Genre studies

Genre studies is an academic subject which studies genre theory as a branch of general critical theory in several different fields, including the literary or artistic, linguistic, or rhetorical.

Literary genre studies is a structuralist approach to the study of genre and genre theory in literary theory, film theory, and other cultural theories. The study of a genre in this way examines the structural elements that combine in the telling of a story and finds patterns in collections of stories. When these elements (or semiotic codes) begin to carry inherent information, a genre emerges. In art history, genre theory considers the visual arts in a similar way.

Linguistic genre studies is best described by Systemic Functional Linguistics or "SFL", also known as the Sydney School of genre analysis. SFL scholars believe that language structure is an integral part of a text's social context and function.[1] SFL scholars often conduct research that focuses on genres usefulness in pedagogy.

English for Specific Purposes or "ESP" is another school of literary genre studies that examines the pedagogical implications of genre. ESP scholars focus on how genre can help non-native English speakers, often in upper-level academic programs, learn how to use the language and its conventions through the application of genre.[2]

Rhetorical Genre Studies or "RGS" studies genre as social action. RGS emerged from Carolyn R. Miller's article "Genre as Social Action".[3]

Literary and linguistic branches

Systemic functional linguistics

Systemic functional linguistics scholars believe that language is organized within cultures based on cultural ideologies. The "systemic" of SFL refers to the system as a whole, in which linguistic choices are made. SFL is based largely on the work of Michael Halliday, who believed that individuals make linguistic choices based on the ideologies of the systems that those individuals inhabit. For Halliday, there is a "network of meanings" within a culture, that constitutes the "social semiotic" of that culture. This "social semiotic" is encoded and maintained by the discourse system of the culture.[4] For Halliday, contexts in which texts are produced recur, in what he calls "situation types." People raised within a specific culture become accustomed to the "situation types" that occur within that culture, and are more easily able to maneuver through the "situation types" within that culture than people who were not brought up within it.[5]

Halliday's approach to cultural context in the formation of recurrent "situation types" influenced other scholars, such as J.R. Martin. Martin led the SFL pedagogical approach, which emphasized the role of context in text formation. Martin and his associates believed that process-based approaches to education ignored the cultural boundaries of texts, and privileged middle- and upper- class students at the expense of students from lower-class backgrounds.[6] According to Martin and other SFL scholars, an explicit focus on genre in literature would help literacy teaching. Focusing on genre reveals the contexts that influences texts, and teaches those contexts to students, so that they can create texts that are culturally informed.[7]

Through their genre work in schools, Martin and his associates developed a definition of genre as a "staged, goal-oriented, social process."[8] In the Martinian genre model, genres are staged because they accomplish tasks that require multiple steps; they are goal-oriented because their users are motivated to see the completion of the stages to the end; and they are social because users address their texts to specific audiences.[8]

English for Specific Purposes

English for Specific Purposes scholarship has been around since the 1960s, but ESP scholars did not begin using genre as a pedagogical approach until the 1980s, when John Swales published Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings, in which Swales laid out the methodological approach that brought together ESP and genre analysis.[2] Swales identified two characteristics of ESP genre analysis: its focus on academic research in English and its use of genre analysis for applied ends.[9] ESP focuses on specific genres within spheres of activity, such as the medical profession, but it also focuses on the broader concept of communicative purposes within fields of study.[10]

English for Specific Purposes shares some characteristics with SFL studies. Both believe that linguistic features are connected to social context and function, and both aim to help disadvantaged students grasp the system in which texts are created so that they can create similar texts, by teaching them the relationship between language and social function. Both try to accomplish their goals by teaching specific genres to underprivileged users.[11]

However, there are also some important differences between ESP and SFL. Whereas SFL scholars focus on teaching basic genre structures to primary and secondary school students, ESP scholars are focuses on teaching Professional and Academic disciplinary genres to University- and graduate-level students. ESP students tend to be more bound to discursive genre subjects, within very particular contexts. ESP focuses on micro-level genres and contexts, whereas SFL focuses on macro-level contexts.[12]

Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS)

Rhetorical Genre Studies scholars examine genre as typified social action, as ways of acting based on recurrent social situations. This founding principle for RGS was taken from Carolyn R. Miller's essay "Genre as Social Action," which was published in 1984.[3][13] In her article, Miller examines Frank Lloyd Bitzer's notion of exigence as a reaction to social situations, and Kenneth Burke's notion of "motive" as human action.[14] Using Bitzer, particularly, Miller believes it is possible to examine exigence as "an external cause of discourse."[15] Ultimately, she is able to view situations as social constructions. Genres are typified ways of responding to recurring social constructions.[16]

RGS scholars have evolved beyond Miller's founding definition of genre. Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas Huckin begin with the notion that genre is knowledge foundation, and argue that genres embody communities' knowledge and ways of acting.[3] For Berkenkotter and Huckin, genre becomes a way of navigating social activity. As such, it is dynamic, because the conditions of social activity are always in flux. Recurrence, they claim, involves variation.[17] Berkenkotter and Huckin redefine genre as social cognition.[17]

The notion of "uptake" is also integral to RGS scholars' understanding of genre. Anne Freadman uses uptake to describe the ways in which genres interact with each other in her articles "Uptake" and "Anyone for Tennis?".[18] She uses the game of tennis to explain the ways genres interact. Tennis players, she says, do not exchange tennis balls, they exchange shots. Each shot only has meaning within the game, its rules, and the context of the game being play.[19] Shots are meaningful because they take place in a game. The game is meaningful because it takes place within "ceremonials." Thus, the final at Wimbledon provides a different context than a game between friends. Genres are the games that take place within ceremonials, and shots are utterances, or verbal exchanges. We cannot really understand a text without understanding the ceremonial in which it occurs.[20] "Uptake" is the illocutionary response elicited by particular situations.[21]

Amy Devitt's research has further complicated the RGS landscape. In Writing Genres, Devitt distinguishes between the "context of genres," "genre repertoires," "genre systems," and "genre sets." The "context of genres" is the overall set of genres available in a culture. A "genre repertoire" refers to the set of genres that a specific group uses to achieve its purposes. "Genre systems" are the sets of genres that function within an activity system. Finally, "genre sets" are more loosely defined sets of genres that function within an activity system, but only define a limited range of actions within that system.[22] For instance, if we were to take a courtroom as an activity system, a genre set could be defined as only those genres used by the judge. Studying the "context of genres," "genre repertoires," "genre systems," and "genre sets" enables researchers to study the relationships and power structures of activity systems.[22]

Generic conventions

Conventions are usual indicators such as phrases, themes, quotations, or explanations that readers expect to find in a certain genre. They could be considered "stereotypes" of that genre. For example, Science fiction is expected to be set in the future, and have futuristic events, technological advances, and futuristic ideas. Realism is expected to contain a story about people who could pass as real, struggling through real-life situations and/or real world events, etc.

Critic Paul Alpers explains that literary conventions are like meeting places where past and present writers "come together" to determine the form a convention should take in a particular literary instance (work). In practical terms, this coming together is a matter of the present writer consulting the work of predecessors, but Alpers wants to connote the sense of active negotiation and accommodation that takes place between the writer and the genre he or she is working in (a genre defined by other people). According to Alpers, a misconception persists in modern criticism that literary convention is an "arbitrary and inflexible practice, established by widespread usage and imposed from without." Convention in this sense is the "antithesis of the personal and individual"; it is "felt to constrain the [writer]." Alpers reconceptualizes literary convention as something "constitutive and enabling." For him, generic conventions are "not fixed procedures imposed by impersonal tradition;" rather, they are the living "usages of other [writers]," "the shared practice of those who come together." Thinking of generic conventions as a practice shared by many users, allows later writers to exercise the same degree of control over convention as those who predated them. Far from constraining writers, convention provides flexibility to preserve certain aspects of a genre and transform others. Convention in this sense enables "individual expression, because the [writer] is seen as responsive to, even when challenging, his predecessors and fellows."[23]

Genre theorist David Fishelov also deals with generic conventions—he calls them "generic rules"—in elaborating his explanatory metaphor of "literary genres as social institutions" in the book Metaphors of Genre: The Role of Analogies in Genre Theory. Fishelov, like Alpers, sees generic conventions as an inescapably "vital part of the literary communicative situation," linking present and past writers to each other, as well as to readers. Established conventions are "a challenge, or a horizon, against which the writer and his reader have to define themselves." The writer may respond to this challenge by "stretch[ing] the generic rules."[24]

Fishelov draws his metaphor of genre as social institution from a passage in René Welleck and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature:

The literary kind [genre] is an ‘institution'—as Church, University, or State is an institution. It exists not as an animal exists or even as a building, chapel, library, or capital, but as an institution exists. One can work through, express oneself through, existing institutions, create new ones, or get on, so far as possible, without sharing in politics or rituals; one can also join, but then reshape institutions.[25]

This formulation ascribes agency to actors within social institutions. In the same way institutions like churches, universities, and states organize social actors to accomplish collective social purposes, literary genres organize relationships between writers and readers to accomplish communicative purposes, which change over time. Genres are not static, but rather, like social institutions, persist through the constant renovation of their conventions by individuals. Fishelov is particularly helpful in theorizing the role of the reader in alternately constraining and motivating generic change:

[T]he reader demands compliance with the established generic conventions so that he can integrate the new text, but at the same time he expects the writer to manipulate these established conventions so that the new text is more than a tedious repetition of the generic tradition.[24]

Reader expectations operate as both a constraint on the writer and a "latent demand for innovation." The writer "is expected to manipulate the existing conventions and to carry them (at least) one step further…. From the writer's perspective, the generic convention is a model to follow but also a challenge to overcome." Fishelov explains that writers choose or are compelled to manipulate prevailing conventions for a variety of aesthetic and thematic reasons.

History of genre theory

Genre theory or genre studies got underway with the Greeks. The Greeks felt that the type of person an author was would be directly responsible for the type of poetry they wrote. The Greeks also believed that certain metrical forms were suited only to certain genres. Aristotle said,

We have, then, a natural instinct for representation and for tune and rhythm—and starting with these instincts men very gradually developed them until they produced poetry out of their improvisations. Poetry then split into two kinds according to the poet's nature. For the more serious poets represented the noble deeds of noble men, while those of a less exalted nature represented the actions of inferior men, at first writing satire just as the others wrote hymns and eulogies.

This is all based on Plato's mimetic principle. Exalted people will, in imitation of exaltation, write about exalted people doing exalted things, and vice versa with the "lower" types (Farrell, 383). Genre was not a black-and-white issue even for Aristotle, who recognized that though the "Iliad" is an epic it can be considered a tragedy as well, both because of its tone as well as the nobility of its characters. However, most of the Greek critics were less acutely aware—if aware at all—of the inconsistencies in this system. For these critics, there was no room for ambiguity in their literary taxonomy because these categories were thought to have innate qualities that could not be disregarded.

The Romans carried on the Greek tradition of literary criticism. The Roman critics were quite happy to continue on in the assumption that there were essential differences between the types of poetry and drama. There is much evidence in their works that Roman writers themselves saw through these ideas and understood genres and how they function on a more advanced level. However, it was the critics who left their mark on Roman literary criticism, and they were not innovators.

After the fall of Rome, when the scholastic system took over literary criticism, genre theory was still based on the essential nature of genres. This is most likely because of Christianity's affinity for Platonic concepts. This state of affairs persisted until the 18th century.

Enlightenment age

At the end of the 18th century, the theory of genre based on classical thought began to unravel beneath the intellectual chafing of the Enlightenment. The introduction of the printing press brought texts to a larger audience. Then pamphlets and broadsides began to diffuse information even farther, and a greater number of less privileged members of society became literate and began to express their views. Suddenly authors of both "high" and "low" culture were now competing for the same audience. This worked to destabilize the classical notions of genre, while still drawing attention to genre because new genres like the novel were being generated (Prince, 455).

Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), had reduced data to its smallest part: the simple idea derived from sense. However, as the science of cognition became more precise it was shown that even this simple idea derived from sense was itself divisible. This new information prompted David Hartley to write in his Observation on Man (1749),

How far the Number of Orders may go is impossible to say. I see no Contradiction in supposing it infinite, and a great Difficulty in stopping at any particular Size. (Prince, 456).

The possibility of an infinite number of types alarmed theologians of the time because their assumption was that rigorously applied empiricism would uncover the underlying divine nature of creation, and now it appeared that rigorously applied empiricism would only uncover an ever-growing number of types and subsequent sub-types.

In order to re-establish the divine in categorization, the new taxonomical system of aesthetics arose. This system offered first beauty, and then the sublime as the taxonomical device. The problem with Aesthetics was that it assumed the divine and thus the sublime must underlie all these categories, and thus, the ugly would become beautiful at some point. The paradox is glaring.


Ever since the late 18th century literary critics have been trying to find a theory of genre that would be more commensurate with the realities of individual texts within genres. The evolution of genre took many twists and turns through the 19th and 20th centuries. It was heavily influenced by the deconstructionist thought and the concept of relativity. In 1980, the instability engendered by these two new modes of thought came to a head in a paper written by Jacques Derrida titled, "The Law of Genre."[26] In the article Derrida first articulates the idea that individual texts participate in rather than belong to certain genres. He does this by demonstrating that the "mark of genre" is not itself a member of a genre or type. Thus, the very characteristic that signifies genre defies classification. However, at the end of this essay, Derrida hints at what might be a more fruitful direction for genre theory. "There, that is the whole of it, it is only what 'I,' so that say, here kneeling at the edge of literature, can see. In sum, the law. The law summoning: what 'I' can sight and what 'I' can say that I sight in this site of a recitation where I/we is."[27] By which Derrida means that not only is taxonomy a subjective sport, but due to this very fact, the place and time the taxonomical act takes place deserves further study.

Then, in 1986, Ralph Cohen published a paper in response to Derrida's thoughts titled "History and Genre." In this article Cohen argued that

genre concepts in theory and in practice arise, change, and decline for historical reasons. And since each genre is composed of texts that accrue, the grouping is a process, not a determinate category. Genres are open categories. Each member alters the genre by adding, contradicting, or changing constituents, especially those of members most closely related to it. The process by which genres are established always involves the human need for distinction and interrelation. Since the purposes of critics who establish genres vary, it is self-evident that the same texts can belong to different groupings of genres and serve different generic purposes. (Cohen, 204)

Genre Evolution in RGS

RGS scholars largely agree that while genres are indeed dynamic and constantly evolving entities, they are difficult to change. Amy Devitt describes this bind, as she considers a genre to be "both the product and the process that creates it" (580).[28] To Devitt, genres not only respond to recurrent situations, but they construct them as well.[29] This phenomenon makes theorizing genre evolution challenging. Carolyn R. Miller even cautions against describing genre change as "evolution," as evolution implies progress.[30] Still, many RGS scholars have theorized how genres change. Jo Ann Yates and Wanda Orlikowski offer that "one person cannot single-handedly effect the change of an institutionalized structure; other relevant participants must adopt and reinforce the attempted change for it to be implemented and sustained in practice" (108).[31] Yates and Orlikowski then describe how genres evolve: they claim that genres change when a kairotic moment presents itself, and the rhetor, instead of choosing to employ the "genre most appropriately enacted" tries a new method of which the audience accepts as new way of responding to the recurrent situation (119). See kairos. Natasha Artemeva has made similar observations based on an eight-year ethnographic survey that followed engineering students from academia and into the workplace environment.[32] Artemeva observed two of her subjects impact the evolution of workplace genres when a kairotic moment presented itself (164). Yet these former student's success in changing the workplace genre also depended on three individually acquired skills: 1) "cultural capital", 2) "domain content expertise", and 3) "agency in the rhetor's ability" to not only see when a kairotic moment presented itself, but "to also seize the opportunity" (167). Thomas Helscher is not as optimistic; he writes, the "rhetorical constitution of [a] discourse community operates as a counterweight to the process of community growth and change" (30) and argues that the "transformation of the fundamental generic conventions by which communities constitutes paradigmatic of the process of social transformation" (32).[33]

Current state of genre theory

The definition of genre from is "a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, context, technique, or the like." Although it seems that genre should be easy to define, the finer points of textual categorization are not yet established.

Genres, according to Daniel Chandler, create order to simplify the mass of available information. Creating categories promotes organization instead of chaos. Jane Feuer has divided ways to categorize genres into three different groups. The first is aesthetic. By using this method one can organize according to certain sets of characteristics, and so the overall work of the artist is not disparaged by generalization. The second classification method is ritual. Ritual uses its own culture to help classify. If one performs a ritual associated with a system of ritual, one can be said to be practicing as a member of that system. The common taxonomic method is ideological. This occurs most often in the marketing of texts, music, and movies. The effectiveness of this type of categorization can be measured by how well the public accepts these categories as valid.

Amy J. Devitt focuses on rhetorical genre. Scholars generally recognize the restrictions placed on works that have been classified as a certain genre. However, viewing genre as a rhetorical device gives the author and the reader more freedom and "allows for choices." Genres are not free-standing entities, but are actually intimately connected and interactive amongst themselves. Rhetorical genre recognizes that genres are generated by authors, readers, publishers, and the entire array of social forces that act upon a work at every stage of its production.

This recognition does not make the taxonomy of texts easy. Chandler points out that very few works have all the characteristics of the genre in which they participate. Also, due to the interrelatedness of genres, none of them is clearly defined at the edges, but rather fade into one another. Genre works to promote organization, but there is no absolute way to classify works, and thus genre is still problematic and its theory still evolving.

Moreover, the metagenre as a concept has been an important point to study. According to Giltrow, metagenre is "situated language about situated language". Metagenres such as institutional guidelines can be "ruling out certain kinds of expression, endorsing others", constraining and enabling. The concept of metagenre also provides a valuable way to understand the dynamics of institutional interrelations between genres. In the mental health discourse, for example, has been demonstrated the metageneric function of the American Psychiatric Association's (DSM) for standardizing and mediating the localized epistemological communicative practices of psychiatrists.

Functions and limits

Genre began as an absolute classification system in ancient Greece. Poetry, prose and performance had a specific and calculated style that related to the theme of the story. Speech patterns for comedy would not be appropriate for tragedy, and even actors were restricted to their genre under the assumption that a type of person could tell one type of story best. This classical system worked well as long as the arts were largely directed by nobility and rich patrons. A common understanding of meaning was handy in knowing what the employer expected, and the crowds understood it.

During the Enlightenment period in 18th century Europe, this system of patronage began to change. A merchant middle class began to emerge with money to spend and time to spend it. Artists could venture away from classical genres and try new ways to attract paying patrons. "Comedy" could now mean Greek metered comedy, or physical camp, or some other type of experience. Artists were also free to use their mediums to express the human condition in a way that was not possible under single patronage, or at least not profitable. Art could be used to reflect and comment on the lives of ordinary people. Genre became a dynamic tool to help the public make sense out of unpredictable art. Because art is often a response to a social state, in that people write/paint/sing/dance about what they know about, the use of genre as a tool must be able to adapt to changing meanings. In fact, as far back as ancient Greece, new art forms were emerging that called for the evolution of genre, for example the "tragicomedy."

Unfortunately, genre does have its limitations. Our world has grown so much that it is difficult to absolutely classify something. Information overlaps, and a single book can encompass elements of several genres. For example, a book might be classified as fiction, mystery, science fiction and African American literature all at once.

Genre suffers from the same ills of any classification system. Humans are pattern-seeking beings; we like to create order out of the chaos of the universe. However, when we forget that our order is imposed, often arbitrarily, over a universe of unique experiences, the merit of the individual gets lost. If a system of classification, like genre, is then used to assign value judgments, we allow our preconceptions about the whole to influence our opinion of the individual. Genre is useful as long as we remember that it is a helpful tool, to be reassessed and scrutinized, and to weigh works on their unique merit as well as their place within the genre.

A simple example of the inherent meaning in an art form is that of a western movie where two men face each other on a dusty and empty road; one wears a black hat, the other white. Independent of any external meaning, there is no way to tell what the situation might mean, but due to the long development of the "western" genre, it is clear to the informed audience that they are watching a gunfight showdown between a bad guy and a good guy.

It has been suggested that genres resonate with people because of the familiarity, the shorthand communication, as well as the tendency of genres to shift with public mores and to reflect the zeitgeist. While the genre of storytelling has been relegated as lesser form of art because of the heavily borrowed nature of the conventions, admiration has grown. Proponents argue that the genius of an effective genre piece is in the variation, recombination, and evolution of the codes.

Genre studies have perhaps gained the most recognition in film theory, where the study of genre directly contrasts with auteur theory, which privileges the director's role in crafting a movie.

In social communities

There is something more about genre theory, and to that effect it is necessary to propose Kristen H. Perry's definition. Written (textual) genres are social constructions that represent specific purposes for reading and writing within different social activities, created by social groups who need them to perform certain things. They change over time, reflecting essential shifts in social function performed by that text. Genres also represent constellations of textual attributes: some attributes are necessary and other attributes are optional.

Another definition which shows the different aspects of genre theory is Miller who defines genres as "typified rhetorical actions" that respond to recurring situations and become instantiated in groups' behaviors. Genre evolves as "a form of social knowledge—a mutual construing of objects, events, interests and purposes that not only links them but makes them what they are: an objectified social need". This view sees genres not as static forms but, rather, as "forms of ways of being ... frames for social action ... environments for learning ... locations within which meaning is constructed" (Bazerman), suggesting that different communities use different means of communication to accomplish their objectives.

To try to show the importance of the context in genre an example is used about a particular part of the genre theory—speech genres; but it is important to stress that context is really important in all situations. Context plays an important role in shaping genres (Holquist, 1986). Genre theory does not conceptualize context as simply the space outside of text or the container surrounding texts, but as dynamic environments that simultaneously structure and are structured by the communicative practices of social agents. Speech genres are recognizable patterns of language-in-context (Bakhtin, 1986): speech genres include both oral and written forms of language.

Researchers have also shown that the rhetorical moves people must make within accepted genres to communicate successfully in particular contexts operate to reinforce communities' identities and to legitimate particular communication practices. Thus, the genres that communities enact help structure their members' ways of creating, interpreting, and using knowledge (Myers; Winsor, Ordering, Writing; Bazerman, Shaping, Constructing; Berkenkotter and Huckin; Smart). Genres are very important in our every day life and we do not realize how much we use them, how much they affect us, how much they determine the way we act and understand the others.

Aspects of genre theory

Rhetorical situation

J. M. Barrie's works were notoriously hard to place in any single genre.

In 1968, Lloyd Bitzer claimed that discourse is determined by rhetorical situations in his article titled, "The Rhetorical Situation". A rhetorical situation refers to the fact that every situation has the potential for a rhetorical response. He looks to understand the nature behind the context that determines discourse. Bitzer states, "it is the situation which calls discourse into existence".[34] Thus, the situation controls what type of rhetorical response takes place. Each situation has an appropriate response in which the rhetor can either act upon or not act upon. He expresses the imperative nature of the situation in creating discourse, because discourse only comes into being as a response to a particular situation. Discourse varies depending upon the meaning-context that is created due to the situation, and because of this, it is "embedded in the situation".[34]

According to Bitzer, rhetorical situations come into existence, at which point, they can either mature and go away, or mature and continue to exist. Bitzer describes rhetorical situations as containing three components: exigence, audience, and constraints. He highlights six characteristics needed from a rhetorical situation that are necessary to creating discourse. A situation calls a rhetor to create discourse, it invites a response to fit the situation, the response meets the necessary requirements of the situation, the exigence which creates the discourse is located in reality, rhetorical situations exhibit simple or complex structures, rhetorical situations after coming into creation either decline or persist. Bitzer's main argument is the concept that rhetoric is used to "effect valuable changes in real" (Bitzer 14).

In 1984, Carolyn R. Miller examined genre in terms of rhetorical situations. She claimed that "situations are social constructs that are the result, not of 'perception,' but of 'definition'".[35] In other words, we essentially define our situations. Miller seems to build from Bitzer's argument regarding what makes something rhetorical, which is the ability of change to occur. Opposite of Bitzer's predestined and limited view of the creation of genres, Miller believes genres are created through social constructs. She agreed with Bitzer that past responses can indicate what is an appropriate response to the current situation, but Miller holds that, rhetorically, genre should be "centered not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish".[35] Since her view focuses on action, it cannot ignore that humans depend on the "context of the situation" as well as "motives" that drive them to this action.[35] Essentially, "we create recurrence," or similar responses, through our "construal" of types.[35] Miller defines "types" as "recognition of relevant similarities".[35] Types come about only after we have attempted to interpret the situation by way of social context, which causes us to stick to "tradition".[35] Miller does not want to deem recurrence as a constraint, but rather she views it as insight into the "human condition".[35] The way to bring about a new "type",[35] is to allow for past routines to evolve into new routines, thereby maintaining a cycle that is always open for change. Either way, Miller's view is in accordance with the fact that as humans, we are creatures of habit that tightly hold on to a certain "stock of knowledge".[35] However, change is considered innovation, and by creating new "types" we can still keep "tradition"[35] and innovation at the same time.

Genre as social action

The concept of genre is not limited to classifications and lists. People interact within genres daily. Genre is determined based "on the action it is used to accomplish" by the individuals using that particular genre.[35] The distance between the text or action of genre and its users does not have to be vast. People respond to exigencies provided by genre every day. Exigence is "a set of particular social patterns and expectations that provides a socially objectified motive for addressing" the recurring situation of a particular genre.[35] Seeing genre as a social action provides the "keys to understanding how to participate in the actions of a community".[35] Carolyn R. Miller argues that, "a rhetorical sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of discourse, but on the action it is used to accomplish".[35]

The idea that rhetorical situations define genre means that participants in genre make decisions based on commonalities and repeat those instances. Genre is not only about the form of but also the mere repetitiveness of similarities. The classroom setting exemplifies this. When students wish to speak, they raise their hands to signify that desire. Raising a hand is the correct response to speaking in turn in that particular social setting. A person at lunch with a group of friends would not raise their hand to speak because the social situation is different. Miller concludes that social actions are the response to "understanding how to participate in the actions of a community".[35]

Carolyn R. Miller builds on arguments made by other scholars while also contradicting Bitzer's argument by giving her readers five features to understand genre.[35] She believes that if something is rhetorical, then there will be action. Not only will there be action, but this action will also be repeated. The repetition of action creates a regularized form of discourse. Miller would add that the result has more to do with the action accomplished by the situation. Miller recognizes that a person chooses to take a certain social action within a defined set of rules - rules set in place by that user. Lastly, a situation cannot dictate a response. Miller ends her article with the thought that genres are partly rhetorical education through her statement, "as a recurrent, significant action, a genre embodies an aspect of cultural rationality".[35] Here, Miller unknowingly encapsulates a future ideology about genre: that genres are created by culture. According to Mnotho Dlamini genre is basically a deep information in a particular context.

Social construct

Bitzer's definition of exigence as "an imperfection marked by urgency... something waiting to be done"[34] ties in with Miller's idea of social action as the next step after an exigency is realized. Miller also points towards the theory that genres recur, based on Jamieson's observation that antecedent genres finding their way into new genres. More importantly, Miller takes on the bigger picture of a rhetorical situation in which all of these steps happen. "Situations are social constructs that are the result, not of 'perception,' but of definition".[35] From this, it is understood that social constructs define situations and, therefore, exigence is also socially situated.

Genre, also, understood in terms of social contexts provides greater meaning to each recurring situation; it essentially allows for differentiation, though past genres have a role in present and new genres. Through this differentiation, genre is allowed to continue evolving, just as social contexts continue to change with time. Bawarshi describes the way in which this happens as "communicants and their social environments are constantly in the process of reproducing one another" (Bawarshi 69). Rhetoric essentially works the same way, as seen in the example of writing Bawarshi provides, "writing is not a social act simply because it takes place in some social context; it is social because it is at work in shaping the very context within which it functions".[36] Therefore, through social constructs, one can shape rhetorical works, and in turn, the works can shape the social context: "we create our contexts as we create our texts".[36]

Antecedent genres

Written in 1975, Kathleen Hall Jamieson's "Antecedent Genre as Rhetorical Constraint" declares that discourse is determined by the Rhetorical Situation, as well as antecedent genres. Antecedent genres are genres of the past that are used as a basis to shape and form current rhetorical responses. When placed in an unprecedented situation, a rhetor can draw on antecedent genres of similar situations in order to guide their response. However, caution should be taken when drawing on antecedent genres because sometimes antecedent genres are capable of imposing powerful constraints.[37] The intent of antecedent genres are to guide the rhetor toward a response consistent with situational demands, and if the situational demands are not the same as when the antecedent genre was created, the response to the situation might be inappropriate.[37]

Through three examples of discourse, the papal encyclical, the early State of the Union Address, and congressional replies, she demonstrates how traces of antecedent genres can be found within each. These examples clarify how a rhetor will tend to draw from past experiences that are similar to the present situation in order to guide them how to act or respond when they are placed in an unprecedented situation. Jamieson explains, by use of these three examples, that choices of antecedent genre may not always be appropriate to the present situation. She discusses how antecedent genres place powerful constraints on the rhetor and may cause them to become "bound by the manacles of the antecedent genre".[37] These "manacles," she says, may range in level of difficultly to escape. Jamieson urges one to be careful when drawing on the past to respond to the present, because of the consequences that may follow ones choice of antecedent genre. She reiterates the intended outcome through her statement of "choice of an appropriate antecedent genre guides the rhetor toward a response consonant with situational demands".[37]

Reciprocity of genre

People often recognize genre based on the characteristics that the situation offers. Amy Devitt states this when she says, "A genre is named because of its formal markers" (Devitt 10). However she also says, "the formal markers can be defined because a genre has been named" (Devitt 10). When we label something as a certain genre, we also flag these same characteristics as contributing to what we already believe the genre to be. These two quotes show how reciprocity functions within genre. Devitt displays the reciprocal nature of genre and situation according to the individual by using an example of a grocery store list. A question posed by this example is, is something a grocery list because it lists groceries or is it a grocery list because one person says it is a grocery list and we thus recognize all the items on the list as groceries? Though each possible answer to this raised question contradict one another, they are both correct. Similarly, individuals recognize the characteristics of the recurring rhetorical situations in the same way as they see them as affirmation of what they already know about the preexisting genre. The rhetorical attributes of the genre act as both objects which define and are defined by genre. In other words, genre and rhetorical situations are reciprocals of one another. Devitt focused on activity system of genre and that the participants' situation, contexts and text are all mutually created "no one aspect fully determines the other." (Devitt)

Tyranny of genre

The phrase "tyranny of genre" comes from genre theorist Richard Coe, who wrote that "the 'tyranny of genre' is normally taken to signify how generic structures constrain individual creativity" (Coe 188). If genre functions as a taxonomic classification system, it could constrain individual creativity, since "the presence of many of the conventional features of a genre will allow a strong genre identification; the presence of fewer features, or the presence of features of other genres, will result in a weak or ambiguous genre identification" (Schauber 403).

Genres can act as constraints on readers as well. Literary historian Hans Robert Jauss describes genres as creating a "horizon of expectation" under which readers will interpret texts based on how much they correspond to the features of the genre they recognize from works they have previously read.[38] The classification-system concept results in a polarization of responses to texts that do not fit neatly into a genre or exhibit features of multiple genres: "The status of genres as discursive institutions does create constraints that may make a text that combines or mixes genres appear to be a cultural monstrosity. Such a text may be attacked or even made a scapegoat by some as well as be defended by others" (LaCapra 220).

Under the more modern understanding of the concept of genre as "social action" à la Miller,[35] a more situational approach to genre is enabled. This situational approach frees genre from the classification system, genre's "tyranny of genre". Relying on the importance of the rhetorical situation in the concept of genre results in an exponential expansion of genre study, which benefits literary analysis. One literature professor writes, "The use of the contemporary, revised genre idea [as social action] is a breath of fresh air, and it has opened important doors in language and literature pedagogy" (Bleich 130). Instead of a codified classification as the pragmatic application of genre, the new genre idea insists that "human agents not only have the creative capacities to reproduce past action, such as action embedded in genres, but also can respond to changes in their environment, and in turn change that environment, to produce under-determined and possibly unprecedented action, such as by modifying genres" (Killoran 72).

Stabilization, homogenization and fixity

Never is there total stabilization in a recognized genre, nor are there instances that indicate a complete lack of homogenization. However, because of the relative similarities between the terms "stabilization" and "homogenization", the amount of stabilization or homogenization a certain genre maintains is based on opinion. Necessary discourse is, obviously, always needed and is thus considered perfectly stabilized. In rhetorical situation or antecedent genres, that which is unprecedented mostly leads to stable and predictable responses. Outside the natural setting of a given form of discourse, one may respond inappropriately due to an unrecognized alternate. The unrecognized alternate is created by the lack of homogenization or differing expectations in the presented rhetorical situation.[37]

Fixity is uncontrolled by a given situation and is deliberately utilized by the affected before the rhetorical situation occurs. Fixity almost always directly effects stabilization, and has little to no bearing on homogenization. The choice of discourse will provide a certain value of fixity, depending on the specific choice. If a situation calls for more mediated responses, the fixity of the situation is more prevalent, and therefore is attributed with a stable demand of expectations. Stability nor fixity can be directly affected by the subject at hand. The only option is affecting homogenization which in turn, can positively or negatively affect stability. Directly choosing a fixed arena within genre inversely alters the homogenization of said chooser constituting as a new genre accompanied with modified genre subsets and a newly desired urgency. The same ideological theory can be applied to how one serves different purposes, creating either separate genres or modernized micro-genres. (Fairclough)

Genre ecology and activity theory

Main article: Activity theory

Activity theory is not grounded in any one area of field of research, but instead draws from several disciplines including psychology, behaviorism, and socio-cultural studies. Although activity theory originated in the social sciences, it is currently applied most frequently to social-scientific, organizational, and writing studies. Modeled as a triangle, activity theory considers how multiple factors (subject, object, mediating artifacts, rules, and division of labor) existing in an activity system (environment) interact to achieve an outcome. Central to activity theory is the concept of mediation. Human activities are driven by a need to achieve a certain outcome or goal. Typically this activity is mediated by artifacts which include tools, language, signs, and cultural norms. In "Textual Objects" Cheryl Geisler explains that texts are traditionally identified as meditational means to complete a task, though she offers that texts might also be identified as the motive in discourse communities in which text is valued as the outcome as opposed to the means of an outcome. Geisler notes that texts produced for meditational means are typically more private/personalized, whereas texts identified as objects are often written with a public motive. She does not argue, however, that texts should exist exclusively as one or the other, but rather she suggests that texts can function as both.[39]

For some genre theorists, such as Clay Spinuzzi, genres are tools-in-use, and as such can be seen as mediating objects within the world. This view of genre as a tool-in-use is exemplified in the school of genre theory that studies genres' relationships to activity systems. In his article "Textual Grounding: How People Turn Texts into Tools," Jason Swarts asserts that users utilize texts as tools when they recognize the text's specific value in a rhetorical situation or environment. User's then "ground" texts, altering the texts structure for personal use, to make them usable under very specific conditions. The user takes the text from a "formalized representation of information" to a personal tool. Swarts argues that the meaning of a text is established by uptake of the users, though this varies depending on the user and the user's goal.[40] Similarly, in Tracing Genres Through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design, Clay Spinuzzi asserts that the use of certain tools in certain situations can help users to act purposefully in that activity.[41] Within this tradition of genre studies, "Genres are not discrete artifacts, but traditions of producing, using, and interpreting artifacts, traditions that make their way into the artifact as a form-shaping ideology."[42] The study of genres as mediating artifacts within activity systems is closely related to Activity Theory, in which the interactions of different spheres of activity are examined. Activity theory, according to David Russell, "traces cognition and behavior, including writing, to social interaction."[43] Activity theorists examine the ways that the work done in one sphere of activity could potentially change the work done in another. For example, Russell examines how people use writing to mediate their activities, and how changes in one activity can lead to changes in another activity. Russell points out that "the activity system of cell biology research is not confined to universities. It also extends into boundary activity systems of drug companies, government medical research facilities, and so on."[44] Subtle changes in the use of writing in one activity can effect changes in the use of writing in related systems. If the government sets down new pharmaceutical documentation laws, then the teaching of how to document the distribution of pharmaceuticals will change, not just in pharmacies, but also in hospitals and nursing classrooms. Activity systems are always in flux, because subtle changes in one level of the system result in subtle changes in other levels of the system.[45] Activity systems are still relatively stable, despite their constant flux. The changes within them are often subtle, and large scale changes usually occur over long periods of time.

Genre ecology describes the dense connections between genres within the activities that they mediate. Multiple genres mediate a single activity; no genre exists in isolation.[46] In "The Ecology of Genre" Anis Bawarshi argues that genres are "rhetorical ecosystems" in which participants actively enact and, consequently, reenact social practices, relations, and identities. Participants use genre to interpret and perform social motives which sustain rhetorical ecosystems that produce social contexts, practices, and identities.[47] For Spinuzzi, and other genre theorists studying the social aspects of genre (like Carolyn R. Miller, Amy Devitt, and Kathleen Jamieson, among others), genre is more than a category or artifact; genre is a way of interacting with the world. In the study of genre ecologies, genre is seen as a way people can accomplish activities.[48] Like activity systems, genre ecologies are not entirely stable, because activities change, causing the genres mediating them to change, as well.[49] Take, for example the digitization of the workplace. Before computers, the workspace was largely mediated by genres such as the paper memo,or the company newsletter. After digitization, paper memos and paper newsletters began to disappear. Memos and newsletters did not disappear; instead, their distribution method changed. Now, memos and newsletters are disseminated electronically in emails. The genres of the memo and newsletter still exists, but they have changed, slightly, to reflect the changes in the activity system that they mediate.

Secondary speech genres

Mikhail Bakhtin's theorization of complex, secondary speech genres as composites of simple, primary speech genres in the analysis of the interaction between the multiple competing voices and registers in literary works. Bakhtin defines complex, secondary speech genres as "novels, dramas, all kinds of scientific research, major genres of commentary, and so forth [that] arise in more complex and comparatively highly developed and organized cultural communication" (62). While Bakhtin focuses on the historical emergence of the novel in much of his work, in his essay "The Problem of Speech Genres," he makes clear that his theory can be applied to all literary genres, including "profoundly individual lyrical work[s]" (61) such as the pastoral elegy. Complex, secondary speech genres are formed by "absorb[ing] and digest[ing] various primary (simple) genres that have taken form in unmediated speech communion" (62). Primary speech genres are "short rejoinders of daily dialogue," "everyday narration," "brief standard military command" (60), "verbal signals in industry" (63), "letters, diaries, minutes, and so forth" (98), notable for their referentiality to and function within the pragmatic communicative contexts of "extraverbal reality (situation)" (83). When primary speech genres are absorbed by secondary ones, they are "altered and assume a special character," losing "their immediate relation to actual reality and to the real utterances of others" (62). This process of absorption and digestion of primary speech genres by secondary ones leads to a "more or less distinct dialogization of secondary genres, the weakening of their monological composition" (66). While Bakhtinian dialogization may weaken the monological composition of secondary speech genres, it does not preclude a dominant theme, ideology, or cultural meaning from arising out of interplay of the "various transformed primary genres" (98) that make up a secondary work (although, Bakhtin admits, this dominant ideology is difficult to isolate in complex works, and is, to a certain extent, left open to the interpretation of individual readers). Bakhtin explains that primary genres undergo a more or less thorough process of contestation and resolution within the secondary work they constitute and "enter into actual reality only via the [work] as a whole, that is, as a literary-artistic event and not as everyday life" (62). "As a rule, these secondary genres of complex cultural communication play out various forms of primary speech communication" (Bakhtin 98). Even as a work permits and enacts dialogization between characters, conventional forms, and semantic content, it resolves or "finalizes" that content into a "wholeness" of utterance, which is intelligible to readers, and therefore "guarantee[s] the possibility of response (or of responsive understanding)" (76). Through the finalization of disparate conventional and thematic strands, a work achieves the fullness of what Bakhtin calls its "specific authorial intent," Milton's "speech plan" or "speech will" for his work, and readies itself for responsive understanding (reception, interpretation) on the part of readers (77). Despite its internal dialogization, the work delivers itself to readers as a semantically exhaustive whole, and in this way uses its internal drama to respond ideologically to its genre: "other works connected with it in the overall processes of speech communication in [its] particular cultural sphere" (75). These include "works of predecessors on whom the author relies," "other works of the same school," and "works of opposing schools with which the author is contending" (75). In this way the work forms a crucial "link the chain of speech communion" of its genre (76).[50]

See also


  1. Bawarshi, Anis and Mary Jo Reif. Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy. Colorado: Parlor Press and WAC Clearinghouse, 2010. p. 29
  2. 1 2 Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p.41
  3. 1 2 3 Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p.78
  4. Halliday, Michael. Language as Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold, 1978. p.100, 13
  5. Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p.29-32
  6. Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p.32
  7. Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p. 32
  8. 1 2 Martin, J.R.; Rose, David (2008). Genre relations: Mapping Culture (Repr. ed.). London: Equinox Pub. p. 6. ISBN 978-1845530488.
  9. Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p.41-42
  10. Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p.42
  11. Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p.42-43
  12. Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p.43-44
  13. Miller, Carolyn R. "Genre as Social Action." Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (1984):151-167
  14. Miller. "Genre as Social Action." p.155
  15. Miller. "Genre as Social Action." p. 155
  16. Miller. "Genre as Social Action."
  17. 1 2 Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p.79
  18. Bawarshi and Reif. Genre:An Introduction. p.83-84
  19. Freadman, Anne. "Anyone for Tennis." Genre and the New Rhetoric. Ed. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. Bristol: Taylor and Francis, 1994. p.43-44.
  20. Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p. 84
  21. Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p. 85
  22. 1 2 Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p.87
  23. Alpers, Paul. "Lycidas and Modern Criticism." English Literary History 49.2 (1982): 468-92.
  24. 1 2 Fishelov, David (1993). Metaphors of Genre: The Role of Analogies in Genre Theory. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State UP. pp. 85–117.
  25. Welleck, René and Austin Warren. Theory of Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1942. p. 226
  26. Derrida, Jacques. "The Law of Genre." Critical Inquiry 7.1 (1980):55-81
  27. Derrida, Jacques. "The Law of Genre." p.81
  28. Devitt, Amy. "Generalizing about Genre: New Conceptions of an Old Concept." College Composition and Communication. 44.4 (1993): 573-586. Web. JSTOR. 22 April 2013
  29. Devitt, Amy. "Integrating Rhetorical and Literary Theories of Genre." College English. 62.6 (2000): 696-718.
  30. Miller, Carolyn R. "Do Genres Evolve?" Genre 2012: Rethinking Genre 20 Years Later." Carleton University, Ottawa Canada. 27 Jun 2012. Keynote Address
  31. "Genre Systems: Chronos and Kairos in Communicative Action" The Rhetoric of Ideology and Ideology of Genre. Eds. Richard Coe, Lorelei Lingard, and Tatiana Teslenko. Cresskill, NJ, Hampton Press, 2002. 103-122.
  32. Artemeva, Natasha. "Stories of Becoming: A Study of Novice Engineers Learning Genres of Their Profession." Genre in a Changing World. Eds. Charles Bazerman, Adair Bonini, and Débora Figueiredo. West Lafayette, Indiana, Parlor Press, 2009. 158-178. Print.
  33. Helscher, Thomas P. "The Subject of Genre." Genre and Writing: Issues, Arguments, Alternatives. Ed. Wendy Bishop and Hans Ostrom. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1997. 27–36.
  34. 1 2 3 Bitzer, Lloyd F. (Jan 1968). "The Rhetorical Situation". Philosophy & Rhetoric. 1 (1): 2–4. doi:10.2307/40236733.
  35. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 Miller, Carolyn R. (May 1984). "Genre as Social Action". Quarterly Journal of Speech. 70 (2): 151–67. doi:10.1080/00335638409383686.
  36. 1 2 Bawarshi and Reif. Genre: An Introduction. p.70
  37. 1 2 3 4 5 Jamieson, Kathleen Hall (Dec 1975). "Antecedent Genre as Rhetorical Constraint". Quarterly Journal of Speech. 61 (4): 414. doi:10.1080/00335637509383303.
  38. Jauss, Hans Robert; Benzinger, Elizabeth (Autumn 1970). "Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory". New Literary History. 2 (1): 13. doi:10.2307/468585.
  39. Geisler, Cheryl (2001). "Textual Objects: Accounting for the Role of Texts in the Everyday Life of Complex Organizations". Written Communication. 18 (1): 296–325. doi:10.1177/0741088301018003003.
  40. Swarts, Jason (2004). "Textual Grounding:How People Turn Texts Into Tools". Journal of Technical Writing and Communication. 34 (1): 67–89. doi:10.2190/eg0c-quey-f9fk-2v0d.
  41. Spinuzzi, Clay (2003). Tracing Genres Through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
  42. Morson, G.S. and C. Emerson.Mikhail Bakhtin:Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990. p.282-284.
  43. Russell, David R. "Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis." Written Communication (October 1997). p.509.
  44. Russell. "Rethinking Genre." p.527.
  45. Spinuzzi. Tracing Genres. p.50
  46. Spinuzzi, Clay and M. Zachry. "Genre Ecologies: An open-system approach to understanding and constructing documentation." Journal of Computer Documentation 24.3 (2000). p:172.
  47. Weisser, Christian (2001). Ecocomposition:Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. Albany: State University of New York Press. p. 70.
  48. Spinuzzi. Tracing Genres. p. 42
  49. Spinuzzi. Tracing Genres. p.65
  50. Bakhtin, Mikhail M. "The Problem of Speech Genres." Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Eds. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 1986. 60-102.


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