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Literacy not just a skill: a critical lens and tool to expose and challenge symbolic violence and poverty

Vicky Duckworth

In the last two decades there has been an attention on literacy, principally among countries participating in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (Grek, 2010; Hamilton, 2014).  The OECD’s 2013 report makes clear that the implement for measuring literacy levels across countries is the specifically designed OECD programme for the international assessment of adult competencies (PIAAC).  Policy discourses, which arise from the placing of literacy where it is valued almost exclusively in economistic terms, position literacy as the base for employability and central to the economic competitiveness of industry and nations (Sellar & Lingard, 2013). Literacy being positioned in terms of human capital, expressed for example as ‘functional’ skills that enable individuals, as well as countries, to become more productive and competitive in the labour market based on the  premise of a ‘knowledge economy’ (Ade-Ojo & Duckworth, 2015). Within this reductive stance one of the most significant duties given to education is to provide a flexible, adaptable and skilled workforce to make countries competitive in the globalised economy. It focuses on education for work positions, education as a commodity, and pays no regard to issues of economic, political and social equality.

Low levels of literacy and living in poverty create a mutually reinforcing cycle that is difficult to rupture

Class still matters and literacy I would argue is a central characteristic of social class. Literacy has historically been side-lined in sociological analysis and needs to be placed central to the debates on class analysis.  Literacy is not neutral; it is a tool of social power.  Policies designed to improve literacy need to be tightly bound to challenging poverty. By addressing low literacy in national policy, the UK and beyond has the potential to more fully engage with the causes of inter-generational cycles of poverty and to improve the experience of poverty over people’s life.  Low levels of literacy and living in poverty create a mutually reinforcing cycle that is difficult to rupture, which was exposed in my ethnographic study of sixteen adult basic skills learners living in the North West of England (Duckworth, 2013, 14). I drew on  Bourdieu’s theoretical tools and the link between literacy, identity, and agency, Through this theorization, I explored the restraining and conforming factors they faced in the public and private domains they inhabited, together with exposing critical spaces for resistance and empowerment in the struggle to transform habitus, despite neo-liberalism claims of an apparently egalitarian social field.

The politics of literacy and its link to learner identity was uncovered from the standpoint of how the adult learners’ everyday lives have been shaped by the lack of and development of literacies.  It provided a framework to explore literacy as a cultural capital and literacy education as a site of production and reproduction of power positions, where certain literacy practices are considered more legitimate than others. Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital was vital in exposing the transmission of wealth and power and incorporating ideas about how those in a position of power, who Puwar (2004) describes as ‘insiders’, reproduce and maintain their domination. The study recognised and understood the learners’ narratives against the backdrop of wider socio/economic/political and historical contexts, illuminating the objective and subjective dimensions of their identities and how they inform, rupture and transform the habitus in relation to the changing interplay between classed and gendered processes over their life-course.  

Using literacy as a critical lens is a meaningful and powerful tool to expose and challenge poverty, and work towards social justice (Duckworth, 2013, 14; Ade-Ojo and Duckworth, 2015).



Ade-Ojo, G. & Duckworth, V.  (2015). Adult Literacy Policy and Practice: From Intrinsic Values to Instrumentalism. Palgrave Macmillan Pivotal: London.

Duckworth, V. (2013). Learning Trajectories, Violence and Empowerment amongst Adult Basic Skills Learners.  Routledge Research in Education: London.

Duckworth, V. (2014). Literacy and Transformation, in Duckworth, V. & G. Ade-Ojo (Eds.) Landscapes of Specific Literacies in Contemporary Society: Exploring a social model of literacy. Routledge Research in Education: London.

Grek, S. (2010). International organisations and the shared construction of policy ‘problems’: Problematisation and change in education governance in Europe. European Educational Research Journal, 9 (3), 396-406.

Hamilton, M. (2014). Survey Literacies. In V. Duckworth & G. Ade-Ojo (Eds.), Landscapes of specific literacies in contemporary society: Exploring a social model of literacy (pp. 47-60). Routledge Research in Education: London.

Puwar, N. (2004). Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies out of Place.  Berg: Oxford.

Sellar, S., & Lingard, B. (2013). PISA and the Expanding Role of the OECD in Global Educational Governance. In H.-D. Meyer, & A. Benavot (Eds.), PISA, power and policy: The emergence of global educational governance (pp. 185-206). Oxford: Symposium.