What is the anthropology of writing?
“Primarily, an anthropological perspective on writing means to examine writing as both cultural and social practice. Anthropologists define culture as the abilities, notions and forms of behaviour persons have acquired as members of society.
Culture refers to those aspects of humanity that are not natural but which are created. Writing certainly is part of culture understood in this way. Culture is closely related to society, and anthropology has always concerned itself with both the cultural and the social. Society is everything that has to do with how humans interact and organize their life. […] Drawing on the association of culture with society, the anthropology of writing can then be defined as the comparative study of writing as social and cultural practice.” (8-9)
For me, the most useful gems of the chapter are the distinctions between American and British scholarship on writing and the scholarship done in France on the anthropology of writing. As part of these distinction, there are anthropological terms useful in the anthropology of writing. I want to give those terms and definitions and would encourage others to add to the list as they read their chapters of the book.
Defining the Field
The closest thing to an anthropology of writing we have in the US and UK is New Literacy Studies, which also looks at writing as a social and cultural practice. The editors of the book say it “seeks to broaden the focus of (New) Literacy Studies by reframing it as the anthropology of writing,” but they offer no clear distinction between the two traditions (ix). However, there is a useful section that defines the anthropology of writing against popular studies of writing in disciplines like comp/rhet, English literature, and linguisics. As you look through your chapters, it would be interesting to mark any distinctions made or insights that help us reframe the current work of NLS or the field of composition and rhetoric.
Some points to define the anthropology of writing:
Vs. discourse analysis’s focus on produced texts, an anthropology of writing looks at the social processes of production and the social/cultural uses of those texts (7).
Vs. the literary perspective’s focus on novels and literature, an anthropology of writing looks at what may be considered, at first, mundane texts: “the studies in this book examine everyday acts of writing and their significance in relation to private life and to work” (7).
Vs. an educational perspective’s focus on writing as a set of skills to be learned, the anthropology of writing sees the forms and structures of literacy education [as] an object of study in themselves” (8). While the work of an anthropology of writing may have educational implications, the discipline’s interest is in broader social and cultural uses outside of educational contexts (we might say outside of traditional educational contexts if we think of education itself as a broad social and cultural process, not one contained within schools).
Actant: “A concept that crucially includes humans and non-human objects,” which can include “technologies as active agents, without however falling into the trap of technological determinism” (21).
Cultural Field: “Those artefacts and practices which are deemed aesthetically or intellectually pleasing and valuable […] it emphasizes that within given societies there is competition over what is deemed to be ‘cultural'” (18).
Habitus: Our introduction to The Anthropology of Writing describes habitus as “interiorized models of thinking and behaving” (16). The introduction to Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production describes habitus as “a set of dispositions which generates practices and perceptions. The habitus is the result of a long process of inculcation, beginning in early childhood, which becomes a ‘second sense’ or a second nature” (5). A habitus is a “structuring structure,” because it can “generate practices adjusted to specific situations” (5).
Literacy Events: “In the New Literacy Studies, the notion of a ‘literacy event’ is a central analytic tool. Heath (1983: 93) defi nes a literacy event as ‘any occasion during which a piece of writing is integral to the nature of the participants’ interactions and their interpretative processes’. Barton and Hamilton (2000: 8) gloss the notion of a ‘literacy event’ as ‘activities where literacy has a role. Usually there is a written text, or texts, central to the activity and there may be talk around the text. Events are observable episodes which arise from practices and are shaped by them'” (87).
Ordinary Writing: Defined by Sinor as “writing that is typically unseen or ignored, and is primarily defined by its status as discardable […] the very things we cannot read because they are so commonplace as to be boring, to refuse our regard or interpretation” (173).
Vernacular Literacies: Barton and Hamilton are cited as describing these literacies as “not regulated by the formal rules and procedures of dominant social institutions and which have their origins in everyday life” (174).
Writing Acts: Borrowing from J.L. Austin’s “speech act,” Fraenkel’s “Writing Acts: When Writing Is Doing,” works on “a model of the writing act that can account for the graphic force of inscriptions, the effect of displaying these writings, and certain other aspects of writing and reading in action, based on an analysis of the specific situations in which they occur” (37).