Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The question of form in relation to genre and 'genre categories'

I am now moving on to discuss this very thought provoking issue, namely form as a criterion of genre categorisation, and whether and how I should take this into account when selecting the data to analyse.

Surely, if by the criterion of function I ended up with some broad 'genre categories', if I apply the additional criterion of form I would be able to break down these categories further into genres (another criterion to use would be content), and this matters because genre ultimately is important because it determines our expectations and therefore how we receive a text or an interaction.

A good example from my data would be a comparison between the 'agony aunt' column and a lengthy text with an introduction (presenting and discussing the problem) and then a number of sections providing solutions to various aspects of the problem. The 'agony' column typically consists of an general 'blurb' (with phrases such as 'I am Samantha and I reply to all of your problems') and then a question apparently from a reader (presenting the problem) followed by 'Samantha's' answer (solution) and so on.

Arguably readers may take 'agony aunt' columns less seriously. They may read them for a laugh, or as shocking extreme situations (affairs, 'incompatible' couples, 'unusual' reasons for arguement in relationships etc.) and perhaps as somebody else's problem and nothing they themselves would need advice on. But what is the reason for that?

My take is that it is because of the position of the 'agony aunt' in the authority-friendliness scale, namely, that the advise provider does not have much authority in this case. 'Samantha' is a pseudonym, 'Samantha' is not a psychologist and has no other formal qualification, she does not quote statistics or research or other experts. Second, the only issues she deals with are very individual problems related to love life and does not make any attempt to claim that these may actually be widespread or include the reader - the tone is very personalised too.

Is any of the above a matter of form? Is, for example, the presence of statistics in other texts a formal characteristic, or a matter of content? How about the difference in the format (Q&A as opposed to Introduction + Sections)?

Well, my deep philosophical problem then is....

What is form?

However we define them, form, content/meaning and function are very deeply intertwined, as recognised by the cognitive and functional approaches to language. (I desperately need references on that).
I have no answer to the question 'what is form', but I would really like to know...
For my purposes (classifying rather than analysing texts) I chose to consider as 'form' anything that you can tell/recognise without necessarily understanding. The example that most illustrates this point is that of inflections indicating grammatical categories. In Greek there is a specific set of inflections a verb can have. If I know what these inflections are, I can tell whether any word is a verb even if I don't have the slightest idea what the word means. (For the same of the argument I ignore here that some morphemes identical in pronunciation and spelling can be noun endings etc.)
What would then be the 'form' of a whole text, as opposed to its meaning or function?
An obvious candidate is layout. This is not to say that the layout of a text does not have meaning and does not perform a specific function. It is, however, possible, to say with the first glance if a text is separated in sections, if it organised in a question and answer format (in the case where questions are represented as section titles, put in different fonts and separated from the answers with a blank line), if it has a bullet point format, if it is short and framed in a 'box' or table etc. It is also possible to tell certain texts formally marked on the top right or left hand corner as 'editorial', 'interview' etc. (although the latter does not necessarily help with genre categorisation, as many interviews are not marked as 'interviews', and some such marks/labels do not clearly indicate any specific genre, e.g. in my data there is the English label 'only 4 you' which includes a variety of genres).
But this alone doesn't say anything about genre categorisation, unless we further consider the specific function of these forms. Even a question is formally marked with a question mark, but its functions may range from requesting information to requesting some action on behalf of the hearer/reader or even to assert something (rhetorical questions) and, in my data, to indicate that something is a problem that requires discussion and solutions. We still have to acknolwedge the presence of formal generic characteristics, i.e. formats shared by texts of one genre, and then move on to see what these forms do.
Although I am saying that I am not considering form, I am however considering structure. This is a tricky one - is structure form, or is it content? Or is it primarily a functional characteristic of texts? I would say it is the way content is organised and put in order - but then isn't the question-answer format not the way content is organised?
In that by structure I mean 'underlying structure', and I specify this as an underlying discourse schema, this is not a formal characteristic in that it is not readily observable. In the problem-solution structure in the advice texts we might say that the fact that the problem is presented before the solutions is 'form'. But in order to find this one has to analyse the text and isolate the evidence indicating that something is represented as a problem. Moreover, the problem-solution structure has the function of justifying the existence of the whole text - you cannot have solutions without problems.
Insofar as I take structure into account, I could say that I am taking form into account. When it comes to layout, despite the fact that the organisation of the text on the page might be significant, I still categorise texts in 'genre categories' irrespective of layout. When it comes to the close analysis of the 'advice' category, the genre membership of each text may come up as significant, but then again I suspect that layout will rather be symptomatic of function/ communicative purpose. So I would not venture to draw any conclusions or make any big claims about how the texts are preceived/ received and what their 'hidden' communicative purposes are before a close analysis.

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