Brian Street, 1943-2017

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Brian Street, 1943-2017

I first met Brian just after the publication of his seminal Literacy in Theory and Practice (1984), which set out a new conceptual framework for addressing literacy, not as a neutral set of technical skills, but as social practice embedded in power relations. Following an MA in anthropology at Sussex on which Brian was teaching, I went on later to complete a part-time doctorate under his supervision in the 1990s. His mentorship and support, and our friendship, continued throughout his life. In the UK, where there was no rich tradition of linguistic anthropology, Brian brought an important anthropological perspective to theorising and researching literacy, which resonated with other emerging work on social  conceptions of language in linguistics. More widely, his theoretical model of literacy as social and ideological practice, and his commitment to apply this model to ethnographic research and educational endeavours, have influenced literacy specialists, educationalists and development workers across the world. In my own institution, the Open University, his ideas and writing have helped to shape undergraduate and postgraduate modules in language and literacy from the early 1990s to the present day. In this obituary, I focus on his academic and teaching legacy as it unfolded over the course of his career, particularly in relation to the field of literacy studies and literacy in education.

Before producing Literacy in Theory and Practice, Brian had already published a book based on doctoral work supervised by Godfrey Lienhardt at Oxford University, which combined interests from his undergraduate degree in English Literature with those from his Postgraduate Diploma in Anthropology. The Savage in Literature: representations of ‘primitive’ society in English fiction 1858-1920 (1974, reprinted 2016) examines the influence of scientific theories of the period about evolution and race, in conjunction with imperial politics, on the betrayal of ‘primitive’ peoples in popular adventure fiction set in Africa and Asia. Using detailed examples from authors such as John Buchan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conon Doyle, H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling, Brian unpicked the ethnocentrism and racism which pervaded science and literature in the Victorian/Edwardian eras. Prefiguring later work by postcolonial scholars on Western constructions of the ‘other’, Brian’s first book also sets out themes and ways of working which are immediately recognisable to those familiar with his later work: the importance of critical engagement with the ideological dimensions of scientific theorising; the need for constant reflexive interrogation by scholars and researchers of their own cultural preconceptions and expectations; the significance of social and intellectual practices which lie outside hegemonic western academic models.

In the 1970s Brian moved away from English Literature, although he was to return to questions about English as a curriculum subject, later in his life. After obtaining his PhD, he took up a lectureship in the University of Mashhad, Iran, in 1971 and carried out the ethnographic fieldwork which was to underpin Literacy in Theory and Practice. Brian studied an Iranian mountain village, Cheshmeh, during the 1970s, an economically and politically turbulent period when oil money was offering new commercial opportunities and political unrest culminated in the 1979 Iranian revolution. He was particularly interested in the different reading and writing practices he encountered in the village, and the contrasts and connections between the literacy taught by village Mullahs in the traditional religious Maktab schools, the emerging commercial literacy practices connected with expanding village fruit growing distribution and the literacy taught in urban state schools attended by some village youth. Contemporary anthropological and psychological accounts of literacy, as a set of abstract cognitive skills producing a ‘literate mentality’ crucial for modern life, didn’t appear to capture this diversity of practices, nor the dynamics between them. In Chesmeh, there were a number of different literacies, each embedded in particular kinds of social practices, power structures and belief systems. Moreover, it turned out to be the middlemen tajers, favourably placed within the village social structure, who were able to apply skills from their traditional Maktab schooling to grasp the new commercial opportunities, rather than students of the modern literacy taught in city schools.

In Literacy in Research and Practice (1984), Brian provided an extended critique of the prevailing influential accounts of literacy scholars such as John Goody, Walter Ong and David Olson.  He argued that their ‘autonomous model’, as Brian termed it, conceptualised literacy in cognitive, individualist terms as a ‘technology of the intellect’ fostering logic and scientific thought, the distinction of myth from history, the elaboration of bureaucracy and democratic processes and the shift from small communities to complex cultures. Brian maintained that such universalist, technological explanations privileged western academic practices incorporating a British essayist tradition with roots in the 17th and 18th century, and failed to acknowledge the diverse uses, meanings and significance of different forms of reading and writing in diverse cultural contexts. In refuting this autonomous model, he drew on anthropological work by Ruth Finnegan and Shirley Heath emphasising the crucial importance of social, political, economic and ideological contextual factors, and on psychologists Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole’s argument about the difficulty of disentangling the effects of literacy from the effects of schooling. Their conclusion, like his own in relation to his Iranian research, was that specific cognitive skills were enhanced by specific literacy practices rather than by acquiring ‘literacy’ per se. Arguing against claims that literacy acquisition necessarily promotes democracy, Brian drew on the work of social historians Harvey Graff and Michael Clanchy to demonstrate how literacy can be co-opted by particular social groups to strengthen existing power relations.

In place of the autonomous model, Brian proposed an ‘ideological model’ of literacy which presupposes that literacy cannot be abstracted from the contextual factors which give it meaning, or treated as an independent, neutral set of skills and competencies. Thus there is no specific ‘literate mentality’; rather, in people’s everyday lives, orality and literacy are deeply intertwined. He argued that there are many different kinds of literacy, or literacies, which are taught or acquired through participation in different social institutions, including schooling, and that the meaning of literacy depends on the social institutions in which it is embedded. Literacy can only be experienced and known in forms which already have political and ideological significance. Thus, he argued, Unesco literacy campaigns in the 1960s and 70s, organised around a conception of ‘functional literacy’ as a universal package of supposedly neutral skills and knowledge deemed necessary by Western agencies for individual and community development, were doomed to failure. Their definitions of illiteracy failed to acknowledge the variety of already existing indigenous practices, and they ignored the ideological functions of literacy, both within the diverse cultural contexts where programmes were targeted, and also within the particular developmental and economistic ethos of the development programmes themselves.      

Literacy in Theory and Practice lays out the theoretical programme which Brian worked at applying during the rest of his life, through collaborative discussions, research and writing with other local and international colleagues from anthropology, sociolinguistics, literacy education, mathematics, multimodal studies and English Language Teaching.  His warmth and enthusiasm, alongside his intellectual commitments, contributed to lifelong working relationships and friendships with scholars such as Shirley Heath and David Bloome. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Brian consolidated his arguments for the ideological model of literacy, demonstrating through edited collections of work from anthropologists and, increasingly, educationalists, the diversity of vernacular literacy practices in different oral/literate mixes across cultural contexts, the creative and original ways in which people transform literacy to their own cultural concerns and interests and the role of literacy in the construction of gender, ethnicity and religious and national identities.

Brian’s deconstruction of monolithic, reified conceptions of literacy and his insistence on its intrinsically ideological effects resonated with poststructuralist and social constructivist ideas circulating within the social sciences in the 1990s, and in particular with the increasing interest in discourse studies among linguists dissatisfied with traditional asocial models of formal linguistics. While he was at the University of Sussex, Brian helped to set up an interdisciplinary research group which brought anthropology into conversation with linguistics. He saw fruitful common ground for research in literacy studies between contemporary sociolinguistic and anthropological theories, and between ethnography and discourse analysis. There were shared concerns about the theorisation of context, how to address issues of power and ideology and the need to develop more dynamic models explicating relations between language, culture and society. Brian’s keynote addresses ‘Culture is a verb’ at the 1993 conference of the British Association of Applied Linguistics marked a pivotal moment in the cross-fertilisation of ideas between anthropology and social linguistics. 

Brian had always been interested in the application of the ideological model of literacy to research in educational contexts.  His abiding commitment to work in development education was expressed through continuing publications and lifelong involvement in the ‘British Association for Literacy in Development’ (BALID) and ‘Learning Empowerment through training in Ethnographic Research’ (LETTER), and collaboration with colleagues such as Alan Rogers. In 1988 he spent six months at the University of Pennsylvania, which initiated a life-long affiliation as Visiting Professor in the Graduate School of Education. Through this connection, he came into closer contact with literature emerging in the United States on race, education, language and power, which was formative for his later work. His increasing interest in literacy practices in schools and universities prompted the research during his first US visit which led to a chapter in Social Literacies (1995), where he argued (with Joanna Street) that institutionalised processes of teaching and learning literacy in UK and US elementary schools are underpinned by an autonomous model of literacy. This involved the objectification of language, the privileging of writing and reading over oral discourse and the conception of literacy as a set of neutral competences. Street and Street saw these processes being reproduced and disseminated through media discussions of literacy, political debates, educational toys and parental discourses. This ‘pedagogised literacy’ became an organising concept, which replaced questions about the effects of poverty, unemployment and ethnic conflict on education with debates about how literacy acquisition can be improved and literacy distribution enhanced.

Brian saw his work, alongside that of other scholars such as Jim Gee, David Barton and Mary Hamilton who were also critiquing conventional models of literacy, as part of a programmatic ‘New Literacy Studies’ which acknowledged the social embedding of literacy and its ideological effects. The NLS approach could be applied in a range of different contexts. With Mary Lea he argued that accounts of falling standards of student writing at UK schools and universities were predicated on an autonomous skills deficit model of academic writing which failed to address the complexity of writing practices and different genres and epistemologies across disciplines, or the affective and ideological conflicts which students could experience when confronted with academic writing requirements. Instead of a restrictive ‘study skills’ model of academic writing, or an ‘academic socialisation modal’ which recognises contextual factors but still treats writing as a transparent medium and undertheorizes change and the exercise of power, Lea and Street urged researchers and educationalists to adopt an ‘academic literacies’ model which examines actual literacy practices in the academy and conceptualises student learning and writing in terms of epistemologies and identities rather than skills or socialisation. In the area of mathematics education Brian worked with Dave Baker and Alison Tomlin to produce a more ideological model of numeracy, and he collaborated in research and publications with Dorothy Sheridan at Sussex University Mass Observation Archive, who was building an alternative historical record based on ordinary people’s everyday practices. In all these projects Brian applied an anthropological perspective, insisting on the importance of ethnographic detail and persistently interrogating the cultural conceptions of knowledge and power which underpinned social practice.   

In 1996 Brian moved from Sussex University to take up a Chair in Language in Education at Kings College, London, from where he pursued a rich range of collaborative work over the next twenty years and became increasingly in demand internationally as a key conference speaker and visiting academic. He provided intellectual leadership and a theoretical reference point for educationalists concerned about the experiences of indigenous and ‘non-traditional’ students entering mainstream educational systems and those challenging the increasingly assessment-driven ‘bullet-point’ curriculum in UK and US schools. His edited publications promoted practice accounts of more culturally and ideologically sensitive work, and he continued to extend his applications of the ideological model with colleagues. For instance, with Constant Leung, Brian argued that in English language teaching ‘English’ should be approached not as a monolithic fixed set of lexico-grammatical rules and pragmatic conventions, but in terms of a diverse variety of practices by speakers differently positioned in relation to various forms of English and other languages. Through his contact with Gunther Kress, he began to consider how the ideological model might incorporate a more explicitly multimodal dimension. With Maria Lucia Castanheira, he carried out research on the experiences of indigenous students in Brazilian Universities. In his later years Brian also brought his experience of education back to the discipline of anthropology, through his role as Chair of the Royal Anthropological Institute Education Committee, and his determination to establish an Anthropology A-Level syllabus which was introduced into British schools in 2010. It was subsequently withdrawn in 2015 by the British Education Secretary Michael Gove, as part of his traditionalist A-Level reforms, but work is currently being pursued to establish anthropology at pre-university level in Scotland.

Brian worked constantly to establish connections, between theory and practice, across different cultural contexts and across disciplines. This often involved long animated conversations, whether in the coffee-houses and bath-houses of Chesmeh, university classrooms across the world, or his beach hut at Brighton. The ideological model entails a strong methodological commitment to ethnography and Brian’s boundless ethnographic curiosity, together with his insistence on examining the conceptual models underpinning social practice, pervaded the supervision of over forty doctoral students. In addition to his intellectual and research accomplishments, he was an inspiring and generous teacher. Brian’s achievements have been recognised in a number of international awards: a Distinguished Scholar Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Reading Council in the USA, admission to the Reading Hall of Fame by the International Literacy Association and an Honorary Degree at the Open University. Equally important for him, I think, were his personal connections with the many students and colleagues throughout the world whose work and thinking were shaped by Brian’s writing and teaching. He will be remembered by these numerous, far-flung students and colleagues with deep affection and gratitude.


Brian in Central Park, New York

Recent literacy research in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte, Brazil

To cite this article:

MAYBIN, JANET. 2017 ‘Brian Street, 1943-2017’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, July 2017. (available on-line:


SINGER, ANDRE. 2017. Professor Brian V. Street. Anthropology Today 33, 4: 23.

STREET, ALICE. 2017 ‘Brian Street, 1943-2017’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, July 2017. (available on-line:


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online*&cw=OR&as_method=get&as_resultsmode=fullkeywords&f0=author&o0=%3D%3D&v0=Brian%20Street&f1=author&o1=%3D%3D&v1=B%20Street