CCR 635: Advanced Research Practices

The Anthropology of Writing

Since I didn’t pick any specific chapters to read for this week, I thought I’d read the first two chapters of The Anthropology of Writing: Understanding Textually-Mediated Worlds to contextualize everyone else’s discussions. This collection seeks to bring together two writing research traditions: the (French) anthropology of writing and (English-speaking) New Literacy Studies (Barton and Papen 3).

In Chapter 1, David Barton and Uta Papen seek to map out the anthropology of writing—what it is and does, what methods it uses, and its scope. They argue that writing, though traditionally ignored by anthropologists for oral and more “exotic” forms of communication, is an important topic of study: “It was created by people and is passed on culturally; it has symbolic value and material aspects; and it is crucial to interaction between people and central to knowledge creation” (5). By examining writing through an anthropological lens, we can gain a better sense of how societies operate, how institutions interact with the public, and how social groups organize their experiences (5). A growing research interest in writing is seen through discourse analysis, literacy research, historical studies of writing, and educational research. Barton and Papen seem to favor the latter, which values writing as “more than skills,” positioning writing as an activity (8).

Because of this focus of writing as an activity, studying written texts is highly dependent on social and cultural contexts, which privileges research methods that account for these specific contexts. The methods favored are ethnographic and, sometimes, historical (9). These methods highlight the “users and producers of texts” and how they “engage with the broader social practices and discourses their actions are part of” (9). Typically, these texts fall into the category of the marginalized, which we have discussed throughout the semester: “incipient and ordinary, often invisible and hardly known, frequently ignored or mistakenly taken for irrelevant” (10).

Barton and Papen briefly outline the differences between the English and French writing research traditions. In the English tradition, for example, texts are often studied within a “literacy event” or “literacy practices,” which locate writing in social practices (11). Barton and Papen argue that texts must be studied beyond these categories, placed within contexts, spaces, and places that both differ and overlap (13). In France, however, researchers focus on the microprocesses of writing in relation to how they accomplish work-related tasks (22). Whereas an English writing tradition may focus on everyday life, multilingual contexts, or religion, French writing traditions may focus more on writing in the workplace and in public spaces.

In the second chapter, “Writing Acts: When Writing is Done,” Béatrice Fraenkel complicates these differences, showing both extraordinary and ordinary acts of writing. She begins by looking at revolutionary graffiti slogans and how they follow syntactic and rhetorical norms that are structured from other familiar graffiti models (33). Fraenkel argues that these graffiti slogans are “linguistic acts: orders, claims, exhortations, protests, denunciations, etc.” that are performative acts of writing (34). Then, when someone passes by the graffiti and reads the slogans, they participate in the public writing act through reading (36). What this shows is that the writing and reading acts (or processes) have value as a larger part of language and that they also have value specifically from being written, an act more permanent than speech.

Though Fraenkel describes political graffiti as an example of extraordinary writing, she argues that we can also find value in more ordinary public writing, such as signposts, notices, and road signs that both perform writing and modify the places where they appear. Her example, a “Beware of Dog” sign, warns us and labels the house as a forbidden space. I’m not entirely sure why the term label is so clearly defined here, but Fraenkel emphasizes that “labeling” refers to all acts that attach something written to a place, object, or person (38). So with the example of graffiti, labeling asks us to consider the performative uses of the written act of graffiti (39).

Fraenkel also briefly offers the example of post-9/11 memorial public acts of writing, which she designates as “writing events” that together create a collective writing act yet remain individual acts of writing. She asks, “How can we characterize these acts? How can we explain the new forms taken by reactions to such catastrophic events and their commemorations, involving writing practices which are still emerging, and writing actions which are difficult to explain?” (40). I don’t have answers for those questions, and she doesn’t really, either, but they are interesting for thinking about new and emergent forms of writing and how different elements from both the French and English writing traditions break down and rebuild within different contexts. Ultimately, Fraenkel herself makes this point, arguing that writing acts draw our attention as researchers to “the written elements of our environment, and the way in which inscriptions constitute it, manage it and disrupt it” (42).

I’m interested in hearing how other chapters in the book continue to disrupt these two research traditions, how authors use and blend research methods, and how they (and we) study these writing acts, practices, and events within their own contexts. Also, these beginning chapters really pushed the importance of context, reminding me of our heated discussion of the Purcell-Gates article “Analyzing Literacy Practice: Grounded Theory to Model” and how some of us seemed a bit…miffed by the isolation of context within the larger project. I was also reminded of an archive panel that I attended at CCCC last week, “Storying the Archive: Narrative, History, and Identity.” In the panel, Madhu Narayan argued that literacy narratives need to emphasize the historical and rhetorical exigences that allow these narratives to emerge, prompting criticism of The Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) for stripping the stories away from their very specific, individual contexts.


  • We’ve brought this up before, but what are the values of studying writing on its own vs. researching writing as an activity within specific contexts?
  • How do the other chapters work toward bridging the anthropology of writing and New Literacy Studies?
  • What research methods are used by other authors in this collection that either support or work against these different research traditions? Barton and Papen mention ethnography and historical research—do any authors branch beyond these two? If not, are there other methods that we think could do this contextual work?


Barton, David, and Uta Papen, eds. The Anthropology of Writing: Understanding Textually-Mediated Worlds. NY: Continuum, 2010. Print.



4 thoughts on “The Anthropology of Writing

  1. Thanks for the detailed summary, Allison! I also read the first two chapters and found them to be pretty interesting and exciting (though, this just clarifies what a nerd I am).

    These two chapters and their focus on writing as a material thing and performative act to be studied reminded me of a course we took with Krista Kennedy last spring that traced the different social and cultural functions and movements of writing technologies–technologies as things that shape and influence social practices, ideologies, and histories. While in the end, we all found that technological determinism is far more complex, starting with the actual thing was an interesting way to trace histories and understand cultural and social values. I guess it makes sense then that the French tradition of writing research as anthropological inquiry takes writing as a material thing and performative act because in Krista’s class, we also started by drawing from Latour’s theory that just about anything can be considered a technology (an article on the door-stopper as technology). For my work in Krista’s class, I drew a lot from theories of materiality and object-oriented work–which I guess seems so obvious (to look at “things”) and yet often not discussed that I find it particularly interesting. But as I read these two chapters, it got me wondering about the cross-overs between this collaboration between French and English writing research traditions and the technology research that is interested in technological determinism, materiality, objects, and their complex contexts, cultural and social values, and histories. In Krista’s class, I kept wanting to think about writing as a technology–and now I’m wondering if this research also prompts that lens.

  2. Thanks for this great summary and good questions, Allison. Like Kate, I was drawn to the idea of studying writing in place and as it circulates, as an “actant” (to borrow from one of the definitions that Ben gave us from the book). I think it certainly does prompt me to think of writing as a technology, albeit one that is a different technology in different mediums. The difference between graffiti in Chapter 2, and the Flickr chapter from Barton that LaToya wrote about, for instance, seems to make these differently technologized writings work as actants in different ways, with different circulations. I’m not sure what to do with it, but I too was really excited to see many of the chapters in this book treat writing in this agentive way.

    As for your methodology question, Allison, I couldn’t help but think about Royster’s Traces of a Stream, where she creates a three-section study (rhetorical, historical, and ideological) about 19th century African American women’s essay writing as literate sociopolitical action. She calls her method historical ethnography, thus combining the approaches in a novel way. I’d be interested in talking about that connection further.

    1. It’s interesting and important to think about writing as a technology and I certainly need more Latour and OOO in my life, but I get a little tripped up here when we’re trying to sort out processes from products. Barton, of course, it emphasizing the former over the latter — writing as activities and events — and what I appreciated about the example studies in the book is their methods for getting at those processes. I had to chuckle, for instance, when I read about how Thea, the research subject in chapter 4, tries to write an observation at a daycare center and is continually interrupted by children wanting to discuss their Transformers. She starts her note at 10:37 and doesn’t finish it until 10:50, interrupted no less than 8 times. Tusting uses fieldnotes to reconstruct this complex work environment for Thea. Through other methods — interviews with employees and managers, for instance — we can get see how a theory like fast capitalism is enacted in the workplace through writing. The daycare workers, for instance, complain that increasing pressures on them to write observations and track progress not only takes away from the childcare itself, but also affect their professional identities as providers. So although I’m sure that ANT and the object oriented stuff could complicate a product/process dichotomy, I think that the emphasis here on process was useful for illustrating some of the theories I’ve been reading lately. Thanks, Allison, for summarizing some of the goods here.

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