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Contemporary orality: The understanding of a consciousness in urban India

Shakuntala Rao, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The study was conducted to create an understanding of a particular group of people from urban India who had no knowledge of reading and writing. I have defined the term contemporary orality as a culture that retains almost all the psychodynamics of primary orality but yet interacts with literacy. In the extensive literature of comparative media theory, little ethnographic work had been done about contemporary oral cultures and their knowledge-systems. This introductory term is being used as a substitute for two commonly used labels--illiterates and residually oral. The ethnographic questionnaire was designed in such a way as to find that contemporary oral subjects have a specific way of constituting knowledge which is different from the way literates conceptualize about knowledge. Writing has to be personally interiorized to affect thinking processes. This research was undertaken in two parts. The first set of interviews were conducted in summer of 1990 and a more extensive version followed during the summer of 1991. A total of 87 oral people were interviewed.^ The results indicate that contemporary oral subjects conceptualize many aspects of knowledge (for example, work, space, time, nature, religion, law, government, etc.) differently from literates. The research subjects retain many of the basic psychodynamics of primary orality, as discussed in the writings of Walter Ong, except for the emphasis on memory. While memory had been crucial for primary oral cultures, its importance is vastly reduced in contemporary orality. The sociodynamics of contemporary orality, i.e., its close interaction with literates and literacy, effects the way oral subjects retain information. They depend on literates for recalling events, times, dates and amounts. Thus, this dissertation establishes the distinction between primary and secondary orality by introducing the cultural label of contemporary orality and by defining its particular psychodynamics and sociodynamics. ^

Subject Area

Physical anthropology|Communication

Recommended Citation

Rao, Shakuntala, "Contemporary orality: The understanding of a consciousness in urban India" (1993). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9329659.