Monash University
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The mobile literacy practices of adolescents: an ethnographic study

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posted on 2017-01-31, 05:18 authored by Taylor, Calvin Allan
This study investigates how adolescents aged 15-16 negotiate their use of mobile technologies in and across school contexts, in terms of a social theory of literacy. It is located within the debate concerning the relevance of out-of-school literacy practices and technology use for educational and learning purposes. In doing so, it contributes to an important and enduring debate, but takes a focus on mobile technologies particularly, that has been previously under-examined. Two significant fields of research and scholarship are drawn together in this study: sociological studies of mobile technologies and studies of emerging literacy practices. Mobile technologies are treated in a general fashion, in order to integrate the wide range of different devices and convergences between different technologies. However, the mobile phone - ubiquitous and pervasive amongst adolescents – provides a particularly generative focus. Contemporary theories of literacy, and what this means in ages of ‘new media’, are examined as they relate to skills, competencies and practices associated with effective everyday and educational interactions. The ideologically-based and multimodal nature of literacy, as it relates to social practice, is the perspective adopted throughout this study. This research brings these two fields of scholarship into critical dialogue, drawing on the voices of adolescents to create a profile of current mobile literacy practices. The significance of educational approaches to understanding literacy and young people is also critically considered. A critical ethnographic perspective and methodology is employed throughout this study, which seeks to understand the particular culture of practices that accompany social interactions. The interpretative framework used has an ethnographic basis, drawn from the work of Pierre Bourdieu. This provides a framework for integrating understandings of literacy and social practice as they relate to new devices. The site for this study, a rural secondary school, provides the empirical groundwork for the study. In emphasising the importance of social interactions for a model of mobile literacy, the practices of the participants are examined in terms of the economic, social, cultural and symbolic dimensions of social practice. Whilst drawing on the voices of individual participants, patterns of behaviour, attitudes and beliefs, as they relate to mobile technologies are drawn out. Relationships are explored between social factors and literacy practices, considering both individual agency and structural concerns. The structural impact of economic and social factors, are examined in terms of a dialogic relationship between device capabilities and usage patterns. The varied interpretative frameworks that dominate students’ lives, are typified in the way cultural resources are interpreted as having different symbolic values at the peer and school levels. How individual students negotiate the different value systems concerning mobile technology use across school and home spaces emerges as a necessary element of focus for a mobile literacy theory. This study develops a theoretical framework for understanding literacy related to mobile technologies, particularly at the interface of social practice. This model develops a series of concepts – the ‘mobile field’, the ‘monopoly-membership dynamic’ and ‘digital travellers’ – that will be useful for understanding and discussing emerging educational and literacy trends.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Jane Kenway

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Education