Messing with "Context"

Ryan J. Dippre, University of Maine
Anna Smith, Illinois State University

The Lifespan Development Group’s “Taking the Long View” text has provided writing researchers with much to chew on.  The eight principles stated cover a wide span of methods, frameworks, and fields of inquiry.  Much like Jennifer’s May 8 response, we have elected not to add to this extensive, carefully-framed work, but rather to indicate possible points of departure for further research that the current principles offer.  We are particularly interested in expanding, complicating—“messing with”—the concept of “context” as the Lifespan Development Group has taken it up. 

In their extended chapter on the principles (to be included in a forthcoming text), the Group notes in Principle 1, “Writing can develop across the lifespan as part of changing contexts,” that “The growing body of texts that become part of each social group’s resources and understandings forms the context of each new piece of writing, whether these are sacred texts and commentaries within religious communities, the research literature in an academic discipline, the regulations of a government agency, or school records (Bazerman, 1999; 2013)” (p. 3).  This point is nicely elaborated further in the third principle, “Writing development is variable; there is no single path and no endpoint” (p. 6). 

The writing that we undertake brings us into conversation with groups of people, and this conversation further transforms our practices, habits, activities, etc. around and through writing—which, in turn, sets us up for further conversations with different groups of people, and so on.  In other words, the social nature of writing pulls us into new contexts, which by extension transforms our writing.  There is no telos to this ongoing transformation.  We pull ourselves (and are pulled) from one context to another, by and through writing, as part of the ongoing transformations that constitute the rambling pathways of our lives.

It is this nexus of context, writer, and writing that we wish to expand upon. Andrews & Smith (2011) argue that “Developmental inquiry must not only attend to the participants’ development, but also acknowledge the ways contexts of practice are developing concurrently” (p. 93).  Principles 1 and 3 squarely take on the issues of context and the ongoing transformation of it, but we wish to highlight the complexity of separating writer, writing, and context.  The writing that we do is not something performed in the background of a stable context, but rather something that socially constructs context in particular places and, perhaps more importantly, amidst sequences of particularly ordered times (see Erickson & Schultz, 1997). 

A possible way of highlighting the interconnected nature of writer, writing, and context is through the concept of practices (Roozen & Erickson, 2017; Erickson, 2004; Scollon, 2001).  The use of a practice, as we see it, creates context: it is a mechanism through which  people act as “environments” for one another (McDermott, 1976, qtd in Erickson & Schultz, 1997).  Through the deployment of practices, we construct understandings of ourselves and our actions, the actions of others, and the possibilities (as well as constraints) that our surrounding environments have for us. 

These practices that we deploy are sedimented within complex histories that enable the practices to serve as social indicators for ourselves and others.  But our own take on these complex histories and our understanding of our developing practices is perspectival, rooted in the typifications, habits of mind, patterns of activity, and networks of co-configured actors that we experience those histories through. 

The upshot of all of this is that we must, when thinking about how writing develops across the lifespan, attend to context as something that is co-constructed by the social actors that we are studying.  Just as writers are developing bodily and cognitively—orchestrating units of cognitive action (Berninger & Richards, 2002), as well motor activities of the body (eyes, hands, body position; cf. Haas & McGrath, in press)—that development is also occurring with and through the development of surrounding environments (Dyson, 2007).  When writers develop, they do not simply write their way into new contexts or communities of practice, in other words.  They also—if only subtly—change those contexts through their entry into and interactions across them.  When we watch a writer move into and across a new community of practice, what we are actually seeing is not simply the development of a writer, but the “myriads of tactical moves through which the local social actor changes the game subtly through each reanimation of it,” (Erickson, 2004, p. 139): the activity of actors across a social landscape changes that landscape, even as the landscape changes the writer.

It is this reciprocal impact that we suggest requires further methodological, if not ontological, attention.  How can we attend to this reciprocality in productive ways as we study the ongoing transformation of writers and writing across lifespans? If we hope to make claims regarding the developments of individuals, it is not enough to merely acknowledge this ontological conundrum. We must find ways to come to understand the shifting landscape they are not just treading across, but forging/co-producing. How can we keep the messiness of context open for continued examination without, well, losing our minds at the complexity of the task before us?


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Bazerman, C. (1999).  The Languages of Edison’s Light.  Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bazerman, C. (2013).  Literate Action Volume II: A Theory of Literate Action.  Fort Collins: Parlor Press.

Berninger, V.W., & Richards, T.L. (2002).  Brain Literacy for Educators and Psychologists.  New York: Academic Press. 

Dyson, A. H. (2007). School literacy and the development of a child culture: Written remnants of the "gusto of life."  In D. Thiessen & A. Cook-Sather (Eds.), International handbook of student experiences in elementary and secondary school. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.

Erickson, F. & Schultz, J. (1997).  When is a context?  Some issues and methods in the analysis of social competence.  In M. Cole, Y. Engestrom, & O. Vasquez (Eds.) Mind, Culture, and Activity: Seminal Papers from the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Erickson, F. (2004). Talk and social theory: Ecologies of speaking and listening in everyday life.  Cambridge, England: Polity Press.

Haas, C. & McGrath, M. (in press). Embodiment and literacy in a digital age: The case of handwriting. In K. Mills, A. Stornaiuolo, A. Smith, & J.P. Zacher, (Eds). Handbook of writing, literacies, and education in digital cultures (pp. 125-135). New York, New York: Routledge.

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Scollon, R. (2001). Mediated discourse: The nexus of practice. New York, NY: Routledge.