1. You have decided to write a letter to Hope Jahren arguing the reasons why you think that she did or did not fit into different discourse communities that she writes about in her book Lab Girl. Focus in on one or more of the discourse communities that she writes about and explain to her your reasoning for why she struggled in some of them or was more successful and had a more enjoyable time in others. Explain the discourse community characteristics from Swales that you think were most important to her participation in the communities you chose to write about. Follow-up by highlighting what you have learned from Jahren’s experiences in order to thank her for sharing her experiences about her professional and academic life. Your goal is to thank Jahren while also explaining to her what you have learned about the ways in which she engaged in different discourse communities. For your address header use: Hope Jahren, University of Oslo, Problemveien 7, 0315 Oslo, Norway.1468
As you read, consider the following questions:
• How does what Swales describes relate to your own experience movi ng
among different groups or communities?
• What are potential problems with Swales’s explanations-places they don’t
line up with your own experiences?
• How would you describe the audience Swales seems to imagine himself
2.1 A Need for Clarification
Discourse community, the first of three terms to be examined in Part II, has so 1
far been principally appropriated by instructors and researchers adopting a
‘Social View’ (Faigley, 1986) of the writing process. Although I am not aware
of the original provenance of the term itself, formative influences can be traced
to several of the leading ‘relativist’ or ‘social constructionist’ thinkers of our
time. Herzberg (1986) instances Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s The New
Rhetoric (1969), Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970) and
Fish’s Is There a Text in this Class? (1980). Porter (1988) discusses the signifi
cance of Foucault’s analysis of ‘discursive formations’ in The Archaeology of
Knowledge (1972); other contributors are Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror
of Nature, 1979) and Geertz (Local Knowledge, 1983), with Wittgenstein’s
Philosophical Investigations (1958) as an earlier antecedent (Bruffee, 1986),
particularly perhaps for the commentary therein on ‘language games’ (3.5).
Whatever the genealogy of the term discourse community, the relevant point 2
in the present context is that it has been appropriated by the ‘social perspectiv
ists’ for their variously applied purposes in writing research. It is this use that
I wish to explore and in turn appropriate. Herzberg (1986) sets the scene as
Use of the term ‘discourse community’ testifies to the increasingly common
assumption that discourse operates within conventions defined by communities,
be they academic disciplines or social groups. The pedagogies associated with
writing across the curriculum and academic English now use the notion of ‘dis
course communities’ to signify a cluster of ideas: that language use in a group is
a form of social behavior, that discourse is a means of maintaining and extending
the group’s knowledge and of initiating new members into the group, and that
discourse is epistemic or constitutive of the group’s knowledge.
Irrespective of the merits of this ‘cluster of ideas’, the cluster is, I suggest, conse
quential of the assumption that there are indeed entities identifiable as discourse
communities, not criteria/ for establishing or identifying them. They point us
towards asking how a particular discourse community uses its discoursal
JOHN SWALES I The Concept of Discourse Community
conventions to initiate new members or how the discourse of another reifies
particular values or beliefs. While such questions are well worth asking, they
do not directly assist with the logically prior ones of how we recognize such
communities in the first place.
Herzberg in fact concedes that there may be a definitional problem: ‘The idea 3
of “discourse community” is not well defined as yet, but like 111;,rny imperfectly
defined terms, it is suggestive, the center of a set of ideas rather than the sign of
a settled notion’ (1986:1). However, if discourse community is to be ‘the center
of a set of ideas’-as it is in this book-then it becomes reasonable to expect it
to be, if not a settled notion, at least one that is sufficiently_explicit for others
to be able to accept, modify or reject on the basis of the criteria proposed.
Several other proponents of the ‘social view’, while believing that discourse 4
community is a powerful and useful concept, recognize it currently raises as
many questions as it answers. Porter (1988:2), for instance, puts one set of
problems with exemplary conciseness: ‘Should discourse commµnities be deter
mined by shared objects of study, by common research methodology, by oppor
tunity and frequency of communication, or by genre and stylistic conventions?’
Fennell et al. (1987) note that current definitions have considerable vagueness
and in consequence offer little guidance in identify ing discourse communities.
They further point out that definitions which emphasize the reciprocity of ‘dis
course’ and ‘community’ (community involves discourse and discourse involves
community) suffer the uncomfortable fate of ending up circular.
We need then to clarify, for proce
dural purposes, what is to be understood
by discourse community and, perhaps I We need then to clarify, for
in the present circumstances, it is bet
procedural purposes, what is
ter to offer a set of criteria sufficiently
to be understood by discourse
narrow that it will eliminate many of
community and, perhaps in the
the marginal, blurred and controversial
contenders. A ‘strong’ list of criteria
present circumstances, it is better
will also avoid the circularity problem,
to offer a set of criteria sufficiently
because in consequence it will certainly
narrow that it will eliminate many
follow that not all communities-as
of the marginal, blurred and
defined on other criteria-will be dis
course communities, just as it will fol
low that not all discourse activity is
relevant to discourse community consolidation. An exclusionary list will also presumably show that the kind of
disjunctive question raised by Porter is misplaced. It is likely to show that nei
ther shared object of study nor common procedure nor interaction nor agreed
discoursal convention will themselves individually be necessary and sufficient
conditions for the emergence of a discourse community, although a combination
of some or all might. Conversely, the absence of any one (different subject areas,
conflicting procedures, no interaction, and multiple discourse conventions) may
be enough to prevent discourse community formation-as international politics
frequently reminds us.
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