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Incomplete Enculturation: The Role of Hearing


© Grace Keyes

St. Mary’s University

First posted: 9 July 2006


This paper examines how hearing loss impacts an individual’s enculturation. Even mild hearing loss impacts children growing up in a hearing world, yet anthropologists have ignored how such a factor affects enculturation. This paper presents a case study to examine and illustrate how hearing loss leads to misinterpretations that negatively impact social interaction upon which enculturation is grounded.


A child growing up in a given culture acquires her or his culture with seeming ease and naturalness. On the surface, learning one’s culture appears simple. After all, don’t we all go through the process? Yet the multiple factors involved in this process are anything but simple. Humans are extremely complicated beings endowed with a tremendous range of often contradictory qualities. We are at once strong and vulnerable, resilient and rigid. Anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and others have their favorite ways of describing the process by which individuals come to develop their sense of self and learn the ways of their culture and society. Anthropologists, with their focus on culture, speak of enculturation whereas sociologists, with their focus on society, speak of socialization and psychologists describe the processes of child development and identity formation. Regardless of the specific terminology used to label this process, social scientists agree on the basic agencies and mechanisms involved in this process. Researchers, however, have largely neglected to take into account how biological factors such as the senses may affect enculturation. Hearing is one such biological component that has been neglected in studies of enculturation, socialization, and personality development. This paper demonstrates how an element so basic as hearing ability and even a mild hearing deficit can have a tremendous impact on these processes and it opens the possibility for further research in this area.

Person-centered Research & Conceptual Framework

The centrality of the concept of culture in anthropology has resulted in research methodologies that often place individuals at the periphery. Robert Levy notes that typically individuals are “not seen as the proper topics for central anthropological investigation” (1994:181). Much insight is gained by looking at the “culture bearer” and it is nearly impossible to engage in an exploration of enculturation without looking at the individual. This paper draws from on-going research on hearing loss, its impact on behavior, and the cultural understanding and perception of people with hearing impairment. Over the past two years I have interviewed a dozen individuals who have varying degrees of deafness but in this paper I focus on one such individual whose life experiences illustrates the complexities of enculturation and how it unfolds in the concrete life of an individual.

Defining Enculturation in Anthropology

One of anthropology’s contributions to this research lies in its broad perspective for understanding the interrelationship between human biology and culture. Such a perspective is essential in understanding human behavior. It is ironic, therefore, that anthropologists have not been explicit in showing the connections between enculturation and biological factors, such as hearing ability (or other senses for that matter). The fact that common definitions of enculturation never mention biological factors implies that a factor such as hearing is simply assumed to be part of the individual’s makeup.

Open any textbook in anthropology and one finds the term enculturation defined as basically the process by which people acquire their culture (the social norms, symbols, customs, cultural knowledge, meanings, etc.). Consider the following three definitions as examples of how enculturation is perceived in anthropology.

“Enculturation is the process by which a child learns the ideas and behaviors that constitute his or her culture. From its earliest days, a child learns and absorbs these cultural patterns from many sources. These agents of socialization are everywhere in the child’s environment” (Heider 2004:35). Heider briefly mentions some of these agencies and notes that enculturation is largely “informal and even unconscious” and makes the observation that by the time children enter school they “already have a command of much of their culture.” In his brief description of enculturation, Heider also points out that what makes enculturation possible is social interaction. Another definition is provided by Harris and Johnson: “Enculturation is a partially conscious and partially unconscious learning experience whereby the older generation invites, induces, and compels the younger generation to adopt traditional ways of thinking and behaving” (2000: 10). Aside from noting the importance of enculturation, Harris and Johnson do not spend much time in discussing or illustrating how the process unfolds in concrete terms. Rohner in a commentary article states: “Enculturation refers to the process by which individuals learn the culturally prescribed and valued behavior standards of their society. The goal of the process is to develop a responsible adult who behaves appropriately in terms of culturally standardized norms and beliefs” (2000: 278).

These definitions make it clear that anthropologists conceive of enculturation in similar terms but detailed analyses of how enculturation occurs have been neglected. Much is also assumed; it is generally assumed that language is a major vehicle of enculturation and that most people experience the process in much the same way if they belong to the same culture or society. The role of hearing in language acquisition and enculturation is taken for granted. Thus, works that examine the role of hearing in the enculturation process are non-existent in the anthropological literature. In fact, there exits very little literature on enculturation itself in anthropology. A few anthropological studies have taken a more focused analysis of enculturation but often these studies deal with broad social factors, such as “group membership” reflecting the anthropological focus on cultural patterns. A handful of anthropologists and sociologists have focused on populations of the deaf and the hearing impaired (e.g. Jepson 1992; Branson & Miller 2002; Higgins 1980) but not with a specific focus on the enculturation process.

The anthropological strength in understanding human behavior and adaptation lies in its synthesis of our biological heritage with our socio-cultural nature. This is clearly evident in studies of evolution, human variation, and health and illness. In medical anthropology, for instance, the biocultural model has fruitfully examined a wide range of issues related to illness and health behavior (McElroy & Townsend 2003). The utility of the biocultural model is apparent when examining the impact of deafness on social behavior. Anthropologists recognize the centrality of language in human life and the role of phonemes commands considerable attention but the ability to physically hear or discern fine differences between phonemes is again taken for granted.

Of course, the profoundly deaf have not been ignored as the extensive literature on the deaf community and sign language indicates. These include works by scientists such as Ursula Bellugi’s work with the deaf community (Bellugi 1972; Klima & Bellugi 1979), Groce’s ethnography of the deaf and hearing community on Martha’s Vineyard (1985), Lane’s history of the deaf (1984), Washabaugh’s linguistic studies (e.g.1981), and personal accounts from individuals experiencing deafness (e.g. Reisler 2002; Oliva 2004). The deaf community has its own language system and culture and anthropologists are quick to point out that systems such as American Sign Language are clear indications of the human propensity for language even when hearing is absent. Literature on the deaf and deaf culture is extensive, but anthropologists have not examined how the degree of deafness (or alternately hearing ability) impacts social behavior and enculturation.

In using culture as a central concept, anthropologists emphasize that culture is dynamic and cultural attitudes certainly vary with historical context. This, too, has relevance for this study because the cultural view of the deaf has changed considerably over the last half century. Deaf and hard of hearing individuals were often misunderstood. It was not uncommon to view people with hearing loss as mentally retarded or feeble-minded and were generally stigmatized (Lane 1984; Branson & Miller 2002). Thus, while the biocultural model in anthropology is appealing and fruitful, it has not been used concretely to understand enculturation.

Insights from Audiology

The major shortcoming of anthropology with regard to enculturation has been its neglect of biological factors along with cultural and social agencies. Specifically, hearing must be considered a key factor since anthropologists assume that much of enculturation relies on language. To gain insights into the importance of hearing on enculturation we can turn to audiologists who are quick to point out that hearing loss has a tremendous impact on a child’s social interaction and learning (e.g. Bess et al 1998). Due to the nature of their work, audiologists have examined in great detail the workings of human hearing and hearing loss and its impact on social interaction. Yet, how hearing loss impacts enculturation is generally outside the field of audiology although they also recognize the importance of language in learning.

In the study at hand, I do not focus on all the possible complexities of hearing and deafness nor do I focus on profound deafness. Rather, I focus on hearing loss that most people would consider mild or moderate and hence would draw little attention. Most phonemes in the English language are generally confined to a fairly limited area of the total range of sounds humans are able to perceive. Audiologists refer to this area as the “speech banana” because it resembles the shape of a banana (Northern & Downs 2002; See the Audiogram graph below). An inability to hear essential phonemes would be highly problematic for a child learning English or any language.

I use the term “speech deafness” to refer to the difficulty some individuals have in hearing phonemes that fall within the speech banana. As far as I can determine this concept was actually coined by the individual who serves as the case study for this paper. I use this term with caution, in part, because audiologists do not use such a term but I believe its utility outweighs possible critiques. It draws attention to the type of hearing impairment that affects the area where most speech sounds are produced and would, therefore, be critical for normal language development as well as normal conversation.


Audiogram of the American Academy of Audiology, showing “speech banana”.


Audiologists use complex tests for measuring hearing ability. Such tests include pure tone assessments, speech discrimination testing by which a person’s middle and inner ear functioning as well as speech threshold levels are determined, and other measures that go well beyond the scope of this paper. The most common designation of hearing ability is in terms of decibels, which indicates the level of intensity or loudness at which sounds can be heard (Northern & Downs, 2002; Roesser 1986; Schwartz, 1987). Speech sounds can range within the full spectrum of pitch levels but most phonemes commonly range between 250 and 4000 hertz and the intensity or loudness of sounds range from 0 to 120 decibels (dB). Someone with the ability to hear sounds from zero to fifteen decibels is generally considered to have normal hearing. Table 1 outlines the commonly used degrees of deafness and some associated effects. This classification illustrates how being “deaf” is a matter of degree and many people who are deaf have some degree of residual hearing.

Table 1: Degrees of Deafness

Hearing loss

Decibels (dB)


Effects—what is heard and/or missed

(without amplification)


15- 30 dB

Soft speech and unvoiced consonants are difficult to hear; vowels are clear


30-50 dB

Most speech sounds are not heard at normal conversational level; speech therapy, speech reading may be necessary


50-70 dB

Speech sounds at normal conversational level are not heard; results in severe speech problems


70 + dB

No speech or other sounds are heard; severe speech problems

Based on Northern & Downs (2002), Roesser (1986), and Schwartz (1987).


Another important consideration is the etiology of deafness or hearing impairment. Hearing loss that is acquired later in life is quite common either as result of environmental factors and/or as part of the aging process. It is congenital hearing loss that is of greater significance in this paper since enculturation begins at birth. The etiology of congenital hearing loss may be genetic or non-genetic such as those arising from disease, infections, or abnormalities of the ear (Schwartz. 1987). Sensorineural hearing loss is one type of congenital hearing loss that stems from an abnormality in the development of the ear or from disease of the ear. This type of hearing loss is generally not treated medically since elements of the inner ear or the auditory nerve are damaged (Schwartz 1987; Northern & Down 2002). Congenital hearing loss can also become progressively worse as a person ages and/or with further damage from the environment. Audiologists are well aware of the impact that hearing has on social behavior; they point out that children with even “mild” hearing loss often are adversely affected in their social interactions (Bess 1985; Bess et al 1998). Audiologists and deaf people have long recognized the fundamental connection between hearing ability and social development (e.g. Foster 1986; Reisler 2002; Oliva 2004)

Having briefly enumerated some underlying concepts and perspectives, let us explore how mild to moderate hearing loss may impact a person’s enculturation. Trying to trace the factors involved in a person’s enculturation is akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are not all evident and some seem altogether missing. Nevertheless, the following case study provides an opportunity to get a glimpse at how the abstract concept of enculturation is embodied in the lived experience of one individual.

Jane’s Enculturation: A Case Study

I have known Jane (a pseudonym) for several years during which time I have spent many hours interviewing her, recording her life history, and participating in various aspects of her life. Using an ego-centered network analysis approach I not only interviewed Jane intensively but also interviewed numerous people who comprise her social network, both past and present. This network includes many of Jane’s family members, neighbors, past associates, and professionals of various kinds who have interacted with her in various capacities. Jane is a highly intelligent and fiercely independent woman in her mid-60’s who retired from a successful practice in psychiatry a few years ago but whose personal life has been fraught with difficulties. Jane describes her life as being filled with indignities, rejections, and estrangements. Early in her life Jane recognized that she was different and that people regarded her as “weird” and throughout her adult life Jane has sought explanations for her difference and her alienation. Jane lives alone and has little interaction with most of her family members, some of whom live within an hour of where she currently resides. Most of her past relationships, including her marriage, have dissolved and she describes most new relationships as being merely acquaintances. Jane married and had two children but these relationships have been unstable; the marriage ended after a few years and her relationship with her children was difficult and eventually she became estranged from both children. Recently, however, she re-established contact with her daughter. Family members agree that Jane’s behavior is odd or, to use one of their favorite terms, “weird” even though they sometimes find it difficult to pinpoint what makes her behavior odd.

The fact that Jane and her family were unaware of her hearing loss raises questions regarding how this could have happened and what impact this may have had on her life. It is likely that her hearing loss was not detected for several reasons: (1) Jane’s degree of deafness was probably within the mild range, (2) hearing tests at the time were not routine nor thorough, (3) factors within the family (the father was “hard of hearing” and the mother suffered some depression). Jane’s early school records indicate that when she entered school she needed speech therapy but these records are not clear as to the cause of her speech problems. In 1997 Jane diagnosed with congenital hearing loss at the 52 dB level (moderate to moderately severe). An audiologist who examined Jane a few years ago suggests that it is likely that as a child, Jane’s hearing would have been at the mild to moderate level and has deteriorated to its present level over time. Audiologists note that even mild hearing loss can impact a child’s linguistic and social development if not detected early enough (Bess 1985; Bess et al 1998). It is not uncommon for parents to fail to recognize mild hearing loss during infancy. Verbal and behavioral patterns might develop in such a situation in which peculiar responses are attributed to personality differences and to an acceptance of simply how things are. Jane is not unique in having her hearing loss go undetected. Of the dozen individuals I interviewed in this research, three others reported a similar experience although in each case when the hearing loss was finally detected varies. Jane is unusual in being the case in which the hearing loss was not diagnosed until late in life. Jane explains that when the diagnosis was finally made (she was in her 50’s) many of her past experiences began to “make sense”. In telling her life story, Jane’s sense of self and the impact of her life experiences is somewhat revealed in the following quote:

“My life has an eerie feel like a very bad joke, or an experiment gone astray… The very sorriest aspect of this very bad joke is my family’s reaction to me through the years. Early on I was dismissed as hopelessly defective and never amount to anything…For decades I have asked for help in unraveling the mystery of my childhood estrangement. Instead, I receive what feels like, and often is, blame-the-victim responses.” [1]

There is some variance in how Jane and her family interpret her general behavior. In the quote above, it is clear that Jane sees herself as the “victim” of her estrangement from the family. Family members, on the other hand, believe that it is Jane herself who has chosen to estrange herself. Jane agrees that to some extent this is true because it is more “comfortable” for her, that is, withdrawing and minimizing contact is Jane’s adaptation. Again, Jane is not unique in this response. Withdrawing from social interaction is a common behavior of people with varying degrees of deafness. Such an adaptation might then also be maladaptive with regard to enculturation. For instance, one family member commented that Jane “just needs to learn how to take it easy and relax”. And another noted that Jane “tends to upset people with her behavior”.

Jane does not readily engage in some of culturally expected ‘social dances’, the give and take actions, and the folkways that are often important in maintaining social relationships. For instance, Jane does not enjoy “small talk” and feels uncomfortable in crowds. She is frank and blunt and she believes this often offends others. When situated in a group context, Jane is quiet, seemingly shy and introverted but one-on-one she is outgoing, talkative and animated. Some of her actions are perceived as manipulative, controlling, and over-bearing. If, as Rohner stated above, the goal of enculturation is to produce an individual who “behaves appropriately in terms of culturally standardized norms and beliefs” (2000: 278), then in Jane’s case perhaps this goal was not fully achieved according to cultural standards.

Neither Jane nor her family can account concretely for the estrangement between Jane and family members. Some family members have attributed it to Jane’s personality, to possible mental problems like depression, or even to drug use. Most members, however, believe it has been Jane’s choice to stay away from the family. Jane herself has sought explanations for her sense of being different and not fitting in. At one point in her life, for instance, she had a complete psychological assessment and while nothing conclusive was found, Jane thought perhaps she suffered from autism. Later, a neuropsychologist diagnosed Jane as “cognitively impaired” and noted that her “cognitive difficulties would attenuate her college performance”. Yet, that same year Jane was taking various college courses and had a 4.0 grade point average.

Thus, while there is some variance in how people perceive Jane, most agree that there is something enigmatic about her persona and pattern of behavior. Can hearing loss help explain this pattern of enigmatic and apparently alienating behavior? And if so, how? In a separate paper, I use Erik Erikson’s concept of lifelong socialization (1964) as an organizing framework to show how Jane’s degree of hearing loss indeed impacted aspects of her social interactions (Keyes 2004), but here it is sufficient to provide a brief sketch.

It is quite possible that, even with a mild hearing deficit, baby Jane may have not responded to all the phonemes or linguistic subtleties to which she was exposed. This, combined with the fact that Jane’s mother was not overly demonstrative and suffered depression, may have affected the mother-daughter interactions in an unconscious manner. Thus, hearing loss could have played a role in the nature of interactions during this early stage of enculturation. It is generally accepted that the family is one of the most important socializing agencies and that it is within the family where much of one’s primary socialization occurs. In Jane’s case, we can safely assume this conventional wisdom; family dynamics no doubt contributed to Jane’s enculturation but what may be easily overlooked is how her hearing deficit may have affected those dynamics. This is reflected in recollections made by family members that Jane “did not get jokes”. Jokes often rely on an unexpected ending or twist and such linguistic surprises and nuances are difficult for individuals with hearing loss who depend on continuity of topic to grasp meanings. Jane relies to some extent on lip-reading and close physical proximity to fully understand what is being said. A person with a degree of deafness may find the meaning of unfamiliar terms problematic. Individuals who suffer a condition called auditory processing disorder (APD) in which the brain fails to process sounds correctly have a similar problem with nuances and subtleties of language. Bellis (2002) points out how sufferers of APD often miss out on vocal changes used in some types of humor. Similarly, almost any degree of deafness hampers one’s ability to grasp nuances in every day communication. For instance, a few years ago Jane was seeking directions to a store and what she “heard” was that it was at the corner of Interstate-10 and “days of olives” whereas in fact the person had said “Interstate-10 and De Zavala”. The unfamiliarity of the Spanish name is what threw Jane’s interpretation off.

Family members also recollect that Jane often “kept to herself” (much like her father) spending much time in her bedroom, indicating that Jane missed out on some, if not much, family interaction and this is typical of people with varying degrees of deafness. Social isolation is reported as a common “adaptation” of the deaf (Stenross 1999; Meadows 1980). Neighbors also recollect that Jane was “shy” as a child. Others who knew her well as an adult, including her former husband, maintain that Jane was “quiet” and somewhat “introverted”. This pattern of adaptation followed Jane throughout her life affecting her relationships not only with family but also with peers.

The importance of peers in enculturation is well recognized by social scientists. Jane recalls that she had no friends in school, rarely joined playgroups, and when she did she felt mistreated. This sort of experience is consistent with children today who have mild to moderate hearing loss. As Table 1 above indicates, individuals with mild to moderate hearing loss find it difficult to follow conversations in situations where there is a lot of background noise or in crowds. A common reaction of individuals with hearing loss in such situations is to retreat to a quieter place, thus such children are seen as shy or are labeled loners (Foster 1986). A neighbor recalls that Jane was very shy and noted that she rarely saw Jane playing outside with the other children. The learning that takes place in such groups, among playmates and peers, helps individuals develop the finer nuisances of social folkways and norms. Jane’s perception is that children never invited her to join peer groups. And when she did play with others, she recalls feeling “rejected” or not “fitting in” and so she came to prefer the solitude of books and the company of her brother with whom she had a close relationship. Jane’s exclusion from peer activities served to impede the normal socializing experiences and interactions that would have otherwise occurred.

Conclusion: Incomplete Enculturation

Jane sees her own development as a workable and authentic adaptation. Family members interpret her behavior as her inability to conform to familial and culturally acceptable norms. This is revealed in phrases such as: “Jane needs to learn how to…” or “She doesn’t know how to…” and “She has a mind of her own”. These suggest that perhaps Jane did not learn some commonly expected social norms. Jane forces us to question concepts like enculturation that we generally take for granted. Teasing out the myriad factors involved in enculturation is neither clearly nor easily accomplished. This paper has attempted to show how one single factor, hearing deficit, has a significant impact on an individual’ enculturation.

Jane never gave much consideration to her hearing and simply assumed that with regard to hearing she was the same as everyone else. Her ability to communicate well in face-to-face contexts provided evidence that all was normal and that she could hear. A common observation by the hearing impaired is that individuals who have normal hearing generally assume that if a person speaks and engages in normal conversations they are not deaf. While interviewing individuals with varying degrees of deafness I found that it was indeed quite easy to forget that they could not hear normally because their conversation with me was fluid and normal. This normality belies the potential for numerous misinterpretations as happens not uncommonly when a hard of hearing person answers a question inappropriately because he or she has really heard something other than what the speaker intended. Hearing loss creates a crack out of which misinterpretation is all too easily born as Stenross clearly demonstrated in her short work, Missed Connections (1999).

To what extent and in what regard can enculturation be “incomplete”? Let us refer back to the various definitions anthropologists have provided of enculturation and use Jane’s case to try to provide an answer. Harris and Johnson, it will be recalled, suggest that the goal of enculturation is to get the “younger generation to adopt traditional ways of thinking and behaving” (2000: 10). Similarly, Rohner notes: “The goal of the process is to develop a responsible adult who behaves appropriately in terms of culturally standardized norms and beliefs” (2000: 278). To the extent that Jane has learned the culture of American society, the process has been successful. However, members of her social network (especially within her family) tend to agree that some of Jane’s behavior is not exactly what they consider ‘normal’ or typical. Her behavior has sometimes been described as bizarre because she apparently does not follow some of the folkways and norms that are commonly accepted and her responses are sometimes unexpected. To the extent that Jane does not conform to all the culturally standardized norms and beliefs and based on the definitions above, enculturation has not been totally successful. Interestingly, with regard to her family and society, Jane sees herself as an outsider when she states: “I am a cultural calamity. I am the ultimate outsider.”

The reliance of using “informants” in ethnographic research is largely based on the assumption that the informant has received a “thorough enculturation” (Spradley 1979: 47), suggesting that varying degrees of enculturation are indeed possible. An “incomplete” or poor enculturation is the product of various factors. As Spradley points out, this can occur from minimal time spent learning a culture. Enculturation is a social activity and for someone with mild to moderate deafness, participation in social activities is often attenuated.

However, it should also be emphasized hat people are totally passive in this process. While cultural processes are powerful, individuals actively interpret, make choices, and act. Even Jane admits that much of her behavior and beliefs are of her own choosing. It is her adaptation. To withdraw from social interaction was a choice she made as an adaptive strategy in the face of discomfort, misinterpretation, and perceived alienating factors. Jane states: “I have never enjoyed being rejected by all my peers and family.” Jane concedes that individuals are not passive recipients of enculturation for in one communication she states: “Our naturalized Self has all that should matter to us about human agency. We retain our individuality, remain rational, are capable of self-control and effective action, and can still be held accountable for our wrongdoings and rewarded for our virtues. We must take full responsibility for our own inner voice (our Acoustic Ecology) that directs the choices we make.”

Enculturation proceeds via factors both conscious and unconscious, and is affected by numerous familial and social factors, proceeding via culture and biology. It is estimated that three children in a thousand are born with some hearing loss but until rather recently clinical diagnosis of hearing loss among children was difficult and often not detected until the child was about 30 months old, well into the formative years of a child’s life. With regard to language, Northern and Downs state that “learning is hindered even with the slightest hearing loss” (2002:3). No one doubts the importance of language in enculturation and yet the role of hearing in this process has not been closely investigated. Given the dearth of research in this area among anthropologists, many questions are yet to be answered about the links between biological factors, such as hearing, and enculturation. Jane’s case study illustrates the importance of and the need for more research in this area.



[1] Quotes attributed to Jane come from interviews and/or written communications collected during the course of the research.


I am grateful to all the individuals who willing gave much of their time to be interviewed, especially to Jane and her family members. Many thanks also go to Dr. Donald Kurtz, Dr. Seth Andrews, and Dr. Judith Wible for their helpful comments and support.




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