Discourse

3 Discourse Communities

Peter Barry, Logan Flood

When thinking of the word discourse, what comes to mind? How about the word community? And when put together they may or may not have a similar meaning than what you were originally thinking. The Oxford Dictionary definition of a discourse community is “a group of people sharing a common and distinct mode of communication or discourse, especially within a particular domain of intellectual or social activity”. What goes into a discourse community though is much more. Although it may seem as though this is a simple enough definition, there are many complex aspects which also play a role in the function of a discourse community. These functions are:

  • A broadly agree on a set of common public goals
  • Having mechanisms for intercommunicating among members
  • Participatory mechanisms to provide info and feedback
  • Utilizing and possessing one or more genres in communicating
  • Has its own lexis
  • A threshold level of members with suitable degree of relevant content and expertise

 

This chapter will outline these different characteristics in depth and include different examples of various discourse communities. Along with outlining a discourse community, this chapter will also provide information on the differences between a discourse community and speech community.

Learning Objective

  • When reading this chapter, one will understand the basics of what it takes to be an organized discourse community
  • At the end of the chapter one should be able to differentiate between a discourse community and a speech community

 Vocabulary

  • Discourse Community:
    • a group of people sharing a common and distinct mode of communication or discourse, especially within a particular domain of intellectual or social activity
  • Intercommunication:
    • a network of communication amongst a group
  • Participatory mechanism:
    • involved or characterized by participation
  • Genre:
    • A kind of text that is always used in response to a specific reoccuring situation.
  • Lexis:
    • specific language used by the discourse community
  • Threshold level:
    • The magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested

 

Broadly agree on a set of common public goals.

In order to be successful, a community, or in this case, a discourse community, must share a common goal or goals. Without every member working towards a familiar destination, said destination can never be reached. Can you think of any discourse community that does not possess a set of common goals? If so how would they be able to function? What would be the purpose of this particular discourse community? This “discourse community” which you are thinking of, is not truly a discourse community at all. Within this particular section, an outline of the a particular purpose of  having a goal will be discussed.

These public goals have a certain criteria in which they must follow. One of the major aspects of the public goal is that it must be written down. This is an important feature because a discourse community differs from a speech community. The discourse community provides some sort of text that goes along with the already known. These goals may be written down on the communities website, flyers, mission statements and many more places. This is a goal which will be known throughout the community. Everyone knows what is wanted by the end result, and particular people within the discourse community will devise a way in which this end goal will be reached.

One main factor that goes along with these goals, are the fact that they are public. They are available for everyone to see. It is not just limited to the members of the discourse community. This public goal attributes to the idea that a discourse community does not want to be limited in number. They want people to know what their community is all about, and they want people to join in the hopes that they share the same common goal. Although there is a risk of outside communities wanting to join just to acquire the same public goal and become more powerful than the original discourse community, these communities try to create a goal which is broad, or abstract. This sense of abstractness is because with such a vague goal, outside communities will not be able to get a full sense of how a particular community will achieve their end goal.

Although there are many subdivisions of a particular discourse community, it does not mean that they all form their own separate discourse community. Particular subdivisions will all have the same end goal no matter what. There may be communities who study different areas, but if they all serve the same end goal, then they will all be within the same discourse community. It is the commonality of a particular goal, not just the study within.

All in all, if the common public goal is not shared throughout these various communities, then it cannot be considered within the same discourse community. This goal is the whole purpose of the particular discourse community. It is everything in which they are working towards. In order to achieve this goal there must be a way in which everyone within the discourse community knows the goal.

 

Intercommunication

“Intercommunication”, put in the  simplest form, is a network of communication amongst a group. Communication among members of a group or community, is essential to maintaining a cohesiveness among members. Without intercommunication, how else would members collaborate on ideas, projects, etc. aimed at bettering their group. They really wouldn’t even be a “group” without said communication. They would just be acquaintances, or friends at best. Without intercommunication, a Discourse community simply can not be a Discourse community. This importance of having intercommunication is something that will be thoroughly discussed throughout the text.

With the mechanisms that different discourse communities use, there is not a set standard of what type of intercommunication must be used. Depending on what type of community there is, they will want to use different types of mechanisms for what they are trying to portray. So, when one community uses something such as a newsletter to intercommunicate amongst members, another discourse community may use something such as telecommunications. It all varies on how the discourse community wishes to function and what points they are trying to get across.

All of this criteria regarding the intercommunication also provides for a counterclaim as well. This counterclaim is that, although many similar occupations require the same workload and have to deal with the same clients, they face have some of the same issues, but do not work within the same area in order to interact with one another, would these types of criteria still refer to a discourse community? The argument though is that these are considered discourse communities because of how they share the same common goal. They all work to accomplish the same things and may use some of the same ways to intercommunicate, because the format of their particular communities will be the same and will all follow some of the same ideas.

When you and your friends talk about what you will be doing for the weekend, how do you finalize and establish how you will get to the particular place, what time, where and who is coming. Most of the time this is done via text which establishes a final set plan. This is a way that you and your friends are able to get ideas across and a way to determine things within each of your lives.

 

participatory mechanisms

“Participatory mechanisms” are the ways that groups test their member’s allegiance. They are the things that people in the group must do, or simply do, which merits their membership in the group. To phrase it in another manner, one must participate in a group’s activities  if they would like to be called a member of said group. This shouldn’t be an issue for many members of a discourse community, as, after all, the participatory mechanisms are a large reason members join the group. They want to be apart of that in-crowd, and do the things which members do.

In order to determine how a community is progressing to accomplish their common goal, they must determine how the members of their community are working. When there is an opportunity to learn more or to acquire new information from things that the discourse community sends out, a member must participate in order to be called a part of the discourse community. This means that they must read the articles that the community sends out, or they must participate in giving feedback to the head of communities to see if they are fit for this community.

Participatory mechanisms could include things that really do not require someone sitting there watching and making sure that this mechanism is getting accomplished. Rather, it is something where, when reading an article sent out to all members of the discourse community, a person can determine whether or not they understand what is going on and if they are able to keep up with the rest of the community. Such as whether or not a person can talk about the particular area that is being discussed in the community, or if they are able too keep up with the rest of the group physically. Depending on what discourse community a person is in, they will be called on to determine certain tasks, and whether or not they can keep up will be determined by these various ways of participatory mechanisms.

If a person does not keep up with these participatory mechanisms it will be quite blatant. This said person will struggle with topics at hand due to their lack of knowledge of the particular subject. They will lack physically due to them not doing what they were supposed to do in order to be ready for what they are required of. So, all in all these participatory mechanisms are intricate in weeding out certain members of the group that do not belong, and they are extremely important if people would like to stay in a particular discourse community. For example, when you are trying to reach out to a friend, but they never end up answering. This friend is missing out on times where they could be hanging out with you and your other friends, which would eventually lead to you not reaching out to them any more.

 genres

During the process of creating a discourse community, an integral factor is the creation of specific genre. As explained in the chapter “Language and Text Styles”, genre is a very important tool in the sharing of ideas within a discourse community. Having set genre is ideal in communicating between members. Genre comes with the ability to achieve certain expectations that is expected of each member of the discourse community. The question is though, what are the different uses that each genre holds? Who will they provide information for? Where will this information go? Within this section, genre will be fully established. An explanation of what types of genres may be used will be introduced and will also determine the roles in which these texts play in the discourse communities.

The basics of genre is that it is one type of way in which people communicate. The particular topic which is being communicated is something very important to the community due to it being sent out over various types of genre. The information within these genres are extremely important. They may have information such as topics being discussed, the form, the function and the positioning of various elements within the discourse community itself. So it is very important for discourse communities to have these various genres in order to get out their information to everyone within the community. Without these various genres, not everyone would be able to acquire the information and therefore would not be able to stay updated to what is happening within the particular discourse community.

In addition to spreading new information within the community, genres are also used in order to see the status of a particular member of a discourse community. These genres are something which can be filled out in order to see the progress and where people stand in a discourse community. This type of genre could include a response letter, a survey and other things of that nature. These types of genres are important in weeding out members who do not belong in the community.

When various communities share the same genres, they all must be fully understood. So if one community steals the idea of a genre from another community then they must fully grasp the idea of the particular genre. Otherwise, they would not be considered the same genre at all. These genres are extremely important in every discourse community and must be a part of them in order to be considered a community.

 

lexis

Lexis is a very important aspect of every discourse community. Lexi are one of the many ways that members distinguish themselves between people of the outside world. Lexi are words, phrases, or concepts known inside and outside the community, except that inside the community, they have a different meaning. Think of it as the different jargon that members of the community utilize when discussing amongst each other.

Lexi can almost be thought of as the “inside jokes” of a discourse community, those words, phrases, or concepts whose meaning only members of the community can completely grasp. Understanding of a discourse communities’ lexi demonstrates great amount of insight into a certain group, which many times is the result of one being a member. Lexis is one of the reasons you may feel uncomfortable (or at least out of place) at a certain discourse communities meetings or gatherings. You feel uncomfortable because you don’t understand the “language” in which members of that group typically use in discussion amongst themselves. Possessing knowledge into a group’s lexis is considered essential for these reasons. Every discourse community has lexis, as it must, because without it, outsiders would already have too great a familiarity with the inner workings of a certain community, hence they could basically already be considered a member. Along with this section, there is also a later chapter that will go deeper into lexis than above.

threshold membership level

Within every discourse community there is a specific expectation, and threshold level which arises in order to keep the people who are suitable to be in the discourse community, in it. This threshold level is what makes or breaks a discourse community. The problem with this though is that with a certain threshold level, that level may change and develop overtime. Which at times may cause some members to leave the community, which may end up hurting the community. Although, such losses may momentarily injure the community, they are certainly for the best, as those members chose to leave because their heart wasn’t completely in it, not because the group was flawed (which it still might be).

This ‘threshold” is basically the hierarchy of members inside the group, however big or small that may be. When a group takes in new members, new levels are consequently added to that group’s hierarchy, as those who were already present are now considered to have greater expertise than do the beginners, and are considered to be above the beginners (in relevant expertise). This existence of experts and beginners is essential to the community, as those “superior” teach those below them, and the process continues. Without these experts, a group would lose much that they’ve worked for, and would very likely over time dwindle, and eventually cease to exist.

EXAMPLES OF DISCOURSE COMMUNITIES:

Softball Team:

  • Common Goal: A baseball (and most other sports) team’s goal is to win (many) games, and ideally to win 1st place and/or the championship in their respective league/association.
  • Intercommunication: A baseball team may communicate through text message, group message, email, or any other medium which they can use to facilitate communication amongst themselves.
  • Participatory mechanisms: Many baseball teams track their player’s statistics (base hits, walks, strikeouts, etc.), which is way to visualize each player’s progress and success throughout the season, which will serve as valuable feedback for both the player and the team as a whole.
  • Genre: Examples of a baseball team’s genre would be newsletters, flyers, or any other writing they use to demonstrate their methods.
  • Lexis: Almost every baseball team has its own set of words or phrases which they often which may be common for other people to use, but amongst the team, they have different meaning. Outsiders wouldn’t have a clue to what they words/phrases mean inside the group.
  • Threshold membership level: In order to be a member of a specific baseball team, one must possess a certain level of skill and also a certain knowledge of the game, a level consistent with the other players on that team.

 

The Cast and Crew of a Theatrical Production

  • A theatrical performance’s common goal is to move the audience and compel them to think about the subject matter. The specific production being put on would likely determine exactly what sort of reaction the cast and crew are hoping to get. For example, a comedic play is likely meant to amuse the audience through humor.
  • Examples of intercommunication  within a cast and crew could include director’s notes and group messages and emails sent to the cast.
  • The participatory mechanisms might include things such as memorizing lines and blocking, taking notes, participating in rehearsal.
  • The most obvious form of genre used by the cast and crew of a theatrical production is the script. In addition to this, genre could include documents such as rehearsal reports and cast lists.
  • In the theatre, lexis might include words such as “strike”, “blocking”, “swings”, “dark”, “tech”, and “thank you”. Though all individually are words and phrases anyone might know, what makes them lexis is that they possess a unique connotation within a theatrical cast and crew.
  • Threshold membership level  includes positions within a cast and crew such as the director, stage manager, and set crew, while the cast would have positions such as leads, ensemble, and understudies.

 

Discourse Community Versus Speech Community

First, a discourse community and its constituents were listed. A speech community is very similar, but different largely in the sense that it focuses on speech rather than on writing. A speech community is defined as “Being composed of those who share similar linguistic rules”. One thing to notice is that a speech community is not as defined and regulated as a discourse community, and this is evident from its characteristics. The first difference is the medium. As stated before, a speech community focuses on spoken interactions and a discourse community relies on text to interact. One major advantage of the discourse community is that the medium allows and encourages for activity to span across time and place, a large advantage when regarding ideas that can be debated by people all across the world.

The second is distinguishing between the two groups  sociolinguistic and sociorhetorical groupings. Sociolinguistic groups, speech groups, revolve around social characteristics, the specific needs of the group arise in the creation of the group. These groups goals are based on the needs of the individuals of the group. Sociorhetorical groups, discourse groups, are different because the goals are agenda based, a group of people meet because of a pre-existing idea and intend to pursue an objective. The goals are determined based on the pre-existing idea.

The third major distinguishing factor is the method between discourse and speech communities is that they acquire members differently. Speech groups are accepting of most people and largely consist of members who have been adopted into the community, without special interest. Discourse communities “recruit” in a sense, based on relevant qualifications. Seeing as how discourse communities arise based on a predetermined issue, it makes sense that its members would require some sort of knowledge on the subject.

Review Questions

  • What are the six characteristics used to distinguish a group of people as a discourse community?
  • What are the differences between intercommunication and participatory mechanisms?
  • How does a speech community differ from a discourse community in terms of its formation and representation of goals?

Exercises

  • Think about a group or community you are apart of in every day life. Try to match this group to the characteristics of a discourse community. If not, show the difference in how it is more representative of a speech community.

 

 

 

License

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Writing @ Saint Leo by Peter Barry, Logan Flood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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