I was just pointed to a 1963 paper by anthropologist Jack Goody and literary historian Ian Watt, “The Consequences of Literacy” (pdf), that’s well worth reading if you’re interested in such things. A sample:

Early British administrators among the Tiv of Nigeria were aware of the great importance attached to these genealogies [which “stretch some twelve generations in depth back to an eponymous founding ancestor”], which were continually discussed in court cases where the rights and duties of one man towards another were in dispute. Consequently they took the trouble to write down the long lists of names and preserve them for posterity, so that future administrators might refer to them in giving judgement. Forty years later, when the Bohannans carried out anthropological field work in the area, their successors were still using the same genealogies. However, these written pedigrees now gave rise to many disagreements; the Tiv maintained that they were incorrect, while the officials regarded them as statements of fact, as records of what had actually happened, and could not agree that the unlettered indigenes could be better informed about the past than their own literate predecessors. What neither party realized was that in any society of this kind changes take place which require a constant readjustment in the genealogies if they are to continue to carry out their function as mnemonics of social relationships…

It is obvious that the process of generation leads in itself to a constant lengthening of the genealogy; on the other hand, the population to which it is linked may in fact be growing at quite a different rate, perhaps simply replacing itself. So despite its increasing length the genealogy may have to refer to just as many people at the present time as it did fifty, a hundred, or perhaps two hundred years ago. Consequently the added depth of lineages caused by new births needs to be accompanied by a process of genealogical shrinkage; the occurrence of this telescoping process, a common example of the general social phenomenon which J.A. Barnes has felicitously termed ‘structural amnesia’, has been attested in many societies, including all those mentioned above…

On the other hand, Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole in The Psychology of Literacy (1981) claimed that schooling is far more important than literacy. Geoff Nunberg’s review describes their findings:

Among the Vai people of western Liberia, Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole found the ideal situation to test the effects of literacy. In the 19th century, the Vai invented a wholly original writing system for their language, a syllabic script like the one used for modern Japanese. … But since then, Vai writing has been used only for keeping commercial records and for personal letters; schools in Liberia are conducted in English, the official language, and the Moslem Vai use Arabic for religious purposes. So there is no public writing in Vai — no books or newspapers. Nor is there any formal schooling in the language; literacy is passed on from one individual to another. If there are psychological differences between Vai literates and illiterates, then, they can only be the result of literacy itself, rather than the factors that usually accompany literacy in other cultures.

In ”The Psychology of Literacy,” Miss Scribner and Mr. Cole report the results of four years of research among the Vai. … Miss Scribner and Mr. Cole subjected the Vai to a battery of psychological tests of memory and of abstract and logical thinking — asking them, for example, to sort common objects into categories and then re-sort them according to other principles, or to work out simple logical puzzles. Their surprising finding was that literacy in itself had very little effect on performance in these tests, though formal schooling did. Only when they turned to testing skills that were closely connected to literacy and letter writing, like the ability to work out rebus puzzles or to give road directions to someone who was not present, did unschooled literates do better than illiterates. Miss Scribner and Mr. Cole conclude that the mere fact of learning to read and write doesn’t bring with it any important psychological development. What matters, rather, is the uses that people make of their literacy.

If anyone knows of good recent work on this topic, I’d love to hear about it.

Via this MetaFilter thread on the Scots Gaelic origins of gospel music, which I highly recommend—there are some very knowledgeable people in the discussion.


  1. Your a great resource! We will definitely send our blog visitors here!
    Judy and Harold

  2. This comment by Miko in the Metafilter thread—”The feeling that “OMG I know this music! This is just like [other music that I’m familiar with!] is a pretty easy one to feel and get excited about when listening to lots of different musical culture. But a heard similarity is just the start of a musical inquiry”—mirrors what happens in amateur etymology and that last sentence is how I tend to respond to amateur etymologists.

  3. Here’s a crosspost from my followup on Metafilter:
    languagehat: I’ll post a few more links, but it’s widely diverging from the thread topic, so email me for further discussion. (or maybe we can create a new post)
    Check Google Scholar on citations of Goody & Watt and Scribner & Cole. Also, the very new book by Horst & Miller(which I haven’t read, but which does incorporate some good research) The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication.
    On Scribner & Cole, consider this review for the journal of the American Ethnological Society: "Did Literacy Cause the Great Cognitive Divide?". Note, by the way, that Goody and Watt were looking at the long-term role of literacy in the ideas produced by a culture and how they connected to certain cognitive possibilities of writing (an analogue of Nussbaum on The Fragility of Goodness and Lowe on The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative in regards to theatre), not the short-term effect of introducing literacy to a society. So S&C aren’t directly answering/refuting Goody’s argument, just perhaps filling in some detail about periods of transition. Goody argues, for example, that writing makes certain kinds of teaching possible, so he would not be inconsistent with S&C.
    More importantly, very recently, the question has changed from the "the consequences of literacy" to "the consequences of computer literacy". With projects such as One Laptop Per Child leading efforts in world literacy and education, the cognitive and social factors are almost completely different than those examined by Goody and Watt (the mutability of computer text, for example, is significant). This is an area which I know little about, although I hope to consider some of those questions in a research project I’m working on (I’ll be posting it to MeFI projects next month), and perhaps in some of my graduate research.
    Some places to look would be The Pew Internet & American Life Project or Socrates in the Labyrinth (a fascinating work by David Kolb on the rhetorical possibilities of hypertext). These differ from the focus of ethnography in design, since designers tend to look for quick, high-level design-related answers rather than deep structure. Educators are similarly narrow in focus.
    The kind of transitions Goody describes and the transitions of our time differ in structure. Many prior cultural transitions were managed by a relatively-centralised elite (ancient Greece, or even slavery, which has clearly delineated power; colonisation is more complex). The shift to computer literacy, however, is occurring in a diverse network of competing (economically, ideologically) players and technologies. I’m looking forward to reading Horst and Miller’s book, which I hope provide analysis of what is actually different and how it plays out in certain parts of the world.

  4. John Emerson says

    Goody has written a lot on this: (Link. he Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (1986) was excellent. Mary Douglas has written about genealogy truncation (in How Institutions Think, I think). Genealogies are functional ways of organizing groups, with the element of factual representation not dominant. In the anthropology of China there’s a lot of writing about fictitions kinship.

  5. John Emerson says

    On the music, long ago I read that the Medieval Orkneys had a style of parallel voices in thirds when the rest of Europe used parallel fifths and fourths. Conceivably this is the barbarous roaring singing of the Teutons that the Latin writers talked about. According to one musicologist, indigenous harmonic music in northern Europe and Africa were separated by a polyphonic, non-harmonic musical tradition among all Mediterranean peoples. (The musicologist was named Hans Sachs, like the lead in Wagner’s Meistersinger. He must have gotten a lot of rough German teasing in his childhood.)

  6. John Emerson says

    Enough yet, Steve?

  7. Thanks very much, honest knave and John!

  8. William Foley in his 1997 ‘Anthropological Linguistics’ has a great chapter on literacy (pp. 417-441), comparing for example Cole & Scribner’s Vai studies with work by Shirley Brice Heath (who investigates literary practices in three American villages) and work by Scollon & Scollon on white middle-class Canadians vs. Athabaskans. Foley also takes into account linguistic work on what he calls the ‘oral vs. written continuum’ (e.g. Biber 1988 on linguistic differences between spoken and written discourse).

  9. I love things like these that are so obvious once stated, but that you’d never otherwise think of. The social sciences are full of ’em. 🙂

  10. Bohannan’s famous tale of Hamlet among the Tiv is online: “Shakespeare in the Bush”. The date at the top is misleading, though; she wrote it for broadcast on the BBC in 1954 or ’55, and it was first published under a different title in ’56 and under the present title in ’66.

  11. John: that story is *awesome*

  12. Our friend Kerim Freedman has written about the Bohannon piece.
    When I was teaching high school ESL, because of the simplicity of the language we used children’s books to teach high-school kids English. (It was a very hastily designed program; we also used the Laubach literacy series, which was designed for illiterate adult English speakers. ESL has greatly improved since then.)
    The Hmong students were indignant about the Babar stories about an elephant, because they knew that elephants can’t talk.
    The funny part about that one is that for them elephants actually were a familiar domestic animal, not an exotic zoo creature. I’m sure they had a lot of much better elephant stories in their native language.
    I also caught a glimpse of a secret Hmong book which they were passing around. By the layout it looked like a collection of poems, three or four four-line stanzas each, reminding me immediately of the Chinese Shih Ching. I was sure (based on abundant evidence) that these were love poems, which would match them specifically with the lewd “Songs of Cheng” in the Shih Ching.

  13. Christophe Strobbe says

    I became interested in this topic through a famous book on the effects of literacy: Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982) by Walter J. Ong. Ong was not a psychologist but a professor of literature. His book summarized several decades of research, including some research by psychologists. If you want to get an idea of what the book is about, the review by Art Bingham is a good starting point.
    Scribner and Cole’s book and the references by honest knave go straight to my reading list!

  14. The Goody and Watt essay has been controversial–in certain circles you could say notorious–since shortly after its publication. There is a great critical essay by John Halverson called “Goody and the Implosion of the Literacy Thesis” (Man, New Series 27:2, 1992), but perhaps the most famous critique is that of Brian Street in the introduction to a volume he edited, _Cross-Cultural Approaches to Literacy” (Cambridge, 1993). (Goody replies to Street and others in the first chapter of _The Power of Written Tradition_ [Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000].) A recent survey of these and other controversies is available in James Collins and Richard K. Blot, _Literacy and Literacies: Texts, Power, and Identity_ (Cambridge 2003).

  15. ‘I also caught a glimpse of a secret Hmong book which they were passing around. By the layout it looked like a collection of poems, three or four four-line stanzas each, reminding me immediately of the Chinese Shih Ching.”
    Years ago Zhang Kun drew a similar comparison between the Shi Jing and the custom in some TB group or other in southern China where young men had to memorize some set number of traditional songs to become eligible to marry. The parallel he drew was not so much between the actual forms of the songs but between the way in both societies learning these songs was a rite of passage.

  16. xiaolongnu says

    There was a recent New Yorker piece reviewing some of Ong’s work and others on this topic, too. Interesting stuff, but tending to ignore the possible effects of cultural variation on the grouping tests that were used to distinguish between the literate and nonliterate mind. I don’t have it in front of me, but I remember Rex and I (my husband is co-founder of Savage Minds with the abovementioned Kerim Freedman) had a long discussion of the tests in which people were asked to group objects together. The example given in the New Yorker was that members of some nonliterate group placed a knife with a potato (instead of with other tools) because you use a knife to cut a potato. It wasn’t clear to us how the research being reviewed proposed to distinguish between culturally distinct category systems (in which tools might go with the objects they are used to modify) and something more universal about the difference between literate and nonliterate thinking. It seemed to us to be more evidence for the tendency of some of the social sciences to ignore the culture concept. Anybody know about research that might correct for this potential problem?

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