Microliteracy and the Discourse of Canadian Multiculturalism

By Reid, Cameron; Nash, Rachel | Ethnologies, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Microliteracy and the Discourse of Canadian Multiculturalism


Reid, Cameron, Nash, Rachel, Ethnologies


Cet article souligne la proliferation chaotique des << microlitteraties >> multiculturelles au cours des decennies depuis que le gouvernement canadien a, le premier, porte le concept du multiculturalisme sur la scene nationale depuis le milieu des annees 1960. Les auteurs definissent la litteratie multiculturelle en termes d'orientations definies et soutenues vis-a-vis du discours multiculturel --orientations qui se manifestent par le biais de pratiques textuelles et sociales recurrentes. Durant les annees precedent 1988 et la promulgation officielle du multiculturalisme au Canada, le discours s'est prete a des ajouts naifs et tres optimistes au cours d'une phase de developpement de la litteratie que cet essai decrit comme une protolitteratie. Les efforts subsequents faits par le gouvernement canadien pour reduire ce discours au silence, alors meme qu'il integrait le multiculturalisme a sa politique officielle, ont fraye le chemin dans ce pays a une multiplication des litteraties multiculturelles, une post-litteratie qui a, durant ce processus, severement fragmente et mine le discours.

This article outlines the chaotic proliferation of multicultural microliteracies over the decades since the Canadian government first brought the concept of multiculturalism to the national stage in the mid-1960s. The authors define multicultural literacy in terms of patterned and sustained orientations to multiculturalism discourse--orientations that manifest themselves by way of recurrent social and textual practices. In the years prior to 1988 and the official enactment of multiculturalism in Canada, the discourse lent itself to naive and largely optimistic renderings in a phase of literacy development described in the essay as protoliteracy. Subsequent efforts by the Canadian government to mute the discourse, even as it made multiculturalism into official policy, cleared the way for a post-literate multiplication of multicultural literacies in this country, which severely fragmented and undermined the discourse in the process.

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Over the last two decades, new lines of critical inquiry have reshaped the landscape of literacy studies and have steered the question of literacy toward numerous fields that include (but are not limited to) ethnology, sociolinguistics, feminism, pedagogy, systems theory, discourse analysis, social semiotics, and post-structuralism. Research consolidated under such banners as The New Literacy Studies (NLS), (1) Multiliteracies research, and The New London Group now ask "what counts as literacy?" (Gallego and Hollingsworth 2000: 8); how do literacies interact and collide with one another? (Gee 1996; Wilson 2000); how do literacies engender social identity? (Hull and Schultz 2002). Moreover, those swayed by the "social turn" (Gee 2000: 180) in literacy studies query the links between literacy and a diverse body of hot-button social issues that include ideology, power, gender, discourse, cultural context, and historical contingency. The critical turn in literacy research has also severed the ties between traditional approaches to the topic beholden to a capital L, autonomous model (Street 1984, 1995) Literacy, that is, literacy as the capacity to read and write, literacy as an acquired competence (e.g. Goody and Watt 1968; Goody 1977; Vytgotsky 1978) and approaches to the topic that presuppose a plurality of socially situated literacies (e.g. Gee 1996; Barton, Hamilton and Ivanic 2000; Gallego and Hollingsworth 2000; Hull and Schultz 2002).

In light of current trends in literacy research, past critical agendas such as standardised testing and the socioeconomic impact of literacy/ illiteracy appear deferential to elite sociopolitical institutions and values. In certain quarters, therefore, the focus has turned to the tripartite relationship between literacy, discourse, and social practice, a relationship central to the issues under investigation in this paper.

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