chapter  8
11 Pages


Literacy is the ultimate flexible friend – a word that can be filled with all kinds of anxieties, hopes and prescriptions. In this book I set out to explore the ways in which literacy and literacy learners are represented in contemporary Western societies, using the specific example of the UK. I have assembled analytic tools from a number of sources, identifying particular elements of theory and putting them to work in new ways and in new combinations. I wanted to craft a practical way of approaching public representations in the hope that others could use it to continue these explorations and to take part in shaping future narratives. In this book I have focussed on public representation of literacy, but the approach I have taken could be applied to other features of social life that are given particular significance within contemporary social imaginaries such as citizenship, poverty, gender or inclusion. I set my enquiry within the framework of literacy studies and the socio-material

ontology of actor-network theory. These conceptualise human actions and meaning-making as circulating within social worlds that are mediated by texts, material objects and other cultural artefacts. From this perspective, discourse does real work in ordering everyday experience, connecting global patterns with local events and interactions. It offers us certain scripts for acting, making meaning, evaluating ourselves and others. Literacy studies draws attention to vernacular practices and the institutional

privileging of some aspects of texts within social practices. It suggests an ethnographic focus on local, everyday realities using the key concepts of events, settings, domains, practices, values, participants, material artefacts, sponsors and mediators. Actor-network theory extends the ethnographic focus on texts as

mediators of social practice. It is especially useful for analysing global/local relations through its focus on tracking texts as they circulate, coordinating power and aligning action, gathering power as they move. ANT identifies the processes of translation, enrolment and categorisation that are part of this circulation. It theorises how discourses fit within larger social formations in ways that are consistent with critical discourse analysis and the notion of the social imaginary. I used social semiotic theory to look at the different meaning-making resources

that carry the narratives of the social imaginary. I looked in turn at number, metaphor, visual images and words and how these are selectively combined in three different social domains – governance, the news media and student autobiographical writing. Each type of semiotic resource has its affordances; each social domain uses these resources for different purposes, with different effects in relation to what Charles Taylor calls the modern social imaginary: ‘that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy’ (Taylor 2007: 23). I used this idea of the social imaginary to address the discursive dimension of the relations of ruling and to ask bigger questions about the significance of public narratives of literacy: how does literacy enter into the modern social imaginary of rich Western societies like the UK? What work does it do? Are there specifically English inflections of it? In this final chapter I review and assess these ideas and frameworks by drawing the threads together from the different chapters where I have presented my analysis and data. In writing this book and discussing my ideas with others I have become more

convinced about the argument I started out with. I have understood it better. The pieces have fallen into place and I have been able to identify and document some examples of how dominant narratives circulate in the public domain, the existence of complicating narratives and the power of combining different semiotic modes in creating both. I elaborate on each of these aspects below, reviewing some of the ways in

which semiotic resources work together to produce arguments and imaginings, and some of the ways in which the domains of policy and research, news and popular culture and personal testimonial criss-cross one another in patterns that add up to more than the sum of their parts. I underscore the particular importance of examining representations of literacy in the popular media, arguing that these present new data about the discourses that currently inform our understandings of and reactions to literacy and offer clues about the directions in which these understandings are moving and why. I end by suggesting what implications this could have for developing alternative imaginaries of literacy, and other key connected elements of social life, to underpin social and educational action.