Traditional Academic Feuds in Literacy Studies Part I: Knowledge Structures

Note: This is the first part of a multi-part series which (eventually) will become a term paper for a class seminar on literacy.

The Reading Wars of the 1990s were documented by the exchanges between Edelsky and McKenna, Robinson, & Miller in Educational Researcher.  This theoretical conflict between Whole Language and Traditional Literacy represents what I call a “traditional academic feud.” A traditional academic feud is a social phenomenon in an academic field of study where two or more groups theorize about or describe a single phenomenon in categorically different ways. That a traditional academic feud eventually achieved “war” status is a curious phenomenon–but perhaps no more curious than the fact that academic feuds occur in the first place. In this series, I plan to explain 1) why the academic feud of the Reading Wars occurred, 2) why the feud escalated to a war, and 3) why a similar feud developed recently in the reading comprehension field, and  (if I am brave enough) 4) how we might avoid wars and have more productive feuds in Literacy Studies.

The traditional academic feud often occurs in what Bernstein called “horizontal knowledge structures” (as cited in Maton & Muller, 2007). A knowledge structure is a description of the way an academic field organizes its theories and the rules that govern the production of such theories. Bernstein’s horizontal knowledge structure is a “series of specialized languages with specialized modes of interrogation and criteria for the construction and circulation of texts” (as cited in Maton & Muller, 2007). These “specialized languages” are ways of writing and talking about a phenomenon. They are used to communicate the propositions of various theories–of which there are many. In horizontal knowledge structures, multiple theories compete for adherents and dominance in the field–often competing to explain a similar phenomenon, but talking about that phenomenon in different specialized languages. Following the analysis from Christie & Macken-Horarik (2007) that Literacy Studies is a horizontal knowledge structure, I argue that the Reading Wars are characteristic of academic feuds in horizontal knowledge structures, namely because they are an instance of two specialized languages explaining the same phenomenon and competing for dominance in the field.

Theoretical conflict itself is not symptomatic of horizontal knowledge structures alone. Their counterpart, vertical knowledge structures, also experience theoretical conflict. A vertical knowledge structure is “‘a coherent, explicit and systematically principled structure, hierarchically organised’ which ‘attempts to create very general propositions and theories, which integrate knowledge at lower levels, and in this way shows underlying uniformities across an expanding range of apparently different phenomena‘” (as cited in Maton and Muller, 2007). Rather than multiple theories competing for dominance to explain common phenomena, vertical knowledge structures seek integration and uniformity of theory. In an academic feud, vertical knowledge structures maintain a single specialized language during the conflict and aim to integrate the two theories, discarding the error, rather than achieving dominance in the field at the expense of the other theory.

Vertical knowledge structures are seminally represented by the physical sciences; an example of a feud in said field would be Einstein’s critique of Newton’s mechanics. Einstein used the same specialized language as Newton (mathematics) and did not abandon the classical theory entirely–he integrated it into a larger theory of relativity. Even current theoretical conflicts between quantum mechanics and relativity are aiming for integration, as we see in the controversial attempt of string theory (so far as I understand the physics).

Following Bernstein, I contend that the Reading Wars occurred because, as Christie & Macken-Horarik (2007) argued, Literacy Studies is a horizontal knowledge structure, and the theoretical relations within such structures–far different from those in vertical knowledge structures–gave rise to the feud and enabled a war. Before engaging in an in-depth analysis, I want to review briefly what Bernstein’s theory predicts about a horizontal knowledge structure. If these predictions hold for the Reading Wars, it would further validate Christie & Macken-Horarik’s (2007)  horizontal knowledge structure analysis and serve as a basis for explaining specifically what mechanisms in the structure constructed the conflict. I am basing these predictions on Maton & Muller’s (2007) review of Bernstein’s “sociology of knowledge” research program–specifically their subheading Differences between knowledge structures.

In Horizontal Knowledge Structures:

  •  “Knowledge develops through the addition of new languages.”
  • Theories are “characterized by short-term obsolescence, only to reappear again some time in the future in a new guise”
  • Specialized languages used for theoretical discourse are “based on different, often opposing assumptions, making it less clear that one is indeed speaking or writing” in a given language.
  • “‘Each language [has] its own criteria for legitimate texts, what counts as evidence and what counts as legitimate questions or a legitimate problematic'” (Bernstein 1999, p. 163)
  • Integration and subsumption of past ideas [occurs] within each language. However, the capacity for such development across languages is limited.”
  • Languages have relatively ‘weak grammars,’ which are ‘…explicit conceptual syntax[es] capable of “relatively” precise empirical descriptions and/or of generating formal modelling of empirical relations’ (Bernstein, 1999, p. 164)
  • “Relations between languages or [theories] cannot be settled by empirical research and are confined to critique.”
  • Languages [do not] purport to share the same empirical referents.
  • Significant changes… are all too often ideological rather than rational revolutions.”
  • Choices between competing claims to insight are based more on a ‘knower code’, that is to say, on who  is making knowledge claims rather than on what is being claimed and how.”

In my next post, I will examine how the Reading Wars, and in particular the feud between McKenna et al. and Edelsky, meet the predictions of theoretical conflict in horizontal knowledge structures.

EDIT: I have revised the fourth part of my thesis, upon reflecting on the need for feuds in academia in general as a way to respond to new data. I do still contend academic wars are unnecessary.


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