Re: Levels of Consciousness

Kathleen A. Gillogly (Kagillogly@AOL.COM)
Tue, 8 Oct 1996 14:11:56 -0400

In a message, Ronald Kephart wrote:

>I believe some anthropologists (Jack
>Goody, maybe?- again, I'm at home and at a disadvantage) have suggested
>that literacy creates a different type of or "level of" mental processing.
>ave to say I'm not convinced yet. Reading, of whatever sort, seems to
>involve the same sort of mental processing involved in the processing of
>language (or sign language, for that matter). The only "quantum leap" it
>seems to me is the ability to interact with people, thru their writing, who
>either somewhere else or even dead.

I swore I wouldn't get involved in this exchange, but talking about literacy,
orality, and Jack Goody, I just couldn't resist. Several years ago, I read
quite a bit on this is in the course of writing about a literacy project and
its social significance.

Goody's ideas, while intriguing, were disproven in work by Scribner and Cole.
In an attempt to test Goody's ideas, they found a group in Africa which had
access to (1) Arabic reading by rote, learned in traditional Islamic schools
and (2) a local script, recently developed and since widely spread. Since
not everyone had learned the script yet, they had three test groups: those
who studied Arabic, those who used the local script, and those who used none.

Extensive psychological testing among all three groups showed no differences.
I don't remember the details and don't have the book at hand, but despite
their best efforts, they could discern no differences in analytical ability,
abilities to summarize or draw conclusions, etc. It was quite extensive.

The debate still rages. Some interesting contributions have been on what
happens in 'non-literate' societies when literacy is introduced. Having
experienced this first-hand, that was my interest in the topic. What I found
is that writing was used in very specific ways to extend communication
beyond the face-to-face, but the nature of communication did not change.
Thus, in a situation where 50% of the boys and men were off-island working
on copra plantations, the women left behind wrote to their husbands and
brothers initiating communication in much the same terms they would have if
home (requests for presents, which were a key element in social
relationships). Others in the Pacific found a similar use of written
communication to continue relationships over time and space.

Another use of writing, perhaps even more common than writing to relatives
off-island, was for love letters. All the young people wanted to learn to
write so they could read and send letters. This was actually in keeping with
traditional courtship. In the recent past, there was a specialized and very
elaborate courtship language, by which potential mates could avoid any
embarassing references (like to holes, to bamboo, to flames, oysters,
spears). Also, they usually spoke to friends of the person they liked, never
directly. The language was very elaborate and few young men knew it well
anymore (very likely due to their absence off-island for years at a time);
love letters filled this void very well. For that reason alone, the literacy
program was a huge success! Conklin found the same phenomenon in the

A third use of writing was to record genealogies and customary law. This was
an effort to gain recognition of their traditional law from government

The effect of literacy in world history should not be ignored, of course. It
makes possible greater levels of control through record-keeping. In
Southeast Asia, it appears to have greatly improved the ability of the state
to tax. And in terms of access to shear amounts of information over time,
writing has been essential in institutional development, expansion, and
elaboration. I think that the problem is that many authors have confused
this elaboration of institutions and social life with levels of
consciousness, which must be measured on an individual level (as Scribner and
Cole did). Literacy affected access to information; it did not affect the
way the brain worked.

Nevertheless, I should note the most of these people had phenomenal memories;
even little kids could recount genealogies of 100s of relatives and
ancestors. Their ability to memorize was essential when there were few
written records on which they could depend. At mortuary feasts, it had
become fashionable for the young men to write down the presentations, because
it's so important for future return prestations. But the day after, the old
men always had to correct the young men's written lists!

Kate Gillogly
Dept. of Anthropology, Univ. of Michigan