Discourse Community: Examples and Definition

discourse community example definition  and characteristics

A discourse community is a community of people who share basic goals or interests and ways of communicating about them.

These are groups that have common goals, purposes, or interests and use the same set of discourses to achieve and communicate about them (Borg, 2003).

Examples of discourse communities include academic communities, business groups, fitness groups, and activist organizations.

Discourse Community Definition

A discourse community is a community of people who have shared goals, purposes, or interests and use the same set of discourses to achieve them (Borg, 2003; Johns, 1997).

James Porter (1992) defined a discourse community as:

“a local and temporary constraining system, defined by a body of texts (or more generally, practices) that are unified by a common focus. A discourse community is a textual system with stated and unstated conventions, a vital history, mechanisms for wielding power, institutional hierarchies, vested interests, and so on.”

The concept is generally used in the context of academic writing, business settings (Killingsworth & Gilbertson, 2019; Olsen, 1993; Orlikowski & Yates, 1994), learner needs (Offord-Gray & Aldred, 1998), accounting, and so on.

There are, however, several issues with the definition of the concept that need to be resolved:

“how large (or small) a discourse community might be; whether speech is needed to maintain a discourse community; whether purpose is the defining characteristic of a discourse community, and how stable a discourse community, and therefore its genres, are” (Borg, 2003, p. 399).

There is also the question of whether shared goals are a necessary element of every discourse community.

Key Terms

The concept of a discourse community developed from the concepts of a speech community and an interpretive community. So, if we want to deeply understand what a discourse community is, we must also define speech and interpretive communities.

TermDefinition
Speech CommunityA speech community is a group of people who recognize their language use as different from other language users (Hymnes, 1972). For example, the users of American English.
Interpretive CommunityAn interpretive community, on the other hand, is not a group but a network of individuals who share ways of reading (typically literary) texts (Fish, 1982).

We can distinguish discourse communities from speech communities because membership in a discourse community is a matter of choice, while membership in a speech community is not.

Discourse communities differ from interpretive communities because of their focus on pursuing goals.

Interpretive communities don’t necessarily have shared goals, while discourse communities always have either shared goals or interests (Johns, 1997; Porter, 1986). In addition, analyses of discourse communities generally focus on written communication.

Defining Characteristics of Discourse Communities

Swales (1990) distinguished between regular discourse communities (united by written communication alone) and place discourse communities that are united by both written and spoken communication.

There are, according to Swales, six defining characteristics of discourse communities:

  1. A broadly agreed upon set of common public goals.
  2. Mechanisms of communication among the members.
  3. The use of participatory mechanisms for providing information and feedback.
  4. The use of one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.
  5. Acquired specific lexis.
  6. A threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

The production of texts within a discourse community takes place in the context of the interpretive conventions of said community. For any text to be produced within a discourse community, it must fit the standards to which that community is appealing. If one wants membership in a discourse community, one must understand the goals, standards, and interests of that community (Bizzell, 1992).

Discourse communities are intangible and vague. This is why scholars often use the term ‘forum’ to describe concrete, local manifestations of the operations of discourse communities (Porter, 1992).

Examples of Discourse Communities

  • Fitness community: A community of people united by an interest in achieving physical fitness is a discourse community. It has common goals (strength, vitality, hypertrophy, longevity, etc.), common values (discipline, safety, progress, etc.), and a specialized vocabulary (concentric, eccentric, aerobic, microcycle, mesocycle, cardio, HIIT, reps, sets, etc.).
  • Academic community: Academic communities often share interests, goals, genres, and specialized vocabularies. For example, the academic community of architects shares an interest in the built environment, the goal of creating more sustainable architecture, and the specialized vocabulary of architecture (masterplan, brief, tensile structure, stylobate, order, architrave, firmitas, utilitas, venustas, etc.).
  • Activist organizations: Activist organizations like Amnesty International, the Global Fund for Women, the Farm Animal Rights Movement, and so on often exemplify all the common characteristics of discourse communities: they have common goals, purposes, interests, and specialized vocabularies.
  • Alumni associations: An alumni association of some university is an example of a discourse community that may or may not have shared goals, but is united by shared interests. Such associations may also be interpretive communities or speech communities, but that does not change the fact that they are discourse communities.
  • Professional communities: Any community of professionals whose research area is the same is a discourse community. Porter (1986) offers the example of the community of engineers whose research area is fluid mechanics. Not only is this group united by a shared interest, but also a shared purpose.
  • Stamp collectors: John Swales (1990) offers the following example of a discourse community: a society of stamp collectors scattered around the world but united by a shared interest in the stamps of Hong Kong. The important part here is the fact that this discourse community is united by goals and purposes instead of the language they use (speech community) or the way they read texts (interpretive community). “The collectors never gather together physically; instead a newsletter that has a particular form of text organization, making it a genre, which they use to pursue their goals, unites them” (Borg, 2003).
  • Military personnel: Military personnel share goals, purposes, ways of communicating, and interests. Communication between military personnel is especially distinctive. Not only do military members have specialized words (band-aid, bird for helicopter, dust-off, hawk for cold weather, and many more), but they also have specialized phrases, codes, and channels for communicating.
  • Online political communities: Online political communities often exemplify the characteristics of discourse communities because of their shared interests, goals, and ways of communicating. It is common to see specific phrases or words used by niche online political communities alone, which makes such groups good examples of discourse communities.
  • Religious communities: Religious communities may also sometimes have the characteristics of discourse communities. They may be united by shared goals, interests, and sometimes specialized vocabularies.
  • Research groups: Similarly to academic communities, groups of researchers or writers who contribute to a particular academic journal are members of a discourse community. They often share a specialized vocabulary as well as goals, interests, and ways of communicating about them.

Discourse Community vs Community of Practice

The term discourse community is, however, becoming less and less popular among scholars. After the early 2000s, it has been gradually replaced by the term ‘community of practice’.

A community of practice is a group that shares “a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2015).

The term discourse community fell out of favor due to the various criticisms leveled against it. These include the idea that the term is not precise enough (Wardle & Downs, 2014), and the fact that shared goals seem to not be fundamental for discourse communities (the academic community as a whole, for example, does not have shared goals).

Conclusion

A discourse community is a group of individuals who have shared goals, purposes, or interests, communicate through approved channels, and use regulated discourse (Borg, 2003; Johns, 1997; Porter, 1986). Whether shared goals are an essential part of every discourse community is a matter of debate. Examples of discourse communities include alumni associations, academics, stamp collectors, research groups, groups of employees, members of a family, and so on.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.

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