Discourse communities and communities of practice (Ann M. Johns)

Ann M. Johns opens her discussion with the three following questions about discourse communities:

1. Why do people join certain communities? Moreover, what are the relationships between communities and their genres?
2. Are there different levels of community? Specifically, can we imagine a “general academic community” or language?
3. What makes a community complex and diverse? What works against shared participation and ways of expressing?

Johns then makes a distinction between discourse communities and communities of practice. Discourse communities focus on text and language, which are the genres and lexis that allow members maintain their goals, regulate membership, and communicate effectively (she then lists Swales criteria for a discourse community). Communities of practice refer to genres and lexis, specifically to the values and practices that hold the communities together or separate them from each other. The next section of this chapter discusses three aspects of communities and membership: social, political, and recreational communities, professional communities, and academic communities.

Social, Political, and Recreational Communities:

These communities can be brought upon a person involuntarily due to their family and culture. They can be “religious, tribal, social, and economic” (52). Additionally, people might join these communities because they agree with the political principles of the communities, and that they want to further push these views in society. Lastly, one purpose to these communities is purely ‘fun-based’ (recreational), for example, as John puts it, a cycling group.

Professional Communities:

All professions contain their own respective communities. Exchanges are displayed through e-mail, conferences, memos, the office, laboratories, and such. These means of communication are only available to insiders, whereas outsiders gain information on professional communities through the written genres.

Academic Communities:

Johns prefaces this section by stating that it is a useful starting point for students who need to become better acquainted with the interaction of roles, contexts, and texts within academic communities. She then opens a discussion, which she titles “Language, Texts, and Values”, where she draws upon three experts in the field (Elbow, Geertz, and Purves). The discussion lists the following criteria for proper academic literacy:

1. Texts must be explicit. Vocabulary and organization must be set up and used properly. Data analysis should be defined explicitly. Ambiguity should be avoided as much as possible.
2. Topic and argument should be prerevealed in the introduction. Experienced academics choose a single theme to write about and announce their purpose as soon as possible.
3. Writers should provide “maps” and signposts” for the readers throughout the texts, telling the readers where they have been in the text and where they are going. Writers need to help readers summarize the texts and understand the relationships between topics and arguments.
4. The language of texts should create a distance between the writer and the text to give the appearance of objectivity. The first person pronouns should not be used; rather the author should take a more passive voice approach (as used in textbooks) in order to display objectivity.
5. Texts should maintain a “rubber-gloved” quality of voice and register. Writers should “remove themselves emotionally” (60) from the texts. For example: words such as "wonderful" and "disgusting" should be avoided, and replaced by a more objective vocabulary.
6. Writers should take a guarded stance, especially when presenting argumentation and results. Words such phrases such as "may", "might", and "it is possible that" display a guarded stance. The guarded stance shows careful reporting and not jumping to conclusions.
7. Texts should display a vision of reality shared by members of the particular discourse community to which the text is addressed (or the particular faculty member who made the assignment). Johns states that this may be the most difficult academic requirement. She exemplifies this through her research of syllabi where she found that many teachers stated that the goals of their course were content-based, rather than critical thinking based.
8. Academic texts should display a set of social and authority relations; they should show the writer’s understanding of the roles they play within the text or context.
9. Academic roles should display the complex and important nature of intertextuality, the exploitation of other texts without resorting to plagiarism. Writers should know how to reconstruct information so that they do not appear to be merely rewriting the information, but rather creatively using it to enhance their purpose.
10. Texts should comply with the genre requirements of the community or classroom.

In the final section of the chapter, Johns discusses community conflicts and diversity. Some communities are hard to get into (i.e. they require long initiation processes, doctoral degrees, demographic location, etc.). Others may experience rebellion, and if the rebels prevail, the rules may change. Even without rebellion, there may still be struggles of power. Johns discusses four factors in this section that give academic communities their “character” (64).

The Cost of Affiliation:

Students must, to some extent, pay for there participation in these academic communities. They might have to distance themselves from their families and home communities. They may have to alter their language to suit the classroom setting. In order to take on the values, language, and genres of their new academic life, and perhaps to ultimately succeed in this life, they could have to drop their affiliations with their original communities.

Issues of Authority:

There will always be an authoritative hierarchy to set the tone of a community, even after one becomes an academic initiate. These authoritative figures could be journal editors, conference program, planners, department chairs, chairs of committees, and others.

Conventions and Anticonventionalism:

It is essential to play by the rules in an academic community. Doing so will allow a student to receive a good grade or get an article published. Established community members (such as teachers) will attempt to maintain power by controlling language and genre over newcomers (such as students), as communities evolve. Conversely, established members can break the rules and conventions.

Dialogue and Critique:

There will always be dialogue among successful academic communities. This dialogue will consist of disagreements about approaches to research, argumentation, topics [for study], theory, and more. Academic communities evolve through critique.

Notable Quotes

"The term communities of practice refers to genres and lexis, but especially to many practices and values that hold communities together or separate them from one another."

"People may join a group because they agree politically, because they want to socialize, or because they are interested in a particular sport or pastime."

"In contrast to DS faculty, we literacy faculty are often most interested in processes and understandings, in developing students' metacognition and metalanguages…"

"Academic communities encourage variety and critique (within limits), because that is how they evolve and grow."

"Although it is argued that disciplines are different […] many faculty believe that there is a general academic English as well as a general set of critical thinking skills and strategies for approaching texts" (56).


Johns takes up the slack where Swales and Gee dispense with specificity in favor of making more general statements; she focuses specifically on academic communities, as well as on communities of practice, which share a general definition, again, with discourse communities, but differ in the particulars by including shared practices and values as well as a shared lexis. She also notes that one can be part of a community in a passive sense, rather than as an active member - for example, one may be part of a cultural organization without contributing, or without ever attending an event, to take the example to extremes, but still fulfill the requirements of a shared goal and internal communication and so forth that are qualifiers for membership according to Swales. She also notes that one may be part of a community with certain values that are shared and others that are not. If political views may be considered values, for example, one can be part of a community that shares values of wellbeing and activity without sharing political views - she mentions her husband, a cyclist, who discovered this.

Professional communities, despite their intersection with professional academia and the communities therein, are set aside for separate discussion. A note Johns makes that is of particular interest in this section is that values and lexises and so forth may differ from a cultural standpoint - "he also contrasts these genres as they are realized in texts from various cultures" (55) - which had only been minimally discussed before, but of course the concept of community, the internal hierarchies involved, and types of discourse are cultural. Another, lesser digression (lesser with regard to the degree of digression rather than in importance) is that while, for example, bassoonists may have their own practice community, musicians as a collective also share "expertise, values, and expectations" (55) - an example, perhaps, of one community simply being a specialized subset of another, larger community.

In her discussion of academia and its various communities, Johns invokes the "general academic English as well as a general set of critical thinking skills" that are generally considered entry-level requirements for any type of research or study; these would, of course, be the eponymous lexis and practice for these communities. (Her writing sadly falls flat, in my opinion, where it could follow through with the previous discussion of cultural influence on practice and lexis - the philosophies and language requirements she refers to are, it is safe to presume, Western; they are predicated upon logic and the specific scientific method, as well as proficiency and fluency in English, the "language of business". It would have been of considerable interest for her to at least allude to this, leaving a loose end for other scholars to pull, if you will. -EC) Johns' list of defining criteria of academic prose is also, by its nature, limiting; just as Swales' exacting description of a discourse community requires revision. While certainly an interesting expansion regarding a specific general discourse community, Johns favors a detailed exploration of very specific aspects of that community, while letting others go completely unnoted; perhaps a more general exploration without omission of those aspects would be better for such an introductory work.

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