Literacy Around the World: An Anthropologist's View

Alivia Brown with What is literacy? title
A short word from our resident anthropologist (video)

What does literacy mean? The ability to read and write may come to mind. However, what if I told you it was more complicated than that? Commonly, people have understood literacy as a binary concept—you are either literate or you are not. But it turns out that literacy looks different across the globe. 

Put simply, literacy is a way of thinking which allows individuals to speak, listen, read and write a set of beliefs or ideas1.

Literacy has been deemed one of the strongest predictors of individual success, and it allows people to finish schooling and secure jobs all around the world2. Literacy also has the power to impact individual well-being and increases life satisfaction. 

The meaning of literacy quickly transforms into something more complex when we consider how its meaning changes from one culture to the next. In other words, being literate in one culture does not necessarily mean you are literate in another. 

Why is this? Because different cultures speak different languages, use different writing systems, and hold different values and practices! In order to capture a more well-rounded definition of literacy, anthropologists have begun to examine what literacy looks like in different cultures around the world.

Anthropologists reason that literacy is a way of thinking which is deeply intertwined with both social and cultural practices around the world. In other words, we must study literacy “in context3” and remember that literacy depends on the culture we are examining it in. 

For thousands of years, culture and language have coevolved, allowing societies to develop the perfect language for their cultural needs. 

Because of this relationship between culture and language, it is impossible to separate their profound impacts on one another. When it comes to learning how to read and/or write, individuals are learning how to reproduce their own cultural knowledge in a tangible way. Each culture around the world has had a unique history of language and literacy, so in order to understand literacy more thoroughly, we must examine it on a culture-to-culture basis. 

In this way, we see that language and literacy have grown to suit the needs of the culture it is from. For example, some phrases do not translate directly from one language into another—this is often the case with humor as well as unique cultural expressions or sayings. Linguistic anthropologists claim that while not all phrases can be seen across all languages, each language still has all the necessary tools to communicate their needs effectively4. How we learn to read and write directly corresponds to the needs of the culture in which these skills were learned.  

For example, the Zafimaniry are a group from Madagascar well known for their wood carving, art, and music. Currently the Zafimaniry population is estimated at about 25,000 all of which is distributed into approximately 100 villages. Anthropologist Maurice Bloch describes how when literacy is being constructed in a region, there are many forces acting all at once; this includes socioeconomics, local environment, cultural values, traditions, theories, and many others. A large part of the Zafimaniry culture includes knowledge of the body: how it grows, when it matures, and understanding that the body is a part of the “living world.” Bloch displays how much of what people learn to read and write about is culturally specific. The Zafimaniry learn about different facets of the body, growth, maturity and more depending on what phase of life they are in5. Blotch’s work with the Zafimaniry people is one example of the ways literacy differs around the world. 

On the other side of Africa, the Mende people of Sierra Leone are known for practicing crop rotation6 and their secret societies7. The Mende people have access to learning both English and Arabic and use literacy in these languages to strengthen the power of their secret societies8. Anthropologists Caroline Bledsoe and Kenneth Robey explore how the Mende people use their knowledge of the Arabic language to facilitate secrecy within the culture. Individuals who are adept with Arabic use the language as a tool to acquire knowledge and exchange confidential information with others. In this context, literacy is a vessel for secrecy and ultimately restricts the exchange of private information. In fact, one of the greatest crimes for the Mende people is sharing the secrets of their tribe with another! Clearly, how the Mende people use literacy is extremely different from how the Zafimaniry people use literacy.

As mentioned previously, literacy grants individuals the ability to reproduce cultural beliefs and ideologies and the possibilities for this are endless. Some more obvious examples of this may be writing a book, reading a poem, or singing a song. But, these simple forms of literacy can quickly transform into powerful and world-changing activities such as producing a political campaign, sharing a religious text, or even suggesting a new economic model. 

With the ability to reproduce cultural information also comes the power to change it. 

If people have the ability to read and write about their culture, they also have the power to propose new ideas. Over time, what cultures believe, as well as which topics they consider to be the most relevant change. This allows people to use literacy to read about, write, and create new ideas for the culture to share. Even further, literacy can redefine entire cultural values over time. This includes the ability to reshape traditions, reconstruct values, and even redefine power dynamics. How we choose to teach learners to read and write has an immediate impact on how an entire culture’s values and traditions will grow and change. Reading and writing has a major impact on individual lives and can propel people into success. Small changes over time will ultimately lead to large cultural shifts in the future—and it all starts with literacy! 

Our understanding of literacy is transformed when evaluated with an anthropological perspective. It becomes clear that literacy is not the same all around the world but rather a skillset that varies from culture to culture. Charities such as Reading is Fundamental, Reading Partners, The World Literacy Foundation, as well as many others are doing great work when it comes to increasing literacy rates around the world. But, there is always more that can be done! As literacy rates continue to climb, it is important to study literacy with the consideration that it looks different for everyone and includes much more than the ability to read or write. Literacy allows individuals to replicate, and redefine cultural ideologies and will continue to have an impact on what and how we learn in the generations to come. So next time you hear about literacy, take a moment to ask yourself, how do you use literacy to impact the world around you?


  1. National Literacy Trust, What is Literacy 
  2. Street, Cross-Cultural Approaches to Literacy (1993)
  3. African American Registry, The Mende People—A Story 
  4. Reinhardt, Mende Secret Societies and Their Costumed Spirits (1979) 
  5. Bledsoe & Robey, Arabic Literacy and Secrecy Among the Mende of Sierra Leone (1986) 
  6. Solomon & Bloch, Zafimaniry: An Understanding of What is Passed on From Parents to Children: A Cross Cultural Investigation (2001) 
  7. Cabrera, World Reading Habits in 2020 (2020) 
  8. Project Literacy, The Importance of Literacy 
  9. Ottenheimer & Pine, The Anthropology of Language, (2019)