by B. Diane Blackwood
(Presented at the 1996 Fall Great Plains Sociological Conference)
I place the invention of the written word along side the invention of the wheel and the discovery of fire as the most important technologies of humankind. I have called reading the ultimate technology because not only does it fit the definition of a technology, but the ability to read and write has allowed us to share our history and our other technologies, through time and distance. From the written word, I have the opportunity to gain knowledge and benefit from experiences of persons I will never meet. Before the invention of the written word that was not possible. Mass communications add a new and additional dimension to our communications ability building on the foundation of the written word. The wide spread of literacy is historically recent and I am a beneficiary of my era. "Literacy is a phenomenon created in response to an essentially social need, the need to communicate with others".
I started researching the sociology of reading because I was interested in the sociological factors that contribute to the selection of specific leisure reading subjects (genre). I found that the psychology of reading and writing - literacy - is abundant. Psychology, in 1951, was the first social science to combine with linguistics, the study of language, to study literacy . Sociolinguistics, the sociology of literacy and language began later . The sociology of reading and writing, to a great extent has been taken as granted. We as sociologists have these skills, so we tend to study these skills in relation to those who do not. Or because reading and writing are viewed as solitary skills, we grant the psychologists this area as their territory.
Sociofile, the computer data list of sociology references is an interesting example of this skirting of the psychological territory. The terms "sociology" and "reading" produce listing of sociology readers, collections of writings on sociology. The terms "sociology" and "literacy" produce 700 listings. Of these 700 current listings, one fifth are devoted to examination of "cultural literacy," a recent debate about whose values of cultural information are important to be transmitted . Half of the sociofile listings are specific articles discussing ways to promote literacy using specific texts, media, or teaching approaches. A handful examine sociology as a genre, or television as a teaching tool. The balance examine illiteracy. Nothing pertaining to my original search. "Sociolinguistics" also produces studies of the spread of literacy.
The psychology of reading and writing is heavily involved in the current debates about how reading is best taught. Most modern societies have made the assumption that it should be taught; that literacy is a human right. Sociology has begun to look at the spread of literacy and this assumption of literacy as a human right.
Many of the social factors involved in the spread of literacy seem fairly obvious when they are pointed out. This may be why they seemed less sociologically significant. An isolated subsistence economy has little need of literate people and the people have little desire for literacy. The more industrialized a country, the more literate people it will have. But then some interesting sociological facts begin to emerge. World wide approximately four times as many women as men are illiterate and he higher the countrywide rate of illiteracy for a country, the wider will be the gap between men and women. This fact takes on significance in relation to the economic and political uses of literacy.
Urban areas become literate before rural, towns before villages. The economic elites tend to make better use of institutions such as schools where literacy is acquired. The poorer economic groups make less use of these institutions and this contributes historically to the gap becoming wider. Democracy as a governmental form seems to promote literacy better than dictatorships and literate people immigrating to industrialized countries do better economically than illiterate or subliterate people. Literacy is an important prerequisite to other forms of education.
Commerce was the most likely driving force behind the creation of writing systems and the spread of literacy. Napoleon Bonaparte complained that his illiterate soldiers could not be taught to march and drill. Industrial employers found that literate employees were easier to train and seemed better able to retain that training. It seems the ethnic jokes about having to retrain an employee after a weekend off, have a basis in illiteracy. It was found that illiterate people from illiterate societies have little ability to grasp or to create abstract concepts; they seem by and large to operate less from general principles and more from concrete, limited instances.
Christian religious convictions that the word of God should be spread to those who have not been exposed has been a driving force in developing writing for those isolated societies that do not have it and lack the economies to make literacy practical.
But the demand for literacy has been pushed by the institutions of government rather than pulled by a desire of the individual populace, especially in newly liberated colonies. A literate populace has the ability to "perceive old phenomena, long tolerated as inevitable features of life, as problems requiring new solutions, and to make fuller use of resources and services and take the initiative in changing their lives". - John Oxenham Literacy is highly correlated with acceptance of innovation and empathy with fellow human beings. Thus the "cultural elites" talked about by former Vice-President Dan Quayle have been the driving force for sharing literacy with the rest of the people, especially in societies undergoing rapid change.
In order for people to become literate, literacy has to be valuable to the learner. Writing as a skill is more difficult to learn than reading, therefore there have always been more readers than writers. The most important sociological factor in promoting a desire to read in the young child is for that child to see parents reading and to be read to. But in order for there to be reading, writing must be invented. The innovation of writing has followed the typical process of the spread of other innovations. The factors that appear necessary for literacy to spread within a society include enough leisure and wealth for people to have time to learn. But this factor alone does not determine literacy. Additionally, the members of a society must perceive that literacy is useful in their daily lives and as a society feel a need for improvement. An urban society with a higher concentration of people promotes literacy, and there must be someone in the ruling class willing to promote the concept. Continued use and expansion of literacy is also improved by cultural values embracing exploration, democratic ideals and a desire to improve the present.
The United Nations has a goal of universal literacy, but they were not the first institution with this goal. Stalin was responsible for the universal Russian literacy campaign because he thought that an illiterate populous made poor citizens . In Europe and North America the right to vote was originally tied to property ownership. When the voting franchise was extended to literate non-propertied people, the incentive to become literate increased. Further technological advances in the form of inexpensive paper invented in China and the printing press first used in Germany paved the way for the possibility of universal literacy.
The demographics of readers in the United States have been thoroughly studied by book marketeers, but not by sociologists. After conducting this research, I know much about the sociology of the spread of literacy and what the demographics are of people who read. I still do not know what sociological factors are involved in the choice of pleasure reading. Do people choose to read Horror because they were exposed to danger as children or because they lead very safe lives? Were people who prefer Westerns brought up in an environment that encouraged individualism or valued travel? Are Romance readers lacking romantic outlets or perhaps they wish to recreate past emotional experiences? When people choose to read science fiction are they expressing a common value? Does gender, socio-economic class, or educational level influence the choice of reading genre beyond influencing literacy? If there were not both social and psychological factors involved in the choice of reading material, there would not be so many varieties of pleasure reading with exclusive devotees. More study needs to be done.