Illicit Genres: The Case of Threatening Communications

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TitleIllicit Genres: The Case of Threatening Communications
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsBojsen-Møller, Marie, Sune Auken, Amy J. Devitt, and Tanya Karoli Christensen
Pagination1 - 53
Place PublishedCopenhagen, Denmark
Keywordsthreatening communications; illicit genres; genre studies; uptake; violent communication

This study takes a novel approach to the study of threatening communications by arguing that they can be characterized as a genre – a genre that generally carries strong connotations of intimidation, fear, aggression, power, and coercion. We combine the theoretical framework of Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS) with results from theoretical and empirical analyses of threats to arrive at a more comprehensive perspective of threats. Since threats do not form part of any regular curriculum of genres, we designed a survey to test how recognizable they are. While scholars on threats describe threatening communications as remarkably varied in form and contextual features, the majority of our respondents categorized test items as threats without prompts of any kind, indicating that threats are a recognizable genre. We propose that threatening communications belong to a wider category of illicit genres: i.e. genres that generally disrupt and upset society and commonly affect their targets negatively. The uptakes of illicit genres are very different from those of other genres, as the users of the genres often actively avoid naming them, making uptake communities significant shapers of illicit genres. The present study contributes to research on threatening communications, since genre theory sheds light on important situational factors affecting the interpretation of a text as a threat – this is a particularly contentious question when it comes to threats that are indirectly phrased. The study also contributes to genre theory by pointing to new territory for genre scholars to examine, namely illicit genres. Studies of illicit genres also have wider, societal benefits as they shed light on different kinds of problematic rhetorical behavior that are generally considered destructive or even dangerous.

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