Chapter 4. Cartoons as Praxis: Negotiating Different Needs in Adult Literacy Research Reporting

Frank Sligo and Elspeth Tilley

Frank Sligo’s PhD is in information richness and poverty, and his research and publications are in adult literacy, community consultation, and the knowledge-behaviour gap. He is Professor of Communication and Associate Head of the School of Communication, Journalism, and Marketing at Massey University Wellington, New Zealand.


Elspeth Tilley’s PhD is in postcolonial studies and her research and publications are in adult literacy, communication ethics, postcolonial discourse, and public relations. She is a Senior Lecturer at Massey University Wellington, New Zealand. She is the coordinator of PRaxis, a website that collects together useful resources for the study and practice of public communication, and the founding editor of PRism, a refereed scholarly journal of public relations and communication research.

In 2007 we commissioned a series of cartoons to communicate the findings of a longitudinal research project exploring adult literacy. We agree with Marx’s (1845/1969, p. 15) comment that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." Thus we wanted to make our findings accessible to the communities we were working with. Also attractive was the prospect of challenging the assumptions inherent within governmental adult literacy policy—we felt that adult literacy policy tended to show characteristics of “experts talking to experts,” but it could be enhanced if it showed strong awareness of the reality facing people with low literacy. However, we were also working within quite complex parameters. These included the postcolonial society of Aotearoa New Zealand, and the contested theoretical domain of adult literacy.


We fully accepted the need for strict participant anonymity and sought to communicate with diverse community and national audiences. Traditional, text-heavy scholarly research reporting seemed a poor fit. Cartoons, however, offered a novel way to navigate this tricky terrain. Therefore, we produced a series of cartoon-based posters (Massey University ALLR Group, 2007) and a book-style research report called Voices (Tilley et al., 2007). These contained large cartoon images on every page featuring verbatim quotations from research participants that brought to life key community perspectives. The visual material accompanying this chapter contains samples of those images. This chapter explains how the images were used and describes the feedback that resulted from the publication of Voices, both from community and policy audiences.




Further Readings


Elkins, James. (2010). Visual cultures. Chicago: Intellect.


Few, Stephen. (2006). Information dashboard design: The effective visual communication of data.  Cambridge MA: O'Reilly.


Kress, Gunther and van Leeuwen, Theo. (2006). Reading images: The grammar of visual design. London: Routledge.


Kromm, Jane and Bakewell, Susan Benforado. (Eds.). (2010). A history of visual culture: Western civilization from the 18th to the 21st century. Oxford; New York: Berg.


Macnab, Maggie. (2008). Decoding design: Understanding and using symbols in visual communication: Discover the hidden meanings inside common corporate logos and designs. Cincinnati, Ohio: HOW books.


Moran, Terence P. (2010). Introduction to the history of communication: Evolutions & revolutions. New York: Peter Lang.


Van Leeuwen, Theo. (2008). Discourse and practice: New tools for critical discourse analysis. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.