Understanding Discourse Communities Dan Melzer Overview 

This chapter uses John Swales’ definition of discourse community to explain to students why this concept is important for college writing and beyond. The chapter explains how genres operate within discourse communities, why different discourse communities have different expectations for writing, and how to understand what qualifies as a discourse community. The article relates the concept of discourse community to a personal example from the author (an acoustic guitar jam group) and an example of the academic discipline of history. The article takes a critical stance regarding the concept of discourse community, discussing both the benefits and constraints of communicating within discourse communities. The article concludes with writerly questions students can ask themselves as they enter new discourse communities in order to be more effective communicators. 

Last year, I decided that if I was ever going to achieve my lifelong fantasy of being the first college writing teacher to transform into an international rock star, I should probably graduate from playing the video game Guitar Hero to actually learning to play guitar.* I bought an acoustic guitar and started watching every beginning guitar instructional video on YouTube. At first, the vocabulary the online guitar teachers used was like a foreign language to me—terms like major and minor chords, open G tuning, and circle of fifths. I was overwhelmed by how complicated it all was, and the fingertips on my left hand felt like they were going to fall off from pressing on the steel strings on the neck of my guitar to form chords. I felt like I was making incredibly slow progress, and at the rate I was going, I wouldn’t be a guitar god until I was 87. I was also getting tired of playing alone in my living room. I wanted to find a community of people who shared my goal of learning songs and playing guitar together for fun. 

I needed a way to find other beginning and intermediate guitar players, and I decided to try a social media website called “Meetup.com.” It only took a few clicks to find the right community for me—an “acoustic jam” group that welcomed beginners and met once a month at a music store near my city of Sacramento, California. On the Meetup.com site, it said that everyone who showed up for the jam should bring a few songs to share, but I wasn’t sure what kind of music they played, so I just showed up at the next meet-up with my guitar and the basic look you need to become a guitar legend: two days of facial hair stubble, black t-shirt, ripped jeans, and a gravelly voice (luckily my throat was sore from shouting the lyrics to the Twenty One Pilots song “Heathens” while playing guitar in my living room the night before). 

The first time I played with the group, I felt more like a junior high school band camp dropout then the next Jimi Hendrix. I had trouble keeping up with the chord changes, and I didn’t know any scales (groups of related notes in the same key that work well together) to solo on lead guitar when it was my turn. I had trouble figuring out the patterns for my strumming hand since no one took the time to explain them before we started playing a new song. The group had some beginners, but I was the least experienced player. 

It took a few more meet-ups, but pretty soon I figured out how to fit into the group. I learned that they played all kinds of songs, from country to blues to folk to rock music. I learned that they chose songs with simple chords so beginners like me could play along. I learned that they brought print copies of the chords and lyrics of songs to share, and if there were any difficult chords in a song, they included a visual of the chord shape in the handout of chords and lyrics. I started to learn the musician’s vocabulary I needed to be familiar with to function in the group, like beats per measure and octaves and the minor pentatonic scale. I learned that if I was having trouble figuring out the chord changes, I could watch the better guitarists and copy what they were doing. I also got good advice from experienced players, like soaking your fingers in rubbing alcohol every day for ninety seconds to toughen them up so the steel strings wouldn’t hurt as much. I even realized that although I was an inexperienced player, I could contribute to the community by bringing in new songs they hadn’t played before. At this point you may be saying to yourself that all of this will make a great biographical movie someday when I become a rock icon (or maybe not), but what does it have to do with becoming a better writer? You can write in a journal alone in your room, just like you can play guitar just for yourself alone in your room. But most writers, like most musicians, learn their craft from studying experts and becoming part of a community. And most writers, like most musicians, want to be a part of a community and communicate with other people who share their goals and interests. Writing teachers and scholars have come up with the concept of “discourse community” to describe a community of people who share the same goals, the same methods of communicating, the same genres, and the same lexis (specialized language). 

What Exactly Is a Discourse Community? John Swales, a scholar in linguistics, says that discourse communities have the following features (which I’m paraphrasing): 

1. A broadly agreed upon set of common public goals 

2. Mechanisms of intercommunication among members 

3. Use of these communication mechanisms to provide information and feedback 

4. One or more genres that help further the goals of the discourse community 

5. A specific lexis (specialized language) 

6. A threshold level of expert members (24-26) 

I’ll use my example of the monthly guitar jam group I joined to explain these six aspects of a discourse community. 

A broadly Agreed Set of Common Public Goals 

The guitar jam group had shared goals that we all agreed on. In the Meetup.com description of the site, the organizer of the group emphasized that these monthly gatherings were for having fun, enjoying the music, and learning new songs. “Guitar players” or “people who like music” or even “guitarists in Sacramento, California” are not discourse communities. They don’t share the same goals, and they don’t all interact with each other to meet the same goals. 

Mechanisms of Intercommunication among Members 

The guitar jam group communicated primarily through the Meetup.com site. This is how we recruited new members, shared information about when and where we were playing, and communicated with each other outside of the night of the guitar jam. “People who use Meetup.com” are not a discourse community, because even though they’re using the same method of communication, they don’t all share the same goals and they don’t all regularly interact with each other. But a Meetup.com group like the Sacramento acoustic guitar jam focused on a specific topic with shared goals and a community of members who frequently interact can be considered a discourse community based on Swales’ definition. 

Use of These Communication Mechanisms to Provide Information and Feedback 

Once I found the guitar jam group on Meetup.com, I wanted information about topics like what skill levels could participate, what kind of music they played, and where and when they met. Once I was at my first guitar jam, the primary information I needed was the chords and lyrics of each song, so the handouts with chords and lyrics were a key means of providing critical information to community members. Communication mechanisms in discourse communities can be emails, text messages, social media tools, print texts, memes, oral presentations, and so on. One reason that Swales uses the term “discourse” instead of “writing” is that the term “discourse” can mean any type of communication, from talking to writing to music to images to multimedia. 

One or More Genres That Help Further the Goals of the Discourse Community 

One of the most common ways discourse communities share information and meet their goals is through genres. To help explain the concept of genre, I’ll use music since I’ve been talking about playing guitar and music is probably an example you can relate to. Obviously there are many types of music, from rap to country to reggae to heavy metal. Each of these types of music is considered a genre, in part because the music has shared features, from the style of the music to the subject of the lyrics to the lexis. For example, most rap has a steady bass beat, most rappers use spoken word rather than singing, and rap lyrics usually draw on a lexis associated with young people. But a genre is much more than a set of features. Genres arise out of social purposes, and they’re a form of social action within discourse communities. The rap battles of today have historical roots in African oral contests, and modern rap music can only be understood in the context of hip hop culture, which includes breakdancing and street art. Rap also has social purposes, including resisting social oppression and telling the truth about social conditions that aren’t always reported on by news outlets. Like all genres, rap is not just a formula but a tool for social action. The guitar jam group used two primary genres to meet the goals of the community. The Meetup.com site was one important genre that was critical in the formation of the group and to help it recruit new members. It was also the genre that delivered information to the members about what the community was about and where and when the community would be meeting. The other important genre to the guitar jam group were the handouts with song chords and lyrics. I’m sharing an example of a song I brought to the group to show you what this genre looks like.

This genre of the chord and lyrics sheet was needed to make sure everyone could play along and follow the singer. The conventions of this genre—the “norms”—weren’t just arbitrary rules or formulas. As with all genres, the conventions developed because of the social action of the genre. The sheets included lyrics so that we could all sing along and make sure we knew when to change chords. The sheets included visuals of unusual chords, like the Em7 chord (E minor seventh) in my example, because there were some beginner guitarists who were a part of the community. If the community members were all expert guitarists, then the inclusion of chord shapes would never have become a convention. A great resource to learn more about the concept of genre is the essay “Navigating Genres” by Kerry Dirk in volume 1 of Writing Spaces.

A Specific Lexis (Specialized Language) 

To anyone who wasn’t a musician, our guitar meet-ups might have sounded like we were communicating in a foreign language. We talked about the root note of scale, a 1/4/5 chord progression, putting a capo on different frets, whether to play solos in a major or minor scale, double drop D tuning, and so on. If someone couldn’t quickly identify what key their song was in or how many beats per measure the strumming pattern required, they wouldn’t be able to communicate effectively with the community members. We didn’t use this language to show off or to try to discourage outsiders from joining our group. We needed these specialized terms—this musician’s lexis—to make sure we were all playing together effectively

A Threshold Level of Expert Members 

If everyone in the guitar jam was at my beginner level when I first joined the group, we wouldn’t have been very successful. I relied on more experienced players to figure out strumming patterns and chord changes, and I learned to improve my solos by watching other players use various techniques in their soloing. The most experienced players also helped educate everyone on the conventions of the group (the “norms” of how the group interacted). These conventions included everyone playing in the same key, everyone taking turns playing solo lead guitar, and everyone bringing songs to play. But discourse community conventions aren’t always just about maintaining group harmony. In most discourse communities, new members can also expand the knowledge and genres of the community. For example, I shared songs that no one had brought before, and that expanded the community’s base of knowledge.