Notes on Social Linguistics & Literacies

Notes on Social Linguistics and Literacies

Ideology in Discourses

James Paul Gee


Discourses & literacies

“The New Literacy Studies” (“integrated social-cultural-political-historical-literacy studies”)

  • Has become well known and widely used
  • One way we can begin to develop a sociocultural approach to literacy is to engage in the rhetorical conceit of imagining that we have been asked: “What does the word ‘literacy’ mean?”
  • “Language,” can be a misleading term
    • Grammar (structures, the “rules”)
    • A person can know the grammar of a language and still not know how to use that language.
    • Speaking grammatically is important but speaking the “right” thing at the “right” time at the “right” time and in the “right” place.
    • Some speakers can have quite poor grammar & still function in communication and socialization quite well.
    • What is important is not just how you say something, not just language in any sense, but who you are and what you’re doing when you say it.
  • Any time we act or speak, we must accomplish two things:
  1. We must make clear who we are
  2. We must make clear what we are doing


  • We are not a single who, but different whos in different contexts


An example of language use and types of people

-Language must not only have the right grammar and be used appropriately, but must also express the right values, beliefs, and attitudes-the “right who,” the right “type” of person.

  • Example: Paper arguing the importance of using language appropriately, F. Niyi Akinnaso and Cheryl Seabrook Ajirotutu
    • “Simulated job interviews” (practice sessions) from two African-American mothers in a US job training program.
  1. The first job interview is presented as an example of how not to carry out an interview, and the second is presented as the correct way to do it, the successful result of having been properly trained in the job-training program.
  • In our society, you are expected to use “Standard” English for most job interviews, so the first woman’s grammar doesn’t “fit” the context
  • The second woman, the “success case,” doesn’t have a real problem with her grammar. (All of her sentences are formulated appropriately for the time, place, and occasion in which she is speaking).


-The moral of the above discussion is that what is important is language PLUS being the “right” who (sort of person) doing the “right” what (activity).


-What is important is not language, and surely not grammar, but saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing- combinations.

a. These combinations are referred to as Discourses

1. (D)-always more than just language

2. (d)-for language in use or connected stretches of language that make sense, like conversations, stories, reports, arguments, essays, and so forth.



-A Discourse with a capital “D” is composed of distinctive ways of speaking/listening and often, too, writing/reading coupled with distinctive ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, believing, with other people and with various objects, tools, and technologies, so as to enact specific socially recognizable identities engaged in specific socially recognizable activities.

1. Identities might be things like: being a L.A policeman, a field biologist, a first-grade student in a specific classroom and school, “SPED” student, a certain type of doctor, lawyer, teacher, man, woman, girlfriend, boyfriend, etc.

            2. Discourses are all about how people “get their acts together” to get recognized as a given kind of person at a specific time and place.


Being in a Discourse is being able to engage in a particular sort of “dance” with words, deeds, values, feelings, other people, objects, tools, technologies, places, and times so as to get recognized as a distinctive sort of who doing a distinctive sort of what.


-Sherlock Holmes:

  • Certain clothes, certain ways of using language (oral lang. and print), certain attitudes and beliefs, allegiance to a certain lifestyle, and certain ways of interacting with others.


-“Primary Discourses,” gives us our initial and often enduring sense of self and sets the foundations of our culturally specific language. (Our “everyday” language).


-“Life world Discourses,” is the way that we use language, feel and think, act and interact, and so forth, in order to be an “everyday” (non-specialized) person.


-“Secondary Discourses,” are acquired within institutions that are part of wider communities, whether be religious groups, community organizations, schools, businesses, or governments.

-Good point: We are all multiple kinds of people.


-So true: It seems that in contrast to secondary Discourses, primary Discourses are not quite as specific, but are defined to be more holistic in their application.


A person’s primary Discourse serves as a “framework” or “base” for the acquisition and learning of other Discourses later in life. ß Makes sense! Solid foundation and better understanding is essential.


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