Discourse Community – Community of Practice

A discourse community refers to groups of people who share interests, problems, goals, or fields of study.

What is a Discourse Community?

A discourse community refers to a group of people who are in conversation with one another.

Members of a discourse community share interests, goals, or fields of study. They share language practices, employing jargon, genres, rhetorical appeals, rhetorical moves, and discourse conventions. For instance, the field of medicine serves as a discourse community where members share a common language imbued with medical terminologies and methods, adhering to standardized practices and protocols during medical research, discussions, and treatments.

Members of a discourse community dialog with one another using shared language practices, including

  1. Shared Communication Styles – Writing Style
    1. Members employ a particular style of writing that may be distinguished by its tone, voice, persona, structure, research methodologies, and level of formality.

      Depending on the community, certain genres of writing or communication might be preferred. For instance, an academic community might favor peer-reviewed articles, while a community of fiction writers might lean towards narrative prose.
  2. Shared Lexis
    1. Each community often has its own jargon and specialized vocabulary
  3. Common Archive & Canon
    1. A discourse community possesses an archive and a canon, which are dynamic and evolve over time reflecting the changing norms and understandings within the community.
      • The archive encompasses all the texts created by community members, serving as a repository of the collective knowledge and discourse over time. It’s a living record that grows and changes as new contributions are made by community members.
      • The canon, on the other hand, consists of key texts and documents deemed foundational or authoritative by the community. For instance, the Constitution of the United States of America is a foundational text within the U.S. legal and political discourse community. The canon sets a standard and provides a reference point for discourse within the community, yet it too can evolve as new understandings or interpretations emerge.
  4. Consistent Discourse Conventions & Shared Rhetorical and Textual Practices
    1. Members of a discourse community share expectations regarding how documents should be composed and structured. Members of a discourse community often adhere to recognized patterns when presenting arguments, narrating stories, or engaging in discussions. These patterns are not arbitrary but are shaped by the community’s accepted practices and expectations.

      For instance, in a legal discourse community, arguments are often structured in a specific way: stating the legal issue at hand, presenting relevant laws and precedents, analyzing the facts, and then drawing a conclusion.

      Similarly, in a scientific discourse community, research findings are typically presented in a structured format that includes an introduction, methodology, results, and conclusion. These established patterns ensure clarity, coherence, and a shared understanding among community members, enabling effective communication and engagement within the community.
  5. Defined Communication Channels
    1. Discourse communities may rely on particular media or channels for communication, be it academic journals, online forums, or regular meetings and conferences.
  6. Consistent Methods of Interpretation & Research Methods
    1. Members of a discourse community typically approach texts, issues, or subjects in alignment with the community’s established interpretive and research methods. These methods are fundamentally informed by shared epistemological assumptions about the nature of knowledge and reality.

      For instance, a scientific discourse community grounded in positivism might employ quantitative research methods like experiments and surveys to gather objective, measurable data. On the other hand, a discourse community in anthropology or sociology might lean towards constructivist epistemology, employing qualitative research methods like interviews, observations, or content analysis to explore subjective experiences and social constructions.

      The distinct research and interpretive methods reflect and reinforce the underlying epistemological positions held within each discourse community, enabling coherent inquiry and dialogue among its members.
  7. Shared Citation Styles
    1. Within academic discourse communities, there is often an agreed-upon citation style, like APA, MLA, or Chicago, which members use consistently for scholarly work.


“The term “Discourse Community” is fairly synonymous to “Community of Practice.” Both concepts are concerned with how communities form around shared interests, goals, and practices.

However, the term “discourse community” may be reserved for more formal communities, such as academic communities (areas of study like biology, philosophy, or literature) or professional fields (sectors like engineering, law, or medicine). These discourse communities tend to have structured communication practices and are often tied to academic or professional advancement.

In contrast, Communities of Practice tend to be less structured, more organic scope of interaction, emphasizing shared learning and problem-solving across both formal and informal settings. Communities of Practice foster a collaborative learning environment where members can collectively address common problems or enhance their skills in a more informal or organic manner.

For instance, Reddit, a platform known for its myriad discussion boards, hosts numerous Communities of Practice. Individuals might visit a subreddit—specific discussion boards on Reddit—related to a particular hobby, professional field, or area of interest, such as a programming subreddit. In such a community, members share coding resources, discuss different programming languages, solve coding challenges together, and provide feedback on each other’s projects. They collectively engage in problem-solving and knowledge sharing, adhering to the common goal of improving their programming skills and understanding. The informal, collaborative environment of a subreddit allows for organic interactions and shared learning experiences, embodying the essence of a Community of Practice. Through engaging in discussions, sharing resources, and collectively addressing problems, members of this Reddit community are able to enhance their skills and knowledge in a more informal or organic manner, showcasing the less structured, more collaborative nature of Communities of Practice compared to the more formalized interactions often found in Discourse Communities.

Related Concepts: Audience – Audience Analysis; Discourse; ThesisRhetorical Analysis; Writing Styles


Why is the Concept of Discourse Communities Important to Writers?

  1. Understanding Audience
    • For example, a writer crafting a piece for a medical journal needs to understand the discourse community of medical professionals. This understanding would guide the use of specific medical terminologies and the level of complexity in the discussion.
  2. Effective Communication
    • When a lawyer drafts a legal document, adhering to the legal discourse community’s conventions ensures that the document is clear, precise, and adheres to the accepted legal formats, making the communication effective.
  3. Building Credibility
    • A new researcher looking to publish in a reputable scientific journal needs to adhere to the discourse conventions of the scientific community. This adherence not only aids in effective communication but also in building credibility among peers.
  4. Engagement and Persuasion
    • A political writer aiming to persuade readers about a particular policy would need to understand the discourse community of the political arena, using accepted rhetorical strategies to engage and persuade readers effectively.
  5. Professional Growth
    • A junior academic looking to advance in their career would need to publish in academic journals, adhering to the discourse conventions of the academic community, which is essential for professional growth and recognition.
  6. Learning and Adaptation
    • For instance, a business writer transitioning to writing about environmental issues might learn new discourse conventions, adapting their writing style to engage effectively with the environmental discourse community.
  7. Networking
    • Being an active member in a professional online forum, for example, allows writers to network with others in the same discourse community, opening doors for collaborative projects and knowledge sharing.

What are the Three Major Types of Discourse Communities?

John Swales (2017, n.p.) proposes there are three major types of discourse communities:

  1. Local Communities
    • “These are groupings of people who all work at the same place (as in a factory or a university department), or at the same occupation in the same area (all the bakers in a town). These DCs [Discourse Communities] have acquired many abbreviations and acronyms as well as some special words and phrases that are needed in order to get their jobs done more quickly and more efficiently—terminologies that are not used, nor even often understood, by the general public” (Swales 2017, n.p.)
  2. Focal Communities
    • “Focal Communities . . . typically associations of some kind that reach across a region, a nation, and internationally. They may be informal groupings or more formal ones with rules, elections and paid memberships” (Swales 2017, n.p.). Examples: The Modern Language Association; The National Council of Teachers of English
  3. Hybrid Communities
    • “Hybrid communities . . . have a double—and sometimes split—allegiance, as they are confronted by internal and external challenges and pressures.”

What are the six defining characteristics of a discourse community?

Swales theorizes that six characteristics guide community formation and evolution:

  1. Shared Goals:
    • Members of a discourse community have shared objectives or purposes.
  2. Methods of Communication:
    • The community has one or more mechanisms for communicating among its members.
  3. Participatory Communication Mechanisms:
    • There are mechanisms in place for members to provide feedback or information.
  4. Genres:
    • Discourse communities use and recognize specific genres that are of relevance to their communication needs.
  5. A Lexis:
    • Each discourse community has its own specific vocabulary or jargon.
  6. A Threshold Level of Members:
    • There are members with varying levels of expertise, from novices to experts.


Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre Analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge University Press.

Read More: