Analysis of Whether Swales' Theory of Discourse Communities Holds up to Internet Communities

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Posted on 13 Apr 2013 01:55

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Analysis of Whether Swales' Theory of Discourse Communities Holds up to Internet Communities

Alexander Swyst
April 12, 2013


"Discourse community" is a term used to describe a community whose methods of communication are shaped by the goals of said community. John Swales developed his model for discourse communities in his 1990 essay, "The Concept of a Discourse Community". However, since 1990, communities and even society as a whole have been increasingly shaped by technology such as the internet and World Wide Web. And the software these mediums propagate. The central question of this study was whether or not Swales' model could be applied to a modern-day internet community, specifically a Web 2.0 community. The initial plan was to also address linguist James Paul Gee's model of Discourse as well, but there was not enough room within the alotted page limit to do so.

The community chosen for analysis was the /r/Communism community After reading through moderators' posts, observing the community extensively, and contacting the moderation staff, it was determined that /r/Communism consistently met each of Swales' six criteria for a discourse community. Consequently, by induction we can assume that Swales' model is in fact relevant to online communities—although perhaps not all of them.


Discourse Communities

A discourse community—at best—is a subjective notion: there seem to be a multitude of definitions as to what the functions of a discourse community consist of and even as to what the definition of a discourse community is. According to linguist John Swales, a discourse community is a community “where the communicative needs of the goals tend to predominate in the development and maintenance of its discoursal characteristics.” 1 In other words, the goals of a given community dictate the type of communication that arises within that community.

In his 1990 book, Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings, Swales explains in a chapter entitled “The Concept of a Discourse Community” that, according to his model, discourse communities bear “six defining characteristics”. They are the following: 1. the community must have an agreed upon and public set of goals, 2. the community must have methods of communication between members, 3. the community must use its communication means to provide feedback and information to members, 4. the community must use at least one genre to further its goals, 5. a lexis specific to the community, and 6. a “reasonable ratio between novices and experts.” 1

As far as discourse communities go, linguist John Paul Gee takes an alternative approach in his 1989 article, “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction and What is Literacy?” In this essay, Gee forsakes the concept of discourse communities, instead focusing on the concept of Discourse itself (with a capital ‘D’). The Discourse model Gee proposes not only consists of what is said, but also in what manner it is said. In Gee’s own words, Discourse is a “saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing [combination].” 2 Whereas Swales saw discourse communities as cropping up around a central goal, Gee’s model focuses on how one’s identity is related to the way they communicate—in a way, his Discourse is a type of culture. For instance, Gee stressed that a person is born into a community or (primary socialization), whereby they learn their native Discourse (or Primary Discourse) throughout early childhood. From there, a person typically branches out, expanding into secondary socializing groups outside the home. Since these secondary socializations require their own Discourses, a person must adapt to their environment as an apprentice—in this sense, a Discourse is not overtly taught. 2

While Gee focuses on how Discourse arises throughout societies and serves to shape them, Swales solely focuses upon how discourse is shaped by the goals of a group of people.

The Issue

Both Swales’ and Gee’s models were developed toward the end of the 1980s, a period of time where the internet was still nascent, and the even World Wide Web had not yet been invented. This is evident by the examples they use to uphold their theories; one would imagine, additionally, had they written their theories a few years later, both Swales and Gee would have accounted for internet communities such as forums, blogs, etc, in their models. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and so there is an unclear connection between the pairs’ ideas on discourse communities/Discourse and the internet. Is Swales’ idea of discourse communities still relevant in the modern digital age, where the Internet and 21st century technology have surpassed traditional means of communication to become the major means of communication for any community? This is the questions that I attempted to address through my research.

The Community

My research into online communities focused on a community chosen from the Web 2.0 social networking site, For those who are less informed or perhaps a bit behind the times, is best explained as a modern take on older bulletin board communities and forums. The website in its entirety functions as a meta-community, aggregating user-created sub-forums (termed “subreddits”) under its umbrella. Since the website hosts users with a wide range of interests, and users are free to start their own communities on the site, this leads to the formation of a plethora of communities: subreddit topics can cover anything in between videogames and philosophy. The actual content users submit to these subreddits includes interesting links, articles, videos, and images; this content is then voted on by the community—with posts becoming more visible with each subsequent “upvote”. In this way, the content of a given subreddit is governed on two levels: 1. by the moderators, and 2. by the community’s voting. 3

For this study, I focused on /r/Communism subreddit. As one would expect, the community is focused on the topic of Marxism (as opposed to other brands of communism). Because of the way the moderation in this community is run, because of the topic of the community, and because of the community itself, /r/Communism is more secluded and less subject to interference from users of other communities throughout the entire website (this will be discussed in further detail later). Therefore, it seems that /r/Communism, having a clearly defined member-body, would be ideal to determine whether or not any internet community is subject to Swales’ and Gee’s ideas.


In my examination, I followed the community for a few weeks, accustoming myself to them and understanding the ideas behind their ideology. My primary means of analyzing the community was through reading the community’s rules. Additionally, I aggregated as many moderator posts as possible. figuring with the moderation team’s intense approach to guiding the community, they would be able to offer the greatest insight into the norms and expectations of the community. (For instance, they act as Gee’s “gates” in one respect; Swales’ “insiders” in another.) I also investigated a few “periodical” posts on the subreddit such as the community’s “Communism of the Day” series and responded to a thread about the subreddit in the /r/Anarchism community, gleaning some information.

Upon reaching out to the moderation team to post a survey on the subreddit or conduct an interview them, they were initially hesitant. Because of this and time constraints, I was unable to gather any information directly from members of the website, save for the interactions held with the member of the moderation team I contacted.

After collecting the gross amount of information, I looked at each document and removed sections, organizing them under Swales’ six requirements.

Results & Discussion

1. Goals

The most telling information about /r/Communism’s goals was found in the “/r/Communism Rules and Guidelines”. Within, the first sentence clearly states: “This specific subreddit isn't here to convert people, it is here to facilitate discussion between marxists.” 4 This is one of the defining characteristics of /r/Communism, its primary purpose being to promote the sharing of ideas and Marxist theory between members of the greater Marxist community—people who are already experts. The notion that /r/Communism exists solely for the interest of existing Marxists is underlined by the existence of the tangent subreddit, /r/Communism 101, which according to its description “ is a place to learn and teach about Marxism in its diversity.” 5. The rules and guidelines also explicitly state that “Posts asking entry level questions will be removed. … We ask that Posters submit these questions to /r/Communism101.”

It could also be said that /r/Communism supports a secondary, less obvious goal, which is to act as a meta-resource, collecting articles, ebooks, current events, etc. related to Marxism. This role of the community is explained partially in the “r/Communism Rules and Guidelines - Expanded”: “It functions as a means to share ideas, articles, and resources related to Marxism.” (bibcite RandGX)

2. Mechanisms of Communication

There is one, primary means of communication within the /r/Communism community, and that is the subreddit itself. As explained previously, the subreddit is the means by which
members post links and self-posts (textual posts), and then converse through the comments. In effect, the realm of communication for the community, is the actual communication device.

There exists a secondary means of communication for the community, the IRC channel (or Internet Relay Chat), which is an instant messaging protocol. However, throughout my time spent observing the community, the IRC was not once brought up or active when I stopped in.

3. Participatory Mechanisms to Provide Feedback:

Swales explains in his essay that discourse communities use their “participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.” 1 /r/Communism is exemplary in how it accomplishes this. Firstly, the community regularly shares articles and self-posts critiquing various aspects of Marxism. For instance, in a thread titled “On "Liberalism" and How This Is Just an Internet Forum”, a user explains why the forum referred to a set of recently-banned anarchists as “liberals”, explaining that it was because “they exhibited a total blindness of the ideological context within which their positions … developed. If those contexts are opaque to you, then you are very likely putting forward a liberal argument, because Liberalism is the sea in which we all swim. If you can't see the contexts then you cannot critique them.” 7

/r/Communism also provides feedback by means of “The r/Communism Ebook Sharing Thread!”, within which members put ebooks related to Marxism and leftism up for download. These serve to educate the community on their ideologies. Among those up for download are books by Naom Chomsky, Karl Marx, and (coincidentally) CCNY alum, Michael Parenti. 8

4. Genres

One genre described in the “/r/Communism Rules and Guidelines” is the self-post critique (of Marxist or other ideologies). The rules have several requirements for such a post stating, “When critiquing other ideologies, the burden of making a quality post is much greater. Have your posts be theoretically developed, utilize a marxist, historical materialist analysis. Second­guess [sic] yourself. 4 However, most critiques posted appear to be from outside sources.

There is one more prominent genre, though it is solely utilized by moderators. This is the Communism of the Day collection. Communism of the Day can perhaps be thought of the rawest form of a genre: a standard form of discourse or communication. In this extremely minimalist case, the Communism of the Day is posted as a simple link to a Wikipedia page or communist website which discusses a communist/leftist leader or ideology. Past examples detail figures such as Malcolm X and organizations such as the First International 9.

5. Lexis

Lexis seems to be one of the primary means by which the /r/Communism community defines itself. Perhaps, /r/Communism’s lexis is best explained by explaining what it is not. In a dual example of lexis in the “/r/Communism Rules and Guidelines”, it is explained that /r/Communism is opposed to “Bourgeois notions of Free Speech” 4. What is bourgeois free speech however?

This concept is better elaborated in the expanded rules: “Patriarchal, white supremacist, cissupremacist, homophobic, or otherwise oppressive speech is not tolerated here.” (This quote is also a good example of actual lexis: that which is critical of the status quo.) So, it can be said that the overall lexis of /r/Communism is intended to be non-offensive and considerate to people of all races, classes, sexual-orientations, and walks of life. In the further words of the expanded rules and guidelines “class­conscious [sic], proletarian speech” 6.

6. Threshold Level

Does /r/Communism maintain a threshold level of “experts” within the community? In a way, yes. /r/Communism maintains a threshold in two ways: by banning users who do not exhibit experience in the discourse of the community, and by creating new experts through /r/Communism101 and through posting “educational” Marxist content on a daily basis to the entirety of subscribers of the subreddit.

Compared to other subreddits on Reddit, it is relatively easy to find oneself banned after posting, simply because the standards listed in the rules are upheld so stringently. This reflects within the community, as members will be swift to ban those who disregard the community standards. Among the requirements already discussed, posts must also refrain from: discussing reactionaries on Reddit, enabling sectarianism, advertising non-Marxist ideologies (including other types of leftism or communism), debating, and identifying oneself as a police officer or member of the military of a capitalist nation. (The latter prohibition resulting in an instant ban, as they are considered “repressive apparatus[es]” of capitalist states.) 410 Furthermore, there are in fact so many bans in the community, that it has set up another tangent subreddit, /r/ShowTrials, to allow some feedback by users who feel the verdict was unjust. At this time, there are 115 bans/warnings listed starting from July 2012 (not including unlisted or previous bans). 11

As briefly explained earlier, /r/Communism101 functions as an area tangent within the /r/Communism community where users can communicate, ask questions, and ask questions with as sliver of the /r/Communism community. This allows them to accustom themselves to the cold waters of /r/Communism and participate, without fearing a ban. The actual content posted by /r/Communism also serves to form experts on the community, a prime example for this is my analysis on /r/Communism, having taken all my information on its functioning directly from reading articles, self-posts, etc.((bibcite communism101)



Does /r/Communism qualify as a discourse community according to Swales’ six categories? Overwhelmingly so, it seems. To summarize, /r/Communism meets Swales’ guidelines in the following ways:

1. It has two publicly defined goals, to promote discussion among Marxists, and to serve as an informative resource on Marxism.

2. In addition to the subreddit itself serving as a means of communication, IRC exists (though most likely is neglected).

3. The community provides feedback resources to its members through articles, self-posts, and ebook sharing.

4. /r/Communism has a defined method for providing critique on political ideology, and the “Communism of the Day” series is a repeating pattern for sharing information. These are both characteristic of genres.

5. /r/Communism’s lexis is characterized best as use of non-oppressive speech, which is class-conscious and critical of “bourgeois” status quos.

6. /r/Communism maintains an expert population by banning non-experts and internet trolls; by educating its userbase through /r/Communism101 and by focusing on primarily educational content (related to Marxism obviously).

Taking this analysis into perspective, it is clear to see that despite the age and seeming outdatedness of Swales’ model, it is still applicable to communities on the internet, /r/Communism is a proof of concept.

Of Further Interest

It is important to note that /r/Communism's intense means of maintaining a threshold highly prevent outsiders from associating within the heart of the community may make it natural to mold to Swales' model. Online communities which do not employ such a high degree of policing may be more prone to bleeding into independent, tangent communities, in much the same way /r/Communism maintains its own tangent communities. Therefore, it may yet be worth investigating how the ease of passing from one community to another on the web influences multiple discourse communities.

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1. Swales, J. (1990). Genre analysis: english in academic and research settings. Boston, MA: Cambridge UP.
2. Gee, J. P. (n.d.). Literacy, discourse, and linguistics: introduction and what is discourse?. (1989). Journal of Education, 171(1), 5-25.
3. Reddit. (n.d.). Retrieved from
4. /r/communism rules and guidelines. (n.d.). Retrieved from
5. /r/communism101. (2012). Retrieved from
6. r/communism rules and guidelines - expanded. (n.d.). Retrieved from
7. thechurl. (2012). On "liberalism" and how this is just an internet forum [Online forum comment]. Retrieved from
8. jonblaze32. (2012). The r/communism ebook sharing thread! [Online forum comment]. Retrieved from
9. starmeleon. (2012). Communism of the day collection [Online forum comment]. Retrieved from
10. ksan. (2012). New rule: on police and state military personnel [Online forum comment]. Retrieved from
11. /r/showtrials. (2012). Retrieved from

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