Another Look at Genre: Corpus Linguistics vs. Genre Analysis

Article excerpt

In current talk of text typology, the term "genre "has superseded most other formerly popular terms, such as "text type" and "register". We speak of genres not only in genre theory, but also in the rapidly expanding domain of corpus studies. However, as often is the case, terms which are widely used become polysemous and vague in meaning. Using the same term helps conceal the fact that the sociocognitive approach which characterises much current genre theory (e.g., Swales 1990; Bhatia 1993; Kamberelis 1995; Berkenkotter--Huckin 1995) is widely different if not downright incompatible with the notions of genre entertained among those linguists who amass large corpora for empirical research. The former approach sees genres as social, dynamic, interactive processes, which get realised in verbal interaction, while the latter treats genre as a label for many, often vaguely defined, kinds of variation in discourse types, the main use of which seems to be to ensure wide coverage for corpora.

To illustrate the difference in the approaches, I shall show an influential formulation from both sides; one by Berkenkotter and Huckin (1995), and one by Biber (1988). After that, I shall take up some issues which I find problematic in one or both of these approaches. Most of them centre around the issue of external vs. internal criteria in defining genres. After discussing the issues briefly, I shall then consider the possibilities of a convergent future.

1. Two conceptions of genre

Recent genre theory generally favours conceptions of language which emphasise its nature as social action. The following characterisation of genre is presented by Berkenkotter and Huckin (1995), which sums up the sociocognitive view in its current understanding, and has been widely adopted by many scholars working in the framework of genre analysis:

1. Dynamism. Genres are dynamic rhetorical forms that are developed from actors' responses to recurrent situations and that serve to stabilize experience and give it coherence and meaning. Genres change over time in response to their users' sociocognitive needs.

2. Situatedness. Our knowledge of genres is derived from and embedded in our participation in the communicative activities of daily and professional life. As such, genre knowledge is a form of "situated cognition" that continues to develop as we participate in the activities of the ambient culture.

3. Duality of Structure. As we draw on genre rules to engage in professional activities, we constitute social structures (in professional, institutional, and organizational contexts) and simultaneously reproduce these structures.

4. Community Ownership. Genre conventions signal a discourse community's norms, epistemology, ideology, and social ontology.

5. Form and Content. Genre knowledge embraces both form and content, including a sense of what content is appropriate to a particular purpose in a particular situation at a particular point in time.

By looking at this list, could we identify a genre? If we already have a particular genre in mind, like a scientific article or a dinner conversation, the list might assist us in seeing it as genre, and assessing its "genericity". But without such a starting-point, there is little to guide us in construing an entity that in real life might pass as a genre, or orienting us to the size or level of unit to look for. For instance would research reports and review articles be variants of the same genre, or two genres, and are scientific journals one genre and popular science journals another, and how do popular science journals relate generically to popular science books? Or how stable must a conversation type be to merit the status of genre? And is all language use covered by genres?

Secondly, as an example from the corpus camp, let us look at what Douglas Biber (1988: 67) took as his point of departure in his famous study of variation in speech and writing. …