An Introduction to Genre Theory
Genre Theory is a collective term used to describe theoretical approaches that are concerned with how similar situations generate typified responses called genres, which serve as a platform for both creating an understanding based on shared expectations and also shaping the social context.
Genre Theory has its origins in the study of literary genres, but has been expanded to include a wide range of genres from everyday examples such as recipes and apologies to workplace writing genres such as proposals and medical records. The branch of Genre Theory that is most often associated with technical communication is called Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS) or North American Genre Theory and is known for its emphasis on understanding genres as inherent components of recurrent social action such as typical workplace situations. For example, according to RGS, the genre of proposals is an indispensable element in the frequently occurring business situation of making an offer.
Recipes are a genre; but genres are not recipes (Freadman, 1994, p. 49).
While the term genre is most often defined in common usage as a means of classification based solely on formal characteristics (such as literary genres or movie genres), its meaning in RGS is much more refined. In RGS, the definition of genre as social action originates in Carolyn Miller’s (1984) similarly titled seminal article, where she describes genres as “typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations” (p.159). Miller’s conceptualization of genre moves away from identifying formal and structural characteristics of genres and highlights the importance of focusing on the action that a genre is used to accomplish. This way, attention is paid not only to how genres came to be the way they are based on similar situations (including the common characteristics of similar situations such as the needs, the goals, the objects, the organizations, the people involved, and larger society), but also to ways in which genres can be adapted to new situations as the context (again the needs, the goals, the people involved, etc.) is slightly different in every new situation.
According to RGS, one of the major reasons we use genres is to enable a shared understanding of the situation. The relevance of genres for this purpose has been pointed out by Bazerman (1988) who posits them as a “socio-psychological category which we use to recognize and construct typified actions within typified situations” (p. 319). Thus, genres have to be both stable and dynamic to fulfill the requirement of situations being both typical and different at the same time.
For this reason, genres can be envisioned as “stabilized-for-now” (Schryer, 1993, p. 208) meaning that they not only carry an imprint of similar situations of the past in their conventionalized form, but they have enough variability in their structures and ways of expression to make them easily applicable to any new situation. This connects directly to Bakthtin’s description of speech genres as “changeable, flexible, and plastic” (1986, p.80) because they have to easily fit any situation while at the same time, speech genres also need to retain certain characteristics to ensure that participants think about a specific situation in a similar way. Viewing workplace genres in this light can explain how the changeability of their formal characteristics is connected to changes in the situation and the actions these genres need to accomplish.
Application of Genre Theory
Because RGS connects genres directly to the situations in which they are used, it has proven to be a rich framework for looking at the role of genres in workplace interactions. A study by Orlikowski and Yates (1994), for example, uses Genre Theory to analyze the role of genres emerging through new forms of electronic communication within a company. The findings of this study indicate the importance of genres and genre repertoires in providing norms for “how, why, and with what effect members of a community interact to get their work done” (p. 1). Another workplace study by Wahl (2003) finds that the genre of customer documentation plays an important role in organizational learning as it structures technical and product knowledge in ways that makes it easier to be disseminated within the organization.
In addition to workplace studies, RGS is also productive in looking at the process of genre learning by students in school and novices in the workplace. Smart and Brown (2008), for example, while combining Genre Theory, Activity Theory, and Participatory Action Research, look at how students of Professional Writing develop a critical understanding of workplace genres and their situation in a specific work activity during an internship experience. Another case study by Artemeva (2008) describes how a novice engineer adapts in his workplace through the existing genres of this organization, while at the same time, the creativity he applies to these genres enables him to be quickly noticed and promoted. As these examples illustrate, Genre Theory, especially when combined with other theories such as Activity Theory and Situated Learning Theory, can create a more complete understanding of workplace communication practices and can improve the process of teaching technical communication.