How scientific genres change over time

Genre evolution? The case for a diachronic perspective

Carol Berkenkotter

Given the preceding discussion of the proprietary interests of rhetoricians,
historians of science, and applied linguists on the question of how scientific
genres change over time, it’s not unreasonable to assert that genres – and
their systems – often seem to be at the centre of disciplinary growth and

Not that the genres of medical and scientifi c writing are any richer as
an object of study than studies of lexico-grammatical elements in scientifi c
texts of the sort done by Halliday and Martin (1993) and by other linguists
(see, for example, Taavitsainen and Pahta 2000). What is different is that
the unit of analysis differs in each approach, as does the analyst’s attention
to contextual elements. Historians of science are absorbed by and attentive
to socio-cultural, economic, political and ideological contexts, paying much
more attention to them than to the changing textual features of scientifi c and
medical texts over time. A historian might remark on these changes, but does
not systematically attempt to describe them, as does the linguist.
In the previous section I described the biological concept of evolution
as a heuristic for explaining changes in the scientifi c and medical research
article, pointing to some key disciplinary differences between rhetoricians,
linguists, and historians of sciences who have taken either a diachronic textbased
(as in the case of Gross et al.) or context-based (Dear et al.) approach
to analysing conceptual change in science, using scientifi c texts as the object
of study. Although collectively these approaches advance our understanding
of the textual side of the history of science, our understanding of the history
of medicine, and particularly psychiatry as a text/context set of relationships
is much more sketchy.
To address this gap, I would like now to turn to the history of psychiatric
case reporting, fi rst to make a number of general observations that are
relevant to the concept of ‘genre evolution’. Then I’d like to turn to Kuhn’s
notion of paradigm change, suggesting that from a diachronic perspective,
changing ‘thought styles’ or paradigm shift is more powerful heuristically for
characterizing what happened to the psychiatric case report in England and
the United States between the late eighteenth and early twenty-fi rst centuries.
Kuhn’s discussion (1970, 2nd edn; cf. Fleck 1979) of paradigm shift is a
theory of conceptual change, as is Hull’s (1988) adaptation of evolutionary
theory to describe change over time in science.

Leave a Comment