Literacy has been in the purview of anthropological inquiry since the late 19th century. In fact, while linguistics repudiated written language as derivative and secondary (Saussure), it has been anthropology that has chiefly contributed to the establishment of literacy as a domain worthy of investigation. Whether through historical analysis or ethnographic methods, anthropologists have consistently attempted to elucidate literacy’s effects on human cognition and societal organization. Early formulations conceptualized literacy as a technology and connected the acquisition of writing to a significant enhancement of cognitive capacities at the level of the individual and to the inception of democracy at a societal level. This view was subsequently criticized and, in the 1980s, replaced with a socioculturally situated perspective which theorized literacy as a cultural practice expressed in manifold cultural activities and at the same time shaped by political, economic, and ideological conditions. Attempting to overcome both technological determinism and cultural relativism, theoretical formulations of the last few decades have advanced a techno-cultural articulation and an expansion toward multimodality. As theories of literacy have come to affirm plurality, complicating linear trajectories and teleological narratives underpinning alphabetic ascendancy, literacy education has turned into a more complex and controversial focus of inquiry. On the one hand, literacy researchers have taken to examining a wide range of contexts beyond schools, thus displacing schooled literacy from center stage. On the other hand, they have acknowledged that schooled literacy continues to have a very powerful function in society. Scholarship at the intersections of literacy and disability and of literacy and race illuminates the functioning of schooled literacy as a mechanism for the maintenance and reproduction of a social order predicated on racial hierarchies and ableism. The methodological toolkit of cultural and linguistic anthropologists equips them well to achieve rich documentation of literacy practices on the ground and to shed light on the political and economic forces that shape textual activities locally and globally. In advancing the literacy research program, anthropologists can be instrumental in deepening our understanding of literacy as a transnational phenomenon and as an international enterprise. Building on the important work that has brought to light the ways certain conceptualizations and implementations of literacy align with systems of oppression and inequity, anthropologists are also well positioned to advocate refashioning and repositioning literacy as an instrument and objective of social justice and community empowerment.
Laura Sterponi and Jenny Zhang
Timothy de Waal Malefyt
The word “magic” refers to a broad range of beliefs and practices that include animism, charm(s), divination, enchantment, fantasy, fetish, glamour, illusion, miracles, the occult, shamanism, sorcery, spells, the supernatural, superstition, taboos, trickery, and witchcraft. Magic―once thought a core feature of “primitive societies,” abandoned by more rational, bureaucratic and progressive beliefs―is, in fact, thriving in contemporary life, and central to practices of capitalism as well as to everyday behaviors. Magic is practiced in fields of finance, government, law, medicine and health, technology, advertising, marketing, sports, the gaming industry, and theatrical performances, among other institutions. When situations allow for the assemblage of a “magician,” “rite,” and “representation” within these complex social networks and when professional skills, ideas, conditions, contexts, media, and meanings align, magic acts as an agent of change. Magic is also practiced in everyday situations in which people need to feel a sense of control in circumstances where it’s lacking, such as performing well under competitive conditions or during times of crisis with indefinite outcomes. Consequently, they rely on magical thinking—in the forms of superstitions, wishful thinking, and taboo avoidance—which is often accompanied by charms, amulets, or acts of faith to guide them through uncertainty. Conjuring terms such as “fate” and “luck” to ward off illness or improve one’s chances at getting a hit in baseball, are, in fact, ways of expressing ambiguities and dealing with conflicts of temporal existence that all humans face in one form or another. Magic structured in institutions and practiced in everyday situations is a prime example of contradiction in contemporary life. Objective knowledge of facts is increasingly understood as contingent rather than permanent, leaving room for uncertainty, mystery, the unknown, and seemingly nonrational alternatives. Scientific evidence becomes as valid as alternative facts. Documenting recent developments, it is suggested that rationality and magic are not mutually exclusive. Rather, rational behaviors and practices are suffused with magic. Magical beliefs and specific rituals complement practical knowledge so as to enhance knowledge as a way to secure success. All of these ways of thinking and social practices have something at stake, in that risk, uncertainty, and ambiguity of outcome are prevalent, and hence call on magical practices to bring about change.