Purcell-Gates, Perry, and Briseño’s “Analyzing Literacy Practice: Grounded Theory to Model”

At the end of his book, Robert Stake characterizes the essence of qualitative research as innately limited to the specific:

“It has been important to learn that how the thing works in several small situations does not aggregate to solving a big-thing problem. Answers to macro problems call mostly for study of macro situations. Answers to micro problems call mostly for study of micro situations” (216).

However, for Purcell-Gates, Perry, and Briseño (“Analyzing Literacy Practice: Grounded Theory to Model”), aggregation of these small situations is the rub — perhaps not to solve a “big-thing problem” (such as illiteracy or social reproduction) but at least to perform replicable, cross-case analyses for “(a) the desire to reach for greater generalizability than that afforded by a single case and (b) to deepen understanding and explanation” (451, emphasis in original). The authors develop a theoretical and methodological model with the Cultural Practices of Literacy Study (CPLS), that collects specifically-coded ethnographic data from numerous sites, enters them into a database, for the purpose of more sophisticated theories of literacy that might lead to more effective pedagogies for “historically marginalized groups.”

Drawing from New Literacy Studies (NLS), the theoretical framework assumes that literate practices need to be “situated within social and cultural contexts and within relationships of power and ideology” (441). The researchers’ codes reflect this framework as they aim to document the context and the practice of the literacy events they observe. For example, they code a subject’s “social activity domain” based on the tokens of data observed (as folksomatic) in context (i.e. a person doing homework at a football game would be coded as SCH — schooling). Using genre theory as a guide, they code “text types” (e.g. novel) and “text forms” (e.g. book), the former nested within the latter.

Honestly, though, I found the examples of the coding scheme confusing. For social activity domain, they give the example of taxi driver reading the newspaper. Because he’s reading it while waiting in line for his fare turn, they coded it as Work. A paragraph later, however, they explain that they always “considered the nature of the activity, irrespective of where it occurred” when coding. Who’s to say the newspaper reading wasn’t serving some civic purpose (CIV) or communal one (COM)? Moreover, the authors locate social activity domain under literacy event codes, but then provide a figure on p. 450 that places “social activity” waaay outside the literacy event, rendering it unobservable according to NLS. My sense is that their coding scheme is an attempt to narrow the gap between literacy events — which are observable — and literacy practices — which are usually inferred, in order to more fully understand how literacy works in context of the subject (something that Theresa Lillis apparently attempts in our other reading this week). But despite reading this section multiple times, I’m just not sure.

The coding is obviously important as the authors aim to generalize from several ethnographic studies of various historically marginalized groups. The example research question given — “Does agency look different (is it instantiated differently) within different hegemonic contexts?” — leads to the conclusion that a more complex definition of hegemony (or more accurately hegemonies) is appropriate, given that resistance and appropriation of the historically marginalized are always situated. Although I didn’t think about this when I originally read the article, I now wonder about not only about the efficacy of such an aggregated approach, but also the ethics of it.

As Stake argues in the last chapter of Qualitative Research:

 “I am not confident we serve the people we research well. How accurately do we read their need, their aspiration, their constraint?  We are confident, sometimes overly confident, that the more we know about them, the better we tell their story. What is the evidence that the impoverished are empowered when we portray their impoverishment?” (202).

I suppose I wonder if this concern could be applied to macro qualitative research as well as micro? In exposing some of the hegemonies that historically marginalized groups have navigated, what is gained? The authors of argue that the third purpose of the CPLS is to design instruction that will “provide links between the literacy worlds of students and literacy instruction within formal educational contexts” (440), but how much of their research will actually support that goal? How much of it might actual objectify or homogenize “historically marginalized groups” under one rubric? I appreciated the sophistication of the CPLS and its goals (especially after discussing the potential and difficulty of the digital humanities last semester), but I did wonder if others had thoughts about both the possibility and the ethics of the database.