Building on this early work, contemporary scholars/researchers in rhetoric and composition now use narrative-based inquiry to study a range of both formal and informal literacy practices and values in schools, homes, social organizations, and workplaces. Deborah Brandt, for example, has used life history narratives to study the increasingly rapid accumulation of literacies and the literacy sponsors who provide material support for individual’s literate practices and development (1998, 1995). Similarly, culturally and historically contextualized literacy narratives have formed the basis for both Anne Ruggles Gere’s (1994) study of women’s social writing groups and Ellen Cushman’s (1998) examination of the oral, literate, and analytical strategies of African-American men, women, and children living in an inner city neighborhood.

Some scholars, further, have used their own autobiographical literacy accounts as the basis for reflective scholarship about literacy. Mike Rose (1999) in Lives on the Boundary, for example, has explored the challenges of growing up in an immigrant family and a working-class neighborhood and how the social factors associated with both settings shaped his own literacy practices and values. Victor Villanueva (1993), in Bootstraps, has written about his Puerto Rican heritage and the challenges he faced in negotiating the demands and expectations of an educational system with roots in racism. And Linda Brodkey (1994) has reflected on her own literacy practices and values as they developed in her working class home in “Writing on the Bias.”

Narrativity, indeed, is central to the ethnographic effort, Brodkey (1987) explains, given that “all ethnographies begin in stories.” In fact, she adds, the “single most important lesson to be learned from ethnographic fieldwork” is that “experience is not—indeed cannot be—reproduced in speech or writing and must instead be narrated” (p. 26). At the same time, it is clear that the reliance on narrative approaches in interpretive ethnographic studies threatens the more traditional emphasis that some social science methods place on objectivity as a way of “authorize[ing] knowledge claims” and undermines many of the assumptions that inform these research methods, especially those which strive to eliminate uncertainty (p. 26). As Brodkey draws the distinction, narratives participate in a “rhetoric of dialectics,” explaining that “(ethnographic) interpretation deals with uncertainty, that is, offers arguments that display rather than obviate doubt.”

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