Discourse Communities

The term ‘discourse community’ was coined by sociolinguist Martin Nystrand in 1982 and further developed by John Swales, an American linguist. Broadly speaking, a discourse community is defined by six components: (1) a set of common public goals, (2) mechanisms of intercommunication among members, (3) the ability to provide information and feedback, (4) the possession of genres of communication, (5) the acquisition of a specific lexis, and (6) a group of members with similar levels of expertise about a subject. Traditionally, discourse communities have been focused around interpersonal communication in a workplace, however, in recent years there has been a shift to more web-based discourse communities.

Researching Discourse Communities

When attempting to study discourse communities, the initial question would be what exactly constitutes a discourse community?  What factors—cultural, intellectual, and otherwise—unite this particular group and people?  Such a topic of study might require probing of how these communities change over time, and how they overlap with other communities.  The complexity of this research topic requires an intimate look at the individuals themselves and the writing that they produce as a result of being included in such a social group.  Essentially, a discourse community would not exist without interactions between individuals, the writing that they produce, and the beliefs that they have about other members of the community.  Often, members would never label themselves as a “discourse community,” but rather, see themselves as participating in something that feels natural to them—an environment where everyone shares something in common.  Ultimately, a researcher would be looking for what makes this discourse community, and the writing that they produce, unique.

In “Non-Academic Writing: The Social Perspective,” Lester Faigley examines the topic of discourse communities and their writing from a social theoretical perspective.  The social perspective on writing argues that because an author is shaped by the social and interactive norms around him, his text is also bound in up within those social contexts.  No text is a detached document solely influenced by the author but rather representative of the beliefs and subtle rhetorical nuances of the environment in which it is produced.  Thus, such a theory ties in nicely with the concept of discourse communities, as they are based on social conventions exclusive to that group.  Faigley suggests a number of questions to consider when studying discourse communities:

  • How do individuals cope with texts—how do they read texts and extract meaning from texts?
  • Who has access to a completed text? Who reads it and does not read it?
  • How does new technology arise in response to needs and how are they applied to existing functions for writing?
  • How do we account for the contexts that surround and shape all texts?
  • How do members of a community represent themselves through texts and how does that representation emerges in specific situations.

Specific Examples of Research

Faigley mentions several different examples of how research has been conducted on the topic of discourse communities.  For instance, he introduces the classic case of academic disciplines as discourse communities.  Each discipline has its own terminology, or language, subject matters, and method of argument.  Faigley discusses Toulmin’s book The Use of Argument, as an example of how different academic disciplines use different forms of argument to point out patterns or simply discuss a point of contention.  Toulmin asserts that arguments are distinguished by field. Arguments used in chemical engineering would be easily distinguished from those a researcher would encounter in psychology or law.  Willard expands Toulmin’s discussion of fields in his own book Argumentation and the Social Grounds of Knowledge.  Willard defines different types of fields, describing them as “rhetorical in operation,” as well as authorizing the knowledge that is shared and investigated, and what kind of evidence and rhetorical appeals are permitted.

While Faigley’s example of discourse communities in academia is classic and traditional, a more contemporary example of discourse communities reveals the prevalence of online discourse communities.  RateMyProfessor.com is a prime example of students interacting and communicating with each other about their education in a traditional forum-style way with the big exception being that all sharing is done via the web, with blog-like posts.  The students using RateMyProfessor are part of a discourse community but no longer have any real interpersonal communication.  The interesting thing about such a discourse community is the concept of anonymity that goes along with it.  Students are free to say whatever they want about a professor without fear of retribution or personal conflict, and professors can view what students honestly think about them.  While professors receive course evaluations, a high percentage of students simply neglect to complete them or lie in favor of protecting their grades and the professor’s impression of them.  According to a study done at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, published in Rhetoric Review, comments on RateMyProfessor ranged from extremely negative to very positive. Due to the almost democratic nature of the medium, some students’ contributions are more rhetorically legitimate than others.  If nothing else, RateMyProfessor.com represents a new breed of specialized groups and their communication, and that blurs the very definition of discourse community.

Online Communities of Practice versus Interpersonal Discourse Communities: Good or Bad?

According to a study undertaken by Christopher M. Johnson in his article, “A Survey of Current Research of Online Communities of Practice,” online communities of practice have the following components that distinguish them from traditional organizations and learning situations: (1) different levels of expertise that are simultaneously present in the community of practice; (2) fluid peripheral to center movement that symbolizes the progression from being a novice to an expert; and (3) completely authentic tasks and communication (45). These virtual communities utilize current networked technology in order to communicate. However, online communities of practice run into the problem of withdrawing, or attrition (think a disconnect of communication) since members do not communicate face-to-face.

In, “A Survey of Current Research on Online Communities of Practice,” Johnson seeks to answer the question, “Does current technology support the participative collaboration required by communities?” (46) The way Johnson suggests to approach this question is through setting up a virtual community in the “hope the emerging community of practice can achieve its goals of learning and growth within it” (53). These communities can be set up, maintained, and supported through current Web-based applications, such as databases. However, an online discourse community cannot form unless it has a specific goal which is why it needs to be “scaffolded.” Scaffolding, a term related to online discourse communities, simply means that the specific goal of the discourse community is defined, understood, and finally can be implemented.

Research conducted by Ricketts et al. (2000) observed a course that promoted an interactive style of learning through discourse communities. Initial results showed that the main problem was with technology implementation. However, when the flaws were corrected, they improved the format of instructional learning for further semesters. An additional study of online discourse communities done by Borthick and Jones (2000) note that virtual team environments require skills not inherent in students, for they need to be learned. These skills include not only operation of the technology, but skills in asynchronous and synchronous discussion, as well as online collaboration. In order for an online community of practice to be successful, behavior must be learned, the application of technology understood, and online collaboration must take place.

Then, the real question becomes, “is online communication less successful than face-to-face communication?” The answer is not necessarily, because both online and interpersonal communication face the same problems, for example, cultural barriers. A study undertaken by LeBaron, Pulkkinen, and Scollin (2000) points out that cultural differences among individual participants can act as barriers to communication. It is easy to set up virtual community infrastructure via the WWW, and thus, cultural differences inevitably come into play when people, for example, are communicating from different geographical locations, such as India and from the United States. These cultural differences can hinder the desired fluidity of learning in communities of practice. In other words, different cultures can hinder the ‘‘cultural’’ development of the community of practice itself (i.e., the community of practice develops its own culture over time) (Wenger, 1998).

Cultural barriers, however, can be overcome. Another study performed by Hodkinson and Bloomer (2000) observed students in a prestigious British university that promoted a unique collaborative and community-based environment via the implementation of technology. This collaborative environment had a greater impact on student learning than teaching styles, classroom environment, and educational methods.

In addition to barriers caused by cultures and subcultures, different people perform better in online or live environments (Palloff & Pratt,1999). Overall, the productivity and success of discourse communities depends upon which excel using online communication, interpersonal communication, or a hybridization of both.