Conceptualizing Communicative Practices in Organizations: Genre-Based Research in Professional Communication

Article excerpt

SINCE THE MID 1980s, researchers in professional communication and related fields have been discussing ways of studying the large patterns of discourse that circulate in contemporary organizations--organizations ranging from industrial companies in the new economy to computer-based classrooms. Using a genre-based approach to their studies, these researchers are now offering new insights into the origin, reproduction, and transformation of communicative practices in such organizations. For example, most readers of this journal are probably already familiar with Yates's acclaimed study (1989), Control through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management, or they may have read Priscilla Rogers's analytical study (2000) of how CEO presentations are received. Readers interested in business communication pedagogy may have also read Janis Forman and Jone Rymer's study (1999), "Defining the Genre of the 'Case Write-Up,'" which was published in the Journal of Business Communication.

Such research, in fact, is routinely showing up in nearly all professional communication journals, as researchers turn to genre as a way of framing their studies. This upsurge in genre-based research during the last decade and a half suggests that there is something particularly productive about the idea of genre. In this column, I explore why researchers have been drawn to genre-based studies and suggest some of the work that this approach can do for the field in the future.

Redefining Cenre

For those who have not been following this line of research, it is worth noting that genre has taken on a special meaning for contemporary researchers. It was not long ago that the immediate associations most people had for the term genre were fairly staid and arcane. A genre was associated with a formulaic structure, or, perhaps, an excruciatingly crafted literary work that belonged to a recognized tradition. Nearly sixteen years ago, however, the term took on a much more complex meaning when Carolyn Miller provocatively argued that a genre was defined not only by a recognized form, but also by a set of associated actions. In combination, the form and action associated with one text could be compared to others to establish types of routine communicative action. Two instances of a type, however, are never exactly the same. Therefore, if researchers wanted to really understand the types of forms and actions communicators used, they would have to recognize not only what made instances similar, but also how they could be differentiated. The concept of genre consequently became more complex than overly simplified, traditional notions suggested.

Rethinking Context in Professional Communication Research

This change in how researchers define a genre generated a great deal of interest among researchers who follow rhetorical theory, but, by itself, does not seem to have attracted the attention of a large number of professional communication researchers. A concurrent development in professional communication studies actually seems to have led researchers to turn to contemporary genre theory as a way of framing their inquiries. At about the same time as Miller's publication, several researchers were beginning to draw connections between the workplace, society, and communication in their situated studies of professional documents (see, for example, Odell & Goswami, 1985).

This line of inquiry posed several challenges for researchers who needed to define contextual frameworks for their studies.

Some of these researchers advocated a type of generalized approach to studying "the practice of rhetoric in today's economic world" (Debs, 1993, p. 164) or of thinking about "rhetorical context" (Harrison, 1987, p. 10). In contrast to these generalized theories of context, other researchers defined context by the institutional and organizational settings in which people communicate. Defining context from an institutional perspective allowed these researchers to focus their attention on definable--though still complex--sites of communicative exchange. …