The ethnographic literature on literacy is marked by a characteristic divide between 'ideological' and 'autonomous' positions, the former being associated with the sociocultural approach adopted within the 'New Literacy Studies' (NLS) and the work of Brian Street, and the latter with the work of Jack Goody. The polarization between the approaches has led to certain themes associated with the work of Goody and his 'literacy thesis' being excluded from ethnographic writing and theory. Such themes included the attributes and consequences of literacy as a 'technology', and the association of literacy acquisition with social mobility and progressive forms of social change. The article is based on ethnographic fieldwork in Bangladesh and a review of the recent ethnographic literature from a range of cultural settings. It examines the case for a more inclusive and comparative approach based on the emergent 'situated' perspective. It suggests revisionist readings of ethnographic accounts recognizing cross-cultural patterns of utility, and the significance of literacy for human agency, gender relations, and well-being. Presenting an ethnographic case study of women's literacy in N/W Bangladesh it draws out the theoretical significance of such a shift in how we research and understand the consequences of literacy acquisition. The paper concludes by suggesting some implications of such a perspective for adult literacy policy and practice.