Notes on Besnier

Literacy, Emotion, and Authority: Reading and Writing on a Polynesian Atoll
–Niko Besnier—yale anthropology group (1994)

Besnier’s arguments rests on empirical evidence of written texts and transcripts of spoken discourse, which he says is an “analytical act”


Besnier begins with a historical account of literacy studies, delineating differences between the autonomous model and the ideological model. He reminds us that the under the autonomous model, literacy was thought to be a major, monolithic cause of the evolution from pre-literate to literate individuals societies, and cultures– a notion which had been hypothesized yet never proved. According to the ideological model, literacy is multi-faceted and socially constructed, linked to surrounding social practices and deeply imbedded cultural ideologies; consequently, literacy must be studied in relation to the social, political, and historical forces that shape it (3). Besnier reminds us that the autonomous model offered a linear literacy narrative, in which restricted literacy—literacy which somehow has not reached its fullest potential—played a role. Naturally, those scholars working under the ideological model are skeptical of this notion for its adherence to Western middle-class standards and lack of admittance that all forms of literacy are restricted in some manner or form (3).

Besnier explains that pre-literate societies do not exist today, if they ever even did in early anthropological studies, because of globalization, capitalism, and organized missionary efforts. Therefore, one cannot define a pre-literate society without “imposing a value-laden, a priori, and arbitrary standards for what it means for a person or group to be literate” (4). Besnier claims a move away from the autonomous approach to literacy is a move away from simple categorizations, hasty generalizations and a move toward recognition of how diversity of literacy is linked to religion, or inequality between groups and more specifically toward a focus on “activities, events, and ideological constructs associated with particular manifestations of literacy” (5).

Besnier explains that ethnographic approaches to literacy must acknowledge range and diversity of literacy experiences, historical specificities, contemporary associations, and links to other forms of literacy (5). Besnier also reminds us to acknowledge individuals as social agents who negotiate societal demands and everyday lives.

Besnier identifies to methodological trends in ethnographic approach under an ideological model:
o comparative-ethnographic—“contrasts the characteristics of various literacy events and practices in a particular society, and seeks to characterize the relationship between the diversity of literacies and aspects of the communicative ideology extant in the group” (6)
o Ex.) Scribner and Cole—Vai study—results: pedagogical practices shape literacy experience and individual cognitive makeup more than literacy itslef
o Ex.) Heath—Trackton and Roadville—results: learning how to read and write is not dependent on cognitive skills but more so with learning how these skills are utilized in particular social contexts
o Ex.) Street—results: distinct literacy practices associated with different contexts and play divergent roles in lives of society members (8)
o Ex.) Aluet village study—results: different literacy practices compete for the same or closely related intellectual and social spaces in society members’ lives (8)—competition often between tradition and intrusion, differing economic systems and religious ideologies

o event-centered—“focuses on a particular type of literacy practice, and investigates its characteristics in the context of the social and cultural processes at play in associated literacy events” (6)
o Ex.) Radway—romance reading—results: literacy resides in sociocultural contexts; cultural meaning of text must be understood in terms of relationship with context, ie. Who readers are, what their societal position is, how they use and evaluate texts, etc.; literacy can sustain and reproduce certain power relations and help members distance themselves from and resist hegemonic forces at play
o Ex. ) Shuman—inner city teens out of school literacies—results: negotiation of social space important in teen use of literacy; complex relationship between literacy practices and interactional norms in contexts that appear trivial and dismissable (11).
Besnier claims these two approaches complement each other. A communicative event must be understood paradigmatically—in contrast to other communicative events and syntagmatically—in relation to sociocultural processes (11).

Besnier reminds us that orality and literacy are always intertwined.

Besnier claims contemporary literacy practices must move away from generalizations, yet must identify which context most readily affects and is affected by reading and writing and how modes of communication are embedded in society and culture (15). He says one valuable literacy study is to study how literacy is located within structures of power and used both as instrument of hegemony and resistance. Most studies as of date of this kind of been located with schools in industrialized societies, although some are beginning to be conducted in other settings (15).

Besnier ends his introduction by claiming that rather than being a tool for domination or resistance, literacy can be full of contradictory meanings that depend on specific social contexts of reading and writing (20).

Chapter 2: Ethnographic Context:

Nukalaelae inhabit an atoll in Polynesian Islands north of Fiji, somewhat near Nauru. Small atoll. 2 miles long, 6 wide. Roughly 350 inhabitants. Not many natural resources to establish strong economy. Once explored coconut oil, but market died. Many sailors go work on Western ships. Relative work on more populated islands and send money home to Island. MIRAB economy: migration, remittances, aid, and bureaucracy. Tough economic situation creates “geographically dispersed but cohesive kinship networks whose members maintain a lively system of economic exchanges, in which reciprocity figures prominently” (31). Political system: discourse of nostalgia for old chief and authoritarian governmental system or discourse of egalitarianism, which conflict and make political system unstable because once a President gets control, he is often ousted. There is an Elder Council and an Island Council. Yet strict self-surveillance is most effective policing and controlling system. It fits in with egalitarian notions because surveillance is conducted by Island community—structured subset of community whose membership is evenly distributed across kin groups or an authoritative body considered to be synecdoche with community (Council of Elders, etc.) Community intrusion is tolerated and is intense!

Historical context: last half of 18th century most influential on literacy. Little known about pre-contact, pre-historical social organization and culture. What is known is laden with Christian ideology. First contact with Westerners 1821: whaling ship from Nantucket. Because of geographical location and lack of resources to be exploited, colonization was minimal compared to other islands in area. Nonetheless, three significant events greatly impacted culture and literacy: introduction to Christianity (missionary forces), Peruvian slavetraders, and lease of part of atoll land to German plantation.

Christianity as colonization:
Christianity closely linked to literacy. Somoan pastors trained by British pastors worked on island, built church, stimulated need for money, and taught religion through Somoan language. Soman pastors clearly felt superior to islanders, yet islanders kept pastor under tight control by not letting him influence politics and everyday affairs (41). Since money was needed, economic dependence on outside world became important. Because migrant labor became main economic force, letter writing became major role in maintaining economic ties with rest of world (43).

Slavetrade as colonization:
1863—Peruvian slave trade lured many Islanders onto their boat by telling them they had cold receive holy sacrament on board and then kidnapped majority of young native men, leaving mostly women, children, and elders.

German Plantation:
Plantation took over large part of land and forbid islanders from trespassing, yet also many young plantation male workers ended up marrying local women and thus helped rebuild population. Consequence—development of large kinship ties all over Polynesian islands. Amazingly, culture was kept intact. Letter writing to communicate with widely dispersed kins became a major stimulant for literacy.

Colonizers: 1892—British colonizers made Nukalaelae a part of Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorates. Colonization was minimal because of already existing religious influence from Somoans and isolated geographical location which kept British officials away. Also, strict surveillance from religious influence already colonized them anyway. Gained independence 1978. G and E Islands renamed Tuvalu.

Nukalaelae seems to be perfect isolated community for ethnographic study of literacy, but really they are largely impacted by globalization. Besnier says we must be careful when drawing outer boundaries of culture for ethnographic study. The atoll community is embedded in national identity, regional identity and complex social ties to first and third world countries, and other global forces even though it seems so isolated (51).

Chapter 3: The Domains of Reading and Writing

Nukalaelae speak, write, and read a dialect of Tuvaluan; however, they have their own dialect, which is context driven and of minimal importance in the relationship between literacy and orality (53). N. speak Gilbertese although it never was important literacy practice except for occasional Colonial government documents. Somaon and English is much more related to literacy. Somaon, considered superior language by Somoans, was main language of primary school and church. In fact, Somoan was only largely replaced by Tuvaluan in 20th century; Somoan influence still evident today in letter writing, religious hymns, pedagogical practices; also more frequent in oratory than casual conversation and in writing than speaking (55). Since N. was less directly impacted by colonization, English at first didn’t make as much as an impact as in other areas. Today, English plays role in secondary education, government, and communication with outside world (55). Also, even though English looms in reading and writing practices more than Somoan, Tuluvuan is major literacy language as English is only used primarily by handful of those who are government workers, teachers, etc , and is more consumed rather than produce by N. civilians (55-56).

Schooling as Literacy practice—in past rote memorization was major pedagogical learning activity taught by Somoan teachers and still plays major role. Somoan maintained control over schooling until 1950s, when colonial gov’t established primary schools on Outer islands, which began to influence N. schools. Basic literacy skills taught in primary schools, which all residents complete: reading religious texs, writing letters and notes, taking meeing minutes, and composing, copying and reading sermons—all everyday acivities. Secondary schools taught in English, but many N. don’t attend secondary school because of entrance exams, distance from home and school which requires extended stays, and tution costs.

Religion as Literacy practice—Christian values infiltrated into N. social theory: Christianity brought N. out of dark (pouliuli) associated with filth, nakedness, disorder, lack of social control, etc. to light (maalamalama) associated with clothes, cleanliness, schooling, and literacy (62). Literacy, however, did not enable movement to light but rather accompanied the evolution (62). Still, literacy had magical powers—literacy as state of grace—or seemed to according to missionary accounts (64).

Scope of llteracy—Reading Bible, writing hymns, sermons, and major role is letter writing. N. never taught to write letters; instead “they were clearly able to apply their newly acquired literacy skills to suit their own purposes and social designs, thus empowering the technology and giving it, from the beginning, a meaning that was related only remotely to the meaning that the agents of introduction intended to have it” (66). Other literacies: lists of many types, compilation of traditional skills and genealogies, telegrams, song lyrics, invitations to feasts, names and slogans woven on mats, tee-shirt illustrations, graffiti, and record keeping, all of which had equal prominence and proved literacy was omniscient in N. social setting (67-71).

Chapter 4: Letter Reading and Writing

N. Islanders mostly wrote letters to correspond with off island relatives for economic reasons or simply to share news and send affection. Besneir analyzed form of letters because traditional social scientists usually just study content and tried for his translation not to erase N. voices. Besnier conducted study of 360 letters, 67 of his own which N. islanders wrote to him, other he bought for 10 cents each and were either sent to or received from N. living off island (75). Letters carried by ships that came through on somewhat consistent basis, but often came as a surprise and cause late minute writing. Ships not totally trustworthy; letters often lost by travelers too; therefore, oral messages were thought more reliable than letters. Letters seen as complements to oral messages, which duplicate or elaborate written message and provides social context; hence, why Besnier interprets letter writing as social act. This underlying ideology also discounts thoughts under autonomous model that writing is separate from orality and that literacy is more reliable than orality—a notion, Street says, which is constructed (79). N. attitude toward and practice of orality and letter writing illustrate that “relative message performance is a function of cultural evaluations of the communicative act and such factors as the nature of the technological environment in which communication takes place, and hence the economic resources that communicators have access to” (79).

Correspondence: no gender imbalance, more young write, most letters are “letters of empathy”, but also job application letters, legal letters, threatening letters, and business correspondence. Radio and telephone also used some when operating.

Form of letters indicate N. follow certain guidelines: address at top, Date, and Salutation indicated Western influence. Openings have religious connotations, self deprecating assertions, motivations for writing, and if appropriate, disappointment in lack of hearing from addresses. Closing announce closing…etc.

Main points: English and Somoan influences evident in letters; letters linked to face to face communication; letters linked to both casual and formal oral practices (mixed oral genres); letters are saturated with emotion, love (alofa), pain (mmae), happiness and unhappiness, regret, longing, feelings of powerlessness, etc,

Chapter 5: Letters, Economics, and Emotionality

Letters roles: monitor, record, stimulate, and control economic transactions associated with gifts; share information, send moral messages, act as emotionally cathartic evens—all of which are often woven together (93).

Letters tied to socioeconomic life of community and in economic ties between community and outside world (93).

Letters are evidence of enormous pressure but on relatives living off island to find labor and support community back home (95).

Emotions tied to economic exchange: alofa means love but with gift; maa (shame) controls excessive or inappropriate requesting; “in short one can speak of an economy of affect, the flow of exchangeability of affectivity on the one hand and economic resources on the other, which is in turn linked, as in all other societies, to such categories of power, prestige, knowledge, and other symbolic communities (Borudieu)” (99)

No matter reason for correspondence, affect is given considerable prominence in all letters, and even if it doesn’t, it lurks beneath discourse (107 and 109). Because of affect communicated through words, punctuation, underlining, and other ways of “superposing” affective meaning is rarely needed or used (109).

Levi—emotions can be “hypercognized” or “hypocognized” in certain cultures. Besnier says in certain social contexts as well. In N. letter writing, for instance, alofa and maa are hypercognized more than anger, which is hypocognized (110-111).

“Clearly, N. Islanders define letter writing and reading as affectively catharic contexts, in which certain types of emotions are hypercognized” (11).

Main points: letters are framed by affectively charged expressions; all letter correspondence has affect; affect defines the type of letter it will be.

“What this analysis demonstrates is that literacy was not merely “imposed” on N. society in late 19th century from the outside as a foreign technology and sociocultural construct. N. Islanders were not the powerless recipients of a literacy ideology, the passive witnesses to the introduction of literate technologies, as incipiently literate societies are often portrayed to be in area….Rather they took an active role in empowering literacy by constructing it and adapting it to heir communication repertoire, and providing it with a culturally specific meaning—a process which may have begun very early in their post-contact history” (114).

Analysis also demonstrates writing and reading can be emotional experiences, which are usually associated with face to face interactions (115).

Analysis also shows how affect is related to modality….it is particularly mediated by the social context in which particular forms of literacy are practiced; the identity of participants in the literacy event, the purposes of literacy, and the social environment in which it is produced, consumed, and conveyed not only “influence” the shape of written texts, but define literacy as a social practice” (115).

Class Notes: Mignolo’s notion of Pluritopic of Hermeneutics—for Besnier’s ethnography doesn’t work to move between observer and participant. Besneir’s goals are to prove autonomy model wrong and support new literacies.

All these literacies are very tied to nation; Graff—national literacy campaigns


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