Discourse community

August 6th, 2013
by jodi

“Discourse community” seems to be a good summary for a concept that I need. But I’m not happy with how to define it. One summary for my purposes might be: “a group with shared goals, a mechanism for communication, certain patterns of discussion, and enough members who have relevant expertise in the topic and how to argue about it”. That loses some of the richness but also manages the complexity of the full definition.

According to Swales,1
a discourse community:

  • has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
  • has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
  • uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.
  • utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.
  • in addition to owning genres, it has acquired some specific lexis.
  • has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise

For a more recent summary, read Borg2 (who however seems to advocate the term “Community of Practice”, which seems to me far less well-defined, perhaps since I’ve not gone looking for a definition).

Swales presents a really interesting case study of a discourse community in his book: a stamp collection society–and explains rhetorical (genre-fit) mistakes he made in his first forays into the community.

I’d expect this definition to be more famous than it is. For common use, it has some flaws: technical terms such as ‘genres’ and ‘lexis’ should be described, as should ‘discoursal expertise’ and perhaps ‘participatory mechanisms’.

  1. Swales, John. Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge University Press, 1990. []
  2. Borg, Erik. “Discourse community.” ELT journal 57.4 (2003): 398-400. []

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  • […] set of communicative purposes. These purposes are recognized by the expert members of the parent discourse community and thereby constitute the rationale for the genre. This rationale shapes the schematic structure […]