On researching genre
Last year I wrote a piece on genre trends at the US box office over the past two decades, which you can find here. I submitted this piece to the European Journal of American Culture, and having done some revisions I heard from the editor yesterday that it is likely to be published later in the year. This week I want to comment briefly on a point raised in the peer review process regarding the problems of researching genre.
In my paper I sorted films achieving high box office rankings into nine broad categories: ‘action/adventure,’ ‘comedy,’ ‘crime/thriller,’ ‘drama,’ ‘family,’ ‘fantasy/science fiction,’ ‘horror,’ ‘romance,’ and ‘other.’ The reviewer raised the following point:
… it was never clear to me, at least, on what basis the generic trends they isolated and analysed were identified, are they drawn from industry accepted classifications, or are they drawn from the authors’ observations? ‘Family,’ ‘romance,’ ‘comedy,’ ‘fantasy/science fiction’ maybe self-explanatory, but what’s the difference between action/adventure and the latter, or between it and crime/thriller? And what constitutes a “drama”? Perhaps a fuller discussion/review of the cycles of films that make up the trends they have identified would make classification less problematic …
This clearly relates to the four problems of genre definition described by Robert Stam (2000: 128-129):
- Extension: generic labels are either too broad or too narrow;
- Normativism: having preconceived ideas of criteria for genre membership;
- Monolithic definitions: as if an item belonged to only one genre;
- Biologism: a kind of essentialism in which genres are seen as evolving through a standardised life cycle.
To these we can add the ‘empiricist dilemma’ of analysing genre films to determine which genres they belong to and why only after we have first defined the genres themselves (Tudor 1974).
There are no simple definitions of genres, and trying to solve this riddle has probably driven several film scholars o despair. In fact, one of the two things that everyone agrees on when discussing genres is that no-one agrees about genre definitions. For example, in 1975 Douglas Pye warned against treating genres as Platonic forms that are ‘essentially definable’ and of approaching genre criticism ‘as in need of defining criteria’ (Pye 1975: 30, original emphasis). The same argument is made by David Bordwell 14 years later, arguing there is no fixed system of genre definitions in the film industry or film studies and that no strictly deductive set of principles is capable of explaining genre groupings (1989: 147). In 2008 Raphaëlle Moine writes of being in the ‘genre jungle’ that we are unable to clear with ‘a few machete blows as strong as they were lethal;’ and that not only are definitions of individual genres problematic, the very concept of genre itself and how it functions for producers and audiences is itself ‘neither definitive, nor perfect, nor incontestable’ (2008: 27).
If we consider film genres as categories of classification, one can only note the vitality of generic activity at an empirical level, and the impossibility of organizing cinema dogmatically into a definitive and universal typology of genres at a theoretical level. Categories exist but they are not impermeable. They may coincide at certain points, contradict one another, and are the product of different levels of differentiation or different frames of reference (Moine 2008: 24).
I think that this sums up the problems of researching genre very simply and very clearly. What it doesn’t do is help me with the reviewer’s comments. In fact, it makes them more complicated since we have to acknowledge that ‘family,’ ‘romance,’ ‘comedy,’ and ‘fantasy/science fiction’ are not as unproblematic as we might at first suspect. This is in fact obvious in the above comments: the reviewer immediately questions the distinction between ‘fantasy/science fiction’ and ‘action/adventure,’ and so there is clearly some doubt here. So what should I do?
One solution is to give up. We could simply admit that genres are undefinable, that it is pointless to even attempt any sort of genre analysis given that we cannot begin to describe the object of inquiry or to delineate any individual genres, and regard all genre scholarship as inherently flawed.
This is a ridiculous approach to take since genre categories are obviously widely used by the film industry and by audiences day-to-day in a diverse set of contexts. This is other thing that everyone agrees upon: genre is important. And if it is important then it is definitely something that should be the subject of empirical analysis. So, again, what should I do?
The solution I arrived at was to recognise the subjective nature of genre definitions, but to also make a distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘arbitrary.’ My inspiration in this was Bayesian probability theory. For a brief overview on Bayes’ theorem and a demonstration of its use see my earlier post on modelling narrative comprehension here. In Bayesian theory probabilities express an agent’s degree of belief in a statement: so a statement like ‘I think there is a 80% chance of rain this afternoon’ is a my belief that it will rain after midday expressed as a probability . The Bayesian approach assumes I am rational agent who holds an opinion about the likelihood of an event based on the available information (the forecast is for rain, it’s the autumn, I live in the north of England, etc). As I acquire new information I can update this probability and revise the intensity of my belief by applying Bayes’ theorem. My belief is subjective but it is not arbitrary: Pierre-Simon Laplace referred to probability in this sense being ‘only good sense reduced to calculus.’
A criticism of the Bayesian approach to probability is that it is subjective and that because different agents have possess different amounts of information the probabilities they express tell us nothing about the world and refer only to the opinions themselves. We cannot therefore arrive at the same conclusions about data since we start at different places. The Bayesian argument against this is based on two principles:
- Our beliefs are based on defensible reasoning and evidence.
- Through an ongoing process of analysis (accumulation of data, reviewing methodologies and assumptions, etc.) differences in prior positions are resolved and consensus is reached.
Described in these terms, Bayesian probability is itself a model of an ongoing process of scientific inquiry in which differences of opinion are acknowledged and resolved by examining and re-examining data and methods so that clear conclusions may be reached because the weight attached to the evidence comes to carry more than our prior beliefs as we learn more and more about the system we are studying.
The Bayesian argument is I think useful for thinking about researching genre. I’m not advocating that we should start calculating probabilities for our degrees of belief in genres; only that we should use this approach to reasoning as a model for understanding how we conduct research in situations where we do not have definite categories. The statistician CR Rao put it in the following terms: uncertain knowledge + knowledge of amount of uncertainty = useful knowledge. We want useful knowledge about genre, and we can get it despite our uncertainty about genres.
The results of my study of recent genre trends at the US box office found that a limited range of special effects-based films from the action/adventure and fantasy/science fiction genres have come to dominate the US box office at the expense character- and narrative-driven films (crime/thriller and drama films) that were previously identified as the most popular. These results are similar to those reported by Lu et al. (2005) and Ji and Waterman (2010) who found that the five most frequently occurring genres were action, adventure, comedy, thriller, and drama; and that all but the last of these had increased in frequency at the highest box office rankings while drama films had declined from being the most frequently occurring of these genres in 1967-1971 to the least frequently occurring in the period 2002-2004. These papers used a different method of assigning films to genres and yet my results broadly corroborate their conclusions. Now the authors of these studies and myself both acknowledge that genre definition is a methodological problem, but since we now have some evidence and methods to evaluate we can start to pick out the key facts:
- the increasing dominance of spectacle-based technology-driven genres at the US box office
- the decline of ‘technology-unamenable’ genres
We can also pick out some points of difference. For example, my results indicate a decline in crime/thriller films, whereas these other studies do not. This may result from different ways in which films are classified, the different time periods covered by the studies (1960s-2000s or 1991-2010), or how deeply we go into the box office rankings (top 20 or top 50), and so on. But at least we can begin to understand why these differences occur and work towards resolving them because the papers give a description of their methodologies.
Thus, despite the fact that no-one agrees on genre definitions, we can come to some consensus about the main genre trends in the US. Not because we have plucked them out of thin air, but because we have a way of dealing with the inherent uncertainty with which researchers must cope. Despite the fact that we start from different places, we can arrive at the similar conclusions and thereby establish a body of useful knowledge. This does not mean that we should view these studies as being mutually supporting since relying on the principle of non-contradiction as a basis for empirical research leads to all sorts of ridiculous arguments (see here). But it does mean that as we update our knowledge and review our methods we can begin to build consensus rather than bemoaning the lack of agreement about the definitions of genres. Just as producers and audiences use genre categories every day with seemingly few problems, so do film scholars; and any conclusions we may come to are far more interesting than a recitation of the problems described above. Afterall, there is quite a lot of research on genre in film studies.
When conducting empirical research on genre we should bear in mind the following:
- The genre definitions used by scholars are subjective but they are not arbitrary, being based on defensible reasoning
- Empirical studies of genre need to be replicated to test conclusions
- Replication of studies is required to identify where differences do in fact occur
- Film scholars need to spend less time thinking about the problems of genre and devote more effort to accounting for the methodologies they do use so that others may properly evaluate their conclusions
- The study of genre is an ongoing reflexive process
Genre may be a matter of opinion, but it is orderly opinion based on reasoned judgements, and the empirical study of genre is a reflexive, scientific process that arrives at definite, useful, and interesting conclusions even though we often start from different places.
- Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud/My Night at Maud’s (1969) features a discussion of Pascal’s wager in an early scene between Jean-Louis and Vidal that includes the concepts of expectation and utility (‘Mathematical hope: potential gain divided by probability’), the expression of subjective (i.e. Bayesian) probabilities, and the terms ‘hypothesis,’ ‘likely,’ ‘chance,’ ‘odds,’ ‘probability,’ and ‘infinite.’
Bordwell D 1989 Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Ji S and Waterman D 2010 Production Technology and Trends in Movie Content: An Empirical Study. Working Paper, Department of Telecommunications, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.
Lu W, Waterman D, and Yan MZ 2005 Changing markets, new technologies, and violent conduct: an economic study of motion picture genre trends, The 33rd Annual Telecommunications Policy Research Conference, 23-25 September 2005, Washington, DC.
Moine R 2008 Cinema Genre, trans. Alistair Fox and Hilary Radner. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Pye D 1975 Genre and movies, Movie 20: 29-43.
Stam R 2000 Film Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
Tudor A 1974 Theories of Film. London: Secker and Warburg.