Book Review: Genre Relations (2008)

Review of  Genre Relations (to be published in Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 7-2)
Reviewer: Marina Santini

Authors: Martin, James and Rose, David
Title: Genre Relations
Subtitle: Mapping Culture
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd.
Year: 2008. Reprint: 2009

The book Genre Relations – Mapping Culture includes a Preface, six chapters, and an index. The volume – first published in 2008 and reprinted in 2009 – provides a thorough and well-motivated introduction to genre theory from the perspective of the Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), also known as the Sydney School.

The Preface describes the background of the book and lists the people who have had a relevant role in the discussion of the genre theory presented in the volume. Chapter 1 explains the linguistic framework within which the genre theory has been conceived. Chapters 2-5 analyze five major families of genres, namely stories, histories, reports, explanations and procedures. Chapter 6 wraps up by taking position on a number of  problematic issues, such as  mixed genres, genre evolution and the relation between genre and power.

The Preface and Chapter 1 lay the foundation to the understanding of the genre theory. Essentially, the theory aims at addressing educational and literacy needs of primary and secondary school students.  Although the book is not about pedagogy and curriculum, there is certainly an educational bias acknowledged by the authors (p. 8), which does not affect, however, the generality of the overall framework and the clarity of exposition.

When working with educational projects, the authors noticed that primary school teachers were failing to recognize distinctions between one genre and another. Consequently, they were in no position to teach their students how to distinguish between them, and how to produce a diversified range of written genres. Since the most important and acknowledged genres had evolved within the institutions of academia, science, industry and administration, the inability to produce and understand genres correctly reflected, according to the authors, the structure of social inequality (p. 18). Drawing on Bernstein’s code theory (Bernstein, 1996), inequalities in access to the privileged genres is a concern for developing democratic pedagogies and for understanding how symbolic control is distributed in contemporary societies. The interventionist commitment of the Sydney School (p. 20)  has informed the resulting genre theory where genres are defined “as a recurrent configuration of meanings and “these configurations of meaning enact the social practices of a given culture” (p. 20). In the functional model of language and social context proposed by Martin and Rose, genre is positioned at the abstract level of analysis coordinating register (i.e. field, mode and tenor), while register is realized through language (i.e. discourse semantics, lexico-grammar and phonology/graphology) (p. 231). In this way, genre is given the responsibility for coordinating the recurrent configurations of meaning in a culture (p. 232).

Genres are then social behaviors that find their meanings in relation to each other. It is not the individual genre that is important, but how genres relate to one another. For this reason, Martin and Rose provide immediately, i.e. at the beginning of Chapter 1, the relations among genres used in Australian primary school (Fig. 1.1, p. 7, repeated p. 22). Genre relations, in Martin and Rose’s framework are networks of choices: “… and these choices lead on to other systems, in which you can choose another features, until you get to the end o the feature path” (p. 22). For instance, to get to the recount genre, following the path shown in Fig. 1.1., one has to choose informing (not instructing), and then events (not things), and then expectant (not complicating). The final choice for recount inherits meaning from each choice.

Basically, genres form families and show similarities and differences, but what is genre? The working definition proposed by Martin and Rose reads: “we characterized genre as staged, goal oriented social processes. Staged, because it usually take us more than one step to reach our goal; goal oriented because we feel frustrated if we don’t accomplish the final steps; social because writers shape their texts for readers of particular kinds.” (p. 6). This definition has evident similarities with other approaches to genre, such as the work of Swales (1990). 

Chapter 2 explores variation in types of stories, their social functions and their linguistic realization. The system of story genres is showed in Fig. 2.7 (p. 81). It includes: news stories, recounts, narratives, anecdotes, exemplums, observations. News stories are opposed to other types, in that they privilege textual organization over temporal sequence. Recounts are then opposed to other types which involve a disruption to an expected course of events. Narratives are opposed to those that terminate with an attitudinal response. Finally, stories that terminate with a response are distinguished by the type of evaluation: anecdotes involve an emotional reaction, exemplums involve a moral interpretation, and observations involve a personal comment. Patterns distinguishing types of stories include generic staging, evaluations and social functions. The story family shares a common set of resources for moving sequences forward and engaging readers. These resources are called story phases, and include phase types and engagement functions. For instance, a phase type like setting entails the engagement function for presenting context (p. 82).   

Chapter 3 looks at histories. This family includes recounts, historical accounts, explanations, expositions, challenge and discussion. The history genres are arranged in a system network (Fig. 3.5, p. 130) where the opposition of field time to text time is privileged, and texts which unfold chronologically are separated from those which unfold rhetorically. Essentially, recounts and accounts are opposed to the others. The recounts are then divided into those focusing on individual (autobiographic and biography, depending on person) and those focusing on groups (historical recounts). Turning to rhetorically organized genres, the network distinguishes those organized around external causes (explanations) from those organized around internal causes (arguments). Arguments are then organized around one position or more (exposition and challenges vs. discussion), with expositions promoting a position and challenges rebutting one. The authors point out that in choosing this type of organization for the history genres, they have privileged a cline that is significant for the learner. This is a cline of abstraction (from common sense to uncommon sense), which goes from the discourse patterns of autobiographical recounts that most closely resemble the patterns of everyday commonsense, to the patterns of written argumentative genres that are far from the unfolding time of everyday experience.

In Chapter 4 the authors are concerned with genres that describe and explain the world. More specifically, Chapter 4 covers two families of science genres: reports and explanations. The report genres includes three kinds of reports: descriptive, taxonomic/classifying and compositional. The explanation genre collects four kinds of explanations: sequential, factorial, consequential and conditional. As they did for history, the authors construct a typology of these genres, but this time based on criteria most relevant to the field of science. A key difference between reports and explanation is the role of time in their structuring: explanations construe sequences of activities, while reports are focused on entities, organized by classification and composition, rather than unfolding time. This structuring principle can be extended to other genres used in science: time structured genres also include procedure, and procedural recounts (Chapter 5) and historical recounts (Chapter 3); non-time structured genres also include expositions and discussion (Chapter 3). The typological perspective on relations between genres in science is set out in Fig. 4.23 (p. 167). Chapter 4 also includes a section on multimodality (Section 4.4). In this section the authors describe multimodal reports and explanations by dividing them into three groups, i.e. types of ideational meanings construed by visual images, types of textual organization characteristic of visual images, and finally types of relations between visual and verbal genres in multimodal texts. Strangely, there is no reference to the recent volume on Multimodality and Genre by Bateman (2008).

In Chapter 5 the authors are concerned with genres that instruct on how to act in the world, i.e. the genre family of procedures and procedural recounts. Procedure are a central features of many contexts, such as domestic, recreational, educational, scientific and industrial. In particular, the authors are concerned with procedures and procedural recounts used in the workplace, and their relation to education. Procedures are pedagogic texts in that they teach the reader how to perform a specialized sequence of activities in relation to certain objects and locations. Procedure and procedural recounts give complementary perspectives on activities, one prospective (procedures) and the other retrospective (procedural recounts). For this reason, procedures and procedural recounts are modeled in a single system network, shown in Fig. 5.16 (p. 217). Procedures are divided into simple and complex. Simple procedures include: domestic procedures (i.e. recipes, directions for use on foods, medicines, cleaning products, instructions for games, etc.), topographic procedures (i.e. tourist guides, directions, computer games instructions), specialized simple procedures (i.e. operating instructions for industrial and domestic technology), educational procedures (i.e. experiment/observation procedures). Complex procedures encompass: cooperative procedures, conditional procedures, and technical procedures. With respect to procedural recounts, research articles recount the production of science, technical notes recount its application in industry and experiment/observation reports recount its acquisition in school. Finally all the members of this network contrast with protocols, as time-structured vs. non-time structured texts. The chapter continues with a section on macrogenres (Section 5.5). In this section the authors explore relations between short genres that  make up larger texts. The authors point out that actual texts are often made up by multiple genres, since the genres used for exemplification in earlier chapters were extracts from longer texts. They acutely emphasize that  by linking reports, explanations, procedures, procedural recounts and expositions in an intricate logical series, students learn “a hierarchy of knowledge and specialized activities that could eventually give them the power to participate in controlling the natural and social worlds” (p. 225).

Chapter 6 wraps up and opens the discussion to difficult issues. Provocatively, the authors ask “Is genre everything?” (p. 231). The answer is yes. The answer is motivated by a discussion on chat and genre. Chat is an example of informal sphere of social activity. Although chat gives the illusion of being outside of genre, it “does involve recurrent configurations of meaning that are the basis for a recognition of any spoken genre, whether informal or institutional” (p. 232). In short, the authors think that genre is pervasive and mediates the limits of our world and that individual “creativity depends on  mastering the genre, because genre is to generate discourse, rather than constraining it” (p. 258). The chapter then revisits the notion of genre relations by providing a close-up on paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations. On the one hand, paradigmatic relations focus on how we tell one genre from another. Paradigmatic relations are responsible for phenomena such as genre evolution and cross-cultural appropriation. Syntagmatic relations, on the other hand, help us understand where a genre begins and ends, whether there are sharp boundaries, how do genres combine and grow to form long texts, and so on. Martin and Rose conclude the chapter with an appeal: “We now need our powerful genres and those which will evolve from them more than ever” (p. 260).

Genre Relations offers an educational perspective on genre and is fundamental reading for all those working with genre, text and discourse categories. Teachers, linguists, genre analysts, corpus and computational linguists and even computer scientists working with text and genre classification can benefit from this book.

Although Martin and Rose set off from a well-defined framework (the Sydney School), and the volume is geared towards genres used or useful in school, the work certainly gives analysts important tools for thinking about genre. The most valuable contributions of the volume are, in my opinion, a) the deep and structured analysis of many genre families, b) the effort to organize the material in a principled way, c) the descriptions and motivations of the choices made to reach an organic picture of the genres discussed in the book.  Last but not least, the authors take, admirably, very bold stances by claiming that teaching how to master genre is a way to implement democracy and social justice.

Martin and Rose propose a fascinating view of genre, where genre is a stratum incorporating all other articulations of language, including register. The authors say: “Stratifying register and genre in this way can allow analysts to develop an integrated multi-functional perspective on genre, taking field, tenor, and mode as resources for generalizing across genres, cutting across register variables.” (p.16). My only concern, as a computational linguist, is that widening the distance between genres and their linguistic realizations by putting register in between, will make it harder to work with genres computationally. If we could identify and extract genre-revealing features more directly from texts, maybe it would be possible to devise a computational model that could help teachers and students distinguish among the fine-grained genres mentioned in this book, namely news stories, recounts, narratives, anecdotes, exemplums, observations; recounts, historical accounts, historical explanations, expositions, challenge and discussion; descriptive reports, taxonomic/classifying reports and compositional reports, sequential explanations, factorial explanations, consequential explanations, conditional explanations; recipes, directions for use (on foods, medicines, cleaning products), instructions (for games, etc.), tourist guides, directions, computer games instructions, operating instructions (for industrial and domestic technology), experiment/observation procedures, cooperative procedures, conditional procedures, technical procedures, research articles, technical reports, experiment/observation reports, and protocols. I am sure that the automatic identification of these genres is not just wishful thinking.


Bateman, J. (2008). Multimodality and Genre – A Foundation for the Systematic Analysis of Multimodal Documents. Palgrave-MacMillan. Basingstoke-New York.

Bernstein, B. (1996). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: theory, research, critique. Taylor and Francis. London.

Swales, J. (1990). Genre Analysis. English in academic and research settings. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge – New York.

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