Book Review for James Paul Gee

In James Paul Gee’s book Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses the reader sees Gee journey through the maze of connections between language and discourse and how we make meaning out of these. At the heart of this argument is an interesting idea surrounding the individual, any understanding that is created through discourse comes from an individual’s experience, culture, and society. It is based upon their exposure to different uses of discourses. And, in reading through this book I began to think of it as our “personal dictionaries” that we keep in our head, a rolodex that we thumb through, that allows us to manipulate language based upon our resources and understandings that we have created through our experience.

Gee starts this discussion by looking at ideology, how the term came about, how it established meaning, and how that meaning has remained with it. “It turns out that this dichotomous contrast between ‘ideas’ and ‘facts’, between ‘theory’ and ‘experience’, has played a major role in the historical development of the meanings of the term ‘ideology’, as it has also in the politics of power.”(1). The term ideology was coined by Antonine Destutt de Tracy and he “rejected both ‘innate ideas’, whether from God or biology, and ‘established authority’, whether religion or the state, as the source and foundation of knowledge. He argued that all the ideas in our heads are based on evidence about the world we have gathered through our physical senses. We can see de Tracy is arguing that we think and how we act is due to our upbringing and environment, to our interaction with the physical and social world.”(2). And, he “…believed that a rational investigation, free from religious or metaphysical prejudice, of how ideas, beliefs, and values are formed on the basis of upbringing and experience could be the foundation for a just and happy society. That is, we could use this knowledge to construct environments that would lead people to have humane, just, and socially useful ideas and behaviors.” (2). After this definition Gee goes on to explain how figure heads such as Napoleon and Marx broke down this idea and morphed it into its meaning today. And, where Gee eventually leads us is to how he is going to use the term ideology through the course of this book in reference to language and discourse. Gee uses ideology as a social theory “which involves generalizations (beliefs, claims) about the way(s) in which goods are distributed in society.” (21). He continues on to explain that “Ideologies are important because, since theories ground beliefs, and beliefs lead to actions, and actions create social worlds (‘reality’), ideologies simultaneously explain, often exonerate, and also partially create, in interaction with history and the materials bases of society, the distribution of goods. And since everything that makes us human in the honorific sense of the term- the ability to freely think, believe, desire, feel, and create with others in a material world whose resources we share- are ‘goods’ in probably all, but at least some, societies, then ideologies are what construct not only human worlds, but humans.” (21). Once Gee establishes this understanding and ground work for ideology we begin to explore the sociocultural nature of meaning and communication.

To understand the tangible aspects of this book it was important to have an explanation of ideology and Gee’s definition of the term. I am now going to begin with Chapter 4, in chapter 2 and 3 Gee lays the groundwork for where literacy studies began and where it is now. In chapter 4 “Meaning: Choosing, Guessing, and Cultural Models” Gee explains the nature of language and the ways in which we analyze and interact with it. In this chapter Gee’s first stepping stone in this idea of discourse ideology through the development of social languages. “English, for example- is not a monolithic thing. Rather, each and every language is composed of many sub-languages, which I [Gee] will call social languages. Social languages stem from the fact that any time we act or speak, we must accomplish two things: we must make clear who we are, and we must make clear what we are doing.” (66). Through this idea Gee explains how we as communicators negotiate the world around us, in this negotiation we are speaking English but often times the place and context of the English spoken comes out as different forms of language. And, this idea of different languages constitutes the idea of social language. “Different social languages (and there are, for any one language, like English, a great many) make visible and recognizable two different social identities, two different versions of who one is.” (67). By understanding how a social language works a person can begin to understand the ideology of that social culture and/or context. This becomes tangible in spaces like the classroom because each student is their own person that comes from a place that is different than the social context of the school, and learning how to understand and appreciate each student respective social language will allow for more opportunity in the classroom.

Lastly I am going to discuss the final chapter in Gee’s book, chapter 7. In chapters 5 and 6 Gee develops the ideas surrounding discourse and identity, how certain discourses contribute to how an individual views themselves and how that progresses into how they function in society. He also discusses how discourses and literacy help to establish aspects of culture and how in turn culture allows for these literacies and discourses to develop, that they require each other in order to be sustained. In chapter 7, “Language, Individuals and Discourses”, where Gee discusses language in relationship to a discourse framework. In this chapter I loved Gee’s use of playing card as an example, “A text, or even a single sentence, is something like a playing card. A specific card has no value (meaning) apart from the patterns (hands) into which it can enter. And a specific hand of cards itself has no value (meaning) apart from the game it is part of. So, too, for language. A text is meaningful only within the pattern (or social configuration) it forms at a specific time and place with other pieces of language, as well as with specific thoughts, words, deeds, bodies, tools, and objects. And this pattern or configuration- this specific social action- is itself meaningful only within a specific Discourse or at the intersection of several Discourses. Pieces of language, as well as other symbols, bodies, deeds, and so forth, are cards; social practices are hands; and Discourses are games. None of these- cards, hands, or games- exist without the other.” (149). Gee shows how our language, discourse and ideology are often times completely contextual. What we say and why we say it based upon our experience, a child often speaks their mind wherever they are because they do not have the experience to understand a change in the discourse. However, in most cases an adult has been afforded the opportunity to learn how to manipulate language based upon their varying settings. That said, what this chapter offers as well is a reminder that these discourses are continually changing and that each one comes with its own set of rules that needs to be established and understood in order for it to be able to make meaning to the individual.

This text surrounds that idea of the individual and that is because ultimately the collective understanding of individuals is what allows for these social contexts and discourses to exist.  If a deck of cards is short a card then a game cannot be played.


Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourse. Bristol; Taylor & Francis Inc. 1996. Book.


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