Saturday, February 19, 2011

Some preliminary thoughts on an ecological perspective for second language writing

Sorry, this entry is a little bit long. These are my thoughts concerning an ecological perspective on genre in second language writing. It would be great if you can write your comments. Any feedback is greatly appreciated. This is my mainly my brainstorming for my dissertation.

This article provides a review of research on genre systems. In recent years, there has been a movement from descriptive and prescriptive or traditional genre analysis as discussed in Hyon (1996) to more ecological and less product oriented approaches to genre analysis. The goal of this article is to present a critical review of ecological approaches to genre analysis in L1 composition. Some of the frameworks used in genre analysis that can be considered as ecological are: genre sets (e.g., Devitt, 1991), genre systems (e.g. Bazerman, 1994), genre repertoires (Orlikowski & Yates, 1994), Berkenkotter and Huckin’s  (1995) sociocognitive perspective to genre, Syverson’s (1999) approach she developed in her book entitled The wealth of reality: an ecology of composition, and genre ecologies (e.g., Spinuzzi & Zachry, 2000). Despite their differences, these frameworks to genre, which can be gathered under the umbrella term ‘ecological’, approach literary practices of communities of practice and are interested in the flow, distribution, influence, scope, and change of genres; how texts interact with each other and the communities of practice they are part of; and how people construct and reconstruct texts and genres in their daily practices. After presenting a survey of these approaches, I provide an overview delineating their similarities and based on some features they share, I then propose an ecological perspective for genre studies in second language writing studies. Finally, I discuss what an ecological approach has to offer to second language writing studies.

Genre from an Ecological Perspective: What Does an Ecological Approach Have to Offer to Second Language Writing Studies?
The notion ecological has been used in many different ways in many different disciplines. One commonality that can be observed in different uses of the term is its use as a reaction to an analytical approach in which phenomena are investigated by dissecting and severing them from their context in order to find universal principles. An ecological approach, on the other hand, calls for a holistic approach in understanding the relationship of the phenomena with its environment instead of examining objects in isolation. In this paper, the term ecological is used to refer to the study of the reciprocal relationship of dynamic systems that behave like organisms and their environments. Here, genres are conceived as dynamic systems. Such an approach calls for (1) a holistic approach when investigating functional unities such as genres and the discourse communities they are part of, (2) investigating a phenomenon in its natural environment, thus, seeking ecological validity, (3) acknowledging that the phenomenon under investigation is part of other systems, for instance, specific communities of practice, and finally (4) conceiving these systems as open and dynamic.
  Even though ecological approaches have been gaining ground in many fields, such as cognitive science, philosophy, and psychology, they have not entered the domain of genre studies in second language writing. A closer look at the two parent disciplines of second language writing studies, applied linguistics and L1 composition (Silva & Leki, 2004), illustrates a trend towards ecological views as a result of increasing discontent with analytical approaches due to their failure in accommodating the complexities of second language development and composition in these fields respectively.
For instance, some of the new wave approaches to language learning in applied linguistics, which began to flourish in recent years, either explicitly use the term ecological or call for ecological principles to give new directions to applied linguistics research (e.g., Atkinson, 2010; Atkinson, Churchill, Nishino, & Okada, 2007; Churchill, 2007; Kramsch, 2002, 2008; Kramsch and Whiteside, 2008; Larsen-Freeman, 1997, 2002, 2006, 2007; Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008; Leather & van Dam, 2003; van Lier, 2000. 2002, 2004). Despite the fact that these ecological approaches have different philosophical underpinnings and inspirations, they embrace the ecological characteristics mentioned above as guiding principles in applied linguistics research.
Similar to some applied linguistics researchers, some scholars in L1 composition studies have began using the term ecological as early as the 1990s. For example, Syverson (1999) published a book that had the title ecological in its title, the Wealth of Reality: An ecology of composition. Spinuzzi (2002, 2003) and Spinuzzi and Zachry (2000) strongly support an ecological approach in writing and propose the genre ecologies framework for L1 composition research. Fleckenstein, Spinuzzi, Rickly, and Papper (2008) also published an article and called for the use of ecology as a metaphor for composition. More recently, another L1 composition scholar, Fraiberg (2010) also published an article in College Composition and Communication advocating an ecological approach to writing that takes into account the multimodal and multilingual nature of composition. In sum, it seems like more and more scholars begin using the term ecological in two highly influential disciplines for second language writing studies—applied linguistics and L2 composition.
Before I begin the overview of ecological frameworks to genre, I want to briefly discuss the current situation of genre studies in second language writing. Genre approaches have been gaining ground as a reaction to process approaches in second language writing studies (Hyland, 2003; Silva & Leki, 2004). While it is acknowledged that process approach has been informative in many ways; for instance in delineating the cognitive processes involved in second language writing and investigating the differences between native and non-native writers, as well as expert and novice writers, by focusing on the writers and the writing process, it has been widely criticized for ignoring the social aspects that influence both the writers and the writing process. For example, Hyland (2003) criticizes process approach for not providing a basic understanding of what language is and how it is used and for ignoring the social aspects of writing. As the criticisms against process approach increase genre approach provides a way to deal with the complexities of writing. As Hyland puts it, genre approaches “represent the most theoretically developed and fruitful response to process orthodoxies” (p. 18).
The main characteristics of process approaches, such as focus on the individual, experimental research conditions, preoccupation with what takes place in the mind of the writer, are in stark contrast with social, and ecological, approaches to writing. As a result of this discontent with the process approach, in recent years there has been a movement from a descriptive and prescriptive or traditional genre analysis, which conceptualizes genre as a static object and in individualistic terms as discussed in Hyon (1996), to a more dynamic and socially sensitive understanding of genre. One indication of this “social take” (Hyland, 2003, p. 18) is maybe the influence of Miller’s (1984) definition of genre as social action on second language researchers who study genres.
Tardy (2006) provides a through overview of research on genre in L1 and L2 composition and Hyon (1996) gives a historical account of genre studies in three different traditions: English for Specific Purposes, New Rhetoric, and Systemic Functional Linguistics. These two are very useful sources to examine the travails of genre in second language writing. In a way, this article is a continuation of Hyon and Tardy’s work in that it aims to bridge L1 and L2 composition and to offer a possible solution to diverging strands of genre traditions in second language writing. More specifically, the focus of this article is to give some examples from L1 composition that have ecological characteristics and argue for an ecological approach for genres studies in second language writing. The rationale behind this argument is the potential ecological approaches have for solving the dichotomies that divide second language researchers between focusing on cognitive or social aspects—or, between process and product approaches. More socially oriented or product based approaches might be addressing some of the criticisms raised against process approach, yet, as Molle and Prior (2008) point out, traditional genre theory fails in identifying genres, taking into account multiple modes and media, and the heterogeneous nature of genres. Since current approaches to genre have not been very successful in satisfying genre scholars so far, I propose an ecological approach to second language writing studies to open new horizons for genre studies and to provide solutions to the long-standing dichotomies in the field.
In this article, I would like to propose an ecological approach for studying genre in second language writing studies for consideration. In order to do that, first, I give an overview of six frameworks on genre in L1 composition that can be considered as ecological to illustrate what an ecological L2 composition study would look like. Next, I sketch some common characteristics of these studies, which might be adapted by second language writing studies, and, finally, I discuss what an ecological approach has to offer to second language writing studies.
Overview of Ecological Empirical Studies in Composition
In this section, I give an overview of six partially ecological frameworks to genre in L1 composition. These frameworks used in genre analysis—which can be considered as ecological to varying degrees—are: genre sets (e.g., Devitt, 1991), genre systems (e.g. Bazerman, 1994), genre repertoires (Orlikowski & Yates, 1994), Berkenkotter and Huckin’s (1995) sociocognitive perspective to genre, Syverson’s (1999) ecological perspective to composition, and genre ecologies (e.g., Spinuzzi, 2002). The following review is not meant to be exhaustive but aims to illustrate what research carried out within an ecological framework would look like.
Genre Sets
Devitt  (1991) develops her genre sets model in a chapter published in Textual Dynamics of the Professions edited by Bazerman and Paradis. Devitt’s chapter focuses on the form and function of genres in a professional tax accounting community with a specific focus on how genres function socially and epistemologically and how they interact in a professional community. The data used in the study come from two sources, writing samples and interviews with accountants in six accounting firms. In the chapter, Devitt discusses three types of intertextuality, generic, referential, and functional. Generic intertextuality situates texts in relation to texts written prior to the production of a specific text, referential intertextuality traces which texts have been referred to in specific genres, and finally functional intertextuality seeks to find out the characteristics of the profession in terms of social and epistemological knowledge of the community.
Based on her findings, Devitt develops a framework for genre analysis, which she calls genre sets, “a set of genres interacting to accomplish the work of the profession” (p. 340). Devitt illustrates the stabilizing effects of genre sets and claims that investigating the genre sets of a community might help researchers to better understand “the community’s situations, its recurring activities, and relationships” (p. 340). What makes this study a canonical text for genre analysis is perhaps its combination of rhetorical situations, discourse communities, intertextuality, and a social constructivist framework in analyzing how different genres in a discourse community interact with each other. Even though the study does not mention the notion ‘ecology’ I think the study with its basic assumptions, the complex relationship it observes between genres and communities of practice, and its focus on multiple genres situates it within an ecological approach, if only partially. (For a more recent account of genre sets see Devitt 2004).
Genre Systems
The second framework that carries ecological features is Bazerman’s (1994) genre systems model. Similar to Devitt (1991), Bazerman focuses on intertextuality of genres in his study where he investigates the genre of patents in relation to other related genres. In this article, Bazerman explores what genre systems approach can utilize from the concept of speech acts. What distinguishes Bazerman’s study from others is his historical account of the patent genre. An ecological feature in his work is his understanding of genre from a reader’s perspective where the meanings are made in relation to other things around them. Bazerman states that “Indeed, genres rely on our being able to recognize them and to some degree understand the meanings they instantiate within systems of which they are part of” (p. 81). For Bazerman, genres get their meaning from the systems they are part of.
Similar to Miller (1984)—an influential figure for all the frameworks summarized here—for Bazerman “a genre exists only in the recognition and attribution of the users” (p. 81) and genres exist because they provide “ready solutions to similar appearing problems” (p. 82). Moreover, Bazerman sees genres as materialization of social intentions, not of the individual and, similar to Berkenkotter and Huckin’s (1995) approach, his approach suggests that written artifacts give away a lot about the implicit and explicit assumptions, epistemologies, ideologies, conventions of the discourse community they are part of. Another contribution of Bazerman’s approach to an ecological approach is its focus on action, activity, interpretation, and the dynamics of the moment-to-moment interactions, or enactment, rather than texts as objects. I think the following quote captures the gist of Bazerman’s approach, “What we have, in essence, is a complex web of interrelated genres where each participant makes a recognizable act, or move in some recognizable genre, which then may be followed by a certain range of appropriate generic response by others” (p. 96). Hence, Bazerman’s approach is not deterministic. It is true that genres create conditions that limit the possibilities but every time a genre is used it both complies and changes in this framework.
At the end of the article, Bazerman defines systems of genres as “interrelated genres that interact with each other in specific settings” (p. 97). Bazerman also distinguishes his approach from Devitt’s (1991) genre sets and writes “the genre set represent, however, only the work of the one side of a multiple person interaction” (p. 98) and develops Devitt’s approach by adding a historical perspective and multiple institutions. For him,
the systems of genres would be the full set of genres that instantiate the participation of all the parties—that is the full file of letters from and to client, from and to the government, from and to the accountant. This would be the full interaction, the full event, the set of social relations as it has been enacted. It embodies the full history of speech events as intertextual occurrences, but attending to the way that all the intertext is instantiated in generic form establishing the current act in relation to prior acts. (p. 99).

I think this holistic approach is in line with an ecological perspective and a contribution to Devitt’s framework. In addition to Bazerman’s historical approach, his focus on relations, multiple genres, and intertextuality makes this study a good candidate for an ecological example.
Genre repertoires
Bazerman’s notion of genre systems has been highly influential on the frameworks summarized here and beyond (e.g., Tardy 2003, Molle & Prior, 2008)—but interestingly Tardy (2006) does not mention Bazerman in her overview of genre learning in first and second language. For example, Orlikowski and Yates (1994, 2002) follow Bazerman’s genre systems approach and expand it to capture historical changes of genres in a short period of time. Another contribution of Orlikowski and Yates to Devitt (1991) and Bazerman’s (1994) approaches is that they acknowledge that genres not only interact but also overlap. They call their approach genre repertoires, “the set of organizing structures—enacted by the group members over time” (p. 543). Similar to Devitt, their study focuses on the communicative practices of a specific discourse community rather than the interaction of multiple institutions. In their longitudinal study, Orlikowski and Yates (1994) investigate the genre repertoires of a team of computer language designers that come together for a project. Most of their interactions were online and Orlikowski and Yates use text analysis and interviews to analyze the interactions of three of the genres they found—dialogue, proposal, and ballot.
What makes Orlikowski and Yates’s study interesting is, first, the ideas that inform their research. Their research draws on Bazerman and Devitt’s frameworks as well as Giddens’s structuration theory, Miller’s idea that genres are a form of social action, Bakhtin’s work on speech genres, and the claim that written artifacts of discourse communities are informative in understanding discourse communities. The second aspect that makes Orlikowski and Yates’s approach interesting is that they take Bazerman’s historical approach one step further and focus on the dynamics of historical changes in the development and workings of a team and how the genre repertoire of that team reflect those historical changes. Third, since Orlikowski and Yates focus on online genres they expand the purview of genre systems to include online genres—yet, they do not expand it to include spoken genres. Moreover, they compare written (paper-based) and online versions of the three genres they focus on.
Fourth, Orlikowski and Yates’s approach seeks an emic understanding of the discourse community and the genres people in that community use. Their approach illustrates how effective interviews can be in reaching an emic perspective of genres and their perceptions by their users. Orlikowski and Yates not only focus on the interaction of genres and their change over time but also try to understand what specific moves in a genre mean for the participants. Overall, the features mentioned above make Orlikowski and Yates’s genre repertoires approach a good exemplar for an ecological approach to second language writing. However, it is important to note that Yates and Orlikowski (2002) seem to abandon the term genre repertoires and use genre systems instead in their later work keeping the features of genre repertoires. 
Rethinking genre from a sociocognitive perspective
In Social Context and Socially Constructed Texts—which was published in the same book Devitt’s study had appeared—Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman (1991) present the case of a graduate student as he gets socialized into his rhetoric program. By examining the three introductions the student writes for three research papers in three consecutive semesters, Berkenkotter et al. trace the development of the graduate student and his genre knowledge as he gradually acquires the necessary skills expected from the members of his new community. His development shows a trend from writing for his classmates and professors toward writing for other composition researchers outside the boundaries of his university.
The case study presents the case of a graduate student, who has been socialized into different discourse communities—creative writing and teaching—learning to participate in new discourse communities—rhetoric and research. As the graduate student traverses different discourse communities, the influences of his previous experiences become visible for investigation. The four assumptions that Berkenkotter et al. develop show traces of an ecological approach to composition (1) Similar to Devitt (1991), Berkenkotter et al. claim that part of being a member of a community means sharing “a model of knowledge,” (2) the academic research community the graduate student writes for extends beyond the boundaries of the institution he is situated in and includes researchers in other universities with similar research interests, (3) publishing articles, being read and cited by other researchers in an academic research community are essential in becoming full participants in that discourse community, and (4) initiation of graduate students to their discourse community takes place by reading, writing, and interacting with other members, thus learning to appropriate linguistic conventions of the discourse community is crucial for being able to interact with other members (p. 193).
The ecological seed we can see in this article is later developed into a more ecological approach in Berkenkotter and Huckin’s book (1995). In their chapter Rethinking Genre from a sociocognitive perspective, they emphasize five principles that inform their approach: dynamism, situatedness, the interconnectedness of form and content, the interconnectedness of genres and social structures, and finally the interconnectedness of genre conventions and the ideological makeup of discourse communities.
Ecology of composition 
The next ecological framework I would like to present is Syverson’s (1999) The Wealth of Reality: An Ecology of Composition where she attempts to develop an ecological approach to composition. Drawing on complex systems theory, Syverson delineates four features of complex systems: distribution, emergence, embodiment, and enaction. In Syverson’s framework, distribution refers to two related processes, division of labor and sharing among humans and the environment. The second notion, emergence, maintains that complex systems are neither chaotic nor stable but rather open systems in temporary balance in which new structures emerge. The third concept, embodiment, ties writers, readers, and texts to their physical existence and raises the claim that their content, as well as the forms their interactions take, depend on their material conditions. Finally, enaction highlights the importance of activities and experiences in ongoing situated meaning making attempts of the people involved in interactions.
These four principles inform the case studies presented in the book at different levels of analysis. The final principle Syverson mentions, enactment, is in line with Bazerman’s (1994) and others’ frameworks that have been influenced by Bazerman and it is an important feature of an ecological approach. In sum, Syverson’s framework is based on these four principles that are influenced by situated cognition, extended cognition, and complex systems theory. What make Syverson’s framework ecological are these four principles. First and foremost, Syverson introduces the material environment to the picture, a factor that has been mostly ignored by the other frameworks presented so far. I believe this is the most important contribution of Syverson’s framework to an ecological understanding. In addition, Syverson’s notion of situatedness is richer compared to the other genre frameworks in that it not only includes physical environment but also the physical sensations of the actors. In other words, this notion invites both extended and embodied cognition as important factors affecting composition. 
To give an example of how this framework materializes in composition research, here I summarize one of the case studies presented in the book. In this case study, Syverson investigates a collaborative writing assignment for a first year composition course. The data for this study come from audio recordings of students during their group meetings, instructor’s observations, students’ writing—journals, workshop critiques, and writing samples. Based on how the four central principles introduced above play out for the three student writers working on the collaborative writing task, Syverson finds the explanation of the students’ failure in producing a satisfactory text, in the dynamics of their group formation, which ultimately lead to their difficulty in utilizing the feedback they receive and in aligning with their environment. Despite the limitations of the study, especially the speculative nature of the findings, the use of multiple methods and the principles informing this study make it a good exemplar for an ecological empirical study in second language writing.
Genre ecologies
The sixth and final ecological framework I would like to review is Spinuzzi’s (2002, 2003) genre ecologies framework.  Spinuzzi (2003) defines genre as “a way of talking about how people regularly interpret and use texts” and sees genres as literary artifacts (p. 110). Different from the other frameworks presented here, Spinuzzi’s approach is mainly based on technical writing and similar to the other frameworks is influenced by Bazerman’s genre systems, Giddens’s structuration theory, activity theory, and situated and distributed cognition.   The most important contribution of genre ecologies framework to an ecological understanding of genres is its inclusion of genres that function as mediational tools. In other words, in this framework, genres are not only used for communicative purposes but also help writers to mediate their activities.
One implication of this expansion of genre systems framework is that literary practices of writers to mediate their understanding and writing, for instance, sticky notes, outlines, drafts, etc., are also central to composition. Like many other frameworks mentioned here, the focus is not on the individual but the action. Moreover, Spinuzzi claims that “agency is distributed across genre ecology” (p. 115)—a view in line with distributed cognition framework. Another similarity between genre ecologies framework and the others is that it focuses on relations and activities—rather than the community of practice as some do. As an extension, similar to the other frameworks, multiple genres are investigated as they interact and overlap in people’s daily interactions. One limitation of this framework Spinuzzi acknowledges is that it highlights the written texts and does not focus on spoken genres. In a different article, Spinuzzi and Zachry (2000) highlight that genre ecologies are open systems, a feature central to an ecological approach to composition.
To give a brief summary, the ecological characteristics found in genre ecologies framework are, (1) it is informed by situated and distributed cognition, (2) takes into account the histories of practices in a discourse community, (3) focuses on activities—not the individual or the community—and (4) takes into account physical environment and tools. Furthermore, Spinuzzi uses naturalistic research methods and sees genres as dynamic open systems. Overall, as the name of the framework suggests, Spinuzzi’s genre ecologies framework is the most ecological approach among the approaches summarized here.
Emerging Patterns: A Comparison
            After giving a short overview of some frameworks that can be considered ecological, in this section, I focus on the common threads running through these genre frameworks in L1 composition as a first step toward exploring the question what abstractions might be made so that they can be adapted to L2 composition. First of all, with the exception of the study by Berkenkotter et al (1991) all frameworks mentioned here deal with multiple genres and they focus on how multiple genres interact with each other. Secondly, most of the frameworks acknowledge the possible interaction between written, spoken, and online genres, although none of them actually include all these three genre types in their studies—which might be a practical decision rather than a theoretical one. The third similarity among these frameworks on genre is that they all utilize naturalistic rather than experimental methods. Most of these frameworks use ethnographic methods, such as interviews and observations, text analysis, self-reports, and stimulated recall in different combinations. Fourth, another important feature most of these frameworks share is that they favor longitudinal studies. Fifth, some common inspirations for these frameworks are worth mentioning. Situated cognition, complexity theory, activity theory, communities of practice framework, Bazerman’s notion of systems of genres, Giddens’s structuration theory, and the literature on speech genres seem to be influential on these six frameworks to varying degrees. Sixth, all these frameworks focus on interactions and relations rather than products or objects. Finally, to some extent, they all acknowledge the influence of the material conditions of writing as an influence on the writing process and product.
            Despite these similarities there are some differences between the frameworks to genre summarized in this article. For example, it is important to note that not all of them mention the term ‘ecology’. While Syverson (1999) and Spinuzzi (2002) use the term ecology in their publications, Devitt (1991), Berkenkotter et al (1995), Orlikowski and Yates (1994), and Bazerman (1994) do not. Moreover, the contexts the studies carried out within these frameworks vary greatly. For instance, Devitt investigates tax accountants, while Syverson first year composition students, and Spinuzzi software developers. Hence, it is important to be cautious when making comparisons between the findings of the studies. Also, the emphasis put on the role of the discourse community under investigation differs among these frameworks. While for Devitt the focus is on communities of practice and genres are seen as windows to those communities, Syverson traces the journey of a poet throughout his career, social being only one of the factors affecting the writing situation; while Bazerman puts more emphasis on the written texts, Orlikowski and Yates point out possible influence of spoken interactions.

Some principles for an ecological approach
The six frameworks summarized here carry many ecological features. After providing a brief overview of the genre frameworks in L1 composition, and then their similarities and differences, it becomes possible to delineate some principles for an ecological approach to second language writing. Below, I provide some principles or guidelines for an ecological approach to second language writing drawing on the frameworks and studies summarized in this article.

1)    An ecological approach should have a holistic approach in which functional unities are not dissected for analysis
The most important implication of this principle is that the cognitive, social, and material aspects of writing cannot be investigated separately because they form a functional unity in any given writing situation. Our feelings, motivations, identities, and our material environment, for instance technological tools we use, should be taken into account. According to this principle, emotions, gestures, bodily orientations, computers, writing labs, physical layout of classes or offices cannot be ignored a priori. More importantly, the relations between the cognitive, social, and material should be the focus not cognitive, social, or material aspects as independent domains.
Furthermore, the relationships between the individual and the social structure, the communities of practice and genres, one genre with another are reciprocal and negotiated during each enactment and renegotiated each time a text is produced. For instance, we do not see genres in isolation. More often than not genres work together, define each other, refer to one another, interact, and sometimes overlap. In other words, it is difficult to argue for the legitimacy of analyzing one genre at a time. The implications of this principle are
i) An ecological approach should be informed by embodied cognition
ii) An ecological approach should be informed by extended cognition
iii) An ecological approach should be informed by situated cognition
More specifically, emotions, decisions, interpretations, future projections, histories of participants, genres, and discourse communities, gestures, bodily orientations, social artifacts and other components of social structures, synchrony, physical layouts, facial expressions, technology, multiple institutions if necessary, linguistic and non-linguistic artifacts that constitute the ecology under investigation cannot be investigated separately but should be approached as constituents of that ecology. (Some studies in the literature that support this principle to different degrees are Beaufort (2000), Haas and Witte (2001), Tardy (2003), Brandt (2005), Latour (2007), Fleckenstein, Spinuzzi, Rickly, and Papper et al (2008))

2)    An ecological approach requires writers, writing situations, and genres to be investigated in their natural environment
This principle is basically about methodology. First, an ecological approach would favor naturalistic studies—like the frameworks reviewed in this article—instead of experimental ones. The second implication of this principle is that studies conducted within an ecological framework should seek ecological validity. In other words an ecologically oriented study must approximate the real life situation that is under investigation in terms of methods, materials, and setting of the study, at least as an ideal. One way to accomplish that is to use ethnographic methods, such as observation and interviews, with the aim of reaching an emic understanding before making claims about a certain ecology. It is also important to acknowledge that longitudinal studies are needed to capture the complexity of second language writing. The frameworks I have summarized above mostly follow these ideals. In addition to these frameworks, for example, Miller (1984), Molle and Prior (2008), Fraiberg (2010) encourage the use of ethnographic methods and de Larios and Murphy (2001) emphasize the importance of ecological validity.
3)    Genres, actors, and discourse communities are part of situated activity systems
According to this principle, actors learn genres and other knowledge related to their discourse communities not for the sake of learning but for doing things in the world. The first implication of this principle is that genres get their meaning from their ecologies. In other words, the situated activity systems genres are part of are crucial in understanding specific features of genres—such as specific moves, and how actors in that community interpret these moves. Their meaning and value come from the explicit and implicit assumptions, ideologies, preferred styles of the communities of practice genres are part of. As an extension, one can learn a lot by examining the genres used in that community because genres reflect the cultural, ideological, epistemological, ontological, and semiotic rationale of the community.  The second implication is that the individual and the social cannot be separated and as Latour (2007) argues finding quick and easy solutions by using the term context for everything we cannot explain is not an acceptable option; we need to make efforts in order to understand the particularities of the writing situations, writers, communities of practice, and genres.  Another important aspect to be taken into account is to situate genres in time. According to this principle, history is crucial. Not only participants bring their personal histories to the picture but the communities of practice they are part of, the genres themselves have histories. These histories influence the relations and interactions, for example sometimes as the expectations as a reader and sometimes as the strategies used as a writer. In sum, all frameworks mentioned above highlight the situated nature of practices. (For other scholars who call for a conceptualization of genres as situated activities see Miller (1994), Berkenkotter and Huckin (1995), Haas and Witte (2001), Fleckenstein et al (2008), Molle and Prior (2008), Fraiberg (2010), and Dunmire (2010)).
4)    Genres, writers, and discourse communities are dynamic open systems
This principle suggests that written, online, and speech genres interact and thus we can only talk about webs or assemblages of genres. Genres do not exist in isolation or in one modality. Therefore, from an ecological perspective, unless there is a good reason to do so, it is not justified to investigate one genre at a time. In my opinion, emphasis on multiple genres and multimodality of genres are crucial for an ecological approach to composition. Second, when appropriate genres should be studied in multiple institutions since genres rarely, if ever, remain in a single institution. For instance, research papers, conference presentations, posters, and abstracts extend beyond the boundaries of single institutions and thus should be followed wherever they are used. Third, in an ecological approach stability and variability are equally important and they both need explanation. I think there is especially much to be done in analyzing the change of genres over time. I believe an ecological approach to genre, with its emphasis on histories, will also be able to address the criticisms against genre studies, especially the charge of focusing on fixed, rigid, static forms. (Some scholars that support the dynamic, open, multimodal nature of genres and emphasize the study of multiple genres are, Miller (1984), Beaufort (2000), Haas and Witte (2001), Brandt (2005), Fleckenstein et al (2008). Molle and Prior (2008), Fraiberg (2010), Bazerman (2003), Devitt (2000), and Duff (2010)).
Despite many advantages an ecological approach to second language writing might bring, it is important to address possible criticisms against such an approach. Some people might have reservations regarding the principles listed above partly because they basically state that everything is connected to everything else and make it impossible to see what former approaches to genres sought after that is ‘things,’ such as writers, readers, genres, writing strategies, feedback, etc. Some might ask ‘if everything is connected to everything else, as these principles seem to suggest, then how do we do research? Where do we start and more importantly when can we stop?’ I think this is a legitimate question that has to be addressed. It is understandable that at first glance this picture I attempt to draw here is confusing, however, I think this confusion is due to a Gestalt shift an ecological approach requires—an inevitable consequence of any theoretical framework—and I think seeming loss of focus can be explained by acknowledging that the objects seems to disappear because they move to the background and what come to focus vividly are their relations with each other. If we aim to find out what those relations are and how they play out in real life interactions then we do not need to define and draw the boundaries of objects. In an ecological framework, things that have similar relations with others, things that move together would be the objects—and they always move they are always in flux—things that make a difference that make a difference are the objects. If we focus on the relations we will inevitably see the objects.
A related concern might be the seemingly overwhelming amount of data to be collected for an ecological study. Since everything is connected some might think that we should collect written materials, information of the communities of practice, the histories of genres, corpora for the genres under investigation, participant’s background information, every spoken and written interaction of the participant, etc. However, it is important to note that if a single person, our participant for example, does all this processing and aligning on a daily basis, would not it be fair to expect the researcher to do justice to the complexity of this task accomplished by our participants? On a practical level, what will draw the boundaries of a study will be the participants in an ecological approach and they will decide what is relevant and what is not relevant. To give an example, if a text in a genre cites an article then it is relevant to the study, not the entire literature, not the journal article genre in general but that very specific text that has been cited. In other words, an ecological approach does not pose a bigger challenge for the researcher than trying to capture things in motion in stationary boxes or comparing specific texts to a sample of a specific genre, which may or may not be relevant or related to the original text. An ecological approach to second language writing expands and limits the data to be collected at the same time and certainly does not require more data collection or analysis than what people regularly do in their daily lives.
In this article, I provided an overview of ecological approaches to genre in L1 composition, as partial as they might be, list some similarities and differences between these frameworks, delineate some principles for an ecological approach to genre studies in light of these studies, and finally address some possible criticisms against an ecological approach. I am hoping that I could make a first step toward providing an answer to the question ‘what does an ecological approach have to offer to second language writing studies?’ I strongly believe that an ecological approach has the potential to help second language writing scholars to leave behind the old either/or dichotomies that have been keeping the field from moving forward.  Of course, the decision is the readers’.
It is yet to be seen to what extent calls for ecological approaches are going to find support in applied linguistics and L1 composition, however it is my belief that second language writing studies in general and genre scholars in second language writing studies in particular have much to gain from an ecological approach. In other words, I argue for such an approach for second language writing studies and maintain that second language writing studies should follow suit with its parent disciplines. Even though ecological approach is not a theory, I believe this framework has the potential to solve many divides in the field and to open new spaces for exploration in second language writing studies.

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  1. Some thoughts on the notion of interacting and embedded systems. That is, complex systems have embedded systems that operate on different timescales and with different behaviors, which should affect any ecological analysis. Some examples and further thoughts:

    Human organisms are composed of organs, which are composed of cells, and so on. The behavior of the cells differs from the behavior of the organs differs from the behavior of the organism. Also, most cells in a person's body are replaced over time, but the person somehow remains the same person. Thus, the stability of the organism also differs from that of cells.

    Moving from this example to that of universities, students enter and leave more quickly than do (most) staff and teachers, who enter and leave more quickly than the institution. Thus, relatively speaking, the institution changes at a glacial speed, thus rendering it like a static entity in comparison to students, staff, and teachers.

    In other words, systems are composed of interacting and embedded aggregates which have different behaviors and speeds of change/learning.

    Applying this notion of embedded systems to genres, relatively speaking, they are close to "fixed, rigid, static forms" compared to the individuals who learn and use them (although exceptions do exist as when new genres come into existence). Although an exaggerated example, saying that genres change is similar to saying species evolve.

    From this perspective, what does it mean to say, "the relationships between the individual and the social structure, the communities of practice and genres, one genre with another are reciprocal and negotiated during each enactment and renegotiated each time a text is produced"?

    Yes, social structures change, but again at a glacial speed compared to that of the individual. So, in what meaningful ways are the relationships "reciprocal and negotiated during each enactment"?

    Along these lines, in some way(s), doesn't the individual need to be separated from the social? After all, there are cell biologists, biologists that focus on organs and organisms, and those who focus on the ecology.

  2. Dear Charles,
    Thank you very much for your comment and great questions. They sure made me think and I’m delighted. The examples you give clarify many complex issues regarding complex systems. I think genres work exactly like the complex systems you mention in your comment. I haven’t had the chance to elaborate on what complex systems are and how genres might be conceptualized as complex systems. This is something I need to think more about.
    I especially found your comment on change very thoughtful. I have been thinking about this issue but not succeeding in conceptualizing to my satisfaction. Let me share what I have in mind. I agree with Jamieson and Miller in that genres should be thought of in Darwinian terms rather than Platonic terms. Coming to your first question, what I wanted to say is that there is a difference between saying that genres are static for all intent and purposes, which is what some genre scholars do by analyzing and focusing on texts and text features, and genres change, some genre scholars look into how specific genres change over time. I argue that from an ecological perspective, the first perspective is unsatisfactory and the second perspective is insufficient. This is not to say that they are not legitimate research agendas, but I’m sure you will agree they are not ecological. The first perspective is unsatisfactory because the text itself cannot be considered as a closed system. Even if we accept a rather conservative stance and claim that genres change slower than people who use them rather than claiming that genres are static, this perspective will only allow us find out what is static about specific genres. In other words, this perspective excludes variation and change from the very beginning, or marginalize change if you will. I think from an ecological perspective change is constant, not something that is a special case of or an exception to stability. Since this perspective limits the scope of study to perceived stabilities from the beginning I think it is unsatisfactory. The second perspective is closer to ecological perspective but it is my impression that research done on how genres change, historical studies for example, is not ecological either. For instance, comparing different features of a genre 50 years ago and now would not be ecological either because this line of research aims to capture a before and after picture of the genre rather than making change a central part of the investigation. What I’m interested in is how to capture change in action. To me this is what an ecological perspective should do. Admittedly, I do not know how to do that exactly. All I know is that this is exactly what I’m after. I think the concept of enactment from complex systems theory is a good candidate for an ecological explanation of change. From an ecological perspective, each move leads to others, each decision has implication, each moves gives a new meaning to previous actions, each move either limits or makes possible other actions. To use an analogy here, what I have in mind is something like a mechanism conversation analysts are after.

  3. (Sorry for the interruption. Commenting function does not allow me to write long comments. So, here is the second half)
    This brings me to your second question. You so rightly point out the different timescales that change takes place. I think what is crucial here is that we cannot think of different timescales as parallel universes and treat them separately. In a way, at least as I understand complex systems, all incremental and abrupt, small and big scale changes taking place at different timescales collapse into here and now for specific moments in time and space. This is why we cannot ignore big scale changes when we look at something small, for example, we cannot ignore institutional changes when we investigate texts. Let me give a more specific example related to genre. If, for example, an academic journal has a new editor and the editor makes some changes in the submission guidelines (which I consider an institutional change), and if we are investigating the submissions to and publications in that journal (some texts) then they are connected. In sum, we cannot ignore the institutional change just because it does not occur at the same speed with paper submissions. However, this does not mean that all aspects of social context are relevant at all times. I think from an ecological perspective, we cannot tell in advance what is relevant or what is not relevant a priori (I agree with Latour in this regard. We should follow the actors). It all depends on the research question and the study. I cannot, for example, claim that all editorial decisions are always relevant to any study regarding academic publications. So, I think an ecological perspective acknowledges the particularity (not uniqueness) of each situation.
    About your final question, of course you are absolutely right, different scholars will be interested in different things and genre researchers are no exception. My answer to your question is that what I try to do, which is too ambitious a goal I know, is to come up with a research agenda, foundational principles, and methodology for an ecological perspective to genre analysis as a new paradigm. Mine is an attempt to imagine a new paradigm and I’m hoping that I’m not alone in this endeavor.
    These are my thoughts for the time being. I cannot thank you enough for your thoughtful comments and stimulating questions. Hope you continue to share your thoughts.

  4. To study change at the system level, you need to find a system undergoing a phase transition. That's hard to do with established genres. So, you might consider looking at digital genres. Email (somewhat distant), Facebook, Twitter, and so on could allow you to see genre "evolution" in progress.

  5. Thank you Charles. I'll think about it.