Heath, S.B.: Words at Work and Play: Three Decades in Family and Community Life

By LeBlanc, Robert J. | Canadian Journal of Education, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Heath, S.B.: Words at Work and Play: Three Decades in Family and Community Life


LeBlanc, Robert J., Canadian Journal of Education


Heath, S. B. Words at work and play: Three decades in family and community life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-521-60303-4 (paperback.). 221 pp.

Nearly 30 years after the publication of her landmark work, Ways with Words (1983), educational ethnographer Shirley Brice Heath returns to the lives of her original participants from the Piedmont Carolinas in her latest contribution, Words at Work and Play (2012) to uncover the impact of economic instability, changing family dynamics, social mobility, and geographic distribution on language practices. Her study-a multi-sited ethnography that spreads from Illinois, Texas, and the Carolinas--describes the literate lives of dozens of characters as they contend with the fall-out of the most recent economic recession and the challenges of evolving family structures in an age of dual-income households and massive geographic dispersal. Words at Work and Play demonstrates the great capacity of longitudinal ethnographic research--what Heath calls "being long in company" (p. 8)--and serves as an allegory for the tumultuous changes faced by ordinary people in the United States.

The bulk of the eight chapters portray a thickly textured account of the daily lives and literacy practices of individuals and families. Heath begins Chapter 1 with a comprehensive look back at the families of Ways with Words, and paints a picture of 1970's rural America for two communities, Trackton (African-American working class) and Roadville (White working class), in an age when the benefits of the civil rights movement were still emerging in the South and sustained conversation around the dinner table was ubiquitous. Chapter 2 outlines the genesis of her project--a chance meeting in Chicago between Heath and the lost child of one of her original participants' from the Piedmont Carolinas. This meeting and their subsequent friendship serves as the fulcrum of Heath's narrative, introducing the reader to the various themes of the research (notably the impact of families' vast geographic separation on language practices) and highlighting the necessity for community participation in this type of research; Heath soon has people of various ages conducting research in their own communities as a way to understand the changing dynamics of their lives. The chapters that follow attend to separate issues, centered on a particular family or community: geographic movement (Chapter 3), entering higher education (Chapter 5), dynamics of play in a technological world (Chapter 6), and changes in parental roles in an era of "proliferating choices" (Chapter 8). While language use is at the core of each of these chapters, language is always situated socially, and with a strong economic bent.

Of tantamount use to graduate students and emerging ethnographers are the two appendices: A: Ethnography as biography and autobiography and B: On methods of social history and ethnography. Both provide a valuable 'behind the scenes' look at the intricacies of ethnographic research, as well as the incorporation of autobiographical elements which detail the emergence and persistence of her research questions throughout the process. These chapters represent the book's great strength as tools for thinking through the production of ethnography and the centrality of personal intuition and partiality in systematic data-gathering and analyses. They also mark this book as generically different from her previous research and more reflective of the literary or post-modern turn in ethnographic research (Clifford & Marcus, 1986). However, Heath's research remains a firmly realist project, and while she catalogues her interactions with participants throughout the book, she does not concern herself with the sort of superfluous personal introspection that has plagued ethnography for the past generation (Zenker & Kumoll, 2010).

The primary contribution of Heath's original work, Ways with Words (1983), was the immense explanatory power it provided to literacy scholars and educators in order to demonstrate the culturally situated nature of literacy practices in and out of school. …

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