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Analytical Essay on Theoretical Approaches to Study of Genres and Discourse Community

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Contemporary Genre Theories (ESP, New Rhetoric, SFL)

The term comes from the French (and originally Latin) word for ‘kind’ or ‘class’ and appeared in rhetoric, literary theory, media theory, and more recently in linguistics as referring to a distinctive type of ‘text’. Different approaches applied in order to form a basis for defining genres.

Vandenberg provides the following definitions of genre as these appear across many different disciplines, for example:

Hyon (1996) stresses that there are three main approaches to genre in applied linguistics. The three schools are English for Special Purposes (ESP), the North American New Rhetoric and the Systemic Functional Linguistics approach (SFL).

Swales (1981, 1990) studied the discourse structure and linguistic features of scientific research articles, thus he is deemed as the founder of ESP genre analysis. In the ESP realm, discourse structures are usually described in terms of moves, and communicative purpose is given an important role. Hymes (1972) was the first who developed the concept of a ‘communicative event’ and its importance lies in the fact that it can be used to deal with the communicative reality of professional contexts. Therefore, a genre (Swales, 1990, p.58) is defined as “a class of communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes”. Swales (1990, p.58) further states “these purposes are recognised by the expert members of the parent discourse community, and therefore constitute the rationale for the genre”.

Swales did not father the notion of ‘discourse community’, but he states that it is the “parent of genre” (Swales (1990, p.58). Although he acknowledges the contribution of various social constructionist theorists to the formation of the said notion (for example, Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Perelman Rorty, Porter, Geertz), he endorses the definition given by Herzberg, (1986, p.1, as cited in Swales, 1990, p.21) where “language use in a group is a form of social behaviour”.

Swales is of the opinion that a discourse community is considered as a sociorhetorical unit comprising of people who share objectives where socialization and solidarity are not required. According to Swales (1990, p.24), a discourse community “recruits its members by persuasion, training or relevant qualification”. He proposed (1990, 24-27) six defining characteristics for identifying a discourse community, i.e., members’ common public goals; mechanisms of intercommunication; a participatory mechanism for exchanging information and feedback; use of genres to further the community’s aims; specific lexis; members possessing relevant expertise. His definition has been criticised, for example, Mauranen (1993) argued that Swales’ definition of discourse communities is restrictive because it excludes academic and scientific communities, since only individual disciplines might meet all or some of these criteria (Martines, 2003-4).

The modern ESP approach to genre is more pragmatic than theory- centred. As Alyousef & Alyahya (2018) observe, ESP classifies genres as the formal properties and the communicative purposes of both spoken and written texts within the social context.

Swales’ definition is influenced by New Rhetoric Genre theory. He (1990, p.58) defined genre as “a constitutive aspect of specialised languages”. In shaping this definition, he combined rhetoric and linguistics. His approach to genre theory, as Devitt (2015) suggests, is “highly rhetorical, involving such classically rhetorical concepts as purpose, audience, and means”.

The New Rhetorical approach qualifies genre studies as discourses which are socially motivated, generated, and constrained (Coe & Freedman, 1998, p. 137) thus enabling us to define “the possibilities of meaning in discourse” (Hanks, 1987, p. 670). Therefore, the distinguishing feature of the new theory is that a discourse should be judged on what it does (Coe & Freedman, 1998; Coe, Lingard, & Teslenko, 2002a). In other words, the New Rhetorical theory treats genre “as typified social action rather than as conventional formulas” (Devitt, 2000, p. 697).

According to Miller (1984/1994a, p. 37), who is considered as the most influential figure with regard to the new rhetoric approach, genre is a rhetorical means which mediates “private intentions and social exigence; it motivates by connecting the private with the public, the singular with recurrent.” The development of ‘recognizable genres’ assists rhetors with “the recognition of situations as alike as recurrent” (Bazerman, 1997, p. 22). The rhetorical situation is seen as socially constructed and as Artemeva (2004, p.8) emphasised, by situating exigencies within the social context, Miller’s definition considers genre as extending beyond regularities in textual features. Exigence is not only part of our experience and our concept of a recurring situation but also part of our response to the situation (Bawarshi, 2000). In plain words, exigence is a moment in which something happened or did not happen and compelled a person to speak or write.

In summary, according to Miller (1984/1994), a genre can be understood as a frequently repeated social action by an individual social actor or group of actors for fulfilling their rhetorical purpose, is rule-governed, is distinguishable from form, in the sense that form is more general than genre, genre is a pattern of language use, i.e. genre shapes the culture. Therefore, human action, whether symbolic or otherwise, “is interpretable only against a context of situation and through the attributing of motives” (Miller, 1984/1994, p.24).

Pare & Smart (1994, p.147) further elaborated on Bazerman,’s theory (who stressed that genres are sets of shared expectations among both readers and writers) by defining genre as a distinctive profile of regularities across four dimensions: a set of texts, the composing processes involved in creating these texts, the reading practices used to interpret the texts, and the social roles performed by writers and readers (Artemeva & Myles, 2015).

Berkenkotter & Huckin (1995) also contributed to the new rhetorical approach by introducing a sociocognitive aspect of genre. They suggested five principles that constitute a theoretical framework for genre study. The first one is that genres are dynamic rhetorical forms subjected to changes when the discourse community and its members’ perceptions of the world change as well. The second principle is ‘situatedness’, meaning that genre is a form of ‘situated cognition’ in the sense that knowledge is embedded in communicative activities of daily and professional life. The third principle states that genre knowledge includes both form and content. The fourth principle is called duality of structure, i.e. genres constitute and reproduce social structures and the fifth principle is called ‘community ownership’ and states that it is genre conventions that indicate a discourse community’s norms, epistemology, ideology and social ontology.

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The New Rhetoric School, which is more ideological, explores the sociocultural aspects of genres and sees them from the perspective of literary theories rather than linguistic ones. According to Alyousef & Alyahya (2018, p.93), “genres include members who have values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours”.

The Systemic Functional Linguistics approach (SFL) was developed by Halliday during the 1960s in the UK and then in Australia (Almurashi, (2016)). In SFL, a text is analyzed in four ways: Context, Semantics, Lexico-grammar, and Phonology. Context is integral to the overall process of making meaning. In fact, when language occurs in a context, it will relate to or is linked to the Context of Culture (genres) and the Context of Situation (register) (Matthiessen & Halliday 1997). Martin (1985, p. 25) defines genres as a “staged, goal-oriented, purposeful activity in which speakers engage as members of our culture”. There are thus as many different genres as there are recognizable activity types in a culture.

In SFL the use of language is a social semiotic, in the sense that language is a meaning-making system (Thompson 1990). The semiotic nature of language allows for language to be meaning creating. Halliday (1998, p.2) states that language is “the only semiotic system that embodies all human experience and all human relationships.” To sum up, the forms of language are shaped by key features of the context of situation which can be described in terms of register variables.

According to Halliday’s model concerning the context of situation, the aspects of the context relate intimately to the language used to create text, in terms of three important strands (Matthiessen & Halliday, 1997). These are Field, Tenor and Mode (Halliday 1978). Field is the area of external reality with which the text deals. Tenor is the relationships between those participating in the linguistic act and Mode is the means through which the communication takes place.

The SFL model is construed in terms of three metafunctions, i.e. Mood (interpersonal), Transitivity (ideational), and Theme (textual) which act simultaneously and systematically not distinctly or independently in a text. The ideational, interpersonal and textual metafunctions (Eggins, 1994) are reflected in a huge system network of meaning potentials including subnetworks of Transitivity, Thing, and Quality with specific set of semantic features for an utterance production (Haratyan, 2011).

Eggins (1994, p.78) relates genre, register and language as follows: 1) Language is used with a function or purpose, and this use is related to a given situation and a specific culture. 2) The context of culture (genre) is more abstract, more general, than the context of situation (register). 3) Genres are realised through languages, and this process of realising genres in language is mediated through the realization of register.

For Systemicists, genre is a schematic unit characterised by social conventions. The schematic structure of a text is the crucial factor which identifies that it belongs to a particular genre. There are elements of schematic structure that are defining of a genre (i.e. obligatory elements) and others that are optional. A genre is thus defined in terms of its obligatory elements of schematic structure and variants of a genre (i.e. subgenres) are those texts in which the obligatory schematic structure elements are realised together with optional elements (Martines, 2003-4). According to Hasan (1996, p. 54), Placement, Finale and Moral are optional elements, whereas Initiating Event, Sequent Event and Final Event are obligatory. By identifying the obligatory and optional elements in the text, we are able to explore, in terms of genre, what are their variable and invariable properties.

For the Systemicists, genre can be defined in terms of linguistic properties alone. However, Paltridge (1997a, p. 104) is of the opinion that the structure of a text is not genre defining, since it is not the presence of particular discourse structures alone which leads to the recognition of a text as an instance of a genre, but rather “the co-occurrence and interaction of each aspect of discourse structure with other components of interactional and conceptual frames in their entirely”. Paltridge thus sees genre assignment on the basis of both pragmatic and perceptual conditions (Martines, 2003-4).

To sum up, Systemacists’ major contribution to the genre theory was the introduction of the Generic Structure Potential (GSP) (Hasan 1996; Halliday & Hasan 1985), which is the above mentioned analytical framework that allows us to identify the possibilities of instantiation of any genre. Moreover, SFL takes a linguistic approach towards genre by applying functional grammar and discourse theories. The author’s/speaker’s social purposes affect the linguistic choices made.

Bhatia (1993, 2004) bridges the gap between New Rhetoric and SFL by proposing a multi-perspective four-space model of discourse analysis (2002 and 2004). Bhatia’s interest is on professional discourse analysis, in which discourse, as defined within this context, is ‘an instance of the use of written language to communicate meaning in particular context, irrespective of any particular framework for analysis’ (Bhatia, 2004, p.18). Therefore, as Wan, Fakhruddin & Hassan (2015) suggest, Bhatia’s model is based on textual, tactical, professional and social spaces. They state that “These spaces represent the overlapping grounds where discourses operate within and across these spaces from different perspectives” (ibid, p.59). Therefore Bhatia’s pattern commences with a textual analysis and extends to the socio-cognitive and socio-critical space.

Both SFL and ESP approach the study of genre from the linguistic perspective, however, SFL sees genre from a cultural point of view, which is at a macro level (explanations, recounts, reports) while ESP, according to Wan, Fakhruddin & Hassan (2015, p.65) “locates genre within the context defined by discourse communities (research articles, legislative documents, job application letters)”. ESP treats genres as communicative tools situated within social contexts, while RGS sees genres as sociological concepts which include textual and social ways of knowledge, being and interacting in particular contexts (Bawarshi & Reiff, 2010).

However, these theories have been widely criticised. First of all, it is genre’s definition that is problematic. According to Feuer (1992, p.144), “A genre is ultimately an abstract conception rather than something that exists empirically in the world”, therefore, genre cannot be accurately defined. As Chandler (1997) suggests, what meaning a theorist attributes to genre, for another may be sub-genre or even super-genre. Another problem is who defines what genre is and who determines the shape of genres. Is it the author, the reader or the text itself? According to Rosmarin (1985), none of them, it is the critic instead. Genre is a critical tool rather than a language-making tool; it is not an operational tool either. However, to rhetoricians it is the author and reader those who define and determine the conceptual shape of genres (Devitt, 2000).

Another problem is that genres may constrain and inhibit authorial creativity but contemporary theorists reject this view (Fowler 1982), in the sense that authors “can rely on readers already having knowledge and expectations about works within a genre” (Chandler, 1997), although some theorists are of the opinion that readers consume generic texts passively, owing to the facts that they are aware of the generic conventions and others, such as Knight (1994), believe that genres provide a framework that helps readers to identify, select and interpret texts, hence it is an active process for readers.

However, as Artemeva & Myles (2015) state, in the recent years genre researchers are of the opinion that a combination of these approaches could be productive in terms of genre research and pedagogy. More particularly, by combining ESP and RSG, since they share the same view of genre as the social practice of a community, the outcome would be the expansion of the fundamental views on genre and the ways in which they are studied and researched.

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Analytical Essay on Theoretical Approaches to Study of Genres and Discourse Community. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from
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