Stevens Institute of Technology
Discourse Communities Handout
Most of us, on any given day, move between and within several different communities. We encounter our families, our neighbors, our friends; our classmates and colleagues in various courses; professionals in various jobs and fields; people who share
our interests; people who share our religious or political beliefs; etc. Indeed, the term “community” comes from the Latin term
commûn, which literally means “common.” This makes a lot of sense – communities are groups of people who share things in
common (they live together, work together, study together, share common goals or interests, hold similar views of the world).
The term “discourse” may seem unfamiliar, but its meaning is pretty straightforward: it refers to writing, speaking, and ways
of thinking. Thus, a “discourse community” can be defined as a group of people who share similar thoughts, ideas and behaviors, as well as common ways of writing and speaking about these ideas and practices with each other and with others.
For example, fans of the Harry Potter books might constitute a discourse community. Within this fan base, certain attitudes would be considered normal and appropriate (a love of fantasy literature; an appreciation for J. K. Rowling’s writing style), whereas
other attitudes would be considered unacceptable (a hatred of stories about magic). Similarly, certain behaviors might be considered
normal within the Harry Potter community (naming your dog Hufflepuff; collecting action figures or posters from the movies; dressing up as a Crumple-Horned Snorkack for Halloween) that might seem very strange to outsiders. Clearly being a Harry Potter fan
involves learning a whole new vocabulary, and acquiring a knowledge base that outsiders don’t share (Who was Salazar Slytherin?
What painting guards the entrance to house of Gryffindor at Hogwarts?) And the conversations people in this community have with
each other often take place in special ways, and in forums that have been created specifically for members (there are Harry Potter
message boards and web sites; there are Harry Potter reading groups and clubs; there are even Harry Potter conventions where fans
from all over the world get together to discuss and share their favorite things about the series). Finally, there are genres associated
with Harry Potter (fan fiction, the novels themselves, and even the movies).
As another example, imagine someone new to sports initiating a conversation with long-time football fans: "So what do you think the New York Giants will wear in their next game?” or "Was Eli Manning’s last season cost-effective?" or "Which Steeler do
you think is the best father?" This person just isn't asking the “right” questions; they haven’t got sports talk straight. It isn’t a matter of
wardrobe or accounting or good parenting; it's plays, scores, positions, strategies. And again, the conversations sports fans have with
each other often take place in settings and through means that have been specifically set up for them: there are ESPN and sports bars
and the sports pages of the newspaper; there are web sites and magazines and radio call-in shows, and even whole sections of the
bookstore devoted to sports; etc.
Every discourse community, then, has conventions or rules about what gets talked about, how, and who gets to talk and/or set
the agenda for others in the community. These conventions are sometimes explicit, but more often go unstated; and they are what give
shape to a discourse community, establishing what constitutes truth and meaning for all members.
The American linguist John Swales has studied various discourse communities over the years, and has developed a series of criteria/standards that are useful in describing, analyzing and beginning to understand what makes discourse communities work.
To be a discourse community, Swales argues that a group of people must:
1) share a common language/vocabulary
2) share common behaviors, practices, and/or procedures
3) share common goals, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions
4) share common ways of communicating with one another
5) master a common set of genres
6) have a threshold for membership, or a means of recognizing who does and does not belong to the community.
The idea of “discourse community” is in many ways just an extension of the concept of “audience”: in order to be an effective
communicator, it is important for writers to learn the language, behaviors, goals/beliefs, and communicative styles of the people they
are writing to. But the idea of discourse community has important advantages over the way you’ve probably thought about audiences in the past: because writing is so often the means by which people gain entry into and wield power within communities, learning to
recognize and follow the rules/conventions/expectations that govern thinking and communicating within groups is often the crucial
first step in becoming more empowered.
Indeed, CAL 103 is organized around the notion of professional discourse communities: we will be examining how different disciplines think about, discuss, and respond to various problems, concerns, or issues within their fields of study. This will give you
the tools necessary to understand how your professional community works so that you can become more engaged and successful communicators in whichever field or profession you have chosen to pursue (or whichever one you will choose to pursue).
The following exercises are intended to help you become more comfortable with the discourse community concept, and as a way to begin exploring this concept in preparation for your second paper in this class.
RITTEN EXERCISES W
Part One: Inventory of Groups (5 minutes)
Take five minutes to brainstorm and/or make a list of as many different groups or communities you can think of that you belong to. One way to do this is to think about the different kinds of groups and the different contexts in which you encounter people
over the course of the average week. List your various circles of friends, and your family, and the people that you live with first, but
then branch out. Are there different classes you attend over the course of a week? Are there professors or students from different
departments or majors that you interact with? How about social groups or volunteer activities that you belong to? If you work one or
more jobs while going to school, or attend a church, or even participate in athletics, can you include these as different communities?
Do you belong to a gym? Are you the fan of a particular genre of music or group? Do you belong to any political party or organization?
Don’t worry too much at this point whether the group you list has all of the characteristics that Swales describes. The important thing at this point is to get a sense of how many communities/groups you already navigate through on a regular basis.
Part Two: Ethics and Power in Groups (5-10 minutes)
Once you have a fairly good representation of the different groups/communities you belong to, go back through what you’ve written and think about issues of membership and power. Look again at Swales’ definition of the five things that make up a discourse
community. Did you list your major/field of study as one of the discourse communities to which you belong? If not, do so now!
Next, choose one of these communities and spend a few minutes describing how you came to be a member of this community, and what language, behavior, beliefs and/or special means of communicating you and other members of the group had to learn as part of
joining and being a member of this community.
Next, spend some time writing about the people who seem to be the most powerful members/leaders of this group. Who are they? How did they come to hold authority/power in the group? In what ways do they establish, define or enforce the rules that the rest
of the community follows? What happens to people who break the rules?
Finally, spend some time discussing how one might gain more authority in the group. That is, if you wanted to become even more active/empowered/powerful within this community, is there anything in particular you might do? Are there any special rules,
procedures, or steps members can take to gain more power/control? Does learning to speak, write or think in certain ways contribute
to one gaining more power within the community? If so, does this give you any additional insight into the five characteristics of
discourse communities that Swales’ describes?
Part Three: The Definitions Groups Use to Understand the World (10-15 minutes)
Finally, consider the different ways in which the groups you belong to approach, define, and understand the world. That is, because
discourse communities each have their own goals, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions about the world (as well as unique ways of talking about and acting on these beliefs and assumptions), in a very real sense we can say that each community has its own way of
Think about one of your discourse communities (either the same one you used for part two or a new one) and spend a few minutes writing about how it thinks about, defines, or understands itself. What sorts of activities do people in this field take part in?
What kinds of things do they talk about? Are they “hands-on” (in other words, do they actually do something?) or are they more
theoretical (do they think about problems and come up with ideas?), or do they do a little of both? What are some of the problems,
issues, or concerns taking place in your field at this moment, and how do they define and think about those problems? How do these
problems, issues, or concerns shape the way they define and think about themselves?
CAL 103/Discourse Communities Handout/ 2