Handbook of Writing Research

By Charles A. MacArthur; Steve Graham et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
A Sociocultural Theory of Writing

Paul Prior

The history of Writing research and theory may be narrated in varied ways. Some reach back to the emergence of sophistic rhetoric among the ancient Greeks, whereas others point to the relatively recent development of focused research examining Writing through psychological and anthropological methodologies. Emig's (1971) case studies of the Writing processes of high school students, along with Britton, Burgess, Martin, McLeod, and Rosen's (1975) research on secondary students' (ages 11–18) Writing in U.K. schools (which shifted attention from normative issues of how people should write to descriptive questions, such as how to classify Writing), pointed a new generation of researchers to questions of Writing as a form of activity. Research on Writing processes in the United States initially settled on cognitive processing theory (I.e., Flower & Hayes, 1981); however, that paradigm was soon critiqued as too narrow in its understanding of context and was eclipsed by studies that attended to social, historical, and political contexts of Writing. Since then, empirical research on Writing has increasingly turned to sociocultural theories and methods emerging from psychology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and semiotics.

Since the 1970s, sociocultural studies of Writing have been quite heterogeneous, including anthropological studies of literate practices in typical (I.e., non-Western, nonindustrialized, or marginalized) anthropological sites (e.g., Besnier, 1995; Heath, 1983; Ochs, 1988; Scollon & Scollon, 1981); cross-cultural psychological studies of the cognitive consequences of literacy (e.g., Scribner & Cole, 1981); examination of Writing practices in scientific and other workplaces (e.g., Bazerman, 1988; Beaufort, 1999; Latour, 1999; Myers, 1990; Suchman, 2000; Swales, 1998); accounts of Writing in relation to electronic media in schools and workplaces (e.g., Geisler, 2003; Hawisher & Selfe, 1999; Heath & Luff, 2000; Nardi, 1995); tracing of Writing across home, community, and other settings (e.g., Brandt, 2001; Moll & Greenberg, 1990; SheridanRabideau, 2001; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988); and educational studies of Writing in classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school (e.g., Casanave, 2002; Dias, Freedman, Medway, & Pare, 1999; Dyson, 1997; Gutierrez, Rymes, & Larson, 1995; Larson, 1999; ivanic, 1998; Kamberelis, 2001; Lunsford, 2002; Michaels, 1987; Prior, 1998). Sociocultural theories represent the dominant paradigm for Writing research today. This chapter is not intended as a comprehensive review of the literature; instead, it introduces the complex, interdisciplinary territory of sociocultural theory, explores some specific studies that illustrate how that theory has reshaped our understanding of writing, and, finally, considers future directions and challenges for sociocultural research on Writing.

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