Discourse Communities

The word discourse, like argument and rhetoric, has several meanings, and, as with argument and rhetoric, we're largely interested in only one or a couple of those meanings for the purposes of this course. Discourse is literally a "running to and fro," an interesting metaphor for conceptualizing the exchange of words among people. Formerly, a discourse was a lengthy treatment of a single subject, such as Descartes' Discourse on Method. Today we might refer to a "dissertation" instead of a "discourse," although "dissertation" tends to be limited to a culminating ritual research exercise in arriving at a terminal degree. In Jane Austen's day, discourse was often simply "talking" or "conversation," a meaning it still holds today but with less frequency. "Political discourse" and "public discourse" retain something of Austen's sense, but often with broader ramifications and involving large amounts of people and occurring in various media.

So what's the sense of discourse in which we are chiefly interested? Harmon and Holman's A Handbook to Literature once again proves helpful. "Ways of speaking that are bound by ideological, professional, political, cultural, or sociological communities. Discourse is used to refer not just to the special vocabulary of a particular science or social practice ('the discourse of medicine,' 'the discourse of imperialism') but also to the way in which the use of language in a particular domain helps to constitute the objects it refers to (as medicine defines various conditions and constitutes them as social realities)."

This definition owes much to the work of Michel Foucault, who was particularly interested in how these ways of speaking "constituted the objects they refer to." Put very simply, how a thing is talked aboutfor the person or group using a discourse
determines what that thing is. Two examples should suffice for us to begin to see how this plays out.

The Bible, for religious communities, is "the Word of God." That is, it is a sacred text with a single, divine author whose tenets and precepts are binding on members of the religious community and, according to many groups, the whole human race. This follows from the belief that its contents are timeless, indeed, eternal. By contrast, academic communities discuss the Bible as a historical, cultural, even literary document revealing the ways in which many different, human authors belonging to a specific people group viewed God and the social obligations arising from that view.

Take a second example. Abortion by some is called "murder," and its opponents call themselves "pro-life." On the other hand, others regard abortion as a private, medical decision made between a woman and her doctor; whether to have an abortion is, on this view, a woman's "choice," and those advocating abortion's continued legality call themselves "pro-choice."


In both these examples, the vocabulary is not only different in both groups, but that language is also the way in which the objects in question are constituted and so understood and practically approached. One author has said that, because discourses are constitutive, they in effect "build worlds." This is why some are very guarded about the language they use about certain issues: with the discourses we use, our very place in the universe is at stake!

Discourse in the Abstract

Let's back up for a moment. In talking about discourse, we have to use some kind of other discourse or metadiscourse (also called metalanguage). This is simply an unavoidable fact, so we must be aware of the "place we're standing" and from which we're taking a view. In current academic theory (which is also a discourse), all discourses are seen as value-laden "ways of speaking" about their subjects and viewed as ways of making up the world in which we live. The idea that there is a pure "metalanguage" enabling us to speak from a God's-eye-view is now discredited; instead, all discourses are theoretically equal. However, for the purposes of a given discourse community, it artificially and temporarily exalts ("privileges") its own discourse as a metalanguage. Doing this, however, is viewed as employing a "useful fiction," an entirely pragmatic move. So, when discoursing from any point of view, we have to be aware of the distinction.


Discourses don't happen without people to speak or write them: they require people and communitiesin other words, a discourse community. So what is a discourse community? The very obvious answer seems to be any community that has people talking to one another using a characteristic discourse. And you'd be right to answer in that way. Yet we can expand on this a bit. John Swales has defined discourse communities according to certain characteristics. According to Swales, a discourse community:

  1. has a broadly agreed set of common public goals
  2. has mechanisms of communication among its members
  3. uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback
  4. utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims
  5. has acquired some specific lexis
  6. has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise

Let's put that in much simpler terms. According to Swales, a discourse community 1) has people who are trying to do the same thing, 2) has ways in place for its members to talk to each other, 3) uses those ways to inform and refine opinions, 4) uses and, in using, "owns" several different types of speaking to get its message(s) across, 5) has a "jargon," and 6) has a minimum number of people who make a "community" possible, and all these members know the relevant subject matter and know how to write and speak in the different genres.

Discourse in the Concrete

We could go on and on about the high-level theory of discourse and discourse communities, but let's take one example that will make all this theory quite clear. Let's imagine of a group of friends networked through Facebook or some other social-networking site. Because admission to Facebook is relatively easy compared to other groups, let's set the minimum number of members very low and imagine we have five friends, all of whom know exactly what they're doing on Facebook (6).

Now, what are the goals (1) of these people? Probably just to pass the time and to stay in somewhat constant, regular contact with each other. To communicate with each other, they have their computers which are hooked up to the Internet (2) through which they may provide details about their days at work or school or even share jokes and other "non-serious" material, all while commenting on what the other shares (3). The genres used and so "owned" (4) in this network are the status update, the comment, the private message, the photo caption, the quiz and perhaps a few others. As these friends continue to write to one another, they develop certain inside jokes, they coin certain terms and phrases, and they draw words from similar forms of writing in similar networks (e.g., "pwn") (5).

When thinking about a particular discourse, then, keep the specificity very high. Remember that you are thinking of particular people who use certain language for certain ends and that the language has developed to take on certain forms and to make use of certain terminologyand all for "building the world" they continue to inhabit.

Source Consulted

Swales, John. Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990.