2.5 Research focus

Researching literacy is necessarily a complex activity, depending not least on how you define literacy and the particular aspects you wish to explore.

What does it mean to ‘observe’? Observation is a key aspect of much research activity including ethnography, but ‘observation’ is not a straightforward activity: for example, what exactly do we observe? We don’t ‘see’ everything in any one context. How do we decide what is important or relevant? What language do we use to describe what we observe? Furthermore, in carrying out any empirical research, researchers are not simply interested in listing countless details of what they ‘see’, but rather constantly seek to impose an order on such detail through a process of categorisation. How this process of description and categorisation happens is rarely explicitly discussed in accounts of research. Bernstein’s work on different levels of description is useful here. Bernstein (1996) argues that researchers first have to learn the language of the participants in order to ‘grasp how members construct their texts or manage their contexts’. But if researchers only stay at this level of description, all they can do is repeat what they have learned from participants. In order to move beyond this level and towards explaining and accounting for participants’ activities, Bernstein argues that the researcher’s language of description has to act as ‘a translation for, rather than a simple reduplication of the language of the researched’.

2.4 The discourses of literacy