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Genre (11px /ˈʒɑːnrə/ or /ˈɑːnrə/; from French, genre French pronunciation: [ʒɑ̃ʁ], "kind" or "sort", from Latin: genus (stem gener-), Greek: genos, γένος) is the term for any category of literature or other forms of art or culture, e.g. music, and in general, any type of discourse, whether written or spoken, audial or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria. Genres are formed by conventions that change over time as new genres are invented and the use of old ones are discontinued. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions.


The concept of genre originated from the classification systems created by Aristotle and Plato. Plato divided literature into the three classic genres accepted in Ancient Greece: poetry, drama, and prose. Poetry is further subdivided into epic, lyric, and drama. The divisions are recognized as being set by Aristotle and Plato; however, they were not alone. Many genre theorists contributed to these universally accepted forms of poetry. Similarly many theorists continued to philosophize about genre and its uses, which caused genre as Plato and Aristotle knew it to evolve and further expand.

Classical and Romance genre theoryEdit

The earliest recorded systems of genre in Western history can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Gérard Genette explains his interpretation of the history of genre in "The Architext". He described Plato as the creator of three imitational, mimetic genres distinguished by mode of imitation rather than content. These three imitational genres include dramatic dialogue, the drama; pure narrative, the dithyramb; and a mixture of the two, the epic. Plato excluded lyric poetry as a non-mimetic, imitational mode. Genette further discussed how Aristotle revised Plato's system by first eliminating the pure narrative as a viable mode. He then uses two additional criteria to distinguish the system. The first of the criteria is the object to be imitated, whether superior or inferior. The second criterion is the medium of presentation: words, gestures, or verse. Essentially, the three categories of mode, object, and medium can be visualized along an XYZ axis. Excluding the criteria of medium, Aristotle's system distinguished four types of classical genres: tragedy, epic, comedy, and parody. Genette explained the integration of lyric poetry into the classical system by replacing the removed pure narrative mode. Lyric poetry, once considered non-mimetic, was deemed to imitate feelings, becoming the third "Architext," a term coined by Gennette, of a new long-enduring tripartite system: lyrical; epical, the mixed narrative; and dramatic, the dialogue. This new system that came to "dominate all the literary theory of German romanticism" (Genette 38) has seen numerous attempts at expansion and revision. Such attempts include Friedrich Schlegel's triad of subjective form, the lyric; objective form, the dramatic; and subjective-objective form, the epic. However, more ambitious efforts to expand the tripartite system resulted in new taxonomic systems of increasing complexity. Gennette reflected upon these various systems, comparing them to the original tripartite arrangement: "its structure is somewhat superior to most of those that have come after, fundamentally flawed as they are by their inclusive and hierarchical taxonomy, which each time immediately brings the whole game to a standstill and produces an impasse" (Genette 74).

Contemporary genre theoriesEdit

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Rhetorical situationEdit

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In 1968, Lloyd Bitzer claimed that discourse is determined by rhetorical situations in his article titled, "The Rhetorical Situation". A rhetorical situation refers to the fact that every situation has the potential for a rhetorical response. He looks to understand the nature behind the context that determines discourse. Bitzer states, "it is the situation which calls discourse into existence" (Bitzer 2). Thus, the situation controls what type of rhetorical response takes place. Each situation has an appropriate response in which the rhetor can either act upon or not act upon (Bitzer). He expresses the imperative nature of the situation in creating discourse, because discourse only comes into being as a response to a particular situation. Discourse varies depending upon the meaning-context that is created due to the situation, and because of this, it is "embedded in the situation" (Bitzer 4).

According to Bitzer, rhetorical situations come into existence, at which point, they can either mature and go away, or mature and continue to exist. Bitzer describes rhetorical situations as containing three components: exigence, audience, and constraints. Bitzer highlights six characteristics needed from a rhetorical situation that are detrimental to creating discourse. A situation calls a rhetor to create discourse, it invites a response to fit the situation, the response meets the necessary requirements of the situation, the exigence which creates the discourse is located in reality, rhetorical situations exhibit simple or complex structures, rhetorical situations after coming into creation either decline or persist. Bitzer's main argument is the concept that rhetoric is used to "effect valuable changes in reality" (Bitzer 14).

In 1984, Carolyn Miller examined genre in terms of rhetorical situations. She claimed that "situations are social constructs that are the result, not of 'perception,' but of 'definition'" (Miller 156). In other words, we essentially define our situations. Miller seems to build from Bitzer's argument regarding what makes something rhetorical, which is the ability of change to occur. Opposite of Bitzer's predestined and limited view of the creation of genres, Miller believes genres are created through social constructs. She agreed with Bitzer that past responses can indicate what is an appropriate response to the current situation, but Miller holds that, rhetorically, genre should be "centered not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish" (Miller 151). Since her view focuses on action, it cannot ignore that humans depend on the "context of the situation" as well as "motives" that drive them to this action (Miller 152). Essentially, "we create recurrence," or similar responses, through our "construal" of types (Miller 157). Miller defines "types" as "recognition of relevant similarities" (Miller 156-7). Types come about only after we have attempted to interpret the situation by way of social context, which causes us to stick to "tradition" (Miller 152). Miller does not want to deem recurrence as a constraint, but rather she views it as insight into the "human condition" (Miller 156). The way to bring about a new "type" (Miller 157), is to allow for past routines to evolve into new routines, thereby maintaining a cycle that is always open for change. Either way, Miller's view is in accordance with the fact that as humans, we are creatures of habit that tightly hold on to a certain "stock of knowledge" (Miller 157). However, change is considered innovation, and by creating new "types" (Miller 157) we can still keep "tradition" (Miller 152) and innovation at the same time.

Ecology of genreEdit

In 2001, Anis Bawarshi's "Ecology of Genre" argues for the teaching of genre as an ecosystem. He compares genre to an ecosystem in order to demonstrate how writing recreates genres as well as genre recreates writing. The genre itself serves as an ecosystem, defining our interpretation and creation of genre. Bawarshi uses the idea of a doctor's office as an ecosystem in order to demonstrate his point more clearly. He does this by defining the Patient Medical History Form as a genre. We recognize this genre; thus, expectations are set. Judging the pre-imposed expectations, we react accordingly within this genre. This genre consists of microenvironments, each consisting of the doctor, patient, and nurse, which form the ecosystem as a whole. As a result, Bawarshi states we are rhetorical beings that act within these ecosystems. We are shaped by the rhetoric surrounding us and we act accordingly. We gather our impressions from rhetoric presented to us, which shapes our actions and perceptions. He also introduces exigence, motive, and intention. Motive operates on the conceptual level and exigence shapes our actions. (Bawarshi)

Reciprocity of genreEdit

People often recognize genre based on the characteristics that the situation offers. Amy Devitt states this when she says, "A genre is named because of its formal markers" (Devitt 10). However she also says, "the formal markers can be defined because a genre has been named" (Devitt 10). When we label something as a certain genre, we also flag these same characteristics as contributing to what we already believe the genre to be. These two quotes show how reciprocity functions within genre. Devitt displays the reciprocal nature of genre and situation according to the individual by using an example of a grocery store list. A question posed by this example is, is something a grocery list because it lists groceries or is it a grocery list because one person says it is a grocery list and we thus recognize all the items on the list as groceries? Though each possible answer to this raised question contradict one another, they are both correct. Similarly, individuals recognize the characteristics of the recurring rhetorical situations in the same way as they see them as affirmation of what they already know about the preexisting genre. The rhetorical attributes of the genre act as both objects which define and are defined by genre. In other words, genre and rhetorical situations are reciprocals of one another. Devitt focused on activity system of genre and that the participants situation, contexts and text are all mutually created "no one aspect fully determines the other." (Devitt)

Antecedent genresEdit

Written in 1975, Kathleen Jamieson's "Antecedent Genre as Rhetorical Constraint" declares that discourse is determined by the Rhetorical Situation, as well as antecedent genres. Antecedent genres are genres of the past that are used as a basis to shape and form current rhetorical responses. When placed in an unprecedented situation, a rhetor can draw on antecedent genres of similar situations in order to guide their response. However, caution should be taken when drawing on antecedent genres because sometimes antecedent genres are capable of imposing powerful constraints (Jamieson 414). The intent of antecedent genres are to guide the rhetor toward a response consistent with situational demands, and if the situational demands are not the same as when the antecedent genre was created, the response to the situation might be inappropriate (Jamieson 414).

Through three examples of discourse, the papal encyclical, the early State of the Union Address, and congressional replies, she demonstrates how traces of antecedent genres can be found within each. These examples clarify how a rhetor will tend to draw from past experiences that are similar to the present situation in order to guide them how to act or respond when they are placed in an unprecedented situation. Jamieson explains, by use of these three examples, that choices of antecedent genre may not always be appropriate to the present situation. She discusses how antecedent genres place powerful constraints on the rhetor and may cause them to become "bound by the manacles of the antecedent genre" (Jamieson 414). These "manacles," she says, may range in level of difficultly to escape. Jamieson urges one to be careful when drawing on the past to respond to the present, because of the consequences that may follow ones choice of antecedent genre. She reiterates the intended outcome through her statement of "choice of an appropriate antecedent genre guides the rhetor toward a response consonant with situational demands" (Jamieson 414).

Social constructEdit

Bitzer's definition of exigence as "an imperfection marked by urgency... something waiting to be done" (Bitzer 6) ties in with Miller's idea of social action as the next step after an exigency is realized. Miller also points towards the theory that genres recur, based on Jamieson's observation that antecedent genres finding their way into new genres. More importantly, Miller takes on the bigger picture of a rhetorical situation in which all of these steps happen. "Situations are social constructs that are the result, not of 'perception,' but of definition" (Miller 156). From this, it is understood that social constructs define situations and, therefore, exigence is also socially situated.

Genre, also, understood in terms of social contexts provides greater meaning to each recurring situation; it essentially allows for differentiation, though past genres have a role in present and new genres. Through this differentiation, genre is allowed to continue evolving, just as social contexts continue to change with time. Bawarshi describes the way in which this happens as "communicants and their social environments are constantly in the process of reproducing one another" (Bawarshi 69). Rhetoric essentially works the same way, as seen in the example of writing Bawarshi provides, "writing is not a social act simply because it takes place in some social context; it is social because it is at work in shaping the very context within which it functions" (Bawarshi 70). Therefore, through social constructs, one can shape rhetorical works, and in turn, the works can shape the social context: "we create our contexts as we create our texts" (Bawarshi 70).

Genre as social actionEdit

The concept of genre is not limited to classifications and lists. People interact within genres daily. Genre is determined based "on the action it is used to accomplish" by the individuals using that particular genre (Miller 151). The distance between the text or action of genre and its users does not have to be vast. People respond to exigencies provided by genre every day. Exigence is "a set of particular social patterns and expectations that provides a socially objectified motive for addressing" the recurring situation of a particular genre (Miller 158). Seeing genre as a social action provides the "keys to understanding how to participate in the actions of a community" (Miller 165). Carolyn Miller argues that, "a rhetorical 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" (Miller 151).

The idea that rhetorical situations define genre means that participants in genre make decisions based on commonalities and repeat those instances. Genre is not only about the form of but also the mere repetitiveness of similarities. The classroom setting exemplifies this. When students wish to speak, they raise their hands to signify that desire. Raising a hand is the correct response to speaking in turn in that particular social setting. A person at lunch with a group of friends would not raise their hand to speak because the social situation is different. Miller concludes that social actions are the response to "understanding how to participate in the actions of a community" (Miller 156).

Carolyn Miller builds on arguments made by other scholars while also contradicting Bitzer's argument by giving her readers five features to understand genre (Miller 163). She believes that if something is rhetorical, then there will be action. Not only will there be action, but this action will also be repeated. The repetition of action creates a regularized form of discourse. Miller would add that the result has more to do with the action accomplished by the situation. Miller recognizes that a person chooses to take a certain social action within a defined set of rules - rules set in place by that user. Lastly, a situation cannot dictate a response. Miller ends her article with the thought that genres are partly rhetorical education through her statement, "as a recurrent, significant action, a genre embodies an aspect of cultural rationality" (Miller 165). Here, Miller unknowingly encapsulates a future ideology about genre: that genres are created by culture. According to Mnotho Dlamini genre is basically a deep information in a particular context.

Tyranny of genreEdit

The phrase "tyranny of genre" comes from genre theorist Richard Coe, who wrote that "the 'tyranny of genre' is normally taken to signify how generic structures constrain individual creativity" (Coe 188). If genre functions as a taxonomic classification system, it could constrain individual creativity, since "the presence of many of the conventional features of a genre will allow a strong genre identification; the presence of fewer features, or the presence of features of other genres, will result in a weak or ambiguous genre identification" (Schauber 403). Under the classification-system concept of genre, placing a text into a genre is vital, since "every text is read according to a genre which governs its interpretation" (Schauber 401). The classification-system concept results in a polarization of responses to texts that do not fit neatly into a genre or exhibit features of multiple genres: "The status of genres as discursive institutions does create constraints that may make a text that combines or mixes genres appear to be a cultural monstrosity. Such a text may be attacked or even made a scapegoat by some as well as be defended by others" (LaCapra 220).

Under the more modern understanding of the concept of genre as "social action" à la Miller (Miller 152), a more situational approach to genre is enabled. This situational approach frees genre from the classification system, genre's "tyranny of genre". Relying on the importance of the rhetorical situation in the concept of genre results in an exponential expansion of genre study, which benefits literary analysis. One literature professor writes, "The use of the contemporary, revised genre idea [as social action] is a breath of fresh air, and it has opened important doors in language and literature pedagogy" (Bleich 130). Instead of a codified classification as the pragmatic application of genre, the new genre idea insists that "human agents not only have the creative capacities to reproduce past action, such as action embedded in genres, but also can respond to changes in their environment, and in turn change that environment, to produce under-determined and possibly unprecedented action, such as by modifying genres" (Killoran 72).

Stabilization, homogenization and fixityEdit

Never is there total stabilization in a recognized genre, nor are there instances that indicate a complete lack of homogenization. However, because of the relative similarities between the terms "stabilization" and "homogenization", the amount of stabilization or homogenization a certain genre maintains is based on opinion. Necessary discourse is, obviously, always needed and is thus considered perfectly stabilized. In rhetorical situation or antecedent genres, that which is unprecedented mostly leads to stable and predictable responses. Outside the natural setting of a given form of discourse, one may respond inappropriately due to an unrecognized alternate. The unrecognized alternate is created by the lack of homogenization or differing expectations in the presented rhetorical situation. (Jamieson)

Fixity is uncontrolled by a given situation and is deliberately utilized by the affected before the rhetorical situation occurs. Fixity almost always directly effects stabilization, and has little to no bearing on homogenization. The choice of discourse will provide a certain value of fixity, dependent on the specific choice. If a situation calls for more mediated responses, the fixity of the situation is more prevalent, and therefore is attributed with a stable demand of expectations. Stability nor fixity can be directly affected by the subject at hand. The only option is affecting homogenization which in turn, can positively or negatively affect stability. Directly choosing a fixed arena within genre inversely alters the homogenization of said chooser constituting as a new genre accompanied with modified genre subsets and a newly desired urgency. The same ideological theory can be applied to how one serves different purposes, creating either separate genres or modernized micro-genres. (Fairclough)


Genre is embedded in culture, but may clash with it at times. There are occasions in which a cultural group may not be inclined to keep within the set structures of a genre. Anthony Pare’s studied Inuit social workers in "Genre and Identity: Individuals, Institutions and Ideology". In this study, Pare described the conflict between the genre of Inuit social workers’ record keeping forms and the cultural values that prohibited them from fully being able to fulfill the expectations of this genre. Amy Devitt further expands on the concept of culture in her 2004 essay, "A Theory of Genre" by adding “culture defines what situations and genres are likely or possible” (Devitt 24).

Genre not only coexists with culture, but also defines its very components. Genres abound in daily life and people often work within them unconsciously; people often take for granted their prominence and ever present residence in society. Devitt touches on Miller’s idea of situation, but expands on it and adds that the relationship with genre and situation is reciprocal. An individual may find him- or herself shaping the rhetorical situations, which in turn affects the rhetorical responses that arise out of the situation. Because the social workers worked closely with different families, they did not want to disclose many of the details that are standard in the genre of record keeping related to this field. Giving out such information would violate close cultural ties with the members of their community.

Pop cultureEdit

Outside of the academic field, genre regularly affects societies' pop culture. The mass media uses genre to differentiate between classes of popular subjects such as music, movies, TV, books, etc. Favoritism plays an important part of distinguishing one genre from another; fans of Horror look differently upon Comedy than fans of Romance do. Genre has also been used to shape differences in cultural aspects of these popular subjects. American comedies are distinctly different from French ones, as Country music is noticeably unlike Irish folk music. Genres sort subjects (such as movies, music, books, etc.) efficiently, especially when following trends set by society. From walking in to the nearest movie rental store to searching for music via ITunes, genres are applicable in everyday life as organized classification systems. Even in places such as grocery stores or clothing stores, genres are utilized to form an ordered flow to determine the differences between smaller classes within one particular subject, pointing out the differences between fruit and dairy, and punk to mod. In modern culture, sub-genres often arise to prevent a feeling of homogenization and loss of identity. As the rate of global communication continues to increase, the creation of new pop-culture sub-genres per year does in near perfect tandem.


Although genres are not always precisely definable, genre considerations are one of the most important factors in determining what a person will see or read. The classification properties of genre can attract or repel potential users depending on the individual's understanding of a genre.

Genre creates an expectation in the minds of its audience and may fail or succeed depending on if that expectation is met or not. Many genres have built-in audiences and corresponding publications that support them, such as magazines and websites. Inversely, audiences may call out for change in a antecedent genre and create an entirely new genre.

The term may be used in categorizing web pages, like "newspage" and "fanpage", with both very different layout, audience, and intention. Some search engines like Vivísimo try to group found web pages into automated categories in an attempt to show various genres the search hits might fit.

Visual artsEdit

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The term "genre" is much used in the history and criticism of visual art, but in art history has meanings that overlap rather confusingly. Genre painting is a term for paintings where the main subject features human figures to whom no specific identity attaches - in other words, figures are not portraits, characters from a story, or allegorical personifications. Many genre paintings are scenes from common life particularly portraying the lower class. These are distinguished from staffage: incidental figures in what is primarily a landscape or architectural painting. Genre painting may also be used as a wider term covering genre painting proper, and other specialized types of paintings such as still-life, landscapes, marine paintings and animal paintings.

The concept of the "hierarchy of genres" was a powerful one in artistic theory, especially between the 17th and 19th centuries. It was strongest in France, where it was associated with the Académie française which held a central role in academic art. The genres in hierarchical order are:


In philosophy of language, figuring very prominently in the works of philosopher and literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin's basic observations were of "speech genres" (the idea of heteroglossia), modes of speaking or writing that people learn to mimic, weave together, and manipulate (such as "formal letter" and "grocery list", or "university lecture" and "personal anecdote"). In this sense genres are socially specified: recognized and defined (often informally) by a particular culture or community. The work of Georg Lukács also touches on the nature of literary genres, appearing separately but around the same time (1920s–1930s) as Bakhtin. Norman Fairclough has a similar concept of genre that emphasizes the social context of the text: Genres are "different ways of (inter)acting discoursally" (Fairclough, 2003: 26). J.R. Martin

However, this is just one way of conceiving genre. Charaudeau & Maingueneau determine four different analytic conceptualizations of genre.
A text's genre may be determined by its:

  1. Linguistic function.
  2. Formal traits.
  3. Textual organization.
  4. Relation of communicative situation to formal and organizational traits of the text (Charaudeau & Maingueneau, 2002:278-280).


In literature, genre has been known as an intangible taxonomy. This taxonomy implies a concept of containment or that an idea will be stable forever.The earliest recorded systems of genre in Western history can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Gérard Genette, a French literary theorist and author of The Architext, describes Plato as creating three imitational genres: dramatic dialogue, pure narrative and epic (a mixture of dialogue and narrative). Lyric poetry, the fourth and final type of Greek literature, was excluded by Plato as a non-mimetic mode. Aristotle later revised Plato's system by eliminating the pure narrative as a viable mode and distinguishing by two additional criteria: the object to be imitated, as objects could be either superior or inferior, and the medium of presentation such as words, gestures or verse. Essentially, the three categories of mode, object, and medium can be visualized along an XYZ axis. Excluding the criteria of medium, Aristotle's system distinguished four types of classical genres: tragedy (superior-dramatic dialogue), epic (superior-mixed narrative), comedy (inferior-dramatic dialogue), and parody (inferior-mixed narrative). Genette continues by explaining the later integration of lyric poetry into the classical system during the romantic period, replacing the now removed pure narrative mode. Lyric poetry, once considered non-mimetic, was deemed to imitate feelings, becoming the third leg of a new tripartite system: lyrical, epical, and dramatic dialogue. This system, which came to "dominate all the literary theory of German romanticism (and therefore well beyond)…" (38), has seen numerous attempts at expansion or revision. However, more ambitious efforts to expand the tripartite system resulted in new taxonomic systems of increasing scope and complexity. Genette reflects upon these various systems, comparing them to the original tripartite arrangement: "its structure is somewhat superior to…those that have come after, fundamentally flawed as they are by their inclusive and hierarchical taxonomy, which each time immediately brings the whole game to a standstill and produces an impasse" (74). Taxonomy allows for a structured classification system of genre, as opposed to a more contemporary rhetorical model of genre.


  • Bawarshi, Anis. "The Ecology of Genre." Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. Eds. Christian R. Weisser and Sydney I. Dobrin. Albany: SUNY Press, 2001. 69-80.
  • Bitzer, Lloydof Language and the Pedagogy of Exchange." Pedagogy 1.1 (2001): 117-141.
  • Charaudeau, P.; Maingueneau, D. & Adam, J. Dictionnaire d'analyse du discours Seuil, 2002.
  • Coe, Richard. "'An Arousing and Fulfillment of Desires': The Rhetoric of Genre in the Process Era - and Beyond." Genre and the New Rhetoric. Ed. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. London: Taylor & Francis, 1994. 181-190.
  • Devitt, Amy J. "A Theory of Genre." Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. 1-32.
  • Fairclough, Norman. Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research Routledge, 2003.
  • Genette, Gérard. The Architext: An Introduction. 1979. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
  • Jamieson, Kathleen M. "Antecedent Genre as Rhetorical Constraint." Quarterly Journal of Speech 61 (1975): 406‐415.
  • Killoran, John B. "The Gnome In The Front Yard and Other Public Figurations: Genres of Self-Presentation on Personal Home Pages." Biography 26.1 (2003): 66-83.
  • LaCapra, Dominick. "History and Genre: Comment." New Literary History 17.2 (1986): 219-221.
  • Miller, Carolyn. "Genre as Social Action." Quarterly Journal of Speech. 70 (1984): 151-67.
  • Pare, Anthony. "Genre and Identity." The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre: Strategies for Stability and Change. Eds. Richard M. Coe, Lorelei Lingard, and Tatiana Teslenko. Creskill, N.J. Hampton Press, 2002.
  • Schauber, Ellen, and Ellen Spolsky. "Stalking a Generative Poetics." New Literary History 12.3 (1981): 397-413.
  • Sullivan, Ceri (2007) 'Disposable elements? Indications of genre in early modern titles', Modern Language Review 102.3, pp. 641–53
  • Pare, Anthony. "Genre and Identity." The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre: Strategies for Stability and Change. Eds. Richard M. Coe, Lorelei Lingard, and Tatiana Teslenko. Creskill, N.J. Hampton Press, 2002.


External linksEdit


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