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The Power of Genre

A big thank you to all of those who read the first part of my interview last week. The rest of that interview will be posted next week. Some of the points that we cover in that interview reflect the subject matter of this post, especially when we get into writing pedagogy. Here, I will mostly cover the power that the concept of genre and genre studies assert in different forms of writing according to David Russel in "Activity Theory and Process Approaches: Writing (Power) in School and Society."

The goal of this essay is illustrated as an examination of the relationship between writing within the school environment and writing outside the school environment taking inspiration from psychologist Lev Vytgosky's activity theory. A quick summation of this theory is that the relationship between the subject who does something and the object (the task) is central to the performance of an activity (Hasan and Kazlauskas, 2014). Russel uses the term, "activity system," in order to address collectives with common motivations and intentions who use similar tools. The types of writing that result from it, that contribute to that common goal, would share the same genre. Genre is being used to define a set of expectations that have the capacity to change over time as opposed to a means by which things are categorized.

I would like to add, briefly, that written works within the same genre don't have to share a common goal and can have different intentions for a discourse. Written works can also inhabit more than one genre and be a part of multiple discourses. This is largely because genres are not static and can subvert expectations while still maintaining their identity.

Like the activity theory, an activity system examines the relationship between the activity of the collective social environment and the activity of the individual [in this case] insofar as it refers to the product of writing and the processes of writing. To demonstrate the flexibility of these activity systems, Russel uses the analogy of a list of food items, something that can be a grocery list, an order form for a supermarket, or an invoice from a supplier. Regardless of what the list of food items is intended to be, it has something to do with operations with and within supermarkets. The difference is the intention of each activity system.

When different organizations, something that can be used interchangeably with activity systems, interact with one another to produce literature, Russel states that they create a network of genres, and this the core of how "genres" gain power.

He cites Jone Rymer who discusses how scientific studies are produced. A well-known scientist who performs the study does so in relation to their laboratory which is connected to other laboratories, universities at large, and the sources that give them funding. Each of these are activity systems. For that article, those who specialize in data will create that portion of the study. A senior scientist will then handle most of the writing that includes the abstract, the introduction, the discussion. Essentially, that senior scientist is in charge of determining how the performed study is interpreted by the activity system of the laboratory.

What Russel gets from this is that the structure is wildly different from the standard school system of "prewrite, write, revise, edit." I'd like to take that a step further to state that each component of the scientific study, while one genre, can be argued to be the result of the interaction of multiple genres. Each is equally dependent on the other as each activity system both inside and outside the laboratory is depended on to interact with and interpret the resulting study. Together, all of these activity systems are mediated by genre systems. By this it is meant that the activity systems can dictate or establish expectations, but in the same vein, existing expectations determine how the activity systems interact with it.

It's possible for this to read as paradoxical and difficult to fully rationalize, but Russel is arguing that this is the reason for shifts in writing processes. There are activity systems in place that assert genre, interpret writings using genre, and by distributing certain writings, they allow subversion which can lead to added expectations, plural genres, plural writing processes, and more ways for those processes to interact. This doesn't guarantee a shift, but has the capacity to govern the shifts that take place.

Moving back to writing pedagogy, the way that Russel frames the composition process as it stands in the school system is something that's been commodified and writing processes as commodified. In this case, this term isn't being used in a derogatory way, but to describe how tools from different processes are being utilized by students, instructors, practitioners, rhetors of all kinds. The commodification of these processes is necessary so that activity systems who work in various genres can be mediated and cohesive products can be generated. Essentially, we need more of these tools to facilitate progress in writing as a discipline and as a process.

This isn't to state, and Russel affirms this, that the tools offered in textbooks and in the classroom can be insightful and some provide information on how disciplines interact with one another, but interesting tools and framing devices that we have not seen as much of can be gleaned from sources that are not often used, thus my interest in post-process theory. When we only have a few writing processes to work from in the confines of academia, a possible pitfall is the overgeneralization of these processes. Doing so could make a process less productive and deny a writer use of a diverse array of existing tools for writers and can inhibit the creation of others.

The fault does not lie with the writing process as much as it does its overgeneralization. So, while different writing processes can and should exist, Russel does not argue for overhaul or reformation. Rather, it needs to be studied further, there needs to be a larger genre network and again, from that, more tools so that emerging writers and students in composition studies can be exposed to different writing processes and practitioners have more to work with.

Genre has power because the understanding of genre by activity systems has power, and this is not a conspiracy theory despite the implications of "power" possibly reading as hyperbolic. In rhetoric, this power is spread out and effective texts require mutual cooperation from all those responsible for producing rhetoric. In my position as a book editor, regardless of how I'm treated, my expertise and responsibilities do not change and my knowledge of standards of language and genre don't change. I have a degree of power as someone who is called upon to apply my knowledge of standards of language to text that belongs to an author who has the power to make decisions based on those applications. Both writer and editor are operating from their own understanding of how the genre(s) the text belongs to operates. Russel would connect that overall power with genre itself, and I find that interesting as a framing device.

I encourage my readers to examine previous works that they have read or written and examine them in terms of their expectations of genre and to consider the cooperative process that had to be undertaken for that work to be produced. Texts that you might think of as widely different might also operate under similar expectations and that can show how those genres communicate with one another.

Thank you to all readers of Purposeful Prose whether you are starting at this article or whether you are long time readers and supporters of this blog. Next week, I will be publishing part two of my interview with MoonHorse, a professional comedy writer and story narrator. Part two will delve deeper into writing pedagogy and somewhat into writing and social sciences.

As always, if you would like to be a member of Purposeful Prose, you will be able to "like," engage directly with my posts, and interact with my forum. If you have a topic that you would like to suggest I research, you can reach out to me at any time to make that suggestion.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Hasan, H., & Kazlauskas, A. (2014). Activity theory: Who is doing what, why and how.

Russel, D. R. (1999). Activity theory and process approaches: Writing (power) in school, and society.

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May 21, 2021

Applying activity theory to genre is helpful to me in that it moves a reader beyond the categorizing of writing that the usual use of the term tends to effect. When you look at genre as the relationship of the writer to the act of writing (and as I think you suggest, the purposes to which the writer is putting certain conventions), you can see why Margaret Atwood, for example, "transcends" the limitations of the science fiction genre as it is usually thought of. From the point of view of a reader, this is a helpful way to think about what's loosely called "genre" literature. I love the example of the grocery list, invoice, etc.

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I would agree with that. I haven’t gone too in-depth into an exploration of activity theory, but genre plays a very active part of how we communicate in our lives. I think that this gives a very interesting lens.

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