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Discourse Communities

Discourse Communities

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches the concept and value of discourse communities.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? We're going to be learning about discourse communities, a useful way to think about social interaction. We'll look at different areas we can find them, before looking a little more closely at academic discourse communities.

Reading and writing, as we've already seen, is like entering into a conversation around a specific topic, question, or set of issues. Another way of thinking about others who are involved in this conversation is as what's called a discourse community. This is defined as a group of people who share an interest in a topic or goal and who communicate their idea about the topic or goal to each other.

The word discourse means simply communication, both spoken and written. So a discourse community is a community that uses writing, speaking, and other forms of communication to discuss shared endeavors, interests, goals, and concerns.

Most discourse communities include agreed-upon conventions for communication, including what can be assumed to be known or agreed upon by members of the community, what unique terms or jargon can or should be used, what tone should or should not be used, and what topics should or should not be addressed.

Discourse communities are everywhere. They can form around any topic or focus, formal or informal. And most people are members of multiple discourse communities.

Consider a family or a group of friends. These are discourse communities with their own inside jokes and unspoken expectations for language and communication.

So are fan communities, online or in person, because their members, however formal or informal, share an interest in a topic or focus, assume a certain level of topic-specific knowledge among members, and have conventions for communication and language use.

Professions and work environments are also discourse communities that can share broad expectations for professional communication, while also having specific assumptions, language use, communication modes, and so forth.

For example, the community of people who work for the local utilities company would have their own forms of discourse. They would have jargon, knowing what it means to be a liner as opposed to working with customer satisfaction. But they'd all understand the community's focus on the job.

After all, two members might have little else in common. But upon meeting, let's say in a supermarket, they would have not only a subject to talk about but a shared set of experiences and assumptions about what it means to be a part of the group.

Or consider the online forum I used to visit from time to time. This was a more formal discourse community, a group of motorcycle riders and enthusiasts, who meet online to share information, pictures, and arguments, all about motorcycles.

The discourse community actually had some of its assumptions written out in a document, stating things like how posting items for sale was prohibited and that the proper date to discuss motorcycle maintenance was Tuesday, for whatever reason and that the community as a whole supported helmet laws and safety gear. They even had an acronym for it, ATGATT, which stands for all the gear all the time.

This was primarily an online community. Though, there would be occasional meetups, where members would get together for group rides and, I assume, talk about all the motorcycle-related things they talk about online but in person.

A book club would be another example of a discourse community. The members, who meet to talk about whatever book they've all agreed to read, would no doubt understand the set of spoken and unspoken assumptions about the group's discourse.

For example, we don't read romance novels, no matter what Oprah says. And when it's your turn to bring snacks, you can bring packaged cookies, but we'll look down on them, especially after Candace's homemade fudge last time.

This community would have its own set meetings, during which the conversation would progress. But if and when the members meet beyond this context, they would still meet as members of the community. And the knowledge, language, and assumptions that surround their in-meeting communications would still be, for the most part, in effect.

We've seen some examples of discourse communities in the broader world. But the fact remains that some of the most structured and specialized communities can be found within the academic context. Each of the various academic disciplines, from history to biology to business, are discourse communities.

And within each are many more specialized communities, focusing on particular areas of research or ideas. Even an individual class can be a discourse community, since each of its members share an endeavor towards learning the subject matter of the class.

For example, an introductory poetry class is a discourse community, one of which members share the goal of learning the basics of modern poetry, from a historical background on its development to examples from modern day poets. And if the course has a workshop component, the community of the classroom would share the goal of writing and reading each other's work with their own forms of communication and acceptable behaviors, such as written critiques and group workshopping.

As another example of academic discourse, let's look at the field of linguistics. All professors and students studying the subject can be considered members of the broad discourse community of linguistics. But within that lie many more specific communities.

For example, the professors and students interested in second language acquisition would have their own sets of assumptions about knowledge members already have and jargon and conventions of speech that are acceptable to be used within the community, as well as shared interest and goals. Of course, this community would share many of these with other aspects of the linguistic field.

For example, even anthropological linguists would know what it means to be unable to correctly form a voiced fricative. But the differences in interests and goals would mean that the related community would have subtle but important differences. And chances are, they'd also share some of their modes of communication, meeting at the same conference and submitting papers to the same journals.

As another example, consider the field of engineering. Students in this program share many classes, from math and physics and some basic engineering courses. But they're quickly divided up into electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering, at least they were in my old school.

And within each of these three fields, there are smaller, more specific discourse communities. For example, students and professors interested in fluid dynamics, a subcategory of electrical engineering, have their own goals, assumed knowledge, and conventions about what is and is not acceptable communication within the community.

This isn't a discourse community I know much of anything about. And I can't even begin to guess as to the nature of the jargon they use. But this community, like many academic discourse communities, has its own conferences and journals, as well as professional groups and fraternities, which would make an individual campuses or program's group part of the broader discourse community.

What did we learn today? We learned about discourse communities, those that form in and out of academia. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know
Discourse Community

A group of people who share an interest in a topic or goal and who communicate their ideas about the topic or goal to each other.