Monday, October 22, 2012

Reading Response: "The Concept of Discourse Community"

Writing About Writing (p. 466-480)
Reading Response
“The Concept of Discourse Community” by John Swales

In “The Concept of Discourse Community,” John Swales attempts to establish the true definition of a discourse community. Swales argues that there is a difference between a speech community and a discourse community and that there are six defining characteristics for a group to be a discourse community. He then gives an example and discusses further issues regarding the concept of a discourse community.

To begin his argument, Swales touches on all of the past definitions of what a discourse community is. He goes on to distinguish the difference between a discourse community and a speech community. Swales identifies a speech community as a group that shares similar linguistic goals, similar use of language, or both –as quoted by Hymes, “a community sharing knowledge of rules for the conduct and interpretation of speech” (470). Swales also notes that there are sociolinguistic and sociorhetoric speech communities. The definite separation between speech and discourse communities lies in the fact that speech communities inherit members, whereas discourse communities “recruit its members by persuasion, training or relevant qualification” (471).

The six defining characteristics that make a group a discourse community, as stated by Swales (471-3), are as follows:
1.     A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
2.     A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
3.     A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily o provide information and feedback.
4.     A discourse community utilizes and hence possess on or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.
5.     In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis.
6.     A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.
When describing these characteristics, Swales notes several things. Goals can be published in documents or be implicit; high level or abstract. Communication can be through text or confrontation. Information exchange is relative to the common goals. Discourse communities develop around the genres upon which it establishes itself. Lexis is essentially a compilation of vocabulary, so each community has its own terminology specific to that group. There should be a reasonable ratio between experts and newcomers. (To demonstrate such characteristics, Swales describes his discourse community called the Hong Kong Study Circle.)

In his closing thoughts, Swales talks about how discourse communities do not necessarily change it’s members world view, members can be spread out as opposed to a speech community who are likely to be close together, and that academic classes are not particularly discourse communities at start but the goal is to become one by end. He also notes that some discourse communities are well established, or norm-developed, while others are new and shifting, or norm-developing.

This article is strongly connected to the article by Glenn. Glenn’s article was all about the Factory Farm Industry Discourse. This article, though not about a specific group, detailed what “discourse” and “discourse community” actually is. In Swales’ terms- the Factory Farm Industry is in fact a discourse community. Glenn’s explanation of doublespeak would be a prime example of Swales’ characteristic, “a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis. “ (Note: lexis- the total stock of words in a language). Swales would also say that the industries goals would be sales, it communicates to outsiders via advertisement, and is relatively norm-developed. Glenn essentially gives another example of a discourse community and goes further by describing how the was of a community can actually be negative (in terms of how animals are treated and outside consumers are intentionally misled). 


  1. Great job summarizing the article and making connections to Glenn's article. Factory farms do seem to meet Swales' six characteristics of a DC.

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