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Literacy and complex social situations

Literacy and complex social situations

vrijdag 21 mei 2021 23:22
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Precarious lives often depend on literacy: knowledge of sociolinguistic markers, frames and formats. In this lecture we will delve deeply into the life of Nabijah, a 37-year old Iraqi woman living in Antwerp with her four kids, navigating Belgium’s complex social work and youth care institutions. Nabijah has to deal on a daily basis with lawyers, social workers, translators and a bunch of other representatives of the literacy system. We will analyze what is being said, and what the effect is what is being said on real lives. Besides that, we will focus on what is not being said (or obscured, for that matter). In a very short, but seminal article in the American Anthropologist, sociologist Ervin Goffman points us to exactly that which is neglected in terms of literacy.




Research on the trajectories of migrant families in the Belgian welfare system has led us to

Nabijah, a thirty-seven- year-old Belgian- Iraqi woman living in Antwerp North (see Van der

Aa and Blommaert 2015 for a more elaborate description of this case). At the time of the

research, Nabijah was living with four children in a very small apartment where irregular

heating and electricity depended on what was left on the budget meter (a sort of prepaid gas/

electricity system). One of the children was mentally disabled and the oldest child was not

hers, but the child of her sister who lived in Germany. Having gone through a very rough

and violent divorce from her Belgian/Iraqi husband, Nabijah ended up as a single mom in

harsh poverty. Most bills were handled by a lawyer which immediately had to pay off the

accrued debt of the (by then) imprisoned husband and various other bills, leaving Nabijah

with a mere €7 a day to take care of five people. A typical dinner in the household consisted

of a large can of baked beans in tomato sauce and an equally large cheap bag of salted potato

chips, followed by an apple.

Nabijah and her children were monitored and followed up by Lucy, one of the care providers

at the Circle, an Antwerp welfare institution dealing with children and adolescents

aged six to eighteen and their families, after a transfer from court. Reasons for such transfers

could be criminal activities of the youngsters; issues of violence, abuse and neglect; issues of

extreme poverty, and so on. The transfer is obligatory (parents cannot refuse the help from

the institution) and is often a final way to avoid the children being placed in care. At the time

of the research, Lucy had weekly meetings with Nabijah in her home, often together with

various other people, such as social workers, lawyers (to take care of the debt that remained

after the divorce), teachers, the care provider(s) of her mentally handicapped son (who lived

in a residential care institution during the week) and translators. During a period of several

months one of us (Jef Van der Aa, henceforth JVDA) accompanied Lucy to Nabijah’s house,

taking part in at least fifteen home visits of one and a half hour each. All conversations were

tape recorded and conducted in Dutch, often mediated by an Iraqi or Moroccan Arabic translator.

We complemented the audio recordings with the intensive taking of field notes. It is

in this context that we want to discuss the importance of ‘what was left out’ which in some

cases may actually “be or become the center of our analysis” (Becker 2014: 3) and how we

can engage with this “ not- said but still- there” (Kulick 2005).


A socio-cultural element is neglected


Let us have a closer look at a Goffmanian ‘situation’ in Nabijah’s case. At one point,

approximately nine weeks into JVDA’s involvement with Nabijah and her family, Lucy, the

translator and JVDA arrived at Nabijah’s apartment for the weekly visit. There had been

a traffic jam, so we came in a little late. Nabijah appeared not to be home and we thought

perhaps she too had been caught up in traffic, as even trams and buses were blocked from

passing through the road works. We waited for several minutes, knocked the door several

times, shouted her name and so on. A little while later, someone stumbles to the door in a

rush. It was Nabijah, with her laptop in hand, a very heavy object that was at least seven

years old, and whose weight usually caused it to sit on an equally old folding chair next to

where Nabijah was seated during our conversations. We came in, were seated across from

Nabijah, as she held the laptop in her hands. She said “I was doing things on the computer,

therefore I didn’t hear you guys.” It seemed the folding chair was destroyed, as some of the

cloth was torn apart and one of its chair legs was sticking out.

The translator, being from Iraqi descent this time, and alternating with a Moroccan one for

‘reasons of planning’, translated in spoken Iraqi Arabic vernacular. For weeks, Nabijah had

been ‘stalking’ Lucy about helping her with her travel passport, which seemed, for several

reasons, quite hard for her to obtain. Nabijah had been married in Lebanon with her former

husband, who had a double Iraqi/Belgian nationality through which Nabijah and her children

had been able, eventually, to obtain Belgian nationality.

At one point, we were discussing the problem very concretely, as a negative advice

regarding the passport had come in from the local authorities because of her former husband’s

legal trouble. The translator carefully explained the problem to Nabijah, and at the

same time commenting on an appeal form Lucy had brought. Being heavily involved in

the conversation, and in order to pinpoint all kinds of issues Nabijah seemed to have

with the form, she had put the laptop on the floor behind her, not next to her as usual since

the chair was broken. Suddenly a voice shouted something from behind Nabijah. Lucy and

JVDA were both surprised, and the translator replied to the voice on the computer, telling

us that it was Nabijah’s brother, listening in on Skype. Nabijah confirmed this and explained

that he was reacting to the information with regards to the travel passport. There had been a

request from the brother to formally adopt his son, Nabijah’s nephew. Nabijah then showed

us the brother, we waved at him, and he disappeared from Skype as swiftly as he came once

the conversation took another direction. Nabijah needed the passport in order to go and

arrange things in Iraq to make the adoption possible. Also, it turned out that the brother had

been listening in quite regularly in the weeks before and thus the prioritization of the travel

passport and other adjacent issues was suddenly seen in a whole new light. The conversation

had been regularly ‘steered’ for several weeks by the non- speaking but still present brother:

the co- presence of online and offline interaction, sometimes manifestly present, sometimes

latently lurking.


The total social fact


What we observed here was an extremely complex interactional situation which cannot

be analyzed synchronically. We observed something like a ‘total social fact’ in which

online and offline events merged, latent objects suddenly became manifest, and a complex

interaction of linguistic, generic, cultural, and religious resources took place (Van

der Aa and Blommaert 2015). Silverstein’s (1985) concept of the ‘total linguistic fact’ can

be expanded to the analysis of superdiverse settings in which the ‘neglected’ becomes the

center of attention:

The total linguistic fact, the datum for a science of language is irreducibly dialectic in

nature. It is an unstable mutual interaction of meaningful sign forms, contextualised to

situations of interested human use and mediated by the fact of cultural ideology.

(Silverstein 1985: 220)

Another key point here is the co-incidental nature of the ‘discovery’ of the neglected element:

the fact that the chair was broken by which the ‘unimportant’ laptop drew our attention,

the brother being ‘sidetracked’ from the ongoing ‘show’ by being placed behind the

chair, the suddenly intruding ‘voice’ of the brother, us being late causing Nabijah to have

embarked in ‘full conversation’ with the brother, the translator being Belgian Iraqi (from the

same region of Nabijah and actually vaguely knowing the family in Iraq) instead of Moroccan

so that she could recognize local vocabulary, and so on. The social situation deserves

analysis in its own right (Goffman 1964: 134) and all conversations contained within it are

to be interpreted through many layers of fairly coincidental historicized social frames. This

coincidence shouldn’t worry or demoralize us, as important manifestations of these latent

frames will be repeated over and over again. Therefore, sustained attention to these always

slightly different manifestations will do the trick, hereby making change itself our object of


Nabijah’s story, her life, her issues and her problems were necessarily reduced in the

professional vision of the social worker, in order to deal with those issues the institution was

professionally and legally allowed to handle. Nabijah is a ‘case’, has a ‘file’ and belongs

to one or more ‘problematic’ social categories for which she needs ‘treatment’ and ‘help’.

Thus, the social work frames have been pre- configured and only particular elements that fitted

that professional scheme were accepted as meaningful. The point we have made so far,

following social interactionist sources of inspiration is that for the ethnographer, everything

is potentially meaningful. Latent objects can become manifest at the blink of an eye, and this

is something we cannot afford to ignore, neither as ethnographers with an academic purpose,

nor as societal actors (such as social workers) with a socio- psychological, legal and human

finality. The latter simply cannot afford anymore to neglect aspects of the situation that cause

an entire analytical trajectory of Hineininterpretierung (or predisposed interpretation), lest

the consequences of the neglect may be detrimental to the human beings in care, or may even

become matters of life and death (see Joseph’s case in Blommaert 2009). In Nabijah’s case,

it turned out that she did not really want to adopt the son, and that the pressure being put on

her shoulders to do so anyway had been heavily impeding the attention for her other children

(the key mandate of the social workers) and her own health. This resulted in severe anxiety

attacks and the overusage of benzodiazepines whose nasty side effects prevented her from

working on a regular basis.

But social workers have not been trained to pay attention to such analytic detail, and

could benefit on such occasions from an extra pair of anthropological eyes. The exchange

is mutual; as ethnographers should involve themselves in those cases deemed analytically

relevant by societal actors themselves. These actors can often pinpoint things that

are ‘weird’, ‘out of routine’, in other words, brief manifestations of the neglected aspects

of a particular situation. Lucy had found Nabijah’s communicative behavior become

increasingly ‘strange’ over the last few weeks and had asked me along to do the case

study. It is exactly there that we come in as ethnographers. Our role has changed from

being a mere ‘observer’ who describes what he or she sees, to an ‘active participant’ who

makes explicit the changes for which there is no vocabulary yet. In this spirit, Hymes

(1980) developed a research program called ‘ethnographic monitoring’. This consists

of the following steps: (1) ethnographers consult social actors to identify what issues

concern them most (the ‘other’s position); (2) observe behavior relevant to that issue in

a series of contexts in which the participants are engaged (observer’s position); (3) share

back their findings with the participants (instant as well as more long- term feedback and

uptake); (4) take stock of findings (evaluating ‘effect’). We are convinced, with Hymes,

that by following these steps, there is a guarantee that research plans and programs are

developed organically, and in close consultation with all social actors involved. In other

words, static solutions are being replaced by complex dynamics, because understanding

the world involves changing it (for more on this type of ‘ethnographic monitoring’, see

Van der Aa and Blommaert 2015).

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