What is Genre?

For class this week, I read works by Carolyn Miller, Charles Bazerman, and Susan Popham that concern genre theory and study. What is a “genre?” Read on below to discover the seemingly unique definition each author gives, as well as my interpreted definition.


Genre as Social Action


Early on in this text, Miller notes that the commonly accepted definition of genre theory describes it as the study of discourse, audience, thinking, and rhetorical situation. Miller, however, does not feel that this definition does the word justice as she states, “if the term ‘genre’ is to mean anything theoretically or critically useful, it cannot refer to just any category or kind of discourse” (p. 151). Genre theory is much more specific for Miller. In her context, “a rhetorically 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” (p. 151). In other words, genre for Miller is very much like Foucault’s thoughts on the oeuvre. The collection or “genre” is only relevant or know by the connection or action that creates it.

In order to fully grasp Miller’s concepts in this text, one must understand her terminology. Below, I have listed the key terms she uses during her discussion:

  • Miller first mentions the three types of Aristotelian Rhetoric : deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. While she does not define each type, she uses these terms to define genre by what it is not. Miller fully rejects the Aristotelian views on rhetoric and on genre.
  • Idiosyncratic Motives: According to Miller, these are intentions that predominate at the genre level of locution (see below)
  • Locution: a speech act (this will be defined more below when we discuss Bazerman)

Miller introduces these key concepts, as well as her initial definition of genre, in this text but leaves us wanting more. She thankfully develops these arguments in Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre.

Rhetorical Community

In this text, Miller admits she no longer fully agrees with her arguments in Genre as Social Action.  She also admits, on page 67, that she has learned a lot from Charles Bazerman, who we will go into a bit later. In Rhetorical Community, Miller is concerned with understanding/developing the relationship between the observable particular and “the abstract but distinctive influence of a culture, a society, or an institution” (p. 70). Miller pursues an interest in genre and relationships in this text, rather than her previous focus on actions.

Key Terms:

  • Structuration- Miller defines this as the meeting point of action and institutions, a term that seems to be the child of her two articles on genre theory.
  • Genre: A structural, way to organize both the virtual world (what is in our heads) and how we work together in reality.

As you may have noticed, Miller’s definition for genre slightly changes within this text. While she is still concerned with action, she is not much more focused on the connections one gains within a genre. Bazerman outlines these connections quite nicely, so I will let him explain this one to you.


Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People

Like Miller, Bazerman uses this text to focus on how we can use genre theory to organize texts and ideas. He includes and excellent quote by John Austin from How to do things with words that states, ” words not only mean things, they do things” (p. 313). This quote perfectly describes Miller’s mild obsession in the first text with action, as well as Bazerman’s focus on the power of words and genres. For Bazerman, genre is a pattern that is found within a chain reaction of social interaction, which is outlined below in “Key Terms.”

Key Terms:

  • Social Fact- Successful texts create these, consists of speech acts, things people believe to be true
  • Speech Acts- meaningful social actions accomplished through language
  • Genre- pattern in which speech acts are created
  • Genre Sets ( the types of text a person in a particular position is likely to create-> Genre Systems (several genre sets where people work together in an organized way) -> Systems of Human Activity
  • Locutionary acts: Simply what is said
  • Prelocutionary acts: Bazerman defines this as “how people take up the acts and determine the consequences of the act” (p. 314)
  • Typification: Standardized forms of speech and understandings

This text works like a introduction piece for Bazerman who, like Miller, chose later to follow up with a more detailed example of his work in  Systems of Genres and the Enactment of Social Intentions (see below).

Systems of Genres and the Enactment of Social Intentions

Thoughtfully enough, Bazerman mentions Miller as a main contributor to the research in his follow-up text as well. Unfortunately for us, Bazerman takes a slightly less clear approach in this text by describing the history and purpose of patents for the majority of the text. I am almost sure this example is supposed to make genre theory much clearer, but I have to admit he lost me there for a portion of it. Bazerman notes on page 82 that, as I understand it,  the patent system is a genre within the social fact the patent system created. This statement is quite confusing to me, however, because it does not follow the lovely chain of reactions Bazerman outlined in Speech Acts (so it is perfectly OK if you are a bit confused by this as well).

Here’s a wonderful infogaphic on the patent system to at least make patents a bit more clear:


Remember last week when I said Foucault hated context? Well, Bazerman is obsessed with context. In light of reading Foucault last week, I found this particular Bazerman quote amusing: “Unless we are total strangers to a situation, we always use our knowledge of local circumstances to confirm or extend or modify our view” (p. 86). I must say that I agree with Bazerman. Based on past experience, I almost always pass some form of judgement when introduced into a situation (new or familiar). Bazerman continues the context fun by introducing the reader to “contextual conditions,” which are outlined below with other key terms from this reading.

Key Terms:

  • Contextual conditions: These identify the timing, speaker, relationships, and meanings of statements
  • Genre: For Bazerman in this context (see what I did there?), genre is a multifaced organizer. He writes that “without a shared sense of genre others would not know what kind of thing we were doing. And life is mysterious enough already” (p. 100) and I must say that this quote is quite relatable and thus enjoyable. 

Because both Miller and Bazerman are focused on relationships as defining structure for genre, it makes since to transition into Susan Popham and her views on genre and societal relationships.


Forms as Boundary Genres in Medicine, Science, and Business

In this text, Popham focused on the tensions within societal relationships, which are eerily similar to the connections we highlighted earlier. When discussing these societal relationships, Popham narrows in on how the connections and tensions between the medical, business, and science genres shape professional and discipline relationships. I separated the genres below to make the relationships and tensions easier to follow (a Venn diagram might have been easier, but who has the time?), as well as the key terms Popham mentions in this text.

Medical Genre: Patient and family care, forms*, intellectual relationships between healthcare providers, & healthcare laws

Business Genre: Insurance, billing, management, paperwork/forms*, & healthcare laws

Science Genre: Medicine, procedures, forms*, & data (patient stats & readings)

* Forms are used in each of the above genres, making them boundary genres (for writing) within the three genres (in the professional/discipline sense).

Key Terms:

  • Boundary objects: mediate tensions within professional relationships
  • Boundary genres: genres that are multidisciplinary in nature and thus cross traditional disciplinary lines
  • Interpenetration: Exporting and importing ideas
  • Genres: Popham defines genre on page 281 as “regulated textual forms functioning in repeating situations”

Popham defines genre here in two ways, as a way to organize fields and as a way to categorize different written documents, creating yet another multi-faceted definition of the term. When looking at the three authors together, it seems clear to this reader that a genre is a structured way to identify and define different groups of people, texts, or fields. 

Works Cited:

Bazerman, Charles. “Speech acts, genres, and activity systems: How texts organize activity and people.” What writing does and how it does it: An introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices (2004): 309-339.
Bazerman, Charles. “Systems of Genres and the Enactment of Social Intentions.”Genre and New Rhetoric, (ed.) Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis (1994) 79-100.

Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social  Action.” Quarterly of Speech 70 (1984): 151-167.

Miller, Carolyn R. “Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre.” Genre and New Rhetoric, (ed.) Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis (1994) 67-77.

Popham, Susan L. “Forms as Boundary Genres in Medicine, Science, and Business.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication  19: 279 (2005).















































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