The Discourse Community

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The concept of Discourse community has been studied and analyzed by many well-qualified professionals. Authors who have written about this topic, such as James Gee, John Swales, and James Porter have theorized about the different potential definitions and requirements of a Discourse community. John Swales proposes a set of six rules by which one can enter a Discourse community. James Gee states that everyone is born into a “Primary Discourse” and all others are “Secondary.” James Porter takes a different approach by arguing that pure originality is so rare that it is almost unattainable. Each writer presents a strong case for their respective opinions on discourse, but fails to express the most important element: culture. Culture and one's core beliefs from an anthropological perspective could be the most important factor in determining the Discourse(s) one belongs to.

Gee's presentation on Discourse is more or less refers to culture without specifically and definitively expressing that. His definition of Discourse is that they "are ways of being in the world; they are forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs and attitudes, and social identities as well as gestures, glances, body positions and clothes. A Discourse is a sort of identity kit, which comes with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk and often write" (Gee 484). In essence, Gee highlights the basis for which we have derived our language and contextual expression. These respective Discourses are derived from societal acquisition and situations that individuals go through. These acquisitions and situations formulate the basis for much of the systematic operations of language. Yet, while obtain Discourses from societal acquisition and situations, mastery of these Discourses is performed through continual reinforcement and interaction. "Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction, but by enculturation into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse" (Gee 484). Thus, Gee acknowledges that we make sense of our world through the primary Discourse, which is our interaction with our own culture essentially and that continual rationale for the basis of our Primary Discourse is thereby strengthened, changed and/or altered by what Gee refers to as the Secondary Discourses.

John Swales' "The Concept of Discourse Community" stresses that one enters a discourse community, which is in contrast to Gee's presentation. For Swales, the discourse community is the "center of a set of ideas...a powerful and useful concept" (469). Moreover, Swales' seeks to ascertain if a discourse community should vary in terms of methodology, style of communication and overall conventions. In effect, it is a culture argument that he is making. Should a discourse community share a common set of norms, values, beliefs, etc.? Swales proposes six characteristics that should be incorporated into a discourse community that outline the structure: "a broadly agree set of common public goals; mechanisms of intercommunication among its members; participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback; utiliz[ation of] one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims; a specific lexis [and] must have a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise" (471-473). Swales is primarily concerned with ensuring that these aspects underlie the discourse community. He essentially is defining what we have come to know as culture without articulating it as a culture.

James Porter's argument in "Intertextuality and the Discourse Community" is that writing must be original and each written text draws on the ideas from other texts. Porter's argument does not contend the cultural argument that Gee and Swales do, but argues on socialization as it relates to the impositions placed on writers regarding discourse. In other words, for Porter, culture does not presuppose written text since achieving the art of pure originality is difficult to do, if not impossible. Porter is diametrically opposed to Gee and Swales as culture does not necessarily follow a writer's selection of texts to use in their own work but rather the choices are based on thorough execution and exegesis of a text. Porter uses the example of Thomas Jefferson combining several ideas together to form the Declaration of Independence. For Porter, a discourse community is what changes cultural characteristics, while Gee and Swales do not believe that writing changes culture, but rather writing is defined by culture.

It can be argued then that both Gee and Swales see culture similarly with regard to the discourse community. Culture presupposes all representations of linguistics (i.e. speech, writing, etc.), such as those found in Somali-American accented English. It is the foundation of the mechanics of the community. Gee and Swales reference this in different ways, but essentially argue the same point; while Porter, diverges from the cultural context and instead offers an argument on originality stating that certain conditions do not necessarily have to be present for a discourse to be valid or emphasized. A writer can communicate his or her position without drawing from their cultural patterns and linguistic conditioning.

Perhaps Gee and Swales would agree with the cultural argument as they do not express that as a backdrop in their writings, but wholeheartedly ascribe culture as the focal point in the realm of societal linguistics. It is important to note that while both Gee and Swales see culture as the foundation of Discourse, Gee sees Discourse as the representation of the individual. "The identity is the basis for the existence of the Discourse in the first place" (Gee 487). Swales understands that individuals draw upon certain characteristics in their various cultures that create the Discourse. Swales does not stipulate or contend that one's identity is the basis for Discourse, but rather adds that "the primary determinants of linguistic behavior are social" (Swales 471). Swales is concerned with emphasizing that a Discourse community, while ground in culture, only necessitates this if the characteristics of the community are present.

So the question is, why are what Gee, Porter and Swales argue important? Perhaps in our understanding of communication, it is a must to unveil the basis for where this communication has been derived from. Why do certain cultures speak and write a certain way and others do not? While Gee and Swales vary in their assessment of the answer to this question, Porter in his reasoning discounts culture entirely. Instead, his answer is one of learning through structure and style. Writers and linguists for Porter base their discourses off of what other writers have done irrespective of their culture. Ideas and concepts are generated not from culture, but from texts of various depths and rationales. It could be said then that Porter's analysis of Discourse is a merging of Gee and Swales in that a Discourse community is an interwoven tapestry of cultures rather than one separate culture defining communication. Porter suggests in his example of the Declaration of Independence that Jefferson’s ideas were not original, but the formation of different discourses from other texts. Therefore, Porter is in effect advocating that once a Discourse community merges with its beliefs and ways of doing (i.e. culture), it no longer can remain original or rather primary or secondary as Gee contends. For example, in the United States, there are many cultures but what we often note as American culture is a blending of multiple ones; which is in line with what Porter states as not being pure originality.

So then is Porter right and Gee and Swales wrong? Not necessarily. Each writer has their own opinion on discourse. The primary basis for Gee and Swales are that discourse evolves from one’s belief systems and practices, whereas with Porter discourse is adopted from several ideals and cultures. Trying to discover a proper answer to the Discourse community question is difficult if not unattainable due to the varying opinions on the matter. There is in fact no right or wrong answer on the animal that is discourse, but more or less presentations that are convincing and exhibit possible explanations to solve the puzzle – but no definitive delineation.

Works Cited

Gee, James P. "Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics Introduction." Journal of Education, vol. 171, no. 1, 1990, pp. 21-32.

Swales, John. "The Concept of Discourse Community." 1990, pp. 21-32. Rpt. in Chapter 4 (Classroom Text).