John F. Szwed proposes that literacy should be studied as ethnography in his essay "The Ethnography of Literacy." In other words, in order to understand and perhaps define literacy, it should be studied as if it were a culture. Clearly, “literacy as an ideal seems to be suffering a crisis” (page 421) and no one is exactly sure what kind of relationship exists between literacy and civilization. He raises an important question: what positions do reading and writing hold in the entire communicative economy and what is the range of their social and cultural meanings?
Arriving to a satisfactory answer to this question proves to be difficult when you begin to consider the function of literacy to not only the community but to the individual. According to Szwed “it is not enough to know what a language looks like, but one must also know what it means to its users and how it is used by them” (422). Consider the wide distribution of the skill to read and write across all walks of life; everyone has a unique motivation to engage reading and writing. Obviously books offer information but for some they can serve as gifts, decoration, and perhaps status symbols. Furthermore, nearly every social context can feature a specific reading purpose. For example people are more likely to read magazines and newspapers available at a doctor’s lobby or beauty salon. Not only are there different motivations, there are different styles of reading and writing. There are people who speed read and others who actively engage with the text critically (426). Certainly, these different styles will yield different understandings of text. In addition, nearly everyone is familiar with or has invented personal short hand notation. Some abbreviations or acronyms have become so common they are now universally understood. There are many ways to break down literacy but the most important aspect of literacy to consider are the expectations placed on schools for developing literacy.
Szwed, suggests the best way to examine literacy in the scope of academic interest is to understand the “literacy needs of individual students on a day-to-day” basis (427). Ultimately, we should focus our attention on the relationship between school and the outside world.