‘We Are No More’: Objects From Previous Lives

I recently came across an interesting photo exhibition on the news, and though that some of you might find it interesting from a literacy aspect. Unfortunately, the exhibition is in Montreal so I won’t be able to attend it in person, but I have read a few articles about it (both in French and in English).

The French photographer Valerian Mazataud visited three Syrian refugee camps in Jordan in autumn 2012. Rather than focusing on disembodied information ― statistics, numbers of victims, bombings, etc. ― Mazataud wanted to bring the humans to the foreground in this photo exhibition called ‘We Are No More’. On his website he explains:

‘At the beginning of the project was a simple question. “What did you keep from your previous life?” Sometimes it was an object, sometimes a memory, other times a simple gesture. A flag, a wristband, a diary, two necklaces… What would you bring with you if your home was bombed or looted by soldiers? What would you gather if you had to flee through the night and walk for days to a refugee camp?’ (FocusZero)

Many literacy artefacts were amongst the objects the refugees showed to Mazataud: sketchbooks, a necklace with “love” written on it, a mobile phone, the Quran, a death certificate, etc. (see pictures here).

I find this photo exhibition very touching. I also found it very fascinating from an academic point of view because it underlines the importance of literacy artifacts in people’s lives (particularly in difficult and extreme situations). It reminded me of the work of Kate Pahl and Jennifer Rowsell on artifactual literacy (particularly Pahl, 2004). What do you think about it?



Vicky Duckworth’s book launch

On the 18th of February, Vicky Duckworth, senior lecturer in Post Compulsory Education and Training at Edge Hill University, launched her book called Learning Trajectories, Violence and Empowerment amongst Adult Basic Skills Learners at the Literacy Research Discussion Group. I had the chance to read Vicky’s book and have been asked to comment on it along with Mary Hamilton and Murray Saunders. In this blog post I will share with you a few reflections I made on Vicky’s book at the LRDG meeting.

In this book, Vicky explores the experience of 16 adult basic skills learners across different spheres of their lives (school, work, home, etc.). She particularly describes their experiences of violence and trauma across these fields. She conducted the study in Oldham, a large town in the North-West of England. Vicky offers an interesting portrait of the history and the physical characteristics of the town, weaving around it the participants’ narratives and also her own. Vicky’s theoretical framework includes Freire’s critical pedagogy, feminist approaches, the New Literacy studies, the notions of social class and gender, and Bourdieu’s work on habitus and symbolic violence.

I was interested in understanding how she uses such a complex and diversified theoretical framework. I was particularly curious about how she would articulate Bourdieu’s habitus with questions of social change. Vicky challenges the issue of determinism often associated with Bourdieu’s work (p. 36). She mentions the limits of the concept of habitus and suggests a more flexible way of using it. Vicky adopts a creative approach towards Bourdieu’s theory. She suggests new concepts such as ‘street capital’ or ‘muscle capital’ to reflect how her participants subvert negative labels in order to acquire more respectability in their community (p. 46). Central to Vicky’s work is Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic violence. For instance, she describes how clothes and physical appearance can be triggers to both psychological and physical violence at school.

At the time Vicky conducted her study, she was teaching literacy to adult learners, some of whom were also her research participants. Vicky used Participatory Action Research as her methodology and her study also aimed at improving her own practices as a literacy teacher. Vicky’s book offers a good example to early career researchers on how to cope with different roles during fieldwork. Reflexivity is central to Vicky’s work. She describes in a very transparent way how she situates herself towards her participants and how her relationships evolve with them. Vicky emphasises the adult learners’ experiences and give their voices a central place, but her  presence is also important throughout the book. After each chapter, she includes her own personal reflections on the findings, which were particularly relevant, considering the sensitive topics addressed in her study; this contributes to the richness of the study.

While reading Vicky’s book, I thought that the concept of symbolic violence would be particularly relevant to studying literacies in educational settings. Does anyone know about studies using this concept in literacy studies? What about habitus, do you think it is compatible with literacy studies? However, Vicky’s book also reminded me of Bernard Lahire’s work, a French sociologist who looked at people coming from working-class backgrounds who succeeded in school. In this study (Family portraits) he was interested in the exceptions, therefore challenging Bourdieu’s theory. Would that be another interesting avenue ― paying more attention to exceptionalities ― in literacy studies?

Virginie Thériault
PhD student
Department of Linguistics and English Language
Lancaster University