Genre Theories: From Victims to Victimhood

"Nice design but you haven't quite mastered the technology!"

For class this week, we were charged with reading Clay Spinuzzi’s Tracing Genres Through Genres Organizations. Through out the text, Spinuzzi discusses various elements of genre tracing and outlines the concept’s significance, although a compact definition of the term is not given. After reading page 4, I quickly realized that Spinuzzi’s text would not simply define a theory, but instead attempt to answer why design fails and how workers might better approach information design. Spinuzzi starts this discussion by highlighting that “workers produce solutions that are devious, wily, and cunning, but often these solutions do not involve a deep understanding of the system” (p. 20). While workers are clearly intelligent and can offer excellent solutions to programming or procedures, they are often placed in a “victimhood” for not fully understanding the technology at hand.

Spinuzzi also notes that “the user designs that have most often been adopted are those that cast workers are victims and designers as heroes” (p. 4). While I believe there is a slight typo in this quote (I would replace “workers are victims” with “workers as victims”), this quote well defines “victimhood.” Victimhood, one of Spinuzzi’s key terms, is where workers are down-graded to people who don’t understand the technology well enough to develop better programs. Below I will outline and define other key terms and key concepts that are essential to understanding Spinuzzi’s argument.

Key terms:

Workers: Those who use a given technology

Method: “a way of investigating phenomena” (p. 7)

Methodology: “the theory, philosophy, heuristics, aims, and values that underlie, motivate, and guide the method” (p. 7)

System-entered Design: Formalist, Controlled, Modernist (found on p. 7)

User-centered Design: Social Constructionist, Collaborative, Postmodernist (found on p. 7)

Fieldwork-to-formalization Methods: Bridge organizations and disciplines through descriptions of the work

Organizations: Those who need or produce information systems

Disciplines: Researchers and designers

Formalizations: “the models, categorical descriptions, and sequential descriptions” that communicate findings and describe future systems (p. 17)

Centripetal Impulses: (Here Spinuzzi borrows from Bakhtin) A urge for stability and control, draws inward p. 20 Bakhtin

Centrifugal Impulses: (Here Spinuzzi borrows from Bakhtin) A urge for resistance and chaos, pushes outwards

Moment-to-moment operation: “reflexes, and habits on which workers draw as they carry out their labor” (p.  34)

Artifacts: Remnants of a “historically developed activity” that stabilize activities when used (p. 39)

Compound Meditation: How workers utilize certain artifacts to complete a job

Genre Ecology: Group of related genres that help people achieve goals by mediating a specific activity

Genre Perception: “The understanding of an artifact in terms of genre” (p. 69)

Destabilization: Gaps that occur within an activity

Hybrid genre: “genres that emerge from the unification of two or more disparate activities” (p. 160)

Key Concepts:

Three Levels of Scope (outlined on p. 45):

  • Macroscopic: Activity, genre as a social memory and action
  • Mesoscopic : Action, genre as a tool, a strategy, and/or tactic
  • Microscopic: Operation, genre as habits, rules, structure, and/or cognition


At the end of the book, Spinuzzi leaves us with a familiar, but slightly altered phrase. He writes, “these workers are inventive, wily, devious, sly, cunning, and crafty. And they deserve to be heard” (p. 223). We are reminded that the workers are intelligent and, at this point in the book, I strongly agreed that they need to be heard. Not all workers make technology harder on themselves (like the lovely gentlemen who chose to try to use updated and old technology together) and those who are innovative should be heard (like the resourceful post-it lady who made the technology work for her).


When reading Spinuzzi, I could not help but think of Carolyn Miller from my post last week. In her text, Miller defines genre theory as “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). Spinuzzi also places great importance on the action behind the substance, especially when discussing the second level of scope, Mesoscopic (see key terms above). I have a feeling Spinuzzi and Miller would agree on quite a few things, using genre theory and genre tracing to move the workers out of victimhood and into the light.


Works Cited

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

Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres Through Organizations. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s