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John Swales Discourse Communities

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John Swales Discourse Communities

Within linguistics, we can study the field of discourse. The term discourse refers to any written or spoken communication among a group. Different discourses can occur among different groups of people; these can be called discourse communities. In this article, we will look at:

  • What a discourse community is

  • John Swales' discourse community theory

  • The six characteristics of Swales' discourse communities

  • Examples of discourse community characteristics

  • Helpful quotes relating to Swales' discourse communities theory

The Concept of a Discourse Community - John Swales

A discourse community is a group of people that frequently take part in discourse. The members of a discourse community are often thought to have things in common such as values, judgements and forms of communication. Shared communication could be things like using the same language or dialect, or using specific forms of communication such as emailing or Snapchatting.

In 1988, the linguist John Swales published a paper on discourse communities, discussing the theory and characteristics.

John Swales is a linguist well known for his work in discourse analysis and genre analysis.

John Swales Discourse Communities Members of a discourse community StudySmarterMembers of a discourse community often have values and judgements in common. - Pixabay

John Swales Discourse Community Theory

Swales theorised that a discourse community is a group of people that communicate for a purpose. People within a discourse community also tend to share goals or aims they wish to achieve through their communication. For example, think of a group of solicitors - they will share the same goal of catering to their clients' needs and will communicate using legal jargon that is unlikely to be used in other aspects of their life.

Be careful to not confuse a discourse community with a speech community. The term speech community refers to a group of people who communicate within a single language or dialect. These people share rules for how they interact.

Swales' discourse community theory states there are six characteristics of discourse communities. We'll look at what these are next.

John Swales Discourse Community - 6 Characteristics

John Swales stated that there are

six criteria for the existence of a discourse community.

- John Swales 19881

These six characteristics allow us to know if we're looking at a discourse community rather than a speech community. Let's have a look at each of these characteristics in turn.

1. Common goals

Members of a discourse community share common goals. This means that they wish to reach the same outcomes from their interactions. These goals or desired outcomes may be the same generic ones each time an interaction takes place, or they may differ and be more specific to each situation.

An example of a more generic goal may be something as simple as gaining feedback for an idea.

John Swales Discourse Communities People marching with a common goal StudySmarterMembers of a discourse community often share common goals and wish for the same outcomes to result from their discourse. - Pixabay

Common goals example

Some examples of desired outcomes or goals are to:

  • Provide encouragement,
  • Come to an understanding,
  • Create a plan.

2. Communicate internally

Within a discourse community, the members will use a shared set of mechanisms to communicate with each other. This may include either spoken or written modes of communication or more specific types of interaction such as emails or letters.

The forms of internal communication may also be specific to a discourse community in regards to the type of language used. For example, a group of friends may communicate primarily through a Whatsapp group chat and use personal jokes and coined (made-up) abbreviations that wouldn't be understood by outsiders.

Communicate internally example

Communication in a discourse community often consists of various forms. For example, in a discourse community that consists of a group of teachers from a single school, communication may consist of speech, emails, and notes left on another teacher's desk.

This criterion is also known as intercommunication.

3. Specialist lexis

Discourse communities will use a set of lexis specific to them.

Lexis refers to the words used in language. A discourse community can have specific lexis as there will be a certain set of words that the members of that community consistently and regularly use.

This may include accent or dialect features, slang features, jargon or even specific neologisms to that discourse community.

A neologism is a newly made-up (coined) word with an attached meaning.

For example, a group of doctors would use medical jargon such as idiopathic (a condition without a clear cause) when conversing with each other within their discourse community. They would not however use medical jargon when speaking to people not in this community as they would be unlikely to understand.

Specialist lexis example

The specialist lexis used by a discourse community will differ from one group to another. The lexis used will be representative of the members' common interests. For example, a discourse community within an IT office will use technical jargon such as 'programming language', 'cloud', 'encryption', and VPN'. To a layman, jargon terms such as these may not be understood, leaving some people excluded from the discourse community.

4. Multiple genres

According to Swales, communication within a discourse community is carried out across different genres.

The term genre can have different meanings in different contexts. For example, in songwriting, genre refers to music styles like rock or pop.

In linguistics, genre refers to any linguistically distinct activity.2

A linguistically distinct activity can be any event that has specific language habits that accompany it. For example, a discourse community of academics may communicate through journal articles and through emails. Both of these genres have specific language characteristics - journal articles have a formal tone, a clear structure and use technical language. On the other hand, emails may be less formal and follow a structure of their own.

Multiple genres example

As we've already established, here the term genre means 'any linguistically distinct activity.' 2

Examples of linguistically distinct activities could be:

  • Giving and receiving advice
  • Giving and receiving instructions
  • Carrying out a ceremony such as a christening or marriage (in the discourse community of vicars)
  • Describing an event or object
  • Persuading someone to do something

5. Information and feedback

A discourse community's main purpose is to exchange information and gain feedback. When this occurs among its members, the communication is successful. If a group of people communicate without the aim to share information and gain feedback, they may not be considered as being a discourse community.

6. Levels of membership

The members of a discourse community are measured in relation to their knowledge or experience within that particular community. Those with more relevant knowledge or more experience are generally considered more central members of the discourse community. There is also a set amount of knowledge a person must need to be considered or accepted into a specific discourse community. This can lead to new members feeling excluded or inferior.

John Swales Discourse Communities An excluded seagull StudySmarterNew members of a discourse community may feel excluded if they do not share the same level of knowledge or experience as other members. - Pixabay

Discourse Community Examples

Now that we're familiar with Swales' six characteristics of discourse communities, let's look at a group of students studying art and how each characteristic potentially applies to their discourse community.

Common goals in a discourse community

The discourse community of art students will have two main common goals - to learn about art and to pass their final exams. As well as this, their aim will be to gain feedback from their peers and teachers.

Communicate internally in a discourse community

Intercommunication will occur in this community in a couple of different ways. During lessons or workshops, the members will communicate through face-to-face conversation. When they are not in lessons, they will communicate through social media and group chats via Whatsapp etc. Here they will likely also share and comment on pieces of artwork either by themselves or by others.

Specialist lexis in a discourse community

Specialist lexis will be apparent in this discourse community as they will use terminology surrounding art. Some examples of the possible specialist lexis used are:

  • Abstract (a style of art)
  • Impressionist (a style of art)
  • Renaissance (a notable period in art history)
  • Filbert (a type of watercolour painting brush)
  • Acrylic (a type of paint)
  • Stippling (a method of creating art by using small dots)
  • Study (a preparation sketch or drawing before a final piece is created)

Multiple genres in a discourse community

The genres used within a discourse community of art students might include Q&As during the creation of a piece - where opinions will be requested and given. Another genre would arise in the environment of an exhibition of artwork. In this scenario, the participants in a conversation have their attention focussed on the same piece of art while they discuss the aspects of the piece in a descriptive way.

Information and feedback in a discourse community

As with any discourse community, this group of like-minded members will share the practice of giving each other feedback and information. As the members of this community are all students, they will aim to gain feedback for their pieces of art so that they may improve or discuss their reasons for making a particular artistic decision.

Levels of membership in a discourse community

Different levels of membership will become apparent within this discourse community as aspects such as age and experience will set some members as more central to the group than others. The older members of the group might be treated as being more experienced and knowledgeable and will be who the newer members of the group will go to for help or advice. Newer members of the group may feel excluded from the group membership if they do not share the same experiences as others (such as trips to galleries and museums). This could lead to divides in the community.

John Swales Discourse Communities Quotes

When discussing a theory, it's always useful to have some quotes or key points handy. Here are some relevant to Swales' discourse communities theory.

[A discourse community is] a more functional and goal-directed grouping than either speech community or speech fellowship. - Swales 1988 1

Here, Swales is stating the difference between a discourse community and a speech community. These two communities differ in their characteristics and purposes. Where a discourse community has six specific characteristics, a speech community instead only requires a shared language or dialect.

There are six criteria for the existence of a discourse community."- Swales 19881

As we have discussed, Swales states that a discourse community has six characteristics. If all of the six characteristics are not present, a communicative group of people will not truly be a discourse community.

Strong levels of interpersonal relationships are not criterial for the creation of a discourse community. - Swales 19881

As membership in a discourse community is dependent on knowledge and experience, personal relationships between the members are not necessary.

Genre refers to a distinctive category of discourse of any type, spoken or written, with or without literary aspirations. - Swales 19903

Within the concept of discourse communities, the genre is not only written or spoken but refers to any form of communication.

A genre is a "type of communicative event." - Swales 19903

According to Swales, any event where communication takes place can be considered a genre. A way to conceptualise this is to think of a debate. A debate has a set of linguistic characteristics such as declarative statements, equal turn-taking and two or more parties. A debate, therefore, is a communicative event and is a genre.

John Swales Discourse Communities - Key Takeaways

  • A discourse community is a group of people who frequently take part in discourse for a shared purpose.
  • A discourse community is not to be confused with a speech community. This is a group of people who share a language or dialect.
  • John Swales (1988) stated that there are six criteria for the existence of a discourse community.
  • The six characteristics of a discourse community are common goals, internal communication, specialist lexis, multiple genres, information and feedback, and levels of membership.
  • Strong relationships between members are not necessary for discourse communities.

1John Swales. Discourse communities, genres and English as an international language. World Englishes. 1988.

2 David Crystal. How Language Works. 2006.

3John Swales. Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. 1990.

Frequently Asked Questions about John Swales Discourse Communities

A discourse community is a group of people that frequently take part in discourse. The members of a discourse community are often thought to have things in common such as values, judgements and forms of communication.  

Swales stated that discourse communities have the following characteristics: the members share common goals; the members communicate internally; there is a specialist lexis; multiple genres are used; there's a theme of information and feedback; and there are different levels of membership.

There are three types of discourse community: local, focal and folocal.

A local discourse community consists of members who all work together either in the same occupation in the same area or in the same institution or company.

Focal discourse communities include members who may be geographically distantly but who communicate regularly about a common interest.

Folocal discourse communities are a cross-over of local and focal where the members may have multiple allegiances to different discourse communities.

In discourse communities, there are specific genres which have their own conventions. People that are not familiar with these conventions may feel excluded from the community. Discourse communities also have membership levels dependent on knowledge and experience which can lead to outsiders or new members feeling inferior or excluded.

Discourse communities allow efficient communication among its members. This communication often arises to fulfil a function or purpose.

Final John Swales Discourse Communities Quiz

Question

What is discourse?

Show answer

Answer

Discourse refers to any type of communication written or spoken among a group of people.

Show question

Question

What is a discourse community?

Show answer

Answer

A discourse community is a group of people that frequently take part in discourse. The members of a discourse community are often thought to have things in common such as values, judgements and forms of communication. 

Show question

Question

Which linguist is known for discussing discourse communities at length?

Show answer

Answer

John Swales

Show question

Question

What year did Swales release a paper discussing the characteristics of discourse communities?

Show answer

Answer

1988

Show question

Question

What does this describe?

'A group of people that share a language or dialect.'

Show answer

Answer

Speech community

Show question

Question

True or false: People within a discourse community communicate for a purpose.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

How many characteristics of a discourse community are there?

Show answer

Answer

6

Show question

Question

Which of these is not one of Swales' characteristics of discourse communities?

Show answer

Answer

Shared dialect

Show question

Question

Can you list 4 of the characteristics of discourse communities?

Show answer

Answer

Any four of the following:

Common goals, specialist lexis, multiple genres, internal communication, information and feedback, or levels of communication.

Show question

Question

If members of a discourse community have the same desired outcomes, what do they share?

Show answer

Answer

Common goals

Show question

Question

What does it mean if members of a discourse community communicate internally?

Show answer

Answer

That the members use a shared set of mechanisms to communicate with each other. 

Show question

Question

How is lexis relevant to discourse communities?

Show answer

Answer

Discourse communities have specific sets of lexis.

Show question

Question

True or false: Neologisms may be included in specialist lexis.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What is described as a 'linguistically distinct activity'?

Show answer

Answer

A linguistic genre.

Show question

Question

What can be described as 'different topics for discussion' in a discourse community?

Show answer

Answer

Genres

Show question

Question

Which discourse community characteristic refers to the exchange of information?

Show answer

Answer

Information and feedback

Show question

Question

What is a person's membership dependent on in a discourse community?

Show answer

Answer

Their level of knowledge and experience.

Show question

Question

True or false: People with more knowledge and experience in a discourse community have stronger membership ties within that community.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Why might someone's level of knowledge lead them to feel inferior or excluded in a discourse community?

Show answer

Answer

If someone has less knowledge and less experience, they may not be viewed as having a strong membership tie to that discourse community.

Show question

Question

What are providing encouragement, reaching an understanding and creating a plan possible examples of?


Show answer

Answer

Common goals

Show question

Question

What are speech, emails and memos examples of?

Show answer

Answer

Intercommunication

Show question

Question

Which characteristic of discourse communities includes jargon?

Show answer

Answer

Specialist lexis

Show question

Question

Which of these is a goal-directed grouping?

Show answer

Answer

Discourse community

Show question

Question

True or false: Strong interpersonal relationships are necessary in discourse communities.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or false: According to Swales, genres belong to discourse communities.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

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