Imagine that you work in a car assembly plant. You know your job and enough about the process of car assembly in general to talk to anybody else in the plant about their jobs as well. You probably have a specialized vocabulary that describes your work process. Now, imagine that you walk into an airplane manufacturing plant. Would you be able to do the same thing? Sure, many of the processes are the same, and you might be able to talk to the workers about the things you have in common. But the vocabulary is different. Workers in the airplane factory talk about different things and have different common knowledge than you do. Each type of factory represents a discourse community.
In the academic world, discourse communities are usually defined by field and subfield. That means that the discourse community of geology represents the common scholarly conversation that takes place among geologists. If an audiologist entered into their conversation (or picked up one of their journals), it’s likely that many of the terms and concepts would be unfamiliar, and a geologist would have the same problems in a conversation about audiology. Getting a grasp on your academic discourse community and its conventions is the first step to becoming a successful researcher in your field.
A discourse community:
- has a broadly agreed set of common public goals as well as shares certain values and beliefs that define the community;
- has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of expertise in content that is relevant to the community; and
- communicates information and feedback among its members using specialized vocabulary and/or genres.
In College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction, Anne Beaufort provides us with a succinct definition of a discourse community: “a social group that communicates at least in part via written texts and shares common goals, values, and writing standards, a specialized vocabulary and specialized genres.” Just as discourse communities have specialized vocabularies and standards, different discourse communities pursue different kinds of questions. Let’s take a big problem like global climate change and focus on Alaska. An environmental scientist, a pathologist, an economist, and an anthropologist would raise different kinds of questions about the same problem. The environmental scientist would ask questions like: how much has the water risen since we last checked? How have the increasing temperatures and rising water levels affected the vegetation and animal life? A pathologist would take a different approach: what new diseases have emerged in correlation with global climate change? Economists would ask how global climate change is affecting the economic situation in Alaska. How has the lumber or the fishing industry been affected by global climate change? How has global climate change affected tourism? An anthropologist might ask how global climate change is affecting the ways of life of certain indigenous groups.
Because questions vary significantly from discipline to discipline and from field to field, it is important that you assess your questions according to the discourse community you are writing within. Once you’ve selected a major, one way to develop a sense of the types of questions posed in your selected discipline is to read articles published in that field. For example, read a few of articles published in the field and identify the questions these articles raise at the beginning of the texts. Of course, these questions are not always explicitly stated, so identifying an article’s motivating questions might take some work. Write the questions out, make a list of defining characteristics, and assess your own questions next to this list. Also, pay attention to the types of questions your teacher poses either in assignments or in class. These are the kinds of questions you should be asking when you start to develop your own research project for this course.
- Beaufort, A. (2007). College writing and beyond: A new framework for university writing instruction. Logan, UT: Utah State UP. p. 179. ↵