of The American Society for Information Science and Technology

Vol. 27, No. 2

December/January 2001

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The Concept of Genre and Its Characteristics

by Clare Beghtol

Clare Beghtol is a professor in the Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto,

140 St. George St., Toronto, ON M5S 1A1; telephone: 416/978-8852; e-mail: beghtol@fis.utoronto.ca

The information world is coping not only with new types of documents (e.g., home pages), but also with new ways of searching for, retrieving and conveying electronic documents. Information practitioners and researchers are beginning to look to the concept of genre for help in dealing with these novel circumstances and with the proliferation of new products and techniques that support them.

In this situation, research on the characteristics and uses of genres their individual definitions, contexts and potential applications needs to be augmented by general knowledge of the concept of genre itself and of its many variations. Efforts to incorporate the developers' and/or the users' genre literacy, domain knowledge and information expectations in the development of databases, search and retrieval techniques, and/or system analysis and evaluation need to examine thoroughly both the positives and negatives of genre as an analytic tool. We thus need to identify both the potential contributions and potential limitations of genre analysis before we can make good use of the concept of genre and of genre analysis techniques while at the same time reducing the consequences of their limitations.

The Concept of Genre

The word genre means "kind of" or "sort of" and comes from the same Latin root as the word genus. Discussions of genre probably began in ancient Greece with Aristotle, and the practice of distinguishing kinds of texts from each other on the basis of genres and their characteristics has continued uninterrupted since then. Many specific text genres have been recognized since Aristotle's day fiction, essays, biography, newspaper stories, academic writing and advertising, among others.

The concept of genre has also been extended beyond language-based texts, so that we customarily speak of genres in relation to art, music, dance and other non-verbal methods of human communication. For example, in art we are familiar with the genres of painting, drawing, sculpture and engraving. In addition, within each genre, sub-genres have developed. For painting, sub-genres might include landscape, portraiture, still life and non-representational works. Some of the recognized sub-genres of fiction include novels, short stories and novellas. Presumably, any number of sub-levels can exist for any one genre, and new sub-genres may be invented at any time. Recently, genre theories have been promulgated for texts about every kind of human activity (e.g., business, politics, medicine, religion and sport, among others). In each, genres and sub-genres can be identified. This proliferation of genre analysis for various purposes means that we cannot exclude any kind of text (or other kind of document that can be mounted on the Web) from an investigation of the usefulness of genre.

Genre and Typology

A discussion of genres is a discussion of classificatory activity specifically, of the division of some whole thing into the kinds or types of the thing. Typologies have been developed routinely in all fields of knowledge and in different communities of endeavor. In bibliographic classification and subject analysis, for example, the initial subdivision of all texts into fiction and non-fiction comes from C.A. Cutter's Rules for a Dictionary Catalog (1904). According to Cutter, one of the functions of the catalog is to allow the user to choose between "literary" and "topical" works, that is, between works without topics (i.e., "literary" works) and works with topics or subjects (i.e., non-literary, "topical," non-fiction works). This distinction has remained almost unquestioned in discussions of text genres, and the example illustrates the extent to which a genre distinction may become culturally ingrained and therefore nearly invisible. We are so accustomed to the fiction/non-fiction distinction that it is hard to imagine how to subdivide texts according to some other initial characteristic of division. Nevertheless, other initial distinctions have been suggested, such as the distinction between narrative texts (e.g., some novels, newspaper stories, scientific research reports and medical case studies) and non-narrative texts (e.g., some novels, poetry, philosophical works and mathematical works).

Consensus seldom exists, however, on any typology. Different modern analyses of general text types, for example, have used the communicative purpose of the text as a characteristic of division to divide all texts into the following sets:

1. descriptive, narrative, argumentative, literary, poetic, scientific, didactic and conversational;

2. descriptive, narrative, expository, argumentative and instructive;

3. narrative, procedural, behavioral expository.

These text typologies have some shared and some unshared genres. Each set contains a "narrative" category, but the sets differ markedly on the remaining categories. In addition, each of the above examples is based on a theoretical position that determines which characteristics of texts are considered salient for forming groups.

Since identification of genres entails the use of classification, all the methods and criteria for a viable classification system come into play. Sorting a whole set of things into genres should ideally conform to the accepted desiderata of mutual exclusivity and joint exhaustivity. That is, the genre categories should not overlap with each other, and all possible instances should be accounted for and accommodated in the groupings. These ideal conditions may not be possible to achieve in any classification or in any domain. It is clear, for example, that sorting text types into sub-types on the basis of their purpose poses special problems because each text can contain elements of more than one purpose. In the first example above, for instance, a conversational text can also be a description, a narration and/or an argument, or a poetic text may also have a didactic and/or a narrative purpose.

Adding to the problems of identifying genres is the further complexity that genres may also be identified on the basis of some characteristic of division other than communicative purpose. For example, some genres may be called "form" genres while others may be called "content" genres. Most people would expect to recognize a poem by its physical "silhouette" on the page or a letter by the presence of a conventionalized format for the address and salutation. In contrast, it is more difficult to distinguish between two prose forms such as fiction from non-fiction because they have roughly the same format on the page (although fiction might sometimes be identifiable by the presence of short paragraphs signaling conversation). In the case of the content genres that have no identifiable physical format, it is necessary to read the text in order to assign it to a genre (e.g., a basis in "reality" for non-fiction, a basis in the "imaginary" for fiction).

A further problem for identifying genres is that even the most familiar ones are unstable, changeable and can divide, fuse and/or mutate to form different kinds of hybrid texts. New names are often coined for these hybrids, such as non-fiction novel, infomercial, prose poem and docudrama. In this practice, the ideal of mutual exclusivity is sacrificed in order to ensure joint exhaustivity of the classes. But the necessity of adding new classes dynamically undermines the stability of the typology and confounds reader expectations for the content(s) and structure(s) of the genres. This tension between continuity and change is a common one for information organization and retrieval analysis and systems.

Genre and Readers' Expectations

Readers have explicit learned expectations for the genres with which they are familiar. Genre theory and genre analysis postulate ideal text types against which individual instances of texts can be measured. Often large numbers of readers share the same (or similar) names for a particular genre, have a shared understanding of the general purpose of a certain kind of text and a shared awareness of some of the formal text features that one associates with certain kinds of texts. Knowledgeable readers are able to recognize instances of many genres and to bring this recognition into play when deciding whether or not to read a particular kind of text. We have learned what kind of content to expect of a biography, for example, because we have learned to be alert to the functions and forms of biography as a genre. We can exclude all biographies from consideration if we want to do so. If we want to read biography, however, we will decide which one to read on the basis of the specific biographee (and his/her gender, profession, time period, etc.) not on the basis of the genre itself.

Readers' expectations for and understanding of various genres have been exploited in such practices as genre colonization, where the vocabulary and text forms of one field are used to rationalize and legitimize changes in another. For example, discussions of students as both the "consumers" and the "products" of an educational institution use terms from the field of marketing to create new kinds of expectations in the field of education. This analogical reasoning likening one field to another extends to the development of analogous text genres such as the creation of marketing plans, mission statements and outcome analyses for educational institutions. In cases of genre colonization, readers must have expectations both for the genres of one field and of the standard structures and expectations of another field.

Such reader expectations, however, have had to remain somewhat flexible because of the instability and slipperiness of genres. For example, word processing software sometimes provides help in preparing certain kinds of documents such as letters or reports, but these generic formulaic documents may not be appropriate or acceptable in a specific situation. For example, we would normally distinguish between a "business letter" and a "love letter" as sub-categories of the genre "letter." We would expect the latter to be considerably more personal and informal than the former, and we would probably not expect a love letter to include a formal address and salutation. Similarly, a particular enterprise often has a standard format for what that organization calls a report, and the specific format favored by the organization may be different from the generic format provided by the software. It is relatively easy for people to learn to adjust their expectations for a genre to include both new sub-genres and exceptional cases of old ones. It is presumably less easy, however, to produce genre recognition rules for exceptional genre texts in order to aid electronic retrieval. These problems are exacerbated by the invention of new and/or changed sub-genres and by the potential "invisible" presence of genre colonization techniques.

Genre and Culture

We need also to relate these genre issues to the larger scale of the cultural context of the various genres. The relationships of genre instances to genre typology, to reader expectations and to genre recognition are necessarily mediated by culture and context. Like classification systems of all kinds, genre typologies are at least partially determined by the culture in which they are embedded. In each text, an author's intention is related to and situated in some culture larger than the individual text. Both genres and the texts they accommodate are artifacts of culture, even though the cultural context in question may be broad (e.g., western civilization) or narrow (e.g., The ABC Company). In both cases, some genre typologies are appropriate and useful for certain cultural purposes and others are not, and this appropriateness and usefulness depends on their ability to fulfill the function(s) for which the typology has been created. Studies comparing folk taxonomies with western scientific taxonomies, for example, usually comment on the specific applications and usefulness of the different taxonomies in their own cultures and for the differing cultural purposes for which they were intended. Like all classification systems, genre typologies are not nave, innocent or objective. Instead they are developed for some explicit purpose and their successful application is necessarily dependent upon their cultural salience. Bibliographic classification systems such as the Dewey Decimal and the Library of Congress systems provide familiar examples of the kind of cultural warrant underlying all human classificatory activities.

These observations are familiar ones, but they are not trivial in an information research context, because the cultural content in any genre typology eventually determines its potential applications and their successes or failures in information search and retrieval contexts. Culture-neutral methods of classifying entities are particularly needed in the electronic world, where the globalization of information is increasing daily. Genre theory and genre analysis are not exceptions to the need for astute cultural analyses.


The issues of readers' expectations, classification and culture raised here overlap with each other and with many other broad literatures (e.g., sociology, linguistics, political science, content and context analysis, and cognitive psychology, among others). The intricate relationships among these threads can help or hinder information research. In recognizing the multifaceted characteristics and problems of genres, we need to emphasize the variations in (as opposed to uniformity of) genres because that approach will increase the refinement with which we can identify genres electronically. The underlying issue is one of the continuity or discontinuity of patterns that can help information professionals do their work efficiently and effectively.

Genre systems offer potentially useful methods of analysis in information contexts because recognition of genres creates a starting point and a framework of analysis for a domain and helps structure and interpret texts, events, ideas, decisions, explanations and every other human activity in that domain. The classificatory character of genre analysis can be exploited in information work if we understand that the problems of genre typologies mirror the problems of classification systems in general. Thus, for genre analysis to be most useful, we need to identify the domain of interest and then assemble as complete a set of genre typologies as possible, based on as many characteristics of division as seem helpful. In this way, we can understand the structure of the domain and potentially use that understanding to increase the precision and success of information retrieval.

Further Reading

Bhatia, V. K. (1993). Analysing genre: Language use in professional settings. London: Longman.

Leitch, S. & Roper, J. (1998). Genre colonization as a strategy: A framework for research and practice. Public Relations Review, 24, 203-229.

Miliv, L. T. & Slane, S. (1994). Quantitative aspects of genre in the Century of Prose Corpus. Style. 24 (1), 42-57.

Paltridge, B. (1997). Genre, frames and writing in research settings. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Winsor, D. A. (1999). Genre and activity systems: The role of documentation in maintaining and changing engineering activity systems. Written Communication, 16, 200-224.


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