The Utility of Genre

Thank you to all of those who read and engaged with my interview with professional comedy writer and story narrator, MoonHorse (name has been censored to retain anonymity). If you've not read that piece, I highly encourage you to check it out!

For all of those who are familiar with this blog and my editing style, you might get a sense of my fascination with genre, useful ways in which genre can be defined and how vast the field of genre studies is. If you've read "The Power of Genre," you might remember David Russel's use of the "activity system," a term that stems from activity theory, to describe the relationship between the activity of a collective and that of an individual.

Debra Journet, in "Writing Within (and Between) Disciplinary Genres: The 'Adaptive Landscape' as a Case Study in Interdisciplinary Rhetoric" does expand on our practical use of genre in a different way. Journet and Russel are similar in that they address our use of genre is often unconscious, that when anything is written or spoken, it is done with some knowledge of expectations that others within a given space have or understand. This isn't to say that every interaction will have the same result or that people in the same space will have equal expectations of the interactions, but that there are expectations, regardless of whether this is realized.

Journet's article begins with two assumptions. First, academic disciplines are "participants" with common strategies and goals. Second, genres are socially constructed and are comprised of both rhetorical action and response. Thus, using these assumptions, genre is dependent on both the rhetoric and the composers of rhetoric who, for their own composition purposes, define it to fit what they're doing and [in most cases] fit within some kind of existing conversation.

Something I've noticed is that responses to rhetoric are often treated as though they are a genre in itself, and it's possible that they could be. This would especially be the case in discourse on how responses to rhetoric can be made more productive. However, this is specifically about communicative rhetoric in which responses are essential to the way genre progresses and is reshaped over time.

Journet cites Amy Devitt who defines genre as "a dynamic response to and construction of a recurring situation, one that changes historically and in different social groups, that adapts and grows as social context changes" (Devitt, 580). As such, genre encompasses the participants, their conversations, repeated rhetorical situations, and how context has modified expectations surrounding those rhetorical situations. However, it's mostly reliant on conversation. The patterns within those conversations assist speakers and writers in creating something that's accessible and effective.

Further, Journet asserts that genre is both cognitive and social, internal and external. To further emphasize this point, the world itself did not come organized and categorized. People decided to identify and organize. People created genre and discourse. This is why these concepts are so malleable. In academic disciplines, often in a classroom setting, participants form their expectations [and therefore form the genre] through what they recognize and their experiences. Often, these are experiences of a text, and it's highly probable that people will have some common experiences of the same texts. Academia is usually organized in this way, and while it's possible to have varied experiences or conclusions, there needs to be some form of agreement as to how to present problems, how to expand on and justify the stakes of that problem, what constitutes as evidence, and a solution or solutions provided they exist. These common experiences of a situation are what creates genre for a discipline.

It's this understanding of genre that makes it a helpful tool. Through this, we can better understand that genre and associated expectations must be internalized and can assist with cognitive change. It is helpful to have an understanding, for example, of how to think like someone in a specific position prior to writing from the perspective of someone in that position.

Journet uses scientific writing, specifically on biology, to explain how this works. Already, there's a set expectation that a piece of scientific writing must somehow be intertextual. This means that the topic knowledge must be somehow related to existing knowledge. It must define a problem and present results in some form, and all of this must hold relevance to the community that it's targeting. It is the genre that provides the norms, the environment, and most importantly the language that is most effective in identifying the process and product.

The "adaptive landscape" is a metaphor and tool first used in the 1930s and has been a part of the genre of evolutionary biology since then. Journet traces the use of the adaptive landscape, its utility, and its importance in molding this genre and, thus, our current understanding of evolution. Journet explains this very well. This tool, developed by Sewall Wright, was a part of "The Evolutionary Synthesis" and combined Darwinian Theory with Mendelian Genetics to explain how evolution works. She cites Ernst Mayr who separated groups of scientists into the "naturalists" and "experimental geneticists." Basically, the naturalists specialized in the history of different types of species and that they adapted and the geneticists specialized in how genes were inherited, but neither group could adequately explain how this change occurred.

There was a great deal of disagreement within the discourse, which I'm not going to fully rehash for the purposes of this post, but different specialists in evolutionary biology gravitated towards their desired method of explanation, whether it was a quantitative model or qualitative model, without seeing the utility in diversifying their approach. The intent of the Synthesis was to aid in that effort. The change in the genre wasn't immediate and it's difficult to buy that acceptance was absolute, but it did make a significant change in how this field could be pursued, creating something Journet terms as "boundary rhetoric." Boundary rhetoric uses multiple disciplines in order to create new interdisciplinary knowledge.

This image is an example of an adaptive landscape, also called a fitness landscape. The intent behind this type of diagram is to show that populations can be subject to a great number of variables. Some of these variables are more adaptive than others and all variables can affect a population in some way. This is an example of boundary rhetoric as it provides both a quantifiable construction of a "problem" (introduction of variables) and a "solution" and it is accompanied by a system by which these values can be documented.

Journet also uses the adaptive landscape and the Synthesis as a whole to illustrate a type of project that is both interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary as termed by Julie Klein. Transdisciplinary works redefine disciplines and creates new tools by which those disciplines can be navigated.

While it's useful to understand the extent to which genre affects the way we communicate, Journet offers a very comprehensive set of tools that show how genre can accomplish those things and the language that can be used to explain that phenomena, further, how it can be directed. As someone who is fascinated with genre studies, I'm looking forward to seeing how I can apply tools like these to the subject of writer's block, something I'm going to start to discuss next week at a greater length than I did here. I like how this approach is very communication-focused and people-focused, something that I'm finding is core to post-process theory and [at least, to me] further proves that post-process does not negate process.

Thank you again to all of my readers who have provided such excellent feedback, support, and engagement. If you would like to join the Purposeful Prose community, you can become a member. This means that you can "like," comment, and further engage with my posts. In addition, you will be able to participate in my forum.

Remember, if there's anything that you'd like me to research in relation to writing, feel free to send me suggestions!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Journet, D. (1999). Writing within (and between) disciplinary genres: The “adaptive landscape” as a case study in interdisciplinary rhetoric. Post-process theory: Beyond the writing-process paradigm, 96-105.


University of California Museum of Paleontology. (n.d.). Genetic drift example (4 of 4) [Graph]. Understanding Evolution.

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