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  Literacy/orality (Latin littera, ‘letter’; os, ‘mouth’) is a theoretical opposition that compares the conceptions and practices of literate and preliterate societies. Literacy refers to the social practice of reading and writing while orality describes the transmission of knowledge through stylized or artistic speech, for example in poetry, proverbs, folk tales, myths and legends.

In anthropology, the main use of the opposition has been in the consideration of the effects of introducing writing into preliterate communities. In his works since 1976, Jack Goody elaborated on how literacy acts as an agent of social changes. He considered literacy as the major difference between ‘primitive’ and ‘advanced’ societies. Working from the premise that written texts enable the storage of knowledge allowing wider interpretations, innovations and effective administration, Goody identified the defining features of a literate society. These were the development of logic, scientific thought, and specialized educational institutions, the distinction of myth from a historical consciousness, the standardization of cultural crafts and techniques, and the elaboration of bureaucracy and democratic political processes.

Critics of Goody\'s theories have pointed out that he fails to take account of various types of literacy, for instance the comparisons between forms of literacy present in state or religious institutions. Brian Street called it an ‘autonomous model’ of literacy in which literacy development, associated with progress, civilization and freedom, is assumed to occur in a single direction. He also pointed out that the differences between literate and preliterate societies are overstated in such ‘great divide’ theories on literacy. It appears to be another version of the French philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl\'s controversial distinction between ‘pre-logical’ and ‘logical’ societies.

Some anthropologists who have analysed oral traditions in societies argue for a fundamental and psychological continuity between literacy and orality. Amongst the Wana people of Indonesia, for example, oral traditions reveal various genres of text and interpretations, a feature that Goody mistakenly thought characterized literate societies. Similarly, the Hindu Brahmanical tradition privileges the power of the memorized word over written texts. Therefore, the idea of literacy as the master concept that determines the conditions for ‘civilization’ is very misleading. The question to address is what people do with elements of literacy and orality, not how they automatically affect people. Additionally, ideas related to concepts of literacy and orality are not exclusive, but are often interwoven. Politicians, barristers and priests, for example, even in a modern, literate society, depend a great deal on the memorized and spoken word for their position of authority. RK

See also ethnohistory; language; rationality.Further reading Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind; , David R. Olsen and , Nancy Torrance (eds.), Literacy and Orality; , Joanne Overing (ed.), Reason and Morality; , Brian V. Street, Literacy in Theory and Practice.



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