Contextual Configuration

The field, tenor and mode of the context of situation function “as a point of entry to a situation as a set of possibilities” (Halliday & Hasan, 1985, p.55). Within a culture, there are sets of certain recurring situations with the same values of field, tenor and mode being present, or “a specific set of values that realises field, tenor and mode” (p.56). This can be termed the Contextual Configuration, or CC. The example Hasan gives is of a service encounter – buying oranges – which has a clear recurring set of field, tenor and mode values.

Contextual Configuration is “not the statement of one specific situation, but rather…the expression of a type of situation” (p.102, their emphasis). So, the CC is not like a snapshot view of one situation, or the “material situational setting” (p.99) of the physical environment where the text takes place (although an individual text may be affected by it), but is instead instantiated through many instances of the same type, “a particular calibration of values frozen at a particular point in delicacy for a particular purpose” (p.105-6).

I think a good example is the US Supreme Court. In its history the Court has occupied a number of different buildings (and not just in Washington) and there have been a number of Justices, which is the material setting, yet the Contextual Configuration of ‘Supreme Court’ has essentially remained the same since its inception. It is made up of certain recurring sets of practices codified as texts that remain constant and are re-produced over time.


Genre of cooking classes

Further to my last post on recipes, I’d also highly recommend an interesting read on similar differences between American and Japanese cooking classes in:

Mayes, P., 2003, Language, Social Structure, and Culture: A Genre Analysis of Cooking Classes in Japan and America, John Benjamins

As she states: “…in the Japanese classes, the teacher was expert and the students were relative novices [and] would focus on task-oriented content and on giving precise procedural instructions. On the other hand, though the American teachers might be considered experts relative to the students, there was less focus on this professional relationship and more on creating a friendly relationship” (pp. 14-15). The Japanese classes were serious and focussed on ‘following the rules’ whereas the American classes were characterised by a relaxed individualism and creating original recipes.

I have noticed, however, a slight shift in Japanese cooking classes that I’ve noticed on TV. Traditionally, cooking in Japan was a female domain (ALL of the Japanese participants in the study above were women while the Americans were a roughly equal mix of men and women). Recently, more cooking shows featuring male celebrity non-professional hosts. These are decidedly more slap-dash affairs and often don’t even feature measurements at all (and lots of salt in one case). I do wonder if this in some way reflects on-going social changes occurring in Japan due to the ways in which economic pressures over the last twenty years have affected the traditional (conservative) boundaries between male and female domains and also those between older generations (full-time stable ‘job-for-life’) and younger ones (part-time non-stable careers).


Hemmingway, genre and metaphor

In the 1920’s, Hemingway was bet that he could write a story using only six words and came up with the famous:

For sale:
Baby shoes.
Never worn.

The story works on many different levels, with the pathos of the image contrasted brilliantly with the banality of the language. Beyond that, however, it got me thinking about just how it manages to achieve this.

On the surface, it appears to belong to a genre of ‘For Sale’ classifieds as might be found in a newspaper or, these days, on Craigslist type websites. A closer look at this genre, however, shows that it is missing a number of features. There is no price or contact name/number. There is also no listed size or colour for the shoes. You could say that this is just because of the nature of the bet, only to use six words, and so these features were omitted. That, I think however, is the important point here: The text only looks like a ‘For Sale’ genre but in fact functions as a story genre. If it were actually posted in the classifieds it would fail as a text but it succeeds as a story.

I wonder, then, if there isn’t a generic metaphor, similar to grammatical metaphor, where a text takes on the surface features of one kind of genre but, in fact, functions as something different?


Daily Routines as a genre

We often use ‘Daily Routines’ lessons to introduce or practise the simple present. Recently, however, I’ve tried looking from a genre perspective and asking what, exactly, is the purpose of these kinds of text. Who, also, is the audience? They are, I think, a kind of report genre with evaluative lexis. You can find these kinds of texts in, for example, city guides for expats (“What’s it like living in …?”). A good site is matadornetwork which has a whole series of “A day in the life of an expat in…” texts. They’re great for higher level students. Another idea is university career guides that often have overviews of different kinds of jobs and what they involve.

For lower or beginner level students I’ve found the genre approach particularly useful in enabling the students to think about the purpose of their writing. A simple GSP for a report is a General Opening followed by a Sequence of Related Statements. To adapt this for a Daily Routines text I tell the students they are writing a letter to a foreign pen-pal, explaining their daily life. The opening then establishes the evaluative mood (I am busy everyday) while the sequence expands on and explains the opening (I get up really early at 6am and rush around getting ready for work). We also group the sequence (into morning, afternoon, evening, etc) and show how changes in Theme can highlight the change from one group to the next.