John Swales, "The Concept of Discourse Community"


John Swales starts off by introducing speech community. Speech community is a community that shares the knowledge of rules of a speech. This sharing encompasses both the knowledge of one form of speech plus the knowledge of its correct use. Swales then goes to say how a speech community is built through birth, accident, or adoption; while a discourse community uses persuasion and training to recruit members.

He introduces the topic of Discourse community by defining it using six characteristics that each discourse community holds. The six characteristics include: a discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals. A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members. A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback. A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims. In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis. A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

John Swales then delves into an example of a discourse community after spending a section defining the six characteristics that define a discourse community. He chooses an umbrella organization called “Hong Kong Study Circle (HKSC).” He states the aims and goals of the organization, which are to promote interest in the stamps of Hong Kong. He then writes about the memberships ranging from all different countries. The main mechanism of communication is a bi-monthly journal as well as a newsletter. Some phone-calls are also used to communicate. Moreover, Swales publishes a journal article that provides a complex analysis and terminology to explain to the members of HKSC. The community also developed genre-specific terminology to describe items of the Hong Kong postal history. Lastly, members aren’t specifically defined because a stamp collector or a professional stamp dealer both meets the criteria. All in all, Swales’ example meets the six characteristics of a discourse community.

Significant Quotations

"There are a number of reasons why I believe even a tight definition of speech community (shared linguistic forms, shared regulative rules and shared cultural concepts) will not result in making an alternative definition of discourse community unnecessary (p. 8)."

"However, in a sociorhetorical discourse community, the primary determinants of linguistic behavior are functional, since a discourse community consists of a group of people who link up in order to pursue objectives that are prior to those of socialization and solidarity, even if these latter should consequently occur (p. 8)."

The discourse community I have discussed meets all six of the proposed defining criteria: there are common goals, participatory mechanisms, information exchange, community specific genres, a highly specialized terminology and high general level of expertise. On the other hand, distance between members geographically, ethnically and socially presumably means that they do not form a speech community (p. 21)."


Swales makes an apt distinction between the two concepts of a Speech Community and a Discourse Community. Whereas Swales sees Speech Communities as something that people typically join through birth or "accident", he sees Discourse Communities as having to actively recruit members into their ranks in order to grow—leading to a constant influx of new members. This is an interesting delineation between the two: Swales' idea that Discourse Communities recruit members is different from Gees philosophy that one can never fully assimilate into a Discourse Community; this seems to put Gee's model somewhere in-between Swale's and a Speech Community.

Another aspect of Swales' definition of Discourse Communities that is interesting is fact that he points out Discourse Communities' communications are more or less centered around community goals. This is an idea that makes sense, considering the Community exists more or less to only further those goals. Without these goals, there would be no discourse.

One of the points Swales makes that seems a bit flimsy is the idea that a Discourse Community must have publicly stated goals. It seems as though a variety of organizations that would otherwise fall under the category of "Discourse Community" would be excluded thanks to this clause. A variety of organizations (such as corporations or government agencies) might also not only have publicly stated goals, but other goals—kept out of the public eye for reasons of confidentiality. Swales does not even seem to justify this in anyway—instead giving a brief mention of a spy that seems almost non sequitur.

Another point that seems to stick out is that if "A, B, C" have no correspondence between each other, yet originate from the same point, they constitute a Discourse Community. Swales leaves this statement open-ended in a way, however, leaving it to Bizzel to posit that A, B, C, may be part of the same ethno-socioeconomic group and therefore they share activity X and make up a Discourse Community. Yet, if there is no discourse between A, B, C, how can there be a community? And if what Bizzel proposes is true, and there is communication on social grounds, then wouldn't this place A, B, C, more in the realm of a Speech Community? And what if A, B, C are competing against each other as they could be imagined to in the café scenario? This part of Swales' argument leaves many questions to be answered (or unanswered).

The rest of Swales' definition of a Discourse Community seems to fall in line with itself. It isn't a bad definition—Swales said himself towards the beginning he wanted to set something of a guideline. But this definition is still somewhat fleeting and hard to grasp. It is incomplete and must be condensed and debated.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License