Professor, Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, UC Santa Barbara
Green, who received her M.A. in Educational Psychology from California State University, Northridge, and her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, has taught for more than 3 decades across levels of schooling (K-6, higher education). With colleagues, she has published articles on ethnographic research in research handbooks for the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Educational Research Association, and the International Reading Association. She has also published research based books and articles on classroom discourse and on the social construction of literate practices. Her most recent research focuses on how classroom practices support access to students across academic disciplines.
Maria Lucia Castanheira, Teresa Crawford, Carol N. Dixon, and Judith L. Green, “Interactional Ethnography: An Approach to Studying the Social Construction of Literate Practices,” Linguistics and Education 2001 (11.4): 353-400 [excerpt from pp. 354-57]
Literacy Defined: a Social Construction Perspective
The definition of literacy underlying our research approach and theoretical orientation is grounded in work on the social construction of knowledge. From this perspective, literacy is a socially constructed phenomenon that is situationally defined and redefined within and across differing social groups including reading groups, families, classrooms, schools, communities, and professional groups (e.g., educators, lawyers, administrators, and plumbers). What counts as literacy in any group is visible in the actions members take, what they orient to, what they hold each other accountable for, what they accept or reject as preferred responses of others, and how they engage with, interpret, and construct text (e.g., Bloome, 1983, 1991; Bloome & Green, 1984, 1992; Green & Harker, 1982; Heap, 1980, 1991; Heath, 1982; Santa Barbara Classroom Discourse Group, 1992a).
Literacy, therefore is not located in the heads of individuals or a process that is the same for all people in all situations (cf., Baker & Luke, 1991; Bloome, 1985; Cook-Gumperz, 1986; Gee, 1990; Street, 1984). Nor is literacy a state of being that one achieves like a state of grace (Santa Barbara Classroom Discourse Group, 1992a; Scribner, 1984). Rather, it is a dynamic process in which what literate actions mean are continually being constructed and reconstructed by individuals as they become members of a new social group (e.g., classes, families, professions). Being a member of a class, then, means understanding, constructing, and engaging in literate actions that mark membership in that class (Chandler, 1992; Green, Weade, & Graham, 1988; Putney, 1996; Rex, Green, & Dixon, 1997). In this process, individuals also display actions that mark them as members of a particular group or subgroup within that class—i.e., a person who reads like a member of the top reading group, or like a member of the low reading group (Allington, 1984; Bloome & Egan-Robertson, 1993; Collins, 1983, 1986; Bloome, 1987; Scribner & Cole, 1981). From this perspective, we must talk about literacies and not literacy (Barton, 1994, Gee, 1990; Luke, 1995; Street, 1984) for no one definition can capture the range of occurrence in everyday life in classrooms, the multiplicity of demands, or the ways of engaging in literacy within and across groups (e.g., Rex et al., 1997; Santa Barbara Classroom Discourse Group, 1992a).
Therefore, to conceptualize literacy as socially constructed is to understand that literacy is both a product of, and a cultural tool for, a social group. In other words, the practices constructed by and made available to members, in and through their everyday actions, constitute literacy as a situated process (Barton, 1994; Bloome, 1983, 1991; Fairclough, 1995; Gee, 1996; Green & Harker, 1982; Heap, 1991; Street, 1984; Wells & Chang-Wells, 1992). Further, literate practices are developed as a collective develops (e.g., classroom, reading group, and a peer group) and serve the purposes and goals of both the collective and the individual-within-the-collective (cf., Lima, 1995). Members of a group are afforded, and at times denied, access to particular opportunities for constructing and acquiring the repertoire of literate practices needed to participate in socially and culturally appropriate ways (Kantor, Green, Bradley, & Lin, 1992; Putney, Green, Dixon, Duran, & Yeager, 2000; Rex et al., 1997; Tuyay, Jennings, & Dixon, 1995). Just what constitutes an individual’s repertoire within as well as across collectives depends on which opportunities she or he has had access to and which opportunities he or she takes up (Alton-Lee & Nuthall, 1992, 1993; Floriani, 1993; Heras, 1993; Ivanic, 1994; Prentiss, 1995).
Theory-Method Relationships: How an Interactional Ethnographic Perspective Frames Analysis
This view of literacy as literate practices constructed by members of particular groups requires us, as interactional ethnographers, to ask the question: What counts as literacy and as literate actions, practices, and demands within the group being studied? What counts as literacy can be examined across a wide range of social and cultural contexts. From this perspective, the interactional ethnographer examines what members count as literacy, literate processes, literate actions, literate practices, and literate artifacts. The ethnographer also considers how these processes, practices, and artifacts contribute to situated definitions of and principles for defining what counts as literacy within and across times and events in the classroom (and other institutional settings). The interactional ethnographer, therefore, must look at what is constructed in and through the moment-by-moment interactions among members of a social group; how members negotiate events through these interactions; and the ways in which knowledge and texts generated in one event become linked to, and thus a resource for, members’ actions in subsequent events. In this way, the ethnographer examines how literacy is talked, acted, and written into being, and how, through their actions, members make visible to each other what counts as appropriate discursive and literate practices.