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Papers from the 28th Annual SCUTREA Conference
Research, Teaching and Learning: making connections in the education of adults

Becoming expert: using ethnographies of everyday learning to inform the education of adults

Mary Hamilton, Literacy Research Group, Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University, UK.

I wasn't exactly an academic. But I had plenty of time on my hands and used a medical dictionary.... Within a couple of months I'd got about a dozen books on the go. One title led to another and I just kept asking the library to order more. I read the same books over and over again, upside down and back to front and even dreamt about them.

Kevin Callan, jailed for the murder of a three year old child and later acquitted having organized his own appeal. Guardian, 7 April 1995.


What motivates people to learn? This paper will introduce an ethnographic framework for thinking about multiple ways of knowing, and a way of researching everyday learning and literacy use among adults. It will exemplify this approach by referring to a study of literacy practices in one community in the North West of England (Barton and Hamilton, 1998). The aim of the paper is to link the literacy learning that goes on in and out of educational settings and to encourage us as researchers, teachers, learners and users of literacy to reflect on our own practices as part of this process. The approach I will describe is complementary to more cognitively-oriented work on the informal processes of situated learning and their relationship with formal education (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Nunes, 1993; Reder 1994). It is an integrative approach to research, teaching and learning in the field of literacy in several senses:

* it links the individual and the social context

* it links research, theory and practice through encouraging us to take a reflexive stance toward literacy and learning

* it considers literacy alongside other media, suggesting a common theoretical framework

* it offers a way of thinking about the relationship between learning inside and beyond formal education.

I approach literacy from the lifelong learning perspective of teaching adults with literacy difficulties. Increasingly I can see important links between this work and social anthropology, media and cultural studies which share a common interest in understanding the literacy lives that exist beyond educational institutions.

Theoretical and methodological framework

The theoretical framework is developed in Barton and Hamilton, 1988. It draws on the work of Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole (1981); Shirley Heath (1983) and Brian Street (1984) among others. It characterises literacy as part of social practices which are observable in literacy "events" or "moments" and are patterned by social institutions and power relationships. The notion of "social practice" is a key theoretical tool within recent social theory (e.g. Bourdieu, 1990; Smith, 1993; Thompson, 1995) that enables us to explain the links between human agency and social structures. This concept helps us account for both consistency and change in social processes, and to connect material things, signs, activities and experience (subjectivities). Social practices include the following elements:

participants: the people who interact with the written texts; who are involved in the social relationships of producing, interpreting, circulating and otherwise regulating written texts

activities: the actions performed by participants in literacy events; structured routines and pathways that facilitate or regulate actions; intentional strategies; rules of appropriacy and eligibility - who does/doesn't, can/can't engage in particular activities

settings: the immediate physical and temporal circumstances in which an interaction takes place

domains or institutional spaces: the field of social or institutional practice within which events takes place and from which they take their sense and social purpose

resources: the material artefacts, tools and accessories that are involved in the interaction (including the texts); all the other resources brought to the literacy practice including non-material values, understandings, ways of thinking, feeling, technical skills and knowledge; beliefs; representational (semiotic) resources

Viewing literacy as part of social practice shifts the research focus away from isolated individuals and texts, from deficits, from cognitive skills towards social relationships, communal resources, historical traditions and change. It enables us to look outwards from educational practices, to the many other everyday contexts in which literacy is learned and used. A social theory of literacy as contextualised in time and space implies the use of certain research methods. Methods which take literacy out of its context of use are not appropriate. The research goal becomes one of uncovering patterns and regularities in the organisation of one aspect of cultural life. Research methods are needed which enable us to examine in detail the role of literacy in people's contemporary lives and in the histories and traditions of which these are a part, and which explore some of the contemporary environments in which people are carrying out their everyday lives.

The notion of the "literacy event", associated with Shirley Heath (1983) and akin to sociolinguistic notions of the speech event, is key to the empirical investigation of literacy practices.

In terms of methodology, such research draws upon ethnographic research traditions, which have four characteristics of particular interest. Firstly, ethnography studies real-world settings, typically by focusing on a particular location and point in time. Secondly, the approach is holistic, aiming at whole phenomena, in this case, the cultural practice of literacy. Thirdly, the work is multi-method, drawing on a variety of research techniques - combining, for example, extensive interviewing with detailed observation and the systematic collection of documents. Fourthly, ethnography is interpretative and aims to represent the participants' perspectives


The Literacy in the Community project was a detailed study of the role of literacy in the everyday lives of people in Lancaster, England, and is reported in Barton & Hamilton 1998 and elsewhere. The project lasted several years and used in-depth interviews, complemented by observations, photography and the collection of documents and records. It included a door-to-door survey in one neighbourhood of Lancaster and detailed case studies of people in twelve households in the neighbourhood, observing particular literacy events, and asking people to reflect on their practices. Alongside the case studies were thirty interviews of people in what we called access points for literacy, such as book-shops, libraries and advice centres. There were also interviews of twenty adults who had identified problems with their reading and writing and had been attending courses at the Adult College.

Dominant (institutional) and vernacular literacies

One of the main organizing ideas that we used in this study was a distinction between dominant and vernacular literacies. We defined dominant literacies as those which are privileged by their association with formal organisations, such as those of the school, the church the work-place, the legal system, commerce, medical and welfare bureaucracies. They are part of the specialised discourses of bounded communities of practice, and are standardised and defined in terms of the formal purposes of the institution, rather than in terms of the multiple and shifting purposes of individual citizens and their communities. In dominant literacies there are professional experts and teachers through whom access to knowledge is controlled. To the extent that we can group these dominant literacies together, they are given high value, legally and culturally. Dominant literacies are powerful in proportion to the power of the institution that shapes them.

Vernacular literacies are essentially ones which are not regulated or systematised by the formal rules and procedures of social institutions but have their origin in the purposes of everyday life. They are not highly valued by formal social institutions though sometimes they develop in response to these institutions. They may be actively disapproved of and they can be contrasted with dominant literacies which are seen as rational, and of high cultural value. They are more common in private spheres than in public spheres. Often they are humorous, playful, disrespectful, sometimes deliberately oppositional. When questioned about them, people did not always regard them as real reading or real writing.

Some vernacular literacies are hidden. This includes those which are personal and private, where reading or writing are ways of being alone and private, ways of creating personal space. There are also secret notes and letters of love, abuse, criticism and subversion. Under the table, to use Janet Maybin's (1996) phrase, we also found comics, horoscopes, fanzines, scurrilous jokes, pornography. And, while some private spheres were shared with us as researchers, we were not offered access to all people's private practices.

In our project we found vernacular literacies involved in a range of everyday activities, which we roughly classified as (1) organising life (2) personal communication (3) private leisure (4) documenting life (5) sense making and (6) social participation. In all of these areas, we found examples of people becoming expert, consciously carrying out their own research on a topic of interest to them.

Some examples of vernacular literacies and ways of becoming expert

Many of the people we interviewed had experienced situations in their day-to-day life that had motivated them to develop a specialised expertise and launched them into a new area of learning in which they mustered all the resources they could find, including literacy. Often these activities involve encounters with social institutions, dealing with professionals, ways of communicating, acting and understanding that are quite alien to peoples previous experience. To interact with these institutions and to have access to the knowledge they control, literacy is a key tool.

In the simplest sense this involves reading instruction booklets and guarantees for household items to see how they are used or for effecting repairs. It can also include devotional reading of religious and other inspirational books, and deliberate investigations of unknown topics whether to do with an illness, their child's difficulties at school or a legal or consumer grievance. There were a number of examples in our data related to ill health where people became expert in the treatment and understanding of particular ailments.

There were encounters with schools, where parents were acting on behalf of their children and dealing with systems which they found quite mystifying and opaque. Their efforts to obtain resources for their children were often frustrating and consumed a great deal of their time and energy. We have examples of more and less successful advocacy by parents, in terms of obtaining special help for their children, or exercising their right to choose their child's school.

People frequently confront employment-related problems. These include searching for and applying for jobs, dealing with official bureaucracy when registering as unemployed, claiming welfare benefit entitlements or tax refunds; and setting up small businesses. Another common group of practical problems are legal problems and encounters with the police, courts and insurance companies. A variety of legal problems arise for individuals at different stages of their lives, and sometimes more general issues affect large groups of people, as in disputes over land ownership and use. In these cases, people may act together to pool resources and develop new kinds of expertise.

As well as these short-term responses to urgent practical needs, people have pre-occupations and pastimes which they pursue over lengthy periods: quests for information about family history, correspondences and leisure activities of various sorts. These leads to a wide variation in what people know about, and it is revealing to look across a community to investigate the types of vernacular knowledge which exist.

Characteristics of vernacular literacies

A number of points can be made about the nature of vernacular literacies based on the data from this study.

Firstly, vernacular literacy practices are learned informally. They are acquired in homes and neighbourhood groups, through the everyday perplexities and curiosities of our lives. The roles of novice or learner and expert or teacher are not fixed, but shift from context to context and there is an acceptance that people will engage in vernacular literacies in different ways, sometimes supporting, sometimes requiring support from others.

Secondly, the vernacular literacy practices we identified are rooted in action contexts and everyday purposes and networks. They draw upon and contribute to vernacular knowledge, which is often local, procedural and minutely detailed. Literacy learning and use are integrated in everyday activities and the literacy elements are an implicit part of the activity. which may be mastering a martial art, paying the bills, or finding out about local news. Literacy itself is not a focus of attention, but is used to get other things done. Everyday literacies are subservient to the goals of purposeful activities and are defined by people in terms of these activities.

Where specialisms develop in everyday contexts they are different from the formal academic disciplines, reflecting the logic of practical application. Vernacular literacies are as diverse as social practices are. They are hybrid in origin and often it is clear that a particular activity may be classified in more than one way since people may have a mixture of motives for taking part in a given literacy activity. Preparing a residents association newsletter, for instance, can be a social activity, it can be part of leisure or political activity, and it may involve personal sense-making.

This is in contrast to many educational practices, where learning is separated from use, divided up into academically defined subject areas, disciplines and specialisms, and where knowledge is often made explicit within particular interactive routines, is reflected upon, and is open to evaluation through the testing of disembedded skills. Formal literacy learning in these ways produces a distinctive schooled literacy.

The integration of vernacular literacy practices in everyday activity and concerns leads to other kinds of embedding: in literacy events written and spoken language are often integrated. Print and other media are integrated; literacy is integrated with other symbolic systems, such as numeracy, and visual semiotics. Different topics and activities can occur together, making it hard to perceive the boundaries of a single literacy event or practice.

Making connections

In summary, what are the implications of this approach to literacy for integrating research, teaching and learning? The approach encourages us to make connections in several important areas:

The Community Connection

The areas of vernacular knowledge described here can be compared with those which Luis Moll identifies in his research with Mexican-American households in the United States. Moll (1994) refers to funds of knowledge in communities which are the practical exchanges and responses to needs for information and resources shared across families, between siblings, neighbours, friends. Moll found funds of knowledge in areas such as agriculture, economics, construction, religion, arts and repair. In Lancaster the areas of vernacular knowledge which we have identified include home economics and budgeting, repair and maintenance, child care and health, gardening, cooking, pets and animal care, and family and local history. Some people had also developed knowledge of legal and medical topics.

Whilst these funds exist, they also have their limitations and can be supported by various kinds of educational response. A social practice approach to literacy demonstrates the changing demands that people experience at different stages of their lives and offers convincing evidence of the need for lifelong learning systems which people can access at critical points. When talking about educational responses we are not just thinking about schools, but much more widely about a range of institutional contexts for literacy, including community education, workplaces, libraries and advice centres, all the points in the web that help sustain a culture of literacy. Additional ways of supporting groups as well as individuals can also be explored.

The learning connection: situated practice

Within communities technical literacy skills are distributed and people may participate in literacy practices in many different ways. This links directly into the traditions that have developed from activity theory where learning is seen in terms of an apprentice-like relationship between expert and novice. However, what counts as "expert" and what is "novice" is problematic outside of an institutional setting. People move flexibly in and out of being "learners" in different roles, notions of exchange and identity are strongly linked. The notion of apprenticeship does not fit all situations and we need a more fluid conceptualisation of the relationships experienced outside of institutional settings. Much more thought needs to be given to the nature of lay expertise and its relationship to identity and professional knowledge.

Stephen Reder's notion of practice engagement theory (Reder 1994) may point a way toward this more fluid characterisation. He identifies three aspects of literacy practices: technology, function, and social meaning and suggest that people may engage with any or all of these three aspects in shifting - and often unequal - ways.

The institutional power connection

Literacies are embedded in social relationships that give them their meaning. Vernacular literacies are defined in relation to dominant, legitimated practices. The fact that some literacies are supported and legitimated by powerful institutions implies that others are de-valued. Many of the literacies that are influential and valued in people's day-to-day lives, that are widely circulated and discussed are also ignored culturally: they do not count as "real" literacy. Neither are the informal social networks which sustain these literacies drawn upon or acknowledged.

Attention needs to be paid to the social relationships which frame literacy in colleges, classrooms and other settings where adults learn, and the power dimensions of these relationships in terms of the ability to make decisions, confer value, demonstrate expertise.

The media connection: print literacy and other media

Our findings show that other media besides print literacy have a very important influence in contemporary life as a source of knowledge, communication and representations of reality. They are used interchangeably with literacy in many peoples' lives to achieve particular goals, such as communication and finding out information. In their everyday lives people move unconsciously between media and many people do not privilege literacy, but evaluate its worth in relation to available alternatives. This supports notions of teaching and assessing literacy in the context of other media and exploring the ways in which these other media are structured and their meanings in people's lives. In general, a social approach de-emphasises the differences between speech, writing and other, non-verbal means of expression. It supports not only critical language awareness, but also critical awareness of other semiotic systems and the possibilities for their use.

The personal connection: developing reflective partnerships

An important contribution of the social practice approach to literacy is that it enables all of us, within and beyond education to appreciate the variety and creativity of everyday literacy practices, to question received wisdom about literacy and encourages us to find out more about practices in other settings and to devise educational responses to these growing understandings.

We have used this approach in courses of professional development, where students can be asked to explore the literacy practices of a domain of their choice (see Barton,1997). The Connect Family literacy project in Edinburgh has encouraged teachers and parents to co-research home practices and use the information to inform curricula for family literacy courses (see Keen, 1995). In London Nora Hughes took Mukul Saxena's (1994) description of the literacy practices of members of the Panjabi-speaking community in Southall and used it to design a set of activities for her ESOL classes, transforming her students into ethnographers who researched their own communities (Hughes, 1992). Susie Parr has adapted this approach in her work with stroke patients suffering from aphasia (Parr 1995).

A social practice approach to literacy argues for the importance of self-consciously researching local culture and perspectives on literacy and building this knowledge into learning programmes, using it as a basis for discussion and investigation of literacy issues with learners. This does not necessarily mean incorporating vernacular literacies into formal teaching by directly using or modeling them in formal educational settings since this inevitably recontexualises them and thus changes their meaning. The basic issue is acknowledging and respecting the existence of vernacular practices, understanding that educational practices are not the only literacy practices. Rather they are a specialised and powerful set of practices which may complement and enhance the practices of home and community, but which are also capable of violating or devaluing them.

Students of all ages, adults and children, are involved with a whole set of everyday cultural practices, which they engage with other people significant to them in family and friendship groups. Many teachers have limited opportunities to get to know about these practices, especially where students belong to a culture very different from their own. As teachers and researchers we need to find ways of developing reflective partnerships which can mediate between homes, communities, and adult education programmes enhancing people's sense of their own expertise and authorship, to helping them take control of available literacies and put them to work to benefit themselves and their communities.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 02 July 1998