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Cultural and Social Anthropology

Chair for Social Anthropology – Professor Dr. Erdmute Alber

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Learning beyond the classroom: Coping with illiteracy in literate urban environments in Bolivia and Benin



Teilprojekt im Cluster of Excellence EXC 2052 - "Africa Multiple: reconfiguring African Studies"

Laufzeit: 8.2019 bis 31.12.2024

Projektleitung: Prof. Dr. Erdmute Alber, Prof. Dr. Carlos Kölbl (Psychologie)

Mitarbeiterin_innen: M.A. Rebekka Krauß, Dr. Issifou Moumouni


Few ideas have travelled around the globe as successfully as the one that literacy (including the ability to use digital media) is a basic need, right and standard throughout the world. Today, people everywhere move through lifeworlds heavily shaped by written signs, even as new illiteracies constantly emerge, seemingly failing to achieve ‘development through education’. Master narratives of illiteracy situate it as ‘historical’ or ‘traditional’, something that will become obsolete. In contrast, our project assumes that not having learnt to read and write at school can no longer be seen as ‘old’ or ‘other’. Instead, we see ‘new’ illiteracies as being related to and constantly produced by ongoing global processes that mainstream western-oriented literacy through schooling. The project aims to test this assumption by studying processes for coping with illiteracy in urban lifeworlds in two countries, Benin and Bolivia. We identify similarities and differences in our case studies, while acknowledging that both countries are influenced by the same global processes of mainstreaming literacy. Each of our empirical investigations will follow 25 urban adults who have not learnt reading and writing at school through their respective lifeworlds of letters. Both case studies will use the same methods of intensive ethnographic fieldwork, thereby profiting from a transdisciplinary dialogue between social anthropology and cultural psychology. We aim to understand the multiple ways of non-school learning that help these actors interact with the expectations of a world of literacy. By detecting differences, similarities and perhaps also travelling ways of learning outside the classroom, we address the Cluster’s overarching questions around relationality, multiplicity and especially temporalities of learning. The two cases were chosen on the basis of our research competencies and because they are striking examples of the deficiencies of globalised literacy discourses and practices on two continents.

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