral societies to develop more complex thought, why do asylum seekers’ literacy abilities present so many issues to a literate society? I am suggesting that it is because power is at play, but “the fact is… that someone's linguistic repertoire reflects a life… that is lived in a real sociocultural, historical and political space" (Blommaert 2019, 424). Political tension can occur as a result of diverging literacy experiences, as literacy is not a static process but one that is influenced by socio-political life. 


Through the Hopi and Joseph, I have argued using Bakhtin and Whorf that despite Goody’s assertions, literacy does not draw a linear line from point of advent to transforming all societies in exactly the same way. What languages people are literate in and who is actually literate, also dictate these political tensions and are what allow literacy to become a force that can express power dynamics in societies. This can also be positioned in contrast to Goody’s evolutionary idea of alphabetic writing to reveal that even ‘evolutionary’ alphabetic writing systems such as SAE and English, do not come without implication especially regarding these prominent social and political realities. It must be noted however that this argument was not used to demonstrate that power dynamics are only present in alphabetic writing systems, but that literacy itself and the variance of writing systems can all be involved in power dynamics. These examples were used to essentially highlight that literacy does not invite a neutral transformation, but that its complexity is seen through its relation with social and political factors.  


Another element through which to explore literacy and society’s complex relationship is how society can also transform literacy. This argument raised by Street and Besnier challenges the simplicity of viewing society as merely transformed by literacy. Society also has the agency to transform literacy and "it is important to view the group to which literacy is being introduced as actively 'taking hold' of literacy, rather than remaining a passive participant in the process” (Kulick and Stroud 1990 cited in Street and Besnier 2002, 538). 


Kulick and Stroud’s ethnography on the Gapun of Papua New Guinea will demonstrate how societies are not always passive receivers of literacy. "The villagers have not been 'transformed' by literacy. If anything, they themselves have 'transformed' it" (1990, 301), which Kulick and Stroud argue alongside their critique of Goody’s transformation argument. They argue the "problem, however, is that by attributing agentive power to literacy, one tends to diminish or disregard the role which human agents play in the processes of acquiring and maintaining literacy… human beings appear as basically passive objects who become affected by literacy in ways they are neither fully aware of nor able to control." (Kulick and Stroud 1990, 286). Kulick and Stroud advocate instead that the way villagers in Gapun society conceive and use literacy is influenced by the way they understand themselves in the world, running counter to them existing as passive objects. Kulick and Stroud therefore highlight the way Gapun have transformed literacy for their own purposes to reveal the assumptions surrounding how literacy should be used. They argue that the problem with these assumptions is that they view "literacy as a force which affects people in predictable ways [which] has made it difficult for some scholars to account for situations where communities use their literacy skills in ways which do not conform to middle-class European conventions" (Ibid, 286). These assumptions as argued, are more consistent with middle-class European standards than they are with absolute truth. It is not absolute truth that societies will be transformed by literacy in the way that European conventions imagine, nor is it absolute truth for societies to be transformed by literacy along three universal lines. 


Instead, societies have the power to control and transform literacy, which the Gapun have highlighted through how they only use literacy for making requests or in connection with religion. Writing and reading in Gapun is “directed to accomplishing concrete goals. It is never talked about or evaluated in terms of aesthetics, and there is no notion that everyone should know how to write" (Ibid, 289). Gapun have transformed literacy to make it something that they can use to achieve both religious and personhood aspirations. Regarding religious goals, Gapun view the Christian religion as a way of obtaining ‘cargo’ following the idea that spirits could be coerced by humans through manipulation of words to provide goods and services. Gapun therefore view literacy as helping them “get that power to work for them in Christian contexts… they believe that the ultimate purpose of schooling is to reveal to their children the secret of the Cargo" (Ibid, 295). Both secular and religious literature are conceptualised through religious frameworks that helps Gapun achieve cargo through literacy in English. Gapun have also transformed literacy to achieve personhood aspirations through the use of personal, written requests. In Gapun society the self is a duality of both ‘hed’, which is a reference to individual autonomy and has anti-social, egotistical connotations, and ‘save’, which is a metaphor for social sensitivity and solidarity. It is fundamental for Gapun to suppress ‘hed’ and express ‘save’. Written requests accommodate this aspiration through the writer’s expression of weakness, which suppresses their ‘hed’ and allows the receiver of the request to express ‘save’ by helping fulfill what the other is asking for. Requests are therefore written in a way so that they indirectly make requests to ensure that the receiver is not forced into helping and can offer solidarity by expressing ‘save’ on their own terms. This demonstrates how the Gapun have "creatively adapted reading and writing activities to accord with the pursuit of certain goals and to achieve particular effects which have been generated by larger cultural concerns" (Ibid, 290). 


Similarly, Hall’s ethnography on ‘unnatural’ gender in Hindi shows how speakers are able to manipulate and control literacy and are not simply transformed by it. Hall demonstrates this through her focus on the Banaras Hijra community in North India. Hijras are "a group of speakers who themselves identify as na mard na aurat ‘neither man nor woman’. Often discussed as a “third gender” by anthropologists, most hijras were raised as boys before taking up residence in one of India’s many Hijra communities and adopting the feminine dress, speech, and mannerisms associated with membership" (Hall 2002, 137). Hall emphasises how gender distinctions in the variety of Hindi dialects do not create a space for Hijras to exist because Hindi is an extremely gendered language that "allows for only two morphological genders, i.e., feminine and masculine" (Ibid, 137). In Hindi, masculine terms are used to elevate status of both men and women, however feminine terms would never be used for men. Terms that imply effeminacy that are used on men have extremely negative connotations revealing some prominent gender distinctions in India. 


However despite a constraining linguistic system, Hall shows how Hijras use language and literacy abilities to signal both their gender and their community. "The variety of Hindi adopted by the Hijras tends to overemphasise gender, using masculine and feminine gender in places where it would normally not appear in kharī bolī, or treating nouns that are masculine in standard Hindi as feminine and vice versa" (Ibid, 139-140), beginning to show how Hijras use language through literate manipulation. For example, the word Hijra is grammatically masculine, but Hijras use it as feminine, which is part of ‘doing gender’ representing Hijra’s overcompensation of gender in literacy. Further, while feminine semiotics are usually used to denigrate in Hindi, Hijras use feminine speech to build intimacy and solidarity. Masculine speech is turned on its head by the Hijra community and is used to assert social distance, differentiate newcomers and refer to their pre-Hijra state. Hijras use language to distance themselves from masculine semiotics and affirm their gender socialisation process despite a language that does not allow it. 


Both the Gapun and the Hijra community demonstrate how literacy can be manipulated and transformed by a society to help achieve goals and affirm important values in a given community. Speakers’ agency shows that they “do not necessarily perceive literacy as a homogeneous, monolithic phenomenon, but rather as a set of diverse communicative possibilities, defined in part with the contextual background to the introduction of literacy technologies and ideologies, and in part by the communicative dynamics already in place” (Street and Besnier 1993, 539). 


I have argued that literacy can transform society, but that this is not the only dimension through which to look at the complex relationship between these two concepts. Goody argues that literacy to a large extent transforms societies, however along three universal lines that apparently apply to all societies. I challenged this view by adding a more complex note to the narrative of literacy highlighting how literacy can also instill and enforce power dynamics. This was to add a nuance to Goody’s simple argument about the generalising transformation of literacy. I explored this through the Bakhtin’s dialogicality and Whorf’s idea of language shaping human thought and behaviour to reveal how the advent of widespread literacy is not a neutral transition and can expose elements of power. I followed this by suggesting that societies can also transform literacy to demonstrate that there are many realities to literacy and the complex, divergent relationship it has with society. By demonstrating two very different aspects of this relationship, I want to show how literacy and society can be viewed in a multitude of different ways. I therefore urge for a context dependent study of literacy if any meaningful reality is going to be revealed. Literacy can never be understood in isolation of society because “writing systems are used in particular contexts… many aspects of writing systems can only be understood in relation to their technological and social contexts" (Street and Besnier 2002, 531).



Works cited


Blommaert, J. 2009. Language, Asylum and the National Order. Current Anthropology, 50(4): 415-441.


Goody, J. & Watt, I. 1968. The Consequences of Literacy. In Literacy in Traditional Societies (ed.) J. Goody. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Hall, Kira.  2002.  “’Unnatural’ Gender in Hindi.”  In Gender Across Languages:  The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men, Volume 2, Marlis Hellinger and Hadumod Bussman, eds.  Pp. 133-162.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins.


Holquist, Michael. 1990. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. Routledge: London.


Kulick, D. & Stroud, C. 1990. Christianity, Cargo and Ideas of Self: Patterns of Literacy in a Papua New Guinean Village. Man, Vol.25, No.2: 286-304.


Street, B. & Besnier, N. 2002. Aspects of Literacy. In Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology (ed.) T. Ingold. London: Routledge.


Whorf, Benjamin Lee.  1956.  “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language.” In Language, Thought, and Reality. Cambridge: MIT Press.