One way people create a sense of identity is by joining groups of likeminded people who share interests and goals. When these groups build cohesion and self-identify as sources of unity, they often become what writing scholars refer to as discourse communities. These groups are significant in the study of writing because they help us understand how texts and ideas move through populations. Discourse communities also show us how writing helps people get things done.
In “The Concept of Discourse Community,” writing scholar John Swales outlines what gives discourse communities their significance. That document provides a great overview of the term discourse community, its uses, and its purposes for writing studies. But it can be a difficult text for students to process. The text expects that readers have a passing familiarity with several conversations that are too mundane for an introductory writing course. But the heart of Swales’ text is useful for its directness and succinctness. Below, I hope to clarify and simplify some of the content in the hopes that you can better understand what Swales means. With that, you should be able to do your homework more effectively.
I’ve discussed previously how attention to discourse communities in composition classes can help develop a sense of belonging for students. Prior to that, I shared how teachers at the University of Central Florida discovered that the concept of discourse community was literally the central concept on which the rest of the composition curriculum hinged. Other topics could be taught in whatever order suited the instructor. But the committee agreed that discourse communities needed to be addressed in the middle of the semester, forming the conceptual core. Something significant about using writing to come together in groups made the topic a bridge connecting other complex ideas.
More recently, I wrote about personalized writing, contrasting what humans add to our written words with what ChatGPT produces. The idea of “the human element” can be extended into discourse communities because they thrive off the human element. They combine the writing of various humans, connecting it through shared values and goals. In other words, the concept of discourse communities helps emphasize how writing is a situational and uniquely human tool.
Speech v Discourse Communities
When we have conversations with others, our tone tends to be a little casual and very responsive. A single change of expression in the listener can cause us to change our pacing, repeat ourselves, elaborate on a detail, or add excitement to our voice. In other words, speech exchanges are responsive and immediate. Discursive (written) exchanges, by contrast, take much longer but also persevere longer. And just as speech and discourse acts are very different, the communities that perform those acts are likewise different. In his famous text, John Swales set out to distinguish speech communities from discourse communities.
The most popular section of Swales’ text is his list of the six defining characteristics which he says are “necessary and sufficient” for identifying discourse communities. This list gained fame because it’s a practical, manageable approach to a complex concept. It’s so popular, in fact, that it currently forms the backbone of the Wikipedia entry on discourse communities. Swales has delineated the six things people (read: college-composition students) need to understand in order to make sense of discourse communities. The list also makes for an obvious activity or assignment: Choose a group you’ve been in and use Swales’ characteristics to determine whether that group is a discourse community. I’ve asked students to do this exact activity for years and have found it to be a practical, enlightening exercise.
Another aspect of Swales’ text that receives much less fanfare is the section that follows his list of necessary and sufficient characteristics. Aptly titled “An Example of a Discourse Community,” this section demonstrates an analysis befitting the activity idea mentioned above. Using the Hong Kong Study Circle as his example, Swales explains how a community he’s in does, in fact, qualify as a discourse community. He provides examples of each characteristic and, particularly relevant to the illustrative needs of his surrounding text, concludes that the group in question does constitute a discourse community but does not constitute a speech community. I wish to highlight this section of Swales’ text. Students too often miss that it demonstrates an approach to the objectives of a common classroom activity. Swales provides a model for students to emulate.
Defining Characteristics of Discourse Communities
I come here to the crux of this post. I want to review the six characteristics to see whether I can provide some guidance and make the concepts more accessible. Swales didn’t write his text for college students, and a bit of accommodation might prove helpful. Here, I will review each of the six characteristics in the hopes that I can clarify Swales’ meaning regarding each. All told, a discourse community…
1. …has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
A discourse community exists to achieve something. People outside the group can be aware of the group’s goals and decide whether they wish to join.
2. …has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
Members of a discourse community have ways of sharing information. In other words, the group’s members must consciously work together, not independently. The group members may be far-flung and may feel isolated, but they are not entirely on their own.
3. …uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.
Group members learn what the group is doing, and how to become better members, through some form of engagement. These participatory mechanisms are generally assumed to be written, but that’s because we’re all in writing studies.
4. …utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.
When working toward their common public goal, members of a discourse community develop particular ways of doing things, using particular kinds of documents. These documents are usually invented just for the group’s use. When use of those documents becomes normalized and specialized, the documents become genres.
5. …has acquired some specific lexis.
In order to efficiently communicate about particular topics that everyone in a group cares about, that group will endow certain words with subtle nuance or specialized meanings. Outsiders will not understand the specialized meaning. Sometimes the lack of outsider understanding is intentional (to keep outsiders in the dark). But often the specialized meaning comes from a need for clarity and simplicity for insiders.
6. …has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.
Even though group memberships are always in flux—newbies join and old-timers leave—a certain number of experts must always be in place to preserve group knowledge.
Many valuable social groups form speech communities. But discourse communities help their members feel productive, included, and connected through shared interests. Think of the groups you’ve joined in the past and consider whether those groups meet all six of Swales’ listed characteristics. Chances are, you’ve joined quite a few over the years.