Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Like in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, when the secret to the universe is revealed to be 42, I have learned a couple of seemingly humble but mighty powerful things in grad school, things that apply to all of life-- genre theory and the theory of reciprocity.

These two theories explain everything that has ever confused me about life.

Of course, most people do not take kindly, in real-life, non-academic situations, if you cite either of these theories explicitly. Fortunately, my real friends have become used to the juxtaposition of $10 words with Southern slang and expletives.

Image by Mark Parisi from

Genre theory - defines genres as social constructions that represent specific purposes for reading and writing within different social activities.

But genre goes beyond reading and writing.

According to Charles Bazerman, a composition theorist I admire, genres are “a form of social knowledge—a mutual construing of objects, events, interests and purposes that not only links them but makes them what they are: objectified social needs. [Furthermore genres are] forms of life, ways of being … frames for social action... locations within which meaning is constructed."

In other words, genres are a social thing, mutually understood by all participants to fulfill a certain purpose in a certain way.

Genre and Real Life

More than movies, then, more than music, more than types of writing, all social activities are genres. Funerals are a genre. Job interviews. Break-ups.

When someone is being "inappropriate," it's because they aren't participating in expectations defined by the genre. Whenever you're unsure how to act in any given situation, consult the conventions of the genre.

If you can't figure it out, it's a genre problem. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the conventions of the genre. Possibly, the conventions are ill-defined, perhaps new, perhaps in flux. Possibly, you think it's one genre while the other participants are thinking it's another. Possibly participants are from different cultures that understand the genre in different ways.

Genre and the Grad Student

Genre theory is behind some of my present troubles, as it usually is.

Currently, I am struggling with the imperative to write my thesis, which the English department calls a "project." The conventions of a thesis and the conventions of a project are different, and both are well-defined in general as well as on the HSU graduate studies website.

However, in my program, the expectations are not entirely clear. What is expected seems to have elements of each genre.

Like so many things in academia, we only find out the rules when we break them: no, that's not it. OK, the only way to find out is to try something else or to glean enough information to be able to frame a question in such a way that you can present it to a friendly senior member of the academy without appearing too ignorant yourself.

Reciprocity theory - a.k.a. social exchange theory or gift theory, states that all human social behavior is essentially an exchange of material and non-material "goods" (like prestige or approval). When we give, we expect to receive, in equal amounts. Even when we think we're being altruistic, we are getting something out of it (self-esteem, vindication, relief?).

We are always seeking equilibrium in this. So when something isn't going right in relationships, there is usually a lack of equilibrium perceived by at least one party.

The gift is often unspoken, like what is exchanged in marriages, workload, mutual respect, sexual fidelity, respectability, freedom. In successful marriages, all parties agree about the value of things exchanged.

Reciprocity in Real Life

OK, so I'm on the phone with one of my girlfriends, her boyfriend is treating her badly and she's telling me all about it. It's not that complicated to figure out what's going wrong when you look at the situation through the lens of reciprocity theory. Does a good girlfriend cite reciprocity theory or does she lend a sympathetic ear instead?

Reciprocity and Hospitality

OK, so I go to a party and I bring a bottle of wine, maybe a casserole. I don't come empty-handed because my host/ess is giving me food, hospitality, etc. Whether you're a mooch or magnanimous, it's reciprocity at work.

So in Texas, when families go out to dinner together, the heads of household argue afterward about who is going to pay for everyone's dinner. Each one dramatically insists on paying. To pay for the dinner indicates affluence, success and status. Not paying indicates a lower social status, so the struggle is sincere. Not offering to pay at all is even worse. Afterward, the head of household who didn't win the struggle to pay is a little bent out of shape.

Try this elsewhere, even in California, and you will encounter only nominal resistance to paying. Californians will let you pay. If you're a Texan and this happens, you might think badly of them for that.

In California, it is less about status and more about mutuality. "You paid last time, so let me pay this time." "Well, OK then, but next time, it's my treat."

In Sweden, I noticed people "went Dutch" most of the time. Maybe this magnanimity of Americans is related to our desire to look as if we have more money than we actually have. In other words, it's less related to actual generosity than to desire for status.

Reciprocity and Entitlement

So what becomes of reciprocity in today's American culture, which gleefully expects something for nothing? We despise that 'sense of entitlement' when we identify it as the source of someone else's unpleasant behavior.

Our complete lack of awareness of the necessity of reciprocity is what leads us to things like Wal-marts and dollar stores where you can buy flimsy facsimiles of actual possessions, imagining you have a real thing.

I'm thinking of furniture you can buy at Target, which looks nice but hardly lasts a year. This is so odd when you think of antique furniture, still entirely functional 50 and 100 years later.

Reciprocity and Justice

The definition of stealing is getting something for nothing. And it can be argued that you have traded your self-respect, your clear conscience, your true status as a human, etc. There was a time and a place when thieves had a hand lopped off. In other words, when they tried to take more than their share, they ended up losing something of great value.

Reciprocity is behind that awful feeling you have when you've been ripped off, when something has been stolen from you, that incomplete feeling, the desire for justice of some kind. Reciprocity is behind our sense of justice.

And so on.


Matt Lewis said...

I have been slogging my way through nursing theory for 6 weeks now ... your theory studies seem more palatable.

I SO understand the points you made about Texan (southern, really - to the extent that real southerners will accept Texans) vs. Californian cultures. As the California-raised son of to southerners, I can do either. That's as close to multitasking as I get - I am hindered in that pursuit by Y chromosomes.

I'm gonna read this again ... I think there's more to be gleaned from this - I like it!

steviewren said...

Interesting...very there something about these two theories in action that is bothering you?

"Of course, most people do not take kindly, in real-life, non-academic situations, if you cite either of these theories explicitly."

Reciprocity, I'm familiar with, but defining genre as social and situational is new to me...but I get it. In fact, it makes a lot of sense.

Anonymous said...

I love the English language and have learned lots more of the words than most folks do. I often use the big ones when I should use the short ones. That's when my love of the English language gets in the way of clear communication. Ironic, isn't it?

Indie said...

Genre is so darn interesting to me. For my teaching associateship job I had a "group job interview," and I was worried about it, how to act, what would happen, how to prepare. Then I realized there was a genre problem. What exactly is a group job interview? What are the expectations? Is there supposed to be some indication to the interviewers of how the group functions as a team? Or is it simply to save time? Once I defined the genre as best I could (it was rather ill-defined even to those who arranged it), I knew how to act.