Contact Zones: How much is too much?

It’s my week to lead class, so I’m a bit more engaged in the week’s reading than usual. Relatedly, I read a chapter by Mark R. Hall and Mary Rosner in a recent book on composition and postcolonial studies that engages Mary Louise Pratt’s notion of contact zone directly.

In one section, the authors point out that Pratt’s notion of contact zone has shifted. They describe it using a call-out section that suggests Pratt has revised Pratt:

Changes in the relations among those in the contact zones: from “relations of power” to “relations of domination and subordination” to relations of “difference, hierarchy, and unshared or conflicting assumptions.” (98)

Hall and Rosner note several other revisions, but this one particular strikes me for its flexible, contextual nature. When a group encounters a contact zone, it seems to me that decisions made by group members help determine whether the relations are of “power” or “domination” or “difference” or simply “unshared assumptions.”

Particularly, I’m thinking of a theological consultation I attended a few years ago that brought together about 40 pastors and theologians, many of whom were involved in ministry on the edges of the traditional church. The group was diverse in many ways: theologically, racially, geographically, and levels of experience.

After a fine presentation by a young black youth pastor, an older white male leader asked a question about metrics of ministry that the youth pastor understood as tinged with racial bias (it was, by the way). The dynamics of the rest of the consultation then centered upon the question: how will the group engage the contact zone?

  • If the older white male leader apologized, we’d have gone one way.
  • If the black youth pastor aired his grievances quietly to the consultation leadership, we’d have gone another way.
  • If the black youth pastor aired his grievances publicly, we’d have gone another way entirely (this was the approach, by the way).
  • If the black youth pastor chose to leave the consultation, we’d have gone still another way.
  • Other options certainly exist…

My point is this: the contact zone existed the moment the gathering occurred. The way the group engaged the contact zone—and whether it concerned relations of power, or difference, or subordination, etc.—was determined by choices in-the-moment by the actors in the group.

To bring this experience into conversation with the Min-Zhan Lu article, if we accept her notion of using contact zones and a multicultural approach to English studies, it seems like the faculty person becomes an enormous determinate in how that contact zone is engaged.

Therefore, I wonder:

To what extent are contact zones fixed? How much does the pedagogical approach to them shift how students engage?

Are there particularly good (or particularly problematic) ways to engage contact zones? In other words, how much is too much contact?


Hall, R. Mark, and Mary Rosner. “Pratt and Pratfalls: Revisioning Contact Zones.” Crossing Borderlands : Composition And Postcolonial Studies. Ed. Andrea Lunsford and Lahoucine Ouzgane. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. 95–109. Print. Pittsburg Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture.


One thought on “Contact Zones: How much is too much?

  1. Your questions return us, in some ways, to discourse communities — what are they? Do they exist?

    As with discourse communities, I do feel contact zones exist. But I find an interesting paradox with contact zones compared to discourse communities, perhaps attributable to scale. Discourse communities are a challenge to define because they are abstract assemblages of many facets of existence but they exist at a large, marco-discursive practice scale. Contact zones appear to be very tangible moments of interaction — “contact” — which diminish as the interaction diminishes. The zones form and re-form but they seem to be clear based on the articles. Consequently, contact zones also have a very localized feel to them.


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