John Swales Worlds Of Genre Metaphors Of Genre

Swales, J. (2009). World of genre—metaphors of genre. In C. Bazerman, A. Bonini, and D. Figueiredo (Eds.), Genre in a Changing World (pp. 1 -16).Retrieved from


In this chapter, John Swales, a scholar of applied linguistics, presents a historical overview of different approaches to the study of written genres over the past twenty years and applies the basic principles to the study of two “occluded genres” from the academic world, the Personal Statement/Statement of Purpose used by graduate students to get into American grad schools and the art history monograph produced by academics in art history departments as well as museums. He begins by drawing upon an influential article by S. Hyon, which broke down applied linguistic approaches to genre study into different schools of thought, each of which working within its own regional and institutional contexts: so, while the American New Rhetorical scholars studied genres primarily for the sake of helping students better succeed in undergraduate composition and rhetoric classes, other groups in Australia and Canada studied genres to better teach non-native English learners or aspiring professionals entering their fields (p. 3). In any case, Swales identifies that the differing approaches to genre study Hyon identified back in 1996 still hold up, finding that all important studies of genre include four key aspects:

  • when one works in a specific genre, one negotiates between “constraint” of the standardized form and “choice” of the individual author
  • every piece written in a genre is “colored” by its local context
  • genres are “always evolving”
  • genres are taught by a process of “genre awareness-raising” (p5)

Having given this general overview of different trends in the study of genre, Swales goes on to examine the notion of “occluded genres,” those written forms for which the rules of use are not explicitly laid out or agreed upon. In particular, he looks at examples of two different “hidden genres,” the graduate student statement of purpose (SOP)/personal statement (PS) and the art history monograph. Drawing on the work of Bekins, Huckin & Kijak, he breaks down the PS/SOP genre into a fairly predictable five-step pattern that most successful examples of the genre follow, particularly focusing on the importance of the “hook” in these documents to grab the attention and pique the interest of their readers on an admissions committee. His analysis reveals is that PS/SOPs have predictable patterns, but that they vary from region to region or culture to culture as to how writers fulfill these patterns; further, he shows that the rules of these genres are very closely tied to their intended audience — impatient professors on admissions committees. So, in essence, this extended example shows his first two points above, that genres are about choice vs. constraint and that genres are colored by local context (both the local context of the writer and of the reader).

He then turns his attention to a different “occluded genre,” the art history monograph — by which he means books by a single author about “the life, times and work of a single artist — almost exclusively a white male” (p. 10). His analysis shows how this genre (a very old genre dating back to the 16th century) has changed significantly, especially as art historians as a discipline have lost interest in single-artist studies in favor of cultural criticism or critical theory. Analyzing four different art historians’ discussions of the same painting, Swales shows how the “conventional expectations of the art history monograph” have changed significantly over time. Essentially, this example shows how genre shifts are often related to (dependent on? caused by?) shifts within institutions like universities and professional industries.

Swales concludes by drawing attention back to the practical applications of this kind of genre study, saying how one of the objectives should be to reveal the inner workings of these occluded genres to those who would like to become more proficient readers and producers of the genres.

Significant Quotations

“Often we are dealing with what I called in a 1996 paper ‘occluded genres’ (Swales, 1996), i.e., those that are hidden and out of sight to all but a privileged and expert few.” (p. 6)

Discussing the Personal Statement/Statement of Purpose genre: “ Nearly all applicants, of course, have to struggle with this genre. However, there is also considerable anecdotal evidence that these kinds of occluded text, those that involve both the personal and professional, and those that are both evaluative and self-evaluative, are more likely than more formal genres to be influenced by local cultural traditions and conventions, and thus give rise to cross-culturally diverse strategies.” (p. 9)

“The conventional expectations of the art history monograph that had remained relatively fixed from Vasari to Goodrich have evolved and diversified through social history, psychoanalysis and various post-modernist tropes.” (p. 13)

“As I see it, the work of genre is to mediate between social situations and the texts that respond strategically to the exigencies of those situations. As Frow notes, when texts are well conceptualized and well constructed, they perform the genre… . Part of the work of those genre analysts with applied aspirations would then be [to render these genres] more transparent to those who would wish or need to become better consumers or producers of textual exemplars in the targeted genre or genres.” (p. 14 - 15)

Swales comes at genre analysis from a very different perspective from that of the authors in TWC, though I see some significant overlaps. Particularly, they both place heavy emphasis on the high stakes of genre knowledge at the same time that they acknowledge that genres are not one-size-fits-all: they change depending on the author’s choices, the author’s sense of who the audience is, as well as the author’s location within a given writing community. On the other hand, because Swales is writing from the position of the genre researcher (and largely for other genre researchers), he only mentions the practical applications for this kind of study to students and aspiring professionals at the end of his article.

Still, some useful definitions emerge from this piece, and some useful approaches to thinking about how genres actually work in practice. His discussion of PS/SOPs stood out to me, not least because I myself have wrestled with these genres a few times. When I applied to grad schools in English programs, I applied in the UK and the US, and the expectations for these application essays were considerably different. It took me many revisions and the guidance of expert advisers who had themselves sat on many admissions committees before I was able to produce drafts that would actually meet the genre requirements Swales lays out on page 8. (I’m not sure my “hook” was ever very good.) I think we all know from laboring over college essays how high stakes it can be to wrestle with an unfamiliar (and often very poorly defined) genre. Assuming GPA/exams don’t get in the way, the way we present ourselves in these bizarre self-evaluation essays can make or break our chances of getting into the schools we want.

I see some analogy here to the processes TWC describes going into genre production within the professional workplace. The genres we use to communicate at work are often equally high stakes—as they make clear, our jobs often depend on meeting our boss’s expectations for what a technical report or memo is SUPPOSED to do. However, knowing the rules of the genre is only half the battle, as each time we write in any genre we end up making important choices about how we’ll write in this particular circumstance. And in the professional world — as opposed to academia — I think the idiosyncrasies or subtle differences between the expected forms of genre stand out even more: what works in one work place might not work in another, and one of the jobs of a new worker is to learn what will fly and what won’t.

As one example, think of the way genre conventions in the professional world have changed with the introduction of computers. Whereas at one time technical writing for instructions would have relied more completely on language to guide the user, now, easy access to computer-aided graphic design has changed the way these documents function (I’m thinking of Ch1 here, and the need for technical writing to be visually engaging). The institution has changed over time, and as a result, the documents or genres it uses have changed to become more visually complex. So, while we might look at 500 years of art history books to see how genres change over time as interests and technology change, we can also look at how written memos have changed to e-mails to see another, more directly applicable demonstration of the ever-changing nature of genres.

In the end, I find Swales’ discussion useful in its explication of the hidden aspects of genre study, especially in the way he shows the “hidden rules” at work in many genres we might be familiar with (like the PS/SOP). I think the TWC textbook can’t necessarily show the genres it presents with such nuance because it has very different aims as a text.

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