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The term discourse community links the terms discourse, a concept describing all forms of communication that contribute to a particular, institutionalized way of thinking; and community, which in this case refers to the people who use, and therefore help create, a particular discourse.

Some examples of a discourse community might be those who read and/or contribute to a particular academic journal, or members of an email list for Madonna fans (see online discourse environment). Each discourse community has its own unwritten rules about what can be said and how it can be said: for instance, the journal will not accept an article with the claim that “Discourse is the coolest concept”; on the other hand, members of the email list may or may not appreciate a Freudian analysis of Madonna’s latest single. Most people move within and between different discourse communities every day.

Since the discourse community itself is intangible, it is easier to imagine discourse communities in terms of the fora in which they operate. For James Porter, the journal and email list are each examples of a forum, or a “concrete, local manifestation of the operation of the discourse community”.[1]

The term was first used by sociolinguist Martin Nystrand in 1982,[2] and further developed by American linguist John Swales.[3] Writing about the acquisition of academic writing styles of those who are learning English as an additional language, Swales presents six defining characteristics:

A discourse community:
  1. has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
  2. has mechanisms of intercommunication 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. in addition to owning genres, it has acquired some specific lexis.
  6. has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

James Porter defined the 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.” [1]

Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyceta offer the following statement on the conditioned nature of all discourse, which has applicability to the concept of discourse community: "All language is the language of community, be this a community bound by biological ties, or by the practice of a common discipline or technique. The terms used, their meaning, their definition, can only be understood in the context of the habits, ways of thought, methods, external circumstances, and tradition known to the users of those terms. A deviation from usage requires justification ..." [4]

"Producing text within a discourse community," according to Patricia Bizzell, "cannot take place unless the writer can define her goals in terms of the community's interpretive conventions."[5] In other words, one cannot simply produce any text — it must fit the standards of the discourse community to which it is appealing. If one wants to become a member of a certain discourse community, it requires more than learning the lingo. It requires understanding concepts and expectations set up within that community.

The language used by discourse communities can be described as a register or diatype, and members generally join a discourse community through training or personal persuasion. This is in contrast to the speech community (or the 'native discourse community', to use Patricia Bizzell's term), who speak a language or dialect inherited by birth or adoption.

ReferencesEdit

  1. 1.0 1.1 Porter, J. (1992). Audience and Rhetoric: An Archaeological Composition of the Discourse Community. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  2. Nystrand, M. (1982) What Writers Know: The Language, Process, and Structure of Written Discourse. New York: Academic
  3. Swales, J. M. (1990) Genre Analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Perelman, Chaim and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyceta (1969) The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Trans. John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver.
  5. Bizzell, P. (1992) Academic Discourse and Critical Consciousness. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
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