This article will discuss the discourse community. We will be defining what this community is and what are its characteristics. So, if you would like to know more about it then read on.

Discourse Communities – what are they?

A  discourse community is a group of people that has a common discourse, values, and means of communication. The members of the group also share a common goal. The Linguist John Swales has defined a discourse community as groups with goals using communication to reach those goals.

Discourse communities can vary greatly. For example, a group of researchers that contribute to an academic journal can be considered to be a discourse community as well as a Facebook Group of a popular musical artist. 

All discourse communities have rules as to what can and what cannot be expressed. For example, the members of the aforementioned group of researchers are aware that they cannot submit a paper based on the premise that has something to do with “ancient aliens”. That can do harm to their reputation and to the reputation of their group.

The same that the Facebook Group of a popular musical artist will not be happy about a post harshly criticizes the artist to which the Group is dedicated to. Those rules are unwritten and members of the community are expected to know them.

Most people that live ordinary lives move from one discourse community to another throughout the day. They do it unconsciously and most of the time they are unaware of the existence of the “community” to which they belong. 

They might be aware of some communities, for example, members of the Facebook Group became members because they asked to join or someone invited them but in some instances, the community is just something that they belong to without a conscious decision on their part.

Visual explanation of Discourse Communities

Characteristics of a Discourse Community

The term discourse community was first coined by sociolinguist Martin Nystrand.  John Swales who wrote “The Concept of Discourse Community,” argued that such communities have six characteristics.

  1. They have a set of public goals that are members agreed upon. This characteristic is easy to understand. The aim of the group of researchers is to publish legitimate research papers. The Facebook Group of the fans of the musical artists wants to promote the artist that they admire and to connect with other fans. These communities are, after all, groups of people with things in common between them have goals that they share.
  2. A discourse community has means of intercommunication among its members. As its name suggests, a discourse community is all about discussions and communications. If its members cannot communicate with each other effectively then it’s not a discourse community at all. The Facebook Group uses the platform itself to communicate with each other. Any means by which the members can reach out to each other is vital.
  3. A discourse community utilizes its mechanisms of participation to provide info and feedback. The connections of the members of the Facebook Group are used to deliver information to its members.
  4. A community for discourse uses one or more genres of communication to promote its goals. The term genre can be a bit confusing here. It simply means any form of writing. So, it can be applied to a website, a blog, a social media platform, a bulletin board, newsletters. Basically any means by which writing and information are delivered would be a genre. Now, some communities may have more than one genre at its disposal.
  5. On top of having genres, the communities will also have their own lexis. What is lexis? That would refer to the specialist language that members of the communities use. In other words, they use jargon which would make some parts of their discourse unintelligible to outsiders. The group would agree upon this jargon which would normally develop over time.
  6. A community has a threshold level of expert members. Communities accept new members who know nothing about the ways of the group and the jargon. They need the guidance of more experienced members to help them become contributing members to the community. When there are not enough experts to teach new members or there are not enough new members getting in then the community will soon cease to exist.
Example of a Discourse Community dedicated to fitness.
Image Credit: Wikipedia

These are six of the characteristics of a discourse community as defined by John Swales.

Development of Online Discourse Communities

The internet provides a very unique opportunity for the development of discourse communities. Because of the nature of the internet, the members of an online discourse community can be from different parts of the world and may never see each other in person. That does not make their group any less than the more traditional discourse communities.

Social networks can be seen as discourse communities on their own. These communities are very far-ranging and influential.

Discourse Community According to John Swales

There has been a lot of researchers who have written about discourse communities and John Swales is one of the most important. He was the one who proposed the six characteristics of discourse communities that are still being used today.

Speech vs Discourse

Swales makes a distinction between a speech community and a discourse community. A speech community is something that a person will join by the accident of birth. For example, a French speaker would join the speech community of French speakers because he was born into it. He has no choice about the matter.

Groop Mobility

On the other hand, he may choose to join a discourse community like a Facebook Group dedicated to French literature for example and that is voluntary. According to Swales, a discourse community must actively search for new members in order for it to continue to exist. There is a constant movement of members coming and going in these communities.

Goals are everything

Another important aspect of Swales’s view regarding discourse communities is that the communications within these groups are centered around the goals of the communities. The point is rather obvious since the communities are created for the furtherance of those goals.

Public nature

The only point of Swales’ view on discourse communities to which some disagree is his assertion that the groups must have publicly stated goals. Some communities would be excluded by this characteristic. Some businesses, for example, have goals that are not made public simply because they don’t want their competition to know about them.

That’s the main thing that some researchers find objectionable regarding Swales’ view.

Well-Known Discourse Communities

Here are some examples of well-known discourse communities:

  1. Companies like Google and Amazon can be considered as discourse communities.
  2. 4chan, which is an imageboard but has evolved into a notorious online community that has certain goals.
  3. NBA teams like the Golden State Warriors or Los Angeles Lakers. Also, the fans of such professional sports teams can for discourse communities on their own.
  4. Readers and subscribers of a specific magazine.
  5. The customers of a specific store or restaurant who are very loyal to the establishment.
  6. Those who identify with a specific subculture like punks or Juggalos. These subcultures have their own distinct language and way of doing things.
  7. Users of Apple products. They have developed their language and way of doing things because of their affinity with a brand.

These are just some of the things that you should know about discourse communities. The study of these groups is a very important field for several disciplines including linguistics and sociology. 

Can you name the discourse communities that you belong to?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *