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Discourse Community: A Conceptualization of a Discourse Community

This guide was created to provide research support to students enrolled in Professor Pigliacelli's ENG 2 004.

Discourse Community

A Conceptualization of Discourse Community
By John Swales


1. A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.

These public goals may be formally inscribed in documents (as is often the case with associations and clubs), or they may be more tacit. The goals are public, because spies may join speech and discourse communities for hidden purposes of subversion, while more ordinary people may join organizations with private hopes of commercial or romantic advancement. In some instances, but not in many, the goals may be high level or abstract. In a Senate or Parliament there may well exist overtly adversarial groups of members, but these adversaries may broadly share some common objective as striving for improved government. In the much more typical non-adversarial discourse communities, reduction in the broad level of agreement may fall to a point where communication breaks down and the discourse community splits. It is commonality of goal, not shared object of study that is criteria!, even if the former often subsumes the latter. But not always. The fact that the shared object of study is, say, the Vatican, does not imply that students of the Vatican in history departments, the Kremlin, dioceses, birth control agencies and liberation theology seminaries form a discourse community.

2. A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among 12 its members.  

The participatory mechanisms will vary according to the community: meetings, telecommunications, correspondence, newsletters, conversations and so forth. This criterion is quite stringent because it produces a negative answer to the case of 'The Cafe Owner Problem' (Najjar, personal communication). In generalized form, the problem goes as follows: individuals A, B, C and so on occupy the same professional roles in life. They interact (in speech and writing) with the same clienteles; they originate, receive and respond to the same kind of messages for the same purposes; they have an approximately similar range of genre skills. And yet, as Cafe owners working long hours in their own establishments, and not being members of the Local Chamber of Commerce, A, B and C never interact with one another. Do they form a discourse community? We can notice first that 'The Cafe Owner Problem' is not quite like those situations where A, B and C operate as 'point'. A, B and C may be lighthouse keepers on their lonely rocks, or missionaries in their separate jungles, or neglected consular officials in their rotting outposts. In all these cases, although A, B and C may never interact, they all have lines of communication back to base, and presumably acquired discourse community membership as a key element in their initial training. Bizzell (1987) argues that the cafe owner kind of social group will be !3 a discourse community because 'its members may share the social-class based or ethnically-based discursive practices of people who are likely to become cafe owners in their neighborhood' (1987:5). However, even if this sharing of discursive practice occurs, it does not resolve the logical problem of assigning membership of a community to individuals who neither admit nor recognize that such a community exists.

3. A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.

Thus, membership implies uptake of the informational opportunities. Individuals might pay an annual subscription to the Acoustical Society of America but if they never open any of its communications they cannot be said to belong to the discourse community, even though they are formally members of the society. The secondary purposes of the information exchange will vary according to the common goals: to improve performance in a football squad or in an orchestra, to make money in a brokerage house, to grow better roses in a gardening club, or to dent the research front in an academic department.

4. A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.

A discourse community has developed and continues to develop discoursal expectations. These may involve appropriacy of topics, the form, function and positioning of discoursal elements, and the roles texts play in the operation of the discourse community. In so far as 'genres are how things get done, when language is used to accomplish them' (Martin, 1985:250), these discoursal expectations are created by the genres that articulate the operations of the discourse community. One of the purposes of this criterion is to question discourse communality status for new or newly-emergent groupings. Such groupings need, as it were, to settle down and work out their communicative proceedings and practices before they can be recognized as discourse communities. If a new grouping 'borrows' genres from other discourse communities, such borrowings have to be assimilated.

5. In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis.

This specialization may involve using lexical items known to the wider speech communities in special and technical w~ys, as in information technology discourse communities, or using highly technical terminology as in medical communities. Most commonly, however, the inbuilt dynamic towards an increasingly shared and specialized terminology is realized through the development of community-specific abbreviations and acronyms. The use of these (ESL, EAP, WAC, NCTE, TOEFL, etc.) is, of course, driven by the requirements for efficient communication exchange between experts. It is hard to conceive, at least in the contemporary English-speaking world, of a group of well-established members of a discourse community communicating among themselves on topics relevant to the goals of the community and not using lexical items puzzling to outsiders. It is hard to imagine attending perchance the convention of some group of which one is an outsider and understanding every word. If it were to happen--as might occur in the inaugural meeting of some quite new grouping-then that grouping would not yet constitute a discourse community.

6. A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

Discourse communities have changing memberships; individuals enter as apprentices and leave by death or in other less involuntary ways. However, survival of the community depends on a reasonable ratio between novices and experts. 

Excerpted from: 
Swales, John. "The concept of discourse community." Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings (1990): 21-32.