Genre Theory I

I thought I’d drop in just a few brief notes from the summer course I’m taking:
CCR760: Genre Theory in Academic Contexts
.  My plan is to introduce
similar entries over the next few weeks; I’ll think of them, for now, as
provisional and winding
explorations through/around/between some of the key ideas playing out in the

One of the first problems has been settling on a working definition of genre
as it connects with writing.  On the first day of class (a week
ago), we distinguished between the misnomer of genre as transparent, received
and neutral classification taxonomies ("genre as bucket") and a–perhaps–more
productive alternative: genre as social action (largely credited to Carolyn
Miller’s essays in 1984 and 1994).  With "social action," Miller suggests
an understanding of genre as the fusion between content and form; in such
fusions we are able to recognize patterns and types of recurrent exigence. 
To varying degrees, the internalization of patterned rhetorical opportunity is
always already involved in our action with language (writing, speech, etc.); 
in genre theory, we are confronted with problems of how completely such
internalizations have explicit, conscious bearing on rhetorical invention and
how we respond (often by reproducing) to the configurative force of recognizable
classes of communication.  Up to this point, we’ve read Miller’s two
essays, a chapter from Anthony Giddens ("Problems of Action and Structure") in
which he works out some of the defining qualities of structuration, and Bakhtin,
"The Problem of Speech Genres." 

For me, an initial framework for sizing up genre theory, for making sense of the
"social action" model, comes from readings of Piaget, Vygotsky and related
cognitive and social learning scholars who have adapted and extended their
seminal work.  I’m definitely oversimplifying
here, but the opening up of genre that moves it away from the preordained,
top-down classification of texts (a canonical sort of table, etc.) to a more
social variant in which the activity rather than the text-as-product
gets typified leads me to a question of ratio between social and otherwise
institutional or individual determinants–the inside-out flow and the outside-in
flows of thought, language, speech, etc.  In other words, as I read some of
the "social action" framings of genre, I feel a small bit of discomfort with the
socially determined ordering of utterances into "relatively stable" classes. 
It’s a productive discomfort, I think, but I can’t easily resolve the ratio. 
Furthermore, structuration–"the structuring of structure" (Derida ctd. in
Giddens)–keeps everything in motion. 
So I suppose isolating a frozen ratio between determinants isn’t altogether necessary. 
In fairness, it’s complicated, and although there is a considerable amount of
attention to agency and to individual actors, I continue to have the impression
that genre as "social action" tips in favor of outside-in or centripetal flows
(a sort of social primacy, I guess, that I find too encompassing).  Of
course, it’s still more fluid, dynamic and enabling than the rigid top-down
orderings it seeks to correct.  How much more fluid, dynamic and
enabling?  Maybe later I’ll
play through the examples I can think of to illuminate this discomfort I’m
describing so poorly; it ties in with folksonomies and also with attempts to
organize blogging activity into definitive (or even usefully descriptive)
classes, kinds, types.  Giddens and Miller both do something with hybrids,
with blends, and so I need to look again at those sections, too.

In Thursday’s sessions, the question came up: are weblogs a genre?  This
question has bounced around in a few different channels; certainly some work,
such as the Blog Research on
project, would guide us to an affirmative conclusion.  Of course
weblogs are genre-lizable, genre-ously suited to classification.  But how
do exigencies filter into the practice of blogging, and is what moves the
blogger a relatively stable social compulsion?  It’s not easy to be sure
really.  When the question comes up, nonetheless, I want to know what a
coordination (or mingling) of blogs and genre makes possible.  What does
genre afford the practicing blogger? Or: From a grounded perspective in genre
theory, what would change about what I do when I write an entry?

Here’s a related question I want to carry forward into the next five weeks:
If genre is social action (which encompasses language activity whether or not it
directly, immediately communicates), what’s not genre?  Where and under
what conditions (and to whose great relief) does genre split into the

These are just a handful of the threads from my notes or from questions
generated during class.  And I hope to continue blogging related pieces,
sharing them here as a way to invite dialogue, write through my unfolding
understanding of genre (I was thinking "genre as bucket" coming into the course; still
unsure: genre as roadside telephone, genre as hegemony, genre as buoy, genre as
social form-aldehyde), and tuck away a few notes that might spark me onto other connections
later on.  For Thursday’s session, we’re looking at Anis Bawarshi’s
Genre and the Invention of the Writer
.  I’m just more than halfway
through it now; hope to have blog-ready notes by mid-week.


  1. “… what’s not genre?” Thet’s question has been troubling me as I work through Barwarshi (which is making much more sense my second time through the text).

    I think the answer my be tied to the “social action” friction you’ve identified. If we communicate by choosing (and are chosen by) genres within dynamic (pre-exisiting and created) systems, what falls outside? What isn’t genre or genre-related?

    To the point: “Genres are discursive sites that coordinate the acquisition and production of motives by maintaining specific relations between scene, act, agent, agency, and purpose” (Bawarshi 16-7). It seems that this boundless reflectivity can allow “genre” to lay claim to just about any form, type, method, etc. of discourse.

    Not troubling, but a good question worth exploring.

  2. As I raised that question, I was thinking that it’s never really stated (as far as I can tell) that genre strictly involves text(s). By default, I’d say we liken genre to types/classes/kinds of texts, but the “social action” model definitely complicates this relationship. Yet, if it opens up the relationship between genre and text, what else does it draw together? All communicative acts? Utterances? Does it bring in other social activities? As I’m running through the is-it-a-genre/is-it-not-a-genre battery of tests, I’ve been playing through a few implausible cases. For one, is a pick-up basketball game constituted by genre(s)? Are the communicative interactions in the on-court “rhetorical ecosystem” operating according to genre (to recurrent exigency, to reproduced structures, and so on)? Just wondering about the limits: what’s just on the edge of genre?

Comments are closed.