This article is the first in a series based on work that appears in the Handbook of Reading Research: Volume III (Kamil, Mosenthal, Pearson, & Barr, 2000). In the coming months, Reading Online will feature chapter summaries from the handbook, written by the chapter authors.

Discourse and Sociocultural Studies in Reading

James Paul Gee


Overview

This article seeks to develop an integrated perspective on language, literacy, and the human mind, a perspective that holds important implications for the nature of reading, both cognitively and socioculturally. I start with a brief discussion of the converging areas of study that constitute the background for discourse-based and sociocultural studies of language and literacy. Then, I turn to a particular view of the mind as social, cultural, and embedded in the world. This view of mind implies that meaning is always situated in specific sociocultural practices and experiences.

 

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Converging Areas | The Social Mind | Situated Meanings in Reading | Cultural Models | Who and What | Implications | References



Converging Areas

One of the most important recent developments in the study of language and literacy is the way in which a variety of formerly discrete areas are beginning to converge around some central themes. These themes tend to undermine longstanding dichotomies in reading research: for example, dichotomies between cognition and context, skills and meaning, formal structures and communicational functions, and the individual and the social. Some of the converging areas I have in mind, beyond current work in reading research itself (for overviews on reading theory and practice, see, e.g., Adams, 1990), are

This work has tended to stress the ways in which social and institutional order are produced through the moment-by-moment intricacies of social and verbal interaction. It treats human thinking not as private, but as mediated by “cultural tools” -- that is, by artifacts, symbols, technologies, and forms of language that have been historically and culturally shaped to carry out certain functions and that carry certain meanings. Knowledge and intelligence are seen as distributed across the social practices (including language practices) and the various tools, technologies, and semiotic systems that a given “community of practice” uses in order to carry out its characteristic activities.

Finally, this work has stressed the workings of “discourses” in terms of power and desire. Discourses are characteristic (socially and culturally formed, but historically changing) ways of talking and writing about, as well as acting with and toward, people and things. These ways are circulated and sustained within various texts, artifacts, images, social practices, and institutions, as well as in moment-to-moment social interactions. In turn, they cause certain perspectives and states of affairs to come to seem or be taken as “normal” or “natural” and others to seem or be taken as “deviant” or “marginal” (e.g., what counts as a “normal” prisoner, hospital patient, or student, or a “normal” prison, hospital, or school, at a given time and place).

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The Social Mind

There are two ways in which the mind is social. Both have important consequences for reading research and practice. The first way is rooted in the nature of the mind itself. When confronted with data (experience), the human mind is not so much a rule follower as a powerful pattern recognizer (Clark, 1993, 1997; Gee, 1992). However, given that the world is full of potentially meaningful patterns and the human mind is adept at finding patterns, something must guide the learner in selecting which patterns to focus on (Elman, 1993; Gee, 1994). This “guiding something” is the site at which the role of the teacher and “more expert peers,” as well as of the curriculum itself, is being redefined in many contemporary reform-based pedagogies.

The second way in which the mind is social is that human thinking is often distributed across other people and various symbols, tools, objects, and technologies. In navigating a large ship, for example, each sailor's cognition is attached to the knowledge of others (who have different sorts of interlocking expertise) and to the “cognition” built into charts, instruments, and technologies. Knowledge is distributed throughout the “system” (Hutchins, 1995). Such a distributed view of knowledge is at the base of current reform-based classroom learning communities (Brown & Campione, 1994; Brown, Collins, & Dugid, 1989).

To say that the mind is a “pattern recognizer” is to say first and foremost that it operates primarily with (flexibly transformable) patterns extracted from experience, not with highly general or decontextualized rules (Churchland, 1995; Margolis, 1987). It is crucial to note, however, that the patterns most important to human thinking and action follow a sort of “Goldilocks principle”: they are not too general and not too specific; they are midlevel generalizations between these two extremes (Barsalou, 1992).

Think about recognizing faces. If you see your friend when she is sick as a different person than when she is well, your knowledge is too specific. If, on the other hand, you see all your female friends as the same, your knowledge is too general. The level at which knowledge is most useful for practice is the level at which you see your friend's many appearances as one person, different from other people like her. So, too, there is little you can do in physics if you can only recognize specific refraction patterns: your knowledge is too specific. There is, also, little you can effectively accomplish, beyond passing school tests, if all you can do is recite the general theory of electromagnetism: your knowledge is too general.

Really effective knowledge, then, is being able to recognize, work on, transform, and talk about midlevel generalizations such as, to continue the physics example, light as a bundle of light waves of different wave lengths combinable in certain specific ways, or light as particles (photons) with various special properties in specific circumstances, or light as a beam that can be directed in specific ways for various specific purposes (e.g., lasers), or light as colors that mix in certain specific ways with certain specific results. Note the mix of the general and the specific in these patterns.

And it is not just in technical areas like physics that midlevel generalizations are crucial. In everyday life they are the basis of thinking for practice. For example, the word (concept) coffee is primarily meaningful as a set of midlevel generalizations that simultaneously define and are triggered by experience: the dark liquid in a certain type of cup; beans in a certain type of bag; grains in a certain sort of tin; berries on a certain type of tree; flavoring in certain types of food (Clark, 1989).

Let me call such midlevel generalizations “situated meanings” (later I will call them “world-building situated meanings” to distinguish them from other sorts of situated meanings, because they are concerned with content). What I have said so far about situated meanings can, however, be misleading. Situated meanings are not static, and they are not definitions. Rather, they are flexibly transformable patterns that come out of experience and, in turn, construct experience as meaningful in certain ways and not others. They are always, in fact, adapted (contextualized) to experience in practice (activity).

To see the dynamic nature of situated meanings, imagine the situated meaning (midlevel generalization) you have for a bedroom (Rumelhart, McClelland, & the PDP Research Group, 1986). You conjure up an image that connects various objects and features in a typical bedroom, relative, of course, to your sociocultural experience of bedrooms and homes. Now I tell you to imagine that the bedroom has a refrigerator in it. At once you transform your situated meaning for a bedroom, keeping parts of it, deleting parts of it, and adding, perhaps, things like a desk and a college student. The moral is this: thinking and using language is an active matter of assembling the situated meanings that you need for action in the world. This assembly is always relative to your socioculturally defined experiences in the world and, more or less, is routinized (“normed”) by the sociocultural groups to which you belong and with which you share practices.

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Situated Meanings in Reading

The idea of situated meanings is highly consequential when applied, not just to social practices generally, but to the specific social practices in which written texts play a major role. Let me give two examples. The first is relevant to the current widespread controversy over genre in theory and pedagogical practice (Cope & Kalantzis, 1993).

The names of genres -- just like the word light -- have a spurious generality. We do not operate (effectively) at the (overly) general level of “report,” “explanation,” “argument,” “essay,” “narrative,” and so forth. Rather, we operate at the next level down, so to speak (a level at which we have no simple labels). For example, in certain academic fields, things like “an essay review,” “a theoretical piece,” “a research-based journal article,” “an overview of the literature” (“a review article”) are the situated meanings of genre labels. The “real” genres we work with exist between overly general labels like “article” or “essay” and specific concrete instances of writing. Furthermore, genres, as situated meanings, must be flexibly fit to and transformed by the actual contexts in which they are used (remember the bedroom example above).

The same is true of the writing and reading that children do at all levels of schooling. Children (like all writers and readers) operate at the next level down from things like “narrative” in general or “reports” in general. They need to operate with midlevel instances of types of narratives (or reports) for types of contexts for types of purposes, whether these have “official” labels or not. They need to be exposed to multiple examples of these, examples that display the sorts of variations that occur even within a “type” for the purposes of best fit to context and purpose. Children need, as well, overt guidance to focus on the features of language and context that help them recognize and produce the “right” situated meanings (midlevel patterns) -- that is, those shared by the community of practice to which they are being “apprenticed.”

My second example comes from a study by Lowry Hemphill (1992) that investigated how high school students from different socioeconomic backgrounds read various canonical works of literature. In the case I will consider here, the students were reading Robert Frost's poem “Acquainted with the Night.” One girl, whom I will call Maria, responded to the line “I have passed by the watchman on his beat” as follows:

I think he's trying to say that though he [has] like seen the sadder situations. And the watchman meaning I would think a cop was on his daily routine. The watchman still couldn't stop the situation that was happening. Which was probably something bad. Or you know dishonest. But he still was able to see what was going on.

And then to the line “And dropped my eyes unwillingly to explain”:

Oh well this line's making me think that well the watchman caught him. And he was ashamed of what he was doing. And he didn't want to explain his reasons for his own actions to the watchman. Cause he was so ashamed.

Another girl, whom I will call Mary, responded to her reading of the poem in an essay, as follows (I cite only parts of the essay):

Figuratively, Frost is describing his life....

In the third stanza, he says “I have stood still...” Maybe he has stopped during his walk of life and heard people with different paths or lives calling him but he later finds they were not calling him after all.

There is a slight undertone of death in the last two or three lines. The clock symbolizing the time he has left. The clock telling him that he can't die yet however much he may want to.

...the reader, if he looks closely can see past the words on the paper and into Robert Frost's soul.

In reading, we recognize situated meanings (midlevel patterns) that lie between the literal specifics of the text and general themes that organize the text as a whole. These situated meanings actually mediate between these two levels. In the Frost poem, Maria uses (recognizes) situated meanings like “Something bad is happening and an authority figure can't stop it,” “One avoids authority figures if and when one has done something bad,” and “An authority figure catches one doing something bad and one is ashamed.” Mary uses (recognizes) situated meanings like “Choosing among different paths through a landscape is like making different decisions in one's life” or “Time passing as shown by things like clocks is like the passing of time in a life as one ages.”

Maria and Mary have seen different patterns in Frost's poem in terms of which they situate its meanings. We will see below, too, that the girls are reading out of different theories of reading and different theories of literature. These theories are constructed out of the different sorts of situated meanings the girls find and, in turn, these theories lead them to find these situated meanings in the text.

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Cultural Models

Confronted with situated meanings, it is natural to ask why words (concepts) like light or coffee seem to us, in fact, to have much more general meanings. Part of the answer is simply the fact that a single word exists, and this misleads us to think that a single, general meaning exists. But another and more important part of the answer is that words are tied to cultural models, story lines, or theories that belong to socioculturally defined groups of people (Holland & Quinn, 1987; Strauss & Quinn, 1998). These cultural models, story lines, or theories “explain” (relative to the standards of the sociocultural group) why the features in the midlevel patterns hang together in the way they do (Gee, 1994). Furthermore, these cultural models, story lines, or theories are usually not stored in any one person's head, but are distributed across the different sorts of expertise and viewpoints found in the sociocultural group (Shore, 1996).

The story line connected to coffee for some of us is something like this: Berries are picked and then prepared as beans or grain to be made later into a drink, as well as into flavorings for other foods. Different types of coffee, drunk in different ways, have different social and cultural implications -- for example, in terms of status. This is about all of the story line I know -- the rest of it (I trust) is distributed elsewhere in the society should I need it. The story line for light in physics is a formal theory, a theory distributed across physicists of different sorts, as well as across written texts and instruments (and it is quite different from the “cultural model” of light that many people use in their everyday lives).

Cultural models, story lines, and theories organize the thinking and work of sociocultural groups (or communities of practice). They rationalize the situated meanings and practices that people in those groups use. They are part (but only part) of what defines the group in the first place.

Consider Maria and Mary again. They operate with different cultural models (theories) of what it is to read Frost's text, models tied to the allegiances they have (or are forming) to specific communities of practice. Maria appears to operate with a cultural model of reading (at least in this situation) that finds significance in relating the words of the text to situated meanings (patterns) that she finds in her everyday life, keeping in mind that what counts as “everyday life” differs for different sociocultural groups of people. In her world, if people are out late at night and avoid contact with authority figures, they are, in all likelihood, in trouble. Her cultural model of reading seems also to stress social contacts and relationships between people. Maria reads from her own experience to the words and back again to her social experience.

Mary appears to operate with a cultural model of reading (in this situation) that finds significance in treating concrete details and actions as correlates for more universal emotions and themes. Patterns in the world (e.g., paths through landscapes, clocks telling time) are correlated with emotions or themes. Mary's theory of reading, of course, was quite explicitly delineated by people like T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, among other canonical (Anglo) modernists. Hemphill (1992) found that students like Maria fared less well than students like Mary in English classes -- though, in fact, both ways of reading (one out of narrative schemata and the other out of figurative schemata) have been celebrated in the reading literature.

The pedagogical bite of all this discussion about situated meanings and cultural models is this: any efficacious pedagogy must be a judicious mixture of immersion in a community of practice (Lave, 1996) and overt focusing and scaffolding from “masters” or “more advanced peers” (Vygotsky, 1987) who focus learners on the most fruitful sorts of patterns in their experience (fruitful for developing the cultural models that are used by the community of practice to which the learner is being apprenticed). Just what constitutes a “judicious mixture,” in different settings, is a cutting-edge topic for research (Cazden, 1992).

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Who and What: Further Situated Meanings

So far I have argued that language is given meaning-in-use through its association with situated meanings, cultural models, and the sociocultural groups that socialize learners into these. But there are two other sorts of situated meanings that language always involves just as much as the “world-building” (content-oriented) ones we have discussed thus far.

In addition to world-building situated meanings (content), any utterance communicates what I will call a who and a what (Wieder & Pratt, 1990). What I mean by a who is a socially situated place (position) from which the utterance is “authorized” and issued (and these are not always the same). What I mean by a what is a socially situated activity or practice that the utterance helps (with other nonlanguage “stuff”) to constitute.

Let me give a specific example. Biologists and other scientists write differently in professional journals than they do in popular science magazines, and these different ways of writing construct different worlds, accomplish different activities (social practices), and display different identities. And it is in understanding these that we come to understand the texts. Consider, then, the two extracts below, the first from a professional journal and the second from a popular science magazine, both written by the same biologist on the same topic (examples from Myers, 1990, p. 150):

Experiments show that Heliconius butterflies are less likely to oviposit on host plants that possess eggs or egg-like structures. These egg-mimics are an unambiguous example of a plant trait evolved in response to a host-restricted group of insect herbivores [professional journal].

Heliconius butterflies lay their eggs on Passiflora vines. In defense the vines seem to have evolved fake eggs that make it look to the butterflies as if eggs have already been laid on them [popular science press].

The first extract, from a professional scientific journal, is about the conceptual structure of a specific theory within the scientific discipline of biology. The subject of the initial sentence is experiments, a methodological tool in natural science. The subject of the next sentence is these egg-mimics: note how plant parts are named, not in terms of the plant itself, but in terms of the role they play in a particular theory of natural selection and evolution -- namely coevolution of predator and prey. Note also, in this regard, the earlier “host plants” in the preceding sentence, rather than the “vines” of the popular passage.

In the second sentence, the butterflies are referred to as “a host-restricted group of insect herbivores,” which points simultaneously to an aspect of scientific methodology (like “experiments” did) and to the logic of a theory (like “egg-mimics” did). Any scientist arguing for the theory of coevolution faces the difficulty of demonstrating a causal connection between a particular plant characteristic and a particular predator, since most plants have many different sorts of animals attacking them. A central methodological technique to overcome this problem is to study plant groups (like Passiflora vines) that are preyed on by only one or a few predators (in this case, Heliconius butterflies). “Host-restricted group of insect herbivores” then refers to both the relationship between plant and insect that is at the heart of the theory of coevolution and to the methodological technique of picking plants and insects that are restricted to each other so as to control for other sorts of interactions.

The first passage is concerned with scientific methodology and a particular theoretical perspective on evolution. On the other hand, the second extract, from a popular science magazine, is not about methodology and theory, but about animals in nature. The butterflies are the subject of the first sentence and the vine is the subject of the second. Further, the butterflies and the vine are labeled as such, not in terms of their role in a particular theory.

The second passage is a story about the struggles of insects and plants that are transparently open to the trained gaze of the scientist. Further, the plant and insect become intentional actors in the drama: the plants act in their own defense, and things look a certain way to the insects; they are deceived by appearances as humans sometimes are.

This example tells us two things: first, texts (and language generally) are always connected to different worlds (here “nature as laboratory” versus “nature as open to the gaze”), different whos (here the experimenter/theoretician versus the careful observer of nature), and different whats (the professional contribution to science and the popularization of it). Second, such worlds (content), whos, and whats are licensed by specific socially and historically shaped practices representing the values and interests of distinctive groups of people. To be able to read (and to write) such worlds, whos, and whats requires one to understand such practices with their concomitant values and interests. If we can use the term politics to mean any place where social interests and social goods are at stake, then all reading (and writing) is political in a quite straightforward sense (Fairclough, 1995; Gee, 1996).

In texts (and, indeed, in all social activity) particular patterns of world building, whos, and whats become recognizable as betokening a particular sociocultural group or community of practice. People (as speakers/listeners and as writers/readers) coordinate their words, deeds, values, and feelings with those of other people, as well as with the affordances of various spaces, objects, symbols, tools, and technologies to create a kind of socioculturally meaningful “dance” (Latour, 1991). A particular coordination becomes the dance of certain types of (but not all) biologists or gang members or “greens” or elementary school students or students of history or teachers or Native Americans or executives or lawyers, and so on and so forth through a nearly endless list.

I have elsewhere called these socioculturally meaningful dances (recognizable coordinations of people, places, objects, tools, technologies, and ways of speaking, listening, writing, reading, feeling, valuing, believing, etc.) “Discourses” with a capital D (“discourse” with a lowercase d just stands for language in use) (Gee, 1992, 1996). In terms of our example above, thanks to the workings of history, popular science is a somewhat different dance (though with some, but not all, of the same people, places, and tools) than “professional” science.

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Implications

A Discourse-based, situated, and sociocultural view of literacy demands that we see reading (and writing and speaking) as not one thing, but many: many different socioculturally situated reading (writing, speaking) practices. It demands that we see meaning in the world and in texts as situated in learners' experiences -- experiences which, if they are to be useful, must give rise to midlevel situated meanings through which learners can recognize and act on the world in specific ways. At the same time, these experiences must be normed and scaffolded by masters and more advanced peers within a Discourse, and such norming and scaffolding must lead apprentices to build the “right” sorts of situated meanings based on shared experiences and shared cultural models. Minus the presence of masters of the Discourse, such norming and scaffolding is impossible. Such “sharing” is always, of course, ripe with ideological and power effects, and it leads us always to ask of any school-based Discourse, “In what sense is this Discourse 'authentic' -- that is, how and where does it relate to Discourses outside school (e.g., science, work, communities)?” In the end, “to read” is to be able to actively assemble situated meanings in one or more specific “literate” Discourses. There is no reading in general -- at least none that leads to thought and action in the world.

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About the Author

image of James Paul Gee    

James Paul Gee received his Ph.D. in linguistics from Stanford University, California, USA. He is currently the Tashia Morgridge Professor of Reading in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (Teacher Education Building, Madison, WI 53706, USA; e-mail jgee@education.wisc.edu). He has published widely in journals in linguistics, psychology, the social sciences, and education. His books include Sociolinguistics and Literacies (1990; 2nd ed., 1996), The Social Mind (1992), Introduction to Human Language (1993), The New Work Order: Behind the Language of the New Capitalism (with Glynda Hull and Colin Lankshear, 1996), and An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method (1999).

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Citation: Gee, J.P. (2000, September). Discourse and sociocultural studies in reading. Reading Online, 4(3). Available: http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/handbook/gee/index.html




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Posted September 2000
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