The historical evolution of a written genre: The employment résumé in the United States, 1950–1999

Sam Hoffman DeKay, Fordham University


The purpose of this study is to examine the scope and frequency of historical change associated with the employment résumé in the United States. The investigation is intended to determine if evidence substantiates two notions advocated by many genre theorists: (a) that genres are ever-changing social constructions and (b) that, due to these changes, students generally cannot explicitly be taught rules for composing written genres. Fifty-four college-level business communication textbooks and job application guides, reflecting résumé composition practices between 1950 and 1999, were selected for examination. Data were collected using a rubric designed to extract information regarding social purposes, rhetorical characteristics, and lexical/syntactical/graphical conventions. Two analytical outcomes were generated from these data: frequency charts and results of the Fisher Exact Test for 2 x 2 Tables. Analysis reveals that, prior to 1970, the résumé was viewed primarily as a factual listing of applicant qualifications. Beginning in the 1970s, however, the genre emerged as a tool for procuring job interviews. In addition, the résumé developed a new rhetorical objective: it became a sales presentation. Strategies for achieving this sales focus proliferated during the 1970–1999 period. Also, the genre borrowed rhetorical and lexical techniques from narrative prose to present the story of a job applicant who has met increasingly complex challenges and achieved impressive accomplishments. The study concludes that, despite dramatic changes, several elements of the résumé remained stable: its association with the employment search and the mandatory inclusion of specific kinds of applicant information. Findings also indicate that explicit teaching is required for writers to understand rhetorical objectives, optional elements, and rules of avoidance. In addition, the investigation establishes that most rules for composing résumés are not prescriptive. Rather, rules are generally presented as heuristics, strategies for achieving rhetorical objectives. Finally, the study concludes that the résumé structure consists of four interrelated networks: social purposes, rhetorical characteristics, lexical/syntactical/graphical elements, and constituent stages. These networks are hierarchical: social situations prompt the emergence of rhetorical characteristics that, in turn, occasion the development of lexical/syntactical/graphical elements. Additional research is required to determine if this model may be generalized to other written genres.

Subject Area

Rhetoric|Composition|Curricula|Teaching|Business education

Recommended Citation

DeKay, Sam Hoffman, "The historical evolution of a written genre: The employment résumé in the United States, 1950–1999" (2003). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3084908.