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On Critically Conscious Research: Approaches to Language and Literacy Research

reviewed by Marcella Kehus - August 31, 2009

coverTitle: On Critically Conscious Research: Approaches to Language and Literacy Research
Author(s): Arlette Ingram Willis, Mary Montavon, Catherine Hunter, Helena Hall, Latanya Burkle, and Ana Herrera
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807749060, Pages: 176, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

As the sixth volume in the NCRLL Collection, Approaches to Language and Literacy Research, On Critically Conscious Research continues the fine tradition of its predecessors with one or more proven researchers, here Arlette Ingram Willis and her very capable peers, providing a sort of handbook for this specialized slice of educational research. And like the authors before them, these experts work to define their particular work, lay out its theoretical foundation, and guide both the novice and more experienced researchers through the particulars of relevant issues and concepts using exemplary studies.

Some of the more basic notions to grasp are the ideological commonalties central to those facets of literacy and language research that fall under the label of critically conscious. First, this research should include multiple perspectives and should ultimately advocate for social justice (p. xii). More specifically, such research works to challenge barriers to social change, inequality, and democracy as they resist the reproduction of the ideas and values of privileged and dominant groups (p. 13).

To define critical consciousness, the authors begin with the root notions of individual consciousness from Kant, Hegels Master/Slave relationship, and Marxs historical materialism. Likewise, all three made some reference to race and gender though not in the ways posited by todays Critical Theorists. Picking up on their work were other scholars of Western Europe, such as Gramsci of The Frankfurt School who began to talk about ideological domination rather than just economics, and Fanon, a mixed-race scholar who first spoke of the psychic toll of oppression on black men, as well as the work of French sociologists such as Bourdieu, Foucault, and Derrida. Meanwhile, in the United States there was much being done in what came to be called Black Liberation Theology by such notable leaders of Color such as DuBois, Garvey, Turner, and Woodson which continued through the U.S. civil rights movement. In moving to South America, Paulo Freires work on the connection between literacy and oppression recognized that the educational system was a key component used by the power elites to retain power and status and to dominate or control the thinking of the masses& (p. 28). Thus, the roots of Western European thinking lead all the way to freedom seeking routes throughout North and South America. Throughout this work, the authors admittedly limit themselves to scholars from Western Europe, North America and South America. While some might consider this a weakness, it is stated upfront as a limitation.  

Nearly four-fifths of the critically conscious language and literacy research published between 2000 and 2005 includes reference to race, ethnicity, and identity (p. 90). Thus, there is a strong emphasis when beginning to discuss work particular to pedagogy on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related stances including LatCrit, Critical Indigenous Theory, and Critical White Studies. Central to understanding these are the foundational principles of first calling into question whiteness as the norm and predominant paradigm and the powerful effects such white privilege has in education. Second, this critical work consistently confronts such presumptions by foregrounding race and racism in research to ultimately change education and work toward social justice. Although not directly related to race, Critical Feminist Pedagogies are also considered here, noting the evolution of feminist studies to now include the experiences of women of Color.  

In reviewing methodology, the emphasis is on the critical and questioning presumptions. For example, in Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), such as the work of Fairclough, the focus is simultaneously on the language text, discourse practices, and sociocultural practices. Critical Ethnography, however, becomes much more complex when dealing with issues of history, power, culture, and values, and the varying viewpoints offered from different researchers here shed a good deal of light on the ongoing debate. Also notably intricate is the methodology grounding of CRT, which is first explained and then illustrated with two storytelling examples. Lastly, Critical Policy Analysis is perhaps best explained as a matter of focusing just on what is, the critical policy analyst asks, among others, what has been, why, and what might be (Edmonson, 2002, p. 114). This section ends with a brief directive warning researchers who might take on the outsider within role a theme taken up again in a later chapter on the hegemonic domain of power.

Indeed, the most powerful principle of On Critically Conscious Research is the use of Collins matrix of domination (1990, 2000) as a model of analysis and a critical lens. As an overlay of the last three chapters, it both dissects and reveals the interplay between these four domains structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal of domination or oppression when used as a critical lens.  Included within the structural domain of power, for example, are each of the institutions and organized practices such as government, education, law, housing, employment, and business that work to distribute social resources. An example of research in the structural domain includes Dysons study of the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2003 wherein all is a euphemism for not middle class and white (Dyson, 2003, p. 100). Other investigations conducted within the structural domain of power include Critical Policy Analysis and Critical Discourse Analysis of legislation, policy, school funding and even advertising, all of which work toward understanding the standardization of English literacy as a commodity and those who lack it, English Language Learners, for instance, as deficient.

Likewise, the disciplinary domain of power is made of up all of the rules and regulations of the above institutions as a way of ruling that relies on bureaucratic hierarchies and techniques of surveillance (Collins, 2000, p. 298). It is here that the cultures and languages of Indigenous peoples were sought to be exterminated since colonizers prefer dominance by re-education and the exclusive use of their own language. Pedagogical efforts in this arena including curriculum, materials, and instruction aimed toward ending race, gender, and class oppression by actively seeking to create a school climate that provides a space for the democratic discussion of racial, class, and gender inequality (Lopez, 2002, p. 1200).

Critical literacy and critical pedagogy have their most ideological conflicts within the hegemonic domain of power where this power lies in its ability to shape consciousness via the manipulation of ideas, images, symbols and ideas (Collins, 2000, p. 285). Studies here include identity issues with the GLBT community, meaning making from media literacy and popular culture, and presumptions made about both researcher and subjects.  

At the center of the interpersonal domain of power rests the ongoing debate of who can/should represent the lives, experiences and voices of the oppressed (p. 109). Here the counternarratives of schoolchildren of color as well as those of parents and family members help to give a more complete picture of norms besides whiteness as well as to debunk myths and make it possible for a larger part of the populace to find ones voice. As hooks observes: [f]inding a voice is an essential part of the liberation struggle for the oppressed, a move in the direction of freedom (1989, pp. 17-18).   

Of course, it will take excellent Critically Conscious researchers to find those voices, grounded in critical thought, asking the right questions, using the proper methodology, who know themselves but who also understand the history, culture, language, and values of those with whom they work to continue such an important undertaking. But Dr. Willis and her colleagues have given these researchers a tremendous resource to work from in On Critically Conscious Research.


Collins, P. H. (1990).  Black feminist thought:  Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment.  New York: Routledge.

Collins, P. H. (2000).  Black feminist thought:  Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment.  (2nd Ed.) New York: Routledge.

Dyson, A. H. (2003).  Popular literacies and the all children:  Rethinking literacy development for contemporary childhoods. Language Arts, 81(2), 100-109.

Edmonson, J. (2002).  Asking different questions:  Critical analyses and reading research.  Reading Research Quarterly, 37(1), 113-119.

hooks, b. (1989).  Talking back:  Thinking feminist, thinking black.  Boston: South End Press.

Lopez, N.  (2002).  Rewriting race and gender high school lessons:  Second-generation Dominicans in New York City.  Teachers College Record, 104(6), 1187-1203.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 31, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15763, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 2:15:25 AM

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About the Author
  • Marcella Kehus
    University of Toledo
    E-mail Author
    MARCELLA KEHUS is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Toledo. Her current research looks at the use of multicultural literature and student-led discussions with diverse classrooms to provide more tolerant and democratic classroom communities.
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