Goody on the Differences between Orality and Literacy

Cambridge Anthropologist Jack Goody writes about some of the differences between oral and literate societies:

The written word does not replace speech, any more than speech replaces gesture. But it adds an important dimension to much social action. This is especially true of the politico-legal domain, for the growth of bureaucracy clearly depends to a considerable degree upon the ability to control ‘secondary group’ relationships by means of written communications. Indeed it is interesting to note that the terms in which Cooley originally defined the primary group are very close to those used for pre-literate societies. ‘By primary group, I mean those characterised by intimate face-to-face association and co-operation. The result of intimate association, psychologically, is a certain fusion of individualities in a common whole, so that one’s very self, for many purposes at least, is the common life and purpose of the group’ (1909:23). A face-to-face group has no great need of writing. Take the example of the domestic group, the prototypical primary group, which brings us back to the reasons why writing has had little direct influence on kinship, since intercourse between kin is largely oral and often non-verbal.

Other social institutions are affected more directly. I mentioned above the problem of communication in large states. This is not the occasion to enter upon an extended discussion of the links between the means of communication and the political system. Max Weber pointed out that one of the characteristics of bureaucratic organisations was the conduct of official business on the basis of written documents (Weber 1947:330-2; Bendix 1960:419). But it needs stressing that some of the other characteristics of bureaucracy he mentions are also closely related to this fact. The depersonalisation of the method of recruitment to office often involves the use of ‘objective’ tests, that is, written examinations, which are ways of assessing the applicants’ skill in handling the basic material of administrative communication, letters, memos, files and reports. As Bendix notes in his valuable commentary on Weber, in earlier systems of administration ‘official business is transacted in personal encounter and by oral communication, not on the basis of impersonal documents’ (1960:420). In other words, writing affects not only the method of recruitment and the occupational skills but also the nature of the bureaucratic role itself. The relation with both ruler and ruled becomes more impersonal, involving greater appeal to abstract ‘rules’ listed in a written code and leading to a clear-cut separation between official duties and personal concerns. … [It] is clear that the adoption of written modes of communication was intrinsic to the development of more wide-ranging, more depersonalised and more abstract systems of government; at the same time, the shift from oral intercourse meant assigning less importance to face-to-face situations, whether in the form of the interview or audience, of personal service or national festivals in which the renewal of ties of obedience was often as significant as the religious rites.

I have tried to take certain of the characteristics that Levi-Strauss and others have regarded as marking the distinction between primitive and advanced, between wild and domesticated thinking, and to suggest that many of the valid aspects of these somewhat vague dichotomies can be related to changes in the mode of communication, especially the introduction of various forms of writing. …

Much of the discussion and much of our thinking about other cultures has been based on the misinterpretation of the nature of oral ‘tradition’. One of the features of oral communication in pre-literate societies lies in its capacity to swallow up the individual achievement and to incorporate it in a body of transmitted custom that can be considered as the approximate equivalent to what Tylor called ‘culture’ and Durkheim ‘society’ (or rather the ‘social factor’), which both writers regarded as sui generis. In considering the nature of this tradition and the process by which it is created, it is important to recognise the difference between oral and literate cultures (though overlooked in many of the general arguments), because it bears upon the question of the individual’s role in the creative process and hence the whole problem of the intellectual. In oral societies a man’s achievement, be it ballad or shrine, tends to get incorporated (or rejected) in an anonymous fashion. It is not that the creative element is absent, though its character is different. And it is not that a mysterious collective authorship, closely in touch with the collective consciousness, does what individuals do in literature cultures. It is rather that the individual signature is always getting rubbed out in the process of generative transmission. And this process affects, though in a different degree, not merely what in its written form we would call ‘literature’, but more generally the categories of the understanding and systems of classification themselves, for a dialectical relationship always exists between the individual as a creator and the culture as a given. …

I am interested [also] in certain general dimensions of [what Luria calls ‘functional cognitive systems’] that are related to what historians of culture perceive as ‘the growth of knowledge’. While this has to do with ‘content’, it also presupposes certain processes which are related, I argue, to the modes of communication by which man interacts with man and, more especially, transmits his culture, his learned behaviour, from generation to generation.

Culture, after all, is a series of communicative acts, and differences in the mode of communication are often as important as differences in the mode of production, for they involve developments in the storing, analysis, and creation of human knowledge, as well as the relationships between the individuals involved. The specific proposition is that writing, and more especially alphabetic literacy, made it possible to scrutinise discourse in a different kind of way by giving oral communication a semipermanent form; this scrutiny favoured the increase in scope of critical activity, and hence of rationality, scepticism, and logic to resurrect memories of those questionable dichotomies. It increased the potentialities of criticism because writing laid out discourse before one’s eyes in a different kind of way; at the same time increased the potentiality for cumulative knowledge, especially knowledge of an abstract kind, because it changed the nature of communication beyond that of face-to-face contact as well as the system for the storage of information; in this way a wider range of ‘thought’ was made available to the reading public. No longer did the problem of memory storage dominate man’s intellectual life; the human mind was freed to study static ‘text’ (rather than be limited by participation in the dynamic ‘utterance’), a process that enabled man to stand back from his creation and examine it in a more abstract, generalised, and ‘rational’ way. By making it possible to scan the communications of mankind over a much wider time span, literacy encouraged, at the very same time, criticism and commentary on the one hand and the orthodoxy of the book on the other. …

It might be argued that there is all the difference in the world between the scientific attitude towards the control of nature that is adopted by the modern world and the mystical attitude seen as characteristic of pre-literate societies. But is this difference as radical as it appears? Robin Horton, who has given us the most intelligent of the available accounts of African traditional thought and its relationship to Western science, denies that this is so. He attempts to treat African traditional religious beliefs as ‘theoretical models akin to those of the sciences’ and argues that, if we recognise the aim of theory to be the demonstration of a limited number of kinds of entity or process underlying the diversity of experience (1967:51), then recent analyses of African cosmologies make it clear that ‘the gods of a given culture do form a scheme which interprets the vast diversity of everyday experience in terms of the action of a relatively few kinds of force’ (1967:52). The gods are not capricious; spiritual agencies are at work behind observed events, and there is a basic modicum of regularity in their behaviour. Like ‘atoms, molecules, and waves, then, the gods serve to introduce unity into diversity, simplicity into complexity, order into disorder, regularity into anomaly’ (1967:52).


Goody, Jack. 1977. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.15-16, 27, 37-38. || Amazon || WorldCat


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