Thursday, June 02, 2016

Reading :: Worlds of Written Discourse

Worlds of Written Discourse: A Genre-Based View
By Vijay Bhatia

Vijay Bhatia addresses written genres from the perspective of applied linguistics in the Swales discourse analysis tradition. It's distinct from the rhetorical genre studies tradition in which I work; we'll get into the different focuses in a moment. In this book, Bhatia manages to develop an overall view of how we can understand and investigate genres as well as specific contributions from the applied linguistics tradition.

On the first page, Bhatia lays down his markers. "I am using the term discourse in a general sense to refer to language use in institutional, professional, or more general social contexts. It includes both the written as well as the spoken forms, though I will be mainly concerned with written discourse in this book. Discourse analysis refers to the study of naturally occurring written discourse focusing in particular on its analysis beyond the sentence level" (p.3).

Bhatia reviews how genre theory has been applied to written discourse in three different frameworks: American genre studies (Bazerman; Berkenkotter & Huckin); the Sydney School's systemic-functional approach (Martin, Christy, & Rothery); and the British ESP school (Swales, Bhatia) (p.10). Early on, these applications allowed "the investigation of conventionalized or institutionalized genres in the context of specific institutional and disciplinary practices, procedures and cultures in order to understand how members of specific discourse communities construct, interpret and use these genres to achieve their community goals and why they write them the way they do" (p.10); this led to a greater focus on context, and "this saw a movement in two somewhat overlapping directions: one toward analysing the real world of discourse, which was complex, dynamic, and continually developing, and the other towards the role of broader social factors such as power and ideology, social structures, social identities, etc." (p.10).

Bhatia further discusses these developments, concluding with Diagram 1.3, which lays out different perspectives on written discourse analysis. Rather than trying to draw it, I'll just summarize it. Overlapping spaces are:

  • Social space [Discourse as social practice; social and pragmatic knowledge]
  • Socio-cognitive space, including 
    • professional space [professional expertise; discourse as professional practice]
    • tactical space [discourse as genre; genre knowledge]
  • Textual space [discourse as text; textual knowledge] (p.19)
Bhatia explains that the analysis of discourse as text is "confined to the surface-level properties of discourse"—formal, functional (p.19). Discourse as genre extends the analysis to incorporate context to understand how the text is constructed, interpreted, used, and exploited. Discourse as social practice extends to the "features of context," accounting for identity, social structure, and professional relations (p.20). These three are complementary (p.21).

Bhatia then summarizes common ground across the three genre schools discussed earlier:
  • "Genres are recognizable communicative events"
  • "Genres are highly structured and conventionalized constructs"
  • "Established members of a particular professional community" know genres better than newer members
  • Genres, although conventionalized, can be used to express private and organizational intentions
  • Genres focus on social actions within specific communities' practices
  • Genres have integrity (p.23). 
Bhatia notes tensions in genre development:
  • Genres are conventionalized, but continually change
  • Genres are typified, but their users create new patterns from them
  • Genres serve typical collective purposes, but are exploited for private or organizational intentions
  • Genres are often thought of in pure forms, but deployed in hybrid ones
  • "Genres are given typical names," but are interpreted differently by different members
  • Genres often cut across disciplinary boundaries, but there are disciplinary variations of them
  • "Genre analysis is typically viewed as textual investigation" but we must use non-textual approaches to understand them comprehensively (p.25)
In Chapter 2, Bhatia distinguishes domain-specific genres, disciplinary genres, systems of genres, and genre sets (p.56). 

In Chapter 3, he discusses "genre colonies," which are "super genres" that are actually related genres, sometimes across domains (p.57); one example is that of "promotional genres," which can include blurbs, ads, and job applications (p.59). Bhatia analyzes this genre colony with a set of criteria, including rhetorical act; general communicative purpose; specific communicative purpose; medium; product; and participants (p.59).

In Chapter 4, Bhatia discusses the appropriation of generic resources. He argues that appropriation leads to one genre colonizing another by invading its integrity (p.87). 

There are many useful concepts and analytical approaches in this book. But I was surprised to find that I had trouble keeping interested in it when the author got into specifics. Why was this the case? Ultimately, Bhatia is interested in a broad overview of genre and especially in generally identifiable public genres: ads, commercials, publicly available annual reports. I'm typically more interested in how genres are deployed and used in specific, defined, bounded activities: a given workplace, collaboration, or program. That is, I'm typically working at what Bhatia denotes the "professional space" within the larger "socio-cognitive space," so naturally I have conducted qualitative case studies, bounded by a definable activity. So when Bhatia discusses genres that circulate across broad, less bounded publics, although this question is also important, the purpose is too diffuse to hold my attention. 

If you're in my position—interested in how genres are taken up within bounded cases—should you still read this book? Of course? The framing work that Bhatia does in Ch.1-3, and to some extent the appropriation discussion in Ch.4, is still extremely valuable. The later chapters may be of less interest, but function as a good example of analysis done for different purposes. If you're interested in genre, please do pick it up. 

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