What Is Generic Criticism?

Generic criticism is a method of analysis that seeks to understand how people respond to information that was communicated to them through a particular genre. For example, if you are a business owner and you are curious how the internal communications within your company have affected morale over the past several years, you might look to certain genres of communication–memos, emails, or even recorded board meetings–to see how people respond to the communication.

When you consider genres, you are looking for patterns and expectations that have been developed over time. Consider, for example, the scientific research report. Scientists hoping to publish in a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal, must follow certain expectations and guidelines, which include the establishment of a hypothesis and problem statement, a literature review, a research methods section, a findings section, discussion, and, often, a further research section. These expectations, that have been developed over years, are a kind of genre. If you were a researcher wanting to look at the rhetorical effect of scientific papers within a certain discipline (say, psychoneuroses), you might do a generic critique, evaluating how the genre has affected perceptions of psychoneurosis over the past decade.

You can do generic criticism with a wide variety of artifacts (speeches, reports, ad campaigns, memos, fine art) so long as you nest the artifacts within a specific genre. Your goal with this method of criticism is to understand the rhetorical effects of the genre in different times or different places. When doing generic criticism, you have three options:

  • Develop a Generic Description: Evaluate several different artifacts to determine if a genre even exists. You’re looking for similarities across artifacts that have emerged in different times and places.
  • Conduct a Generic Participation: Take one single artifact and determine if it fits within an already established genre.
  • Apply a Generic Application:  Take several artifacts and apply a genre to them in order to assess them.

Review the graphic here or read the larger text below to see how to do this kind of rhetorical criticism. To learn how to write up the actual rhetorical analysis, see the rhetorical criticism overview page.


The goal: review several artifacts to determine if there actually is a genre at all. Learn and understand the characteristics of the artifacts so that you can develop a theory about those characteristics.

STEP 1: OBSERVE SITUATIONS | Evaluate how some situations, not connected in time or place, seem to have similar rhetorical responses. In other words, look for similarities in the way people react to communications in unrelated situations. You are establishing a genre.

STEP 2: GATHER ARTIFACTS | Compile several artifacts that you determine fit well within the genre. In other words, find artifacts that match in the similarities you discovered.

STEP 3: ANALYZE ARTIFACTS | With a general idea of the genre and several artifacts to evaluate, review each artifact to determine how they are (and are not) related to the genre and other artifacts. Look for how the communicator, in each situation, has dealt with a certain perceived problem.

STEP 4: ESTABLISH THE GENRE | Recognizing what you have learned, establish the key characteristics of the genre in order to better inform how communicators can expect certain responses from communications within the genre.


The goal: better understand if an artifact fits (or “participates”) within already established genres. Know and understand whether or not a communication is appropriate for the rhetorical situation.

STEP 1: DESCRIBE THE GENRE | Outline, in detail, the specific requirements of the genre: in what situations it is present; what communication strategies are used; and what principles guide it.

STEP 2: DESCRIBE THE ARTIFACT | Outline, in detail, the specific requirements of the artifact: in what situations it has been used; what communication strategies were applied; and what principles guide it.

STEP 3: COMPARE THE ARTIFACT WITH THE GENRE Evaluate the artifact against the characteristics of the genre. Does it seem to fit withing the guiding principles and situations of the genre? What might you infer from this conclusion?


The goal: better understand how a genre might describe unique instances of communication. Know and understand how genres can explain situations and rhetorical choices.

STEPS 1, 2, & 3: | Follow the same steps as in Option 2.

STEP 4: DESCRIBE ARTIFACTS IN RELATION TO GENRE | Determine the different types of artifacts that may be described by understanding the characteristics of the genre. Apply the genre to several artifacts to explain how rhetorical choices in artifacts that fall in a certain genre may have certain anticipated responses.

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