Commentary #1: Biases of the ‘Great Divide’

In Biases of the Ear and Eye, Daniel Chandler looks at the issues behind the ‘Great Divide’ theories and provides alternate views.  The article provides evidence against the idea of a monumental division between literate and illiterate people, and highlights the importance of recognizing biases.  Although he successfully sheds an alternate light on the ‘Great Divide’ theories, I believe Chandler underestimates the impact of literacy and orality.

Chandler approaches the ‘Great Divide’ theories from three perspectives: Phonocentrism (where speech is privileged over writing), Graphocentrism (where writing is viewed more importantly than speech), and Logocentrism (which views verbal communication more highly than non-verbal communication) and simplifies the theories into arguments of “the ear versus the eye” (Chandler, 1994, p.1).  These theories are based on the view that the arrival of writing had an enormous affect on cognition.  This view results in several dichotomies, such as “ ‘primitive’ vs. ‘civilized’ . . . ‘pre-rational’ vs. ‘rational’ . . . ‘oral’ vs. ‘visual’, or ‘pre-literate’ vs. ‘literate’ ” (Chandler, 1994, p.1).

Classifying people as as ‘oral’ vs. ‘literate’ is an simplistic approach and has resulted in increasing criticism.  Chandler explains that the alternative theories, which are called the ‘Continuity’ theories, view the change from orality to literacy as an interactive process that is affected by the medium’s technical limitations and social context (Chandler, 1994).  He points to Cole and Scribner’s research which, contrary to the ‘Great Divide’ theories, demonstrated that literacy didn’t have a cognitive effect (Chandler, 1994), and instead identified schools as a source of major intellectual change.  This is important because ‘Great Divide’ theories fail to “separate effects of schooling from effects of literacy” (Collins, 1995, p.80).

“The notion of ‘primitive mentality’ is now rejected by most anthropologists, though it survives amongst some conservative theorists” (Chandler, 1994, p.1).  As well, research suggests that literacy works differently for different cultures and “the specific cognitive properties or linguistic structures claimed as consequences of literacy do in fact exist in oral cultures” (Daniell, 1999, p.397).  Critics of ‘Great Divide’ theories claim that literacy can not be seperated from culture and that theorists made assumptions on people that weren’t around to be questioned (Daniell, 1999).   In Chandler’s view, “writing is no ‘better’ than speech, nor vice versa – speech and writing need to be acknowledged as different media with differing functions” (Chandler, 1994, p.1).  I agree that they serve different functions, but there are times when one can be superior.  “Oral communication unites people in groups”(Ong, 1982, p.68), develops memory, and evokes empathy, while writing can be archived, allow for objectivity, and be abstract. Both are more than mere functions and can provide unique responses.

One of the flaws with the “Great Divide” theories is a failure to acknowledge pre-existing biases, such as those that come with being literate and Western.  Chandler believes that because we are products of a literate world, “we cannot write ‘without bias’, but we can learn to become more aware of our biases” (Chandler, 1994, p.2) and how they influence us.  However, how do university graduates truly comprehend the value of something to an oral culture or what is lost when it becomes a literate one?

In identifying some of the biases that exist in the ‘Great Divide’ theories, Chandler points out how Walter Ong refers to voice as ‘alive’ and ‘natural’, while writing is ‘dead’ and ‘artificial,’ and that Ong views ‘voice’ as having primacy in groups (Chandler, 1994).  Yet, I would argue that orality is more natural, doesn’t require tools, exists before writing, and evolves more quickly.  Ong does indeed romanticize orality, but he also believes that writing is responsible for shaping human intellect (Ong, 1982).  In an attempt to demonstrate Ong’s phonocentric and religious biases, Chandler reveals some of his own bias by stating that “to the Jesuit Father Ong, writing surely represents the Fall of Man from Edenic existence” (Chandler, 1994, p.2).  However, I find that Ong demonstrates a graphocentrism by commenting that “writing heightens consciousness” (Ong, 1982, p.81) and that, by being dead, writing “assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers (Ong 1977, pp. 230-271)” (Ong, 1982, p.80).  Some additional bias appears in the article when Chandler writes that schools are “obsessed with the primacy of the written word” and references their purpose as “social control in the interests of ruling elites” (see Graff 1987)” (Chandler, 1994, p.1).  Yet, he doesn’t provide supporting evidence for this argument or consider the benefits of literacy in schools.

Another bias that Chandler identifies is that Western culture is graphocentric because of a bias towards sight.  Although he goes to great lengths to explain that light is often associated with knowledge or intelligence, such as in the word ‘enlightenment,’ he fails to show a direct connection between an instinctual need to see with a preference of literacy over orality.

Chandler identifies several problematic areas in the ‘Great Divide’ theories and is able to present the ‘Continuity theories’ in a convincing manner.  He makes an important point, which is the need to realize that we all have biases.   Unfortunately, he is less convincing when he identifies them and actually ends up letting some of his own appear in Biases of the Ear and Eye.  Nevertheless, his observation of the effects of technical limitations and social context on the transition from orality to literacy is one that we should consider carefully as we continue our transition to a digital medium.


Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism.  Retrieved from

Collins, J. (1995). Literacy and Literacies.  Annual Review of Anthropology. 24, 75-93.  Retrieved from

Daniell, B.  (1999). Narratives of Literacy: Connecting Composition to Culture. College Composition and Communication. 50, 393-410.  Retrieved from

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

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