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Genre Theory

A genre is, according to David Duff in his Modern Genre Theory (pp. xiii), "a recurring type or category of text, as defined by structural, thematic, and/or functional criteria." (GenreTheoryCriteria) Genre Theory occurs, following Duff, when we try to understand genres as forming "a coherent system of some kind; ... a theoretical model that offers a comprehensive list of genres and an explanation of the relations between them." Such theoretical models, starting with the systematic classifications of Aristotle's Poetics (see HistoryOfGenre), form genre-systems.

Genre theory has historically been most closely associated with critical approaches to the study of literature, but it has recently started to be used in studying (Duff, pp. xiii) "non-literary texts; notably film and media" as well as "speech genre". We will use the term much more broadly here, but will, for the moment, stay close to its roots in the study of literature.

According to Northrup Frye (Anatomy of Criticism; 1957) genre offers one of four summary ("synoptic") views of a related set of texts (the other views are modes, symbols, and myths). I have mixed feelings about Frye's breakdown of views. His "mode", for instance, appears to correspond to Aristotle's dramatic genres (e.g. comedy and tragedy) while his "genre" encompasses the remaining generic categories from the Poetics. I believe that he is attempting to separate emotion from generic structure in this separation, and believe it to be a mistake for reasons I will outline below. I have fewer problems with his symbols and myths, but note that while these structures have a stronger cultural and historical binding than his genres or modes do, each is probably better understood within the context of genre than outside it.

Of course Frye's focus is the art of criticism, an art he feels suffers from a lack of adequate classification system (novels cannot cover everything; fiction and non-fiction are not adequate critical categories). I sympathize with Frye's concern, but my focus is not literary criticism, so my view of what genre is and how it functions almost certainly differs from Frye's in at least some of its essentials. But even given the different in focus (I'm interested in the structure and processes of media), we share a fundamental common interest in identifying the laws or rules of literary (media) practice. Frye hopes to inform the critic, or at least in reinvigorating the existing systems within which a consistent critical art might be created. I hope to inform the user, administrator, and designer of media, in the hope that they will use, maintain, and create more effective communication systems.

Genre is an emergent phenomenon. Genre theorists generally agree that genre is dynamic (Duff, pp. xiii) and that genres evolve over time (Duff, pp. xii). Many feel that "conventions" (e.g. the structural patterns associated with genre) are the result of "tacit agreements between author and reader"). My approach to genre is consistent with these observations, but broader in scope. Genre, in my view, is one of the primary building blocks of media, and one that is built in the intersection of three even more fundamental building blocks: the uses that we have for media, the effects that result from that use, and the practices that result from that use. In this view of genre, every medium of communication is a dynamic "genre-system", with the very success of a medium dependent on its ability to collect multiple genres. The workings of genre, within this approach are summarized in Figure 1's "Cycle of Genre".

Figure 1: The Cycle of Genre

Reader's who want to to understand this cycle, and the theory within which it functions, better, are referred to the paper "The Invention and Evolution of Media" ( Readers who want to understand how this approach can be applied generally to the study of media may want to look at chapters 11-13 of "Medium as Process" ( or Nancy Baym's "Tune In, Log On".

The rest of this page is devoted to notes on Genre Theory. Please add appropriate references and information that you know about that you don't find here.

Notes on Genre Theory

An introduction to genre theory, with reference pointers and a taxonomy ("The classification and hierarchical taxonomy of genres is not a neutral and 'objective' procedure. There are no undisputed 'maps' of the system of genres within any medium (though literature may perhaps lay some claim to a loose consensus). Furthermore, there is often considerable theoretical disagreement about the definition of specific genres. 'A genre is ultimately an abstract conception rather than something that exists empirically in the world,' notes Jane Feuer (1992, 144).") * Chandler, Daniel (1997): 'An Introduction to Genre Theory' [WWW document] URL [January 26, 2002]
A nice generalized introduction
Making sense of genre
A Guide to the Theory of Literary Genre

A Cultural Approach to Genre Theory ("genres are cultural categories that surpass the boundaries of media texts and operate within industry, audience, and cultural practices as well.")
Genre Theory as a generally applicable construct ("types of photograph are usually categorized by their function") ("Moving across media as part of genre study emphasizes the way in which key concepts are integrated within media studies, with a shift in emphasis between different media", including "'textual analysis' in film and music, institution in photography and print, audience in radio and print, representation in print etc.") ("The question for the teacher must be: does working on different media help students to understand genre as a critical tool or does it become more complex as a concept?")

Genre makes a difference to the effectiveness of the Internet as an educational enabler

Philip Agre's discussion of the relationship of Medium and Genre, among other things (Community, Design, etc)

Links of Genre Theory to Literary Criticism

Using Genre Theory to Analyze Internet Interaction

A Bibliography of Genre and Cybergenre

Wikipedia on Genre

Form and Genre in Radio Content Cataloging


Hegel and Aesthetic Genre Theory

Evolution of Literature, including Hegel



Derrida, J. (1980) The Law of Genre.

Dead links

The function of genre theory ("Any discussion on the usefulness of genre theory must question genre's function and the apparent multi-directional flow of forces that contribute to generic categorizations. Does genre flow from industry to audience or audience to industry? How narrow can these categories be without being exclusive, and how broad without being meaningless?")
Critiques of Genre Theory ("The best example I think would be the obsession with what it is exactly that defines a text’s genre. Daniel Chandler has said 'Specific genres tend to be easy to recognize intuitively but difficult (if not impossible) to define.' Due to this difficulty, theorists seem to be drawn inexorably to the challenge of its unraveling. This has led to endless debates between learned men that direct the attention away from the texts themselves. For example, the contemporary theory that genres are defined by “family resemblances?leads the theorist to simply illustrate similarities between some of the texts within the genre that they have been placed and not to actually study the texts themselves.")

-- Last edited September 18, 2015

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Unless otherwise noted, the contents of this page were written by participants on the Media Space Wiki, operated by Davis Foulger, and should be cited accordingly. For example (APA):
Foulger, D. and other participants. (September 18, 2015). Genre Theory. MediaSpaceWiki. Retrieved on from
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