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Issue Brief: Discourse Communities

Charles Bazerman

University of California Santa Barbara

The term discourse community identifies a grouping of people who share common language norms, characteristics, patterns, or practices as a consequence of their ongoing communications and identification with each other. With respect to writing, the term has been used to point out that different academic collectives write in characteristic registers and genres (see Bazerman 1979; Swales 1990, 1998; Bizzell 1992; Porter 1992; Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995).   The term has been useful in orienting people to a sociological understanding of the varieties of writing done by students, academics and members of other social groupings, often differentiated by discipline, kind of institution, and level of education.  The term was formed by analogy with the sociolinguistic term  “speech community,” identifying regional groups that share linguistic norms and/or typical phonological, lexical, morphological and syntactic patterns. (Gumperz, 1962, 1968; Labov, 1972).

While useful in suggesting the social distribution of writing, the term discourse community has been criticized in being imprecise and inaccurate, by emphasizing the uniformity, symmetrical relations and cooperation within text circulation networks (Bazerman & Prior, 2005).  Social collectivities in communication are often contentious, by design or accident.  People within them are cast into or adopt different roles with different discursive power, rights, obligations, and expectations. Texts often circulate in what might appear to be heterogeneous groupings, as teachers write to administrators, colleagues, parents, students, and local charitable organizations that provide school materials. Indeed, the circulation of texts may form groupings that might not otherwise have any regular communicative relations prior to being brought together by the circulation of documents.  These and other social complexities suggest a more subtle and varied sociological vocabulary is needed to describe the set of relations within text circulation networks as well as to describe the ways genres mediate the actions and relations within these social collectivities, such as that provided by sociocultural theories of genre and activity (Bazerman, 1988, 1994, 1999; Bazerman & Paradis, 1991; Bazerman & Russell, 1997, 2003; Russell, Devitt Such approaches emphasize the emergent and performative aspect of social organization, which is being constantly remade or structurated (Giddens, 1984) by each act of communication (Yates and Orlikowski, 1992)). Similarly Prior (1998) talks about disciplinarity rather than disciplines—disciplines only being constituted by peoples acting in view of their vision of what constitutes disciplinarity.

Relevant Sources (A Brief Bibliography)

Bazerman, C. (1978). Written language communities. Paper presented at the Convention of College Composition and Communication. Minneapolis.

Bazerman, C. (1988). Shaping written knowledge: The genre and activity of the experimental article in science. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Bazerman, C. (1994). Systems of genre and the enactment of social intentions” In Genre and the new rhetoric. Ed. A. Freedman and P. Medway, pp. 79-101. Taylor & Francis.

Bazerman, C. (1999). The languages of Edison’s light.  MIT Press, 1999.

Bazerman, C & Paradis, J. (eds.) (1991). Textual dynamics of the professions. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Bazerman, C. & Prior, P. (2005). Participating in emergent socio-literate worlds: Genre, disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity. In Multidisciplinary perspectives on literacy research, ed. J. Green & R. Beach. pp. 133-178. NCTE.

Bazerman, C. & Russell, D. (eds.) (1997). The activity of writing; The writing of activity. special issue of Mind, Culture and Activity 4:4.

Bazerman, C. & Russell, D. (eds.) (2003). Writing selves, writing societies. WAC Clearinghouse.

Berkenkotter, C. & Huckin, T. (1995). Genre knowledge in disciplinary communication.   Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bizzell, P. (1992) Academic discourse and critical consciousness. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press

Giddens, A.  (1984).  The constitution of society:  Outline of a theory of structuration.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Gumperz, J. (1962). Types of linguistic communities. Anthropological Linguistics 4(1):28-40. 

Gumperz, J. (1968). The speech community.  In International encyclopedia of the social Sciences, pp. 381-6. Macmillan. 

Labov, W. (1972). Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Porter, J. (1992). Audience and rhetoric: An archaeological composition of the discourse community. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Prior, P.  (1998).  Writing/Disciplinarity:  A sociohistoric account of literate activity in the academy.  Mahwah, N.J.:  Erlbaum.

Russell, D.  (1997).  Rethinking genre in school and society:  An activity theory analysis.  Written Communication, 14, 504-554.

Swales, J. M. (1990).  Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Swales, J. M.  (1998). Other floors, other voices: A textography of a small university building.  Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Yates, J., & Orlikowski, W. J. (1992). Genres of organizational communication: a structurational approach to studying communication and media. Academy of Management Review, 17, 299-326

Leading Journals

There is no journal devoted to discourse community as a concept, though the term is commonly used in a range of composition journals.

Written Communication frequently publishes in this area.

Mind, Culture and Activity is the leading journal in Activity Theory.

Relevant Organizations

The most relevant organization is devoted to Genre theory: SIGET-- Simpósio Internacional de Estudos de Gêneros Textuais -- runs a biannual conference in Brazil. Selected papers from the 2007 symposium in the volume Genre in a Changing World are available at  

The primary organization for Activity Theory is the International Society for Cultural and Activity Research (ISCAR) at

Document and Site Resources

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Most Recent Comments (1 Total Posts)

Posted By: Anonymous User on 9/27/2012 8:29:29 PM

it would be great if you could Differentiate between the 6 different discourse communties!!!!!

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