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Critical genre and discourse analysis
Beverly Trayner: PhD in progress

"Everything that we have so far seen to be true of language points to the fact that it is the most significant and colossal work that the human spirit has evolved -- nothing short of a finished form of expression for all communicable experience. This form may be endlessly varied by the individual without thereby losing its distinctive contours; and it is constantly reshaping itself as is all art. Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations."
Edward Sapir

"Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future"
Bakhtin in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1929)

Introduction | Discourse and its analysis | A genre-based view
Why critical? | Reflections | Bibliography | Links
As I start analysing my data I'm ever more conscious of the connections between genre, discourse, knowledge, power and communities of practice and I need to encapsulate those thoughts. I shall do it by describing discourse and its analysis, then discussing genre and a genre-based view of discourse that makes the connection with communities of practice, and finally asking the question: why the critical in critical genre and discourse analysis? I have a bibliography at the end and some links, with some especially good links to discourse analysis pages.

Important background reading has come from Mikhail Bakhtin (or rather about Bakhtin as in truth have not read any of his books from beginning to end), from Michel Foucault (in English) on discourse and power, John Swales and Vijay Bhatia on genre and discourse analysis, The The New London Group on the pedagogy of multiliteracies, Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen on multimodal discourse, Norman Fairclough on critical discourse analysis, and Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger on situated learning and communities of practice. A thread running through all of this is the ongoing design(ing) and redesign(ing) of meaning. This sense of ongoingness in meaning- and sense-making has been shaped particularly by concepts of unfinalizability (Bakhtin), philosophy as an ongoing conversation (Richard Rorty), design and redesign in the pedagogy of multiliteracies (The New London Group) and the duality of reification and participation (Etienne Wenger).

In his guide to key concepts in Culture and Media Studies (2002: 73-75) Hartley explains how the concept of discourse has taken over the imprecise notion of language. He explains that "language" has not been adequate to account for historical, political and cultural "fixing" of certain meanings, and their reproduction and circulation through different speech, forms of representation, and in particular institutional settings. Discourse (unlike "language") is both a noun and a verb, so you more easily get the sense of discourse as an act, whereas language seems to refer more to a thing. Discourse refers both to the interactive process and the end result of thought and communication. So discourse is the social process of making and reproducing sense(s).

Still paraphrasing Hartley, while we can generate meaning from the langue or abstract system of language, and while we can comprehend the world only through language systems, the resources of language-in-general have always been subject to historical developments and social conflicts. So while langue might be abstract, meaning never is. This means that discourses are the product of social, historical and institutional formations, and meanings are produced by these institutionalised discourses. Individuals don't simply learn languages as abstract skills, we are predated by already established discourses in which different subjectivities are already represented. We establish and experience our individuality by "inhabiting" a number of these discursive subjectivities (some of which confirm each other; others may be in conflict). In short, the theory of discourse proposes that an individual is a site on which socially produced and historically established discourses are reproduced and regulated.

Discourses (e.g. media discourses, medicine, science etc.) are structured and inter-related. Some are more prestigious or legitimate and therefore more obvious (or "stronger" according to Bourdieu in an article in Le Monde) than others. Some discourses struggle to be recognised at all. So discourses are power relations. A lot of the sense-making we are subject to - in the media, at school, in business, in conversation - is the working through of an ideological struggle between discourses. Textual analysis can be used to follow the moves of this struggle, by showing how particular texts take up elements of different discourses and articulate them (ibid.).

I can't leave the description of discourse without saying a bit more about this textual analysis referred to by Hartley. What frameworks do we use for analysing discourse? For this I turn to Bhatia, a leading writer on genre analysis who distinguishes four frameworks that represent different concerns about discourse (2004: 18-22). He identifies:
    (i) discourse as text,
    (ii) discourse as genre,
    (iii) discourse as professional practice, and
    (iv) discourse as social practice.
Bhatia (ibid: 19-21) describes discourse as text as operating within a textual space "where the knowledge about language structure and its function, which may include knowledge about intertextuality, is exploited to make sense of it." However, whereas discourse is embedded in context, discourse as text often excludes engagement with context (except for its intertextual features). In contrast, analysis of discourse as genre is extended to incorporate context in the broader sense to account for the way text is constructed and the way it is interpreted, used and exploited to achieve particular goals. The analysis here of genre in this tactical space might include linguistic and socio-cognitive and ethnographic analysis. Discourse as professional practice extends this notion of genre to the professional space and the interaction with context is then taken much further with the analysis of discourse as social practice, where the emphasis shifts significantly from textual output to features of context, "such as the changing identity of participants, the social structures or professional relationships the genres are likely to maintain or change, and the advantages or disadvantages such genres are likely to bring to a particular set of readers." (ibid: 20) This he refers to as a broader social space.

These four interacting views of discourse are complementary rather than exclusive. Whereas an applied linguist might begin from the textual space, analysing it exhaustively and working towards social space, a sociologist or an anthropologist might begin from the social context and the discursive practices, working downward but not necessarily getting seriously engaged in the textual space.

The word genre comes from the French (originally Latin) word for "kind" or "class". It has been used in rhetoric, literary theory, media theory and linguistics to refer to a distinctive type of text (a text in any mode). Since classical times literary works have been classified under genres (poetry, prose, drama etc.) with sub-genres e.g. tragedy and comedy as sub-genres of drama, and modern media routinely categorised into genres (e.g. films - thriller, western etc. or TV programmes - sit-com, game-show etc.)

Moving away from genres in entertainment, some familiar examples of genres would include business reports, research articles, text books while e-mails, blog-writing discussion group postings are examples of more recent media-based genres. A genre represents a set of moves or conventions that are familiar to the professional or academic community that share a communicative purpose, and which incoporates a language (discourse) that is defined in terms of what people do with it.

There is no objective procedure for categorising a genre. A sub-genre to one theorist might be treated as a genre, or a super-genre by another. Swales, a key writer on genre in applied linguistics notes that they are fuzzy and often subjective, dynamic, flexible and contested. They are the result of an understanding or a knowledge of a specific community's conventions. Genres are negotiated through conversations and actions of informed and practising members of a professional community and they are "the media through which members of professional or academic communities communicate with each other." (Bhatia:2004:186) Genres both shape and are shaped by the actions and sense-making processes of community members.

Studies of genre usually propose the following types of characteristics:

    * they are recognised communicative events with a purpose that is understood by people belonging to the discourse community in which they happen;
    * they usually have names that are recognised by at least some of the members of that community;
    * they have some predictable structures and conventions - both in terms of their form and also in terms of their lexico-grammatical features;
    * established members of a community will have a greater knowledge and understanding of its genres than new members, outsiders or apprentices;
    * expert members of the community often exploit generic resources within the constructs of "socially recognised communicative purposes" (this idea is developed by Bhatia, 2004);
    * genres are reflections of a community's culture, and in that sense focus on social actions embedded within its practices;
    * they are a form of situated cognition embedded in a community's culture.
I should say something here about my use of the word community as I sometimes blur the two concepts of discourse communities and communities of practice. In 2001, in an article about Higher Education course design, Sally Mavor and I compared Lave & Wenger's description of a Community of Practice with Swales' six defining characteristics of a discourse community and concluded that they were very similar. In Bhatia's most recent book he suggests that the difference between them is a matter of focus. Whereas in discourse communities "the focus is on lexico-grammar, texts and genres that enable members throughout the world to maintain their goals, regulate their membership and communicate efficiently with one another" (2004:149), in communities of practice "the emphasis is on practices and values that hold the communities together, or separate them from one another." (ibid., italics in original) He also proposes that we integrate the two concepts without losing the strengths of either. For my own purposes I usually refer to either discourse communities or communities of practice as "communities", only distinguishing them when I want to specify a particular focus. Helpful to our understanding of both discourse communities and communities of practice is the concept of situated activity as the basis of claims about the relational character of knowledge and learning, the negotiated character of meaning, and the engaged nature of learning activity. It is a helpful concept for both types of community where legitimate peripheral participation represents an "integral constituent" of learning and a way in which a legitimate member learns "how to talk (and be silent) in the manner of full participants" (Lave and Wenger 1991: 105)

Returning to genre, we see that although a genre may struggle to maintain its integrity it is also a site of "contention between stability and change" (Berkenkoter and Huckin 1995:6) and "constantly evolving and ... directly challenged" (Swales, 1990:53). This tension between breaching genre conventions and redesigning them is constantly in motion, making the world of discourse more complex and more dynamic. Expert members or old-timers are often responsible for exploiting genre conventions to create new patterns, while at the same time new members might challenge existing genres or bring with them expertise of other genres, helping to fuse, appropriate or transform existing ones. Bhatia refers to "hybrid, mixed and embedded forms" (2004:25) as people move through constellations of genres (resonant of Wenger's idea of an individual belonging to of constellations of communities of practice), recontextualising their discourse and genres in new situated contexts.

Genre analysis has traditionally been viewed as a textual investigation, although more comprehensive analyses also use other techniques including ethnographic techniques, cognitive procedures, computational analysis and critical awareness. Bhatia (2004:156) constructs a model of analytical procedures for a complex, dynamic and constantly developing world where he suggests investigating the textual space (for the text-internal features of language use), the socio-cognitive space (for the tactical aspects of language use) and the professional space (to account for social relationships and the process of genre construction, interpretation and exploitation). The professional space also needs to take into account the way expert users mix, embed, bend and appropriate generic resources to create hybrid genres. Beyond this, we also need to use the social space to try and account for the influence of socio-cultural events to create and sustain identities, social structures and the functioning of social institutions through discursive practices. Discursive practices includes both having knowledge of different genres to suit different purposes and in different contexts as well as knowledge about the different modes of communication and their appropriateness for different kinds of action.

Although increasingly multidisciplinary, discourse and genre analysis come from the discipline of applied linguistics which has traditionally been descriptive and concerned with linguistic form. A critical analysis aligns itself more with socio-pragmatics focusing more on the values these discourses and discursive practices carry in real-life contexts. A critical analysis (which is not the same as an analysis that criticises!) recognises that studying discourse is not a transparent way of studying the world. A critical analysis acknowledges the Foucauldian premise that discourses - and orders of discourse - have shaped and created meaning systems that have gained the status and currency of truth (knowledge) and morality. In other words these truths, which dominate how we define knowledge, ourselves and our relations, are established, negotiated, maintained and challenged in discourse. This suggests that an awareness of how discourses work in social relations of power to effectively construct, regulate and control knowledge and social relations can help equip people to critique and redesign (often in a globalised context) designed practices (see the work of The New London Group).

In our chapter on "Exclusion in international online learning communities" (2003) Sally Mavor and I aligned ourselves with Barnett who points out that "(t)he professional through her critical thinking and her action, is a discursive creator" (1997:142), and the role of critical higher education is "exposure to multiple discourses (both practical and intellectual)," and "purposive and positive engagement" in them. (ibid:168) As we say in our chapter "(b)eing critical practitioners means understanding the inherently ideological nature of seemingly apolitical, pedagogical choices concerning curriculum decisions, course design and implementation. Rather than playing the role of "neutral" professionals uncritically using and applying discursive practices, we have chosen to examine the values and ideologies embedded in such discursive practices in an attempt to provide honest accounts of teaching and learning practices of online learning and community building in international contexts and to explore possibilities for change and growth through ongoing critique." (2003:460-461)

Finally, if critical awareness helps see the diversity of discourses and their positional nature, a critical educator will be better equipped to provide a range of resources for living within the diverse societies that we do. Working across differences entails a "semiotic hybridity" (Fairclough) making new combinations of languages, voices, genres and discourses part of our design repertoire in the increasingly multidisciplinary and multicultural world that we live in.

This tension between maintaining genre integrity and and redesigning it and my role in education as gatekeeper to the mastery of discursive resources fascinates me. In particular my boundary crossing - or hybrid - role between countries, cultures and disciplines and the potential for colonising, transforming, challenging or redesigning genres. This tension also seems to reflect prevailing views of knowledge by the communities I belong to. In communities I belong to where knowledge is viewed as object (Sørensen and Kakihara, 2002) local genre integrity tends to be fixed and in these communities I see resistance not just to outside genres, but to viewing genres as fluid processes. On the other hand, in communities I belong to where knowledge is viewed as interpretation or as a process or even as a relationship (ibid.), the more flexible or adaptable people seem to be to new genres. Also this connection between genre and mode is increasingly visible to be. In fact it's sometimes fuzzy to me as to where one begins and the other ends (Fairclough's "semiotic hybridity", I guess). I must go back and re-read Kress and van Leeuwen.

BARNETT, R. (1997) Higher education: A Critical Business, Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

BERKENKOTTER, C. and HUCKIN, T.N. (1995) Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication - Cognition/Culture/Power. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

BHATIA, V. (2004) Worlds of Written Discourse - a Genre-based View. London and New York: Continuum

BOURDIEU, P. (1998) The Essence of Neoliberalism. In Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, December 1998. Last retrieved from on 26th December, 2004

FAIRCLOUGH, N. (1992) Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity Press.

FAIRCLOUGH, N. Global capitalism and critical awareness of language. Draft paper last retrieved from, on 25th December 2004.

FOUCAULT, M. (1984) The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, New York, Pantheon and London: Penguin.

FOUCAULT, M. (2002) The Order of Things. London: Routledge.

KRESS, G. and VAN LEEUWEN, T. (2001) Multimodal Discourse - the modes and media of contemporary communication. London: Arnold.

HARTLEY, J. (2002) Communication, Cultural and Media Studies -The Key Concepts. London and New York: Routledge.

LAVE, J. and WENGER, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MAVOR, S. and TRAYNER, B. (2001) Aligning genre and practice with learning in Higher Education: an interdisciplinary perspective for course design and teaching. International Journal of English for Specific Purposes Volume 20, No. 4, Pergamon, Elsevier Science 345-366

MAVOR, S. and TRAYNER, B. (2002) Exclusion in international online learning communities, in S. Reisman (ed), Electronic Learning Communities - current issues and best practices. Conneticut: Information Age Publishing, 457- 488.

C. SORENSEN and KAKIHARA, M. (2002) Knowledge Discourses and Interaction Technology. In Thirty-Fifth Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-35), Big Island Hawaii, ed. R. Sprague Jr. IEEE.

SWALES, J. (1990) Genre Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Daniel Chandler's introduction to genre theory, last retrieved 25 December 2004.
Development of the genre concept by Leen Breure,University of Utrecht, The Netherlands
Interesting article from Rob Kling, February 1994 "Reading 'all about computerization: how genre conventions shape non-fiction social analysis"

Discourse analysis
A really comprehensive description and links from Stef Slembrouck, University of Gent
A great online journal about discourse analysis that also explores the limits of what you can do with an online journal
Theory and practice in critical discourse analysis, by Allan Luke, University of Queensland, Australia
Essay by Steve Hoenisch: "A Wittgensteinian Approach to Discourse Analysis"
Links from Jay Lemke, Michegan University under the category "Making meaning"

Discursive Practices
University of Hawai'i at Manoa Department of Anthropology

Communities of Practice
A neat summary of some of the key terms in CoPs (if that's possible) by Paul Hildreth

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bhaktin
The John Hopkins guide to literary theory and criticism
Comprehensive description of Bhaktin's work from Lee Honeycutt, Iowa State University

Michel Foucault
A brave attempt at summarising "The Discourse on Language" by Michel Foucault
Foucault: key concepts

Richard Rorty
Richard Rorty's homepage
Description of his work
Cool article (religious site)
A conversation with Richard Rorty
A filosofia de Richard Rorty
Beverly Trayner, PhD reflections. Last updated: 28th December, 2004
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