Social Interaction

Contact Zones

One of the major insights of the New Literacy Studies was the idea that literacy is situated and therefore that it doesn’t function consistently across contexts (Gee, 2015). Different communities hold different values, expectations, and ideologies in regards to literacy. As writers practice speaking and writing in different cultures of literacy, mismatches in community expectations and writers’ experiences lead to (at best) difficulties for writers transferring knowledge (McCarthy, 1987) and (at worst) marginalization of those lacking the literacy markers of community insiders (Lu, 1994).

Pratt (1991) termed the dynamic, risk-laden spaces where multiple such cultures collide contact zones, famously defined as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths” (p. 34). The concept of contact zones saw widespread immediate and sustained uptake in composition studies, with both its proponents and detractors (e.g., Bizzell, 1994; Harris, 2012; Lu, 1994; Miller, 1994; Selfe & Selfe, 1994). It was used most often to describe pedagogical spaces where students’ diverse backgrounds and languages created transcultural conflicts, which were most often described by compositionists as generative but also as potentially threatening. Texts, too, can be thought of as contact zones. Because written texts represent people and ideas but exist outside of writers (Bazerman & Tinberg, 2015), they can be modified, distributed between collaborators, and interpreted in various ways in various contexts, which enables them to function as a “join between contexts” (Kell, 2011, p. 611).

An illustration from Guaman Poma's New Chronicle, which Mary Louise Pratt uses as a case study to construct her theory of contact zones.
An illustration from Guaman Poma's New Chronicle, which Pratt (1991) uses as a case study to construct her theory of contact zones. The Inca in the illustration asks in Quechua, "You eat this gold?" to which the Spaniard responds in Spanish, "We eat this gold."

While contact zones have often been taken to mean liminal spaces where people “write across cultures” or “write across communities” that have been juxtaposed, it is also accurate to say the concept describes “writing across power.” In other words, since meaning generally depends on whose interpretation has more authority, the circulation of a text across people with who hold different levels of status changes the value and meaning attached to a piece of writing. Blommaert (2007) develops a spatial metaphor for literacy in which some participants in literate exchanges have the ability to elevate “a particular issue to a scale-level that is inaccessible to the other”(p. 6-7)—for instance, when “a lawyer shifts into legalese or a doctor into medical jargon” (p. 7). Blommaert notes that “moves across such scale-levels are moves within a power regime,” with those who can “upscale” or “recontextualize” (Kell, 2009) to a context where one’s literate practices enjoy more privilege being able to claim the upper hand.

While the spatiality of contact zones may lead us to think of them as background more than action, scholars such as Juan Guerra have adapted Pratt’s theory to processes that highlight the agency of mobile, transcultural writers who are nearly always negotiating multiple, fluid, and simultaneously overlapping contact zones. Guerra (2004) calls this transcultural repositioning, which he defines as “shape shifting in cultural, linguistic, and intellectual terms” (p. 15). This is different from code switching in that the focus is on more than language, and “repositioning” for Guerra doesn’t necessarily equate to conceding to hegemonic conventions. Instead, it’s about knowing the best position one can take to speak from at any given moment, sort of like how boxers or fencers pay special attention to footwork and evaluating a situation before making a move. Guerra advocates cultivating what he calls a “nomadic consciousness” (Guerra, 2009), where writers are constantly crossing between literacy cultures, constituting and reconstituting themselves, expanding their literacy repertoires in order “to be more dexterous and agile” (Guerra, 2016, p. 4) in the face of a world in flux.

Trans-, cross- and interdisciplinarity

From its inception, writing studies has been an interdisciplinary field (Lauer, 1984; Nystrand et al., 1993). Writing is a complex and multifaceted object of study that practically requires research methods from multiple disciplines to study. In addition, writing is critical to every academic discipline, and so in a sense the accepted concepts of intellectual “turf” that commonly bound most disciplines would not seem to apply to writing.

Writing’s ubiquity has in some ways hindered the development of a recognizable discipline devoted to its study. Indeed, the debate over whether writing studies can truly call itself one discipline is anything but settled (Malenczyk et al., 2018). The interdisciplinary nature of writing studies has frequently been named as a barrier to its disciplinary status. Critics of disciplinarity in writing studies contend the field doesn’t have a unified set of methods, goals, or even definitions for what writing is. Or if it does, there are too many other disciplines vying for the same territory—sociolinguistics, rhetoric, communication, education, TESOL, media studies, English for specific purposes, and literacy studies, to name a few.

Writing studies’ interdisciplinary nature has caused the field to be extraordinary self-aware of its own disciplinary boundaries and status and the boundaries and status of other disciplines as well. For example, WAC initiatives have necessitated scholarly inquiry into epistemology, how communities compose knowledge, and the differences in rhetorical conventions that different epistemologies give rise to. Meanwhile, the often precarious status of writing programs within the university and within English departments in particular (Hairston, 1985) has pushed the field to critically analyze the way power works within academic institutions.

Writing studies has tended to take up notions of crossing in studies of disciplinarity in a few key ways:

  • Acculturation. Composition studies has tracked the ways students, both undergraduate and graduate, cross thresholds and transfer knowledge as they move deeper into a discipline, often with consequences for the writer’s identity. In a sense, students are far more likely to be transdisciplinary boundary crossers (Reiff & Bawarshi, 2011) than any others in the academy on account of their novice status. (They don’t have a firmly-anchored disciplinary “home” yet.)
  • Intersections and overlaps. Klein (2009) argues that disciplines have frequently been conceptualized using geopolitical and topographical discourse. Trans-, cross- and interdisciplinary approaches attempt to disrupt the artificial boundaries of imagined disciplinary geographies. This disciplinary border-crossing, Klein argues, holds the potential to create new knowledge “through continuous inter- and intradisciplinary cross-fertilization” (p. 268). This boundary work can give rise to new fields that eventually settle into discipline-like structure. Klein (2009) points to fields like women’s studies, cognitive science, and biochemistry as examples; contemporary writing studies could be one more such example. Although trans- cross- and interdisciplinary collaborations are often celebrated as progressive, transgressive, and mutually beneficial, this is not always the case. In the keynote address at the 2013 Interdisciplinary Futures Symposium, Pippin notes that institutional politics and material conditions often stymie true interdisciplinary activity, causing institutions to instead promote a “phony” or reductive kind of interdisciplinarity (Emory, 2013). Although the boundaries between disciplines are “permeable,” as Klein (1996) attests, serious structural changes to the siloization to the academy may be needed for individuals to practicably do this kind of boundary crossing in a sustainable way.
  • Terministic screens. Burke (1966) proposed a theory, which he called terministic screens, to illustrate how the vocabulary we use to describe objects and concepts alters the meaning we ascribe to those objects and concepts. In essence, terministic screens are interfaces made out of language that “filter” the world that we perceive (Blakesley, 2017). Since humans process thought through language, this filtering is to some extent inescapable. “We must use terministic screens, since we can’t say anything without the use of terms,” Burke writes. Disciplines change the ways we think and view the world by encouraging members (through acculturation) to develop a highly specialized common lexis (Swales, 1990) that acts as such a screen. Being transdisciplinary, then, requires the ability to employ what Journet (1997) calls “boundary rhetoric” to build vocabulary that bridges disciplines and facilitates toggling between different terministic screens or helps construct new screens altogether. Although it’s not clear if crossing is a more apt metaphor than, say, creation for the sort of filtered interpretation that terministic screens describe, screens imply a similar change via movement through permeable membranes that Klein (1996) suggests happens at a macro scale as ideas and individuals cross disciplinary boundaries.


Writing studies scholars have at various times turned to metaphors of interconnected webs to emphasize both the social and, increasingly, material nature of writing. Perhaps the most influential scholar in bringing the concept to the field of writing studies, Cooper (1986), who defines ecologies as “dynamic interlocking systems” that “are made and remade by writers in the act of writing” (p. 368). Such systems, Cooper continues, “are entirely interwoven in their effects and manner of operation. The systems reflect the various ways writers connect with one another through writing: through systems of ideas, of purposes, of interpersonal interactions, of cultural norms, of textual forms” (p. 369). Despite Cooper’s focus on the social, not all actants in an ecology must necessarily be considered human. Contemporary new materialist writing researchers (e.g., Micciche, 2014; Rule, 2018) have built on theorists such as Barad (2007), Latour (2007), and Bennett (2010) as well as Syverson’s (1999) expanded definition of ecology, which taxonomizing ecologies into five main components: the physical-material dimension, the social dimension, the psychological dimension, the spatial dimension, and the temporal dimension. What unifies ecological orientations to writing is an orientation to relationships and connections (Fleckenstein et al., 2008), the drawing of invisible lines (crossing points) between a holistic inventory of the myriad factors involved in any moment of literacy.

A dense web of overlapping red threads from an installation by Chiharu Shiota
In knotworking, social, intellectual, and material components of writing ecologies are imagined spatially as a universe of overlapping threads, which rhetorical agents select and tie together to accomplish situated tasks. Photo of Chiharu Shiota installation by Lemoox.

A constellation of other terms has arisen to describe ways of thinking about more specific elements of a writing ecology. Bazerman advances intertextuality (Bazerman, 2004) and genre systems (Bazerman, 1994) to describe ecologies of texts interacting with other texts. Network is often used to describe technological (Eyman, 2015) or knowledge (Mueller, 2017; Spinuzzi, 2008) ecologies, while distributed cognition has been deployed to describe ecologies of people (Klein & Leacock, 2012). Finally, the term knotworking, or “the continual tying and untying of genres, objects, texts, and people” (Fraiberg, 2010, p. 105) focuses on how practices weave “together otherwise separate threads of activity” (Engeström et al., 1999, p. 346).

A map of a city with two intersecting lines overlaid onto it
An illustration from Guaman Poma's New Chronicle, which Mary Louise Pratt uses as a case study to construct her theory of contact zones.
A dense web of overlapping red threads from an installation by Chiharu Shiota
Social Interaction

© Gabriel Morrison, 2021