Integrating ethnographic, multidimensional, corpus linguistic and systemic functional approaches to genre description: An illustration through university history and engineering assignments

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Our research aims to describe genres of assessed writing at British universities (ESRC RES-000-23-0800). To this end we have developed a corpus of 2800 texts from four years of study across four broad disciplinary groupings. Our research design integrates a corpus linguistic account of formal features in the corpus with an ethnographic investigation of the disciplinary context, a multi-dimensional analysis of register, and a functional linguistic analysis of genres. In this paper I illustrate this design with examples from history and engineering. The contextual information shows that history students write mostly essays, written as pedagogical genres, while engineering students engage in a wide range of written assignments: scientific papers are written as if to report findings to an academic audience; funding proposals are written as if to persuade a professional readership; posters are designed to inform a lay audience (e.g. visitors to a transport museum); and reflective journals are written for personal and professional development. The writing process also differs. Some assignments are written individually whereas others involve teamwork. The multidimensional analysis conducted by Biber in Arizona suggests dimensions along which the registers of History and Engineering differ, and those where they converge. Interpreting this data is not straightforward, and this paper interprets findings from analysis using Biber’s original dimensions. Further interpretation is anticipated using the BAWE specific dimensions. The analysis of assignments into genres identifies generic stages, social purpose, and typical lexico-grammatical features. The analysis of 60 assignments from three years of study written by 17 students in 21 modules on 59 topics shows that university history assignments correspond closely to five genres described in Coffin’s study of secondary school history student writing: Analytical Discussion, Analytical Exposition, Factorial Explanation, Consequential Explanation and Challenge. It also explores the extent to which lexico- grammatical features suggest progression. The analysis of 205 Engineering assignments from three years of study across 15 degree programmes, suggests twelve specific genres, including Laboratory Report, Design Proposal, Product Evaluation, Design Report, Exercise, and Research Report. There is evidence of progression from first to final year assignments in terms of generic structure. This is surprisingly absent in the history assignments analysed. The paper concludes with discussion of issues and benefits encountered in blending a systemic functional analysis of genre, with a multidimensional analysis of register, corpus linguistic description of the corpus, and an ethnographically- informed account of disciplinary context. Just as an ethnographically informed genre analysis increases its trustworthiness, and corpus linguistic analyses can increase the power of manual genre analyses, so too does genre-informed multidimensional analysis enable deeper interpretation of findings which can then be checked with the discourse community.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages34
Publication statusPublished - 2008
EventEuropean Systemic Functional Linguistics Conference and Workshop - Saarbrücken, Germany
Duration: 23 Jul 200725 Jul 2007
Conference number: 19


ConferenceEuropean Systemic Functional Linguistics Conference and Workshop
Internet address


  • genre
  • academic disciplines
  • corpus
  • multiple method research design
  • student writing
  • linguistics


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