Miller’s “Genre as Social Action”

In “Genre as Social Action,” Carolyn R. Miller argues “that a rhetorical sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish” (151). This action “must involve situation and motive” (151). Drawing from Kenneth Burke, Miller claims that we must focus on the rhetorical situation, not on “materialist” scene that “empowers external, objective elements of situation,” because the scene can reduce action to motion (156). Agents typify rhetorical situations: we “determine” a situation by finding commonalities, similarities, or analogies among situations; once we typify a situation, we have created the recurrence. “What recurs is not a material situation (a real, objective, factual event) but our construal of a type” (157). Exigence, which is neither the speaker’s intention nor the cause of the action, is social motive (158). Because genre is not solely defined by form but by recurrence of social situations and actions, genres are fluid and there is no set list of genres, but rather “an open class with new members evolving, old ones decaying” (153, citing Walter Walter R. Fisher).

Miller writes that “To base a classification of discourse upon recurrent situation or, more specifically, upon exigence understood as social motive, is to base it upon the typical joint rhetorical actions available at a given point in history and culture” (158). Motive at the level of the genre “becomes a conventional social purpose, or exigence, within the recurrent situation”; it is not idiosyncratic or archetypal (162).

When looking for genre, we might see “that a collection of discourses (or a potential collection) may fail to constitute a genre in three major ways”:
1. Not enough substantive or formal similarities among documents;
2. “inadequate consideration of all the elements in recurrent rhetorical situations”;
3. and “no pragmatic component, no way to understand the genre as a social action” (163-164).

Miller’s last paragraph ties to pedagogy: We cannot just learn “a pattern of forms or even a method of achieving our own ends,” but rather we may learn the variety of possible ends, an understanding of the situation, potentials for failures and successes. “[F]or the student,” she concludes, “genres serve as keys to understanding how to participate in the actions of a community” (165).

Which leads me to questions about my thesis. What is the rhetorical situation of the magazine Fag Rag? Should I choose a specific blog to compare it to? Do blogs count as a genre? Certainly they have similarities in form, but in rhetorical situation? What is the social motive for the writers of Fag Rag? What is the social motives for, say, Box Turtle Bulletin, or Queerty? How are rhetorical situations typified for zines? for blogs? Are they not typified? What are the ends/goals of zines? of blogs? How does understanding blogs as a genre and zines as a genre help in understanding blogs in the classroom. Perhaps I should return to the essays in Into the Blogosphere. Oh, questions….

Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (May 1984): 151-167.

This entry was posted in Blogs in Classrooms, Genre, Thesis work. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Miller’s “Genre as Social Action”

  1. Lisa says:

    Questions are wonderful–and you’ve posed good questions!

    I like the look and feel of your site, Michael–nice changes!

  2. Mike G. says:

    Mike, I like how you related that reading to your thesis (the totality of which I am entirely ignorant) but perhaps I will venture some answers to your questions for my own edification. I say my own edification, because I’ve read exactly none of the essays in “Into the Blogosphere,” but I do claim a small amount of authority because I consider myself a discerning reader of blogs etc…

    Do blogs count as a genre? Certainly they have similarities in form, but in rhetorical situation?

    Certainly they do have similarities in form. They are online. They are sequential, and usually chronological. They have a subscriber/reader base to which the posts are often tailored. (often the comments shape future posts, unlike most other forms of media, so one might say that many blogs are formed partially by their audiences) Yet I would not say that they are a genre, merely a medium. We would not say that the Book is a genre, but that provides a specific format for textual dissemination & response. Dissemination is limited by print runs, which is in turn limited by money, and money is limited by readership. Books have a strongly centralized authoritative control (the publisher) that blogs do not. Even POD technology (ie are limited by finances. If you check out a blog like The Impulsive Buy (, it parodies the format of a Review that you might see in any print magazine. If you check out canwehaveourballback ( which unfortunately changed formats in ’05, you will see that they used the blogging technology (or mode of dissemination) to publish a pretty standard literary magazine. Just like a book can be an instruction manual and an atlas and a book of essays, and a novel of fiction, a blog can serve all those functions as well. The difference is in the immediate interaction between author and viewer, as well as the political/economic decentering phenomenon made possible by the fact that they are free.

    As for Rhetorical Situation, it’s easily discerned by reading the comments (for info on the readers) and the “about” page if one is offered or scanning for personal information throughout the posts (for the writer).

    What are the ends/goals of zines? of blogs?

    Depends on the blog or ‘zine. Mostly, I’d say they advance primarily left-wing agendas (with exceptions), and this may have something to do with the decentralized, populist model of authority that blogs and ‘zines represent. Especially ‘zines.

    Hope that any bit of this helps you think about it.

  3. Pingback: Editorial Pedagogy, pt. 1: A Professional Philosophy - Hybrid Pedagogy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *