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English Composition 2089: Researching Discourse

This guide provides resources for researching discourse communities and the documents, videos, reports, images and other materials they create.

What Is Discourse?

Essentially, discourse is an act of communication between a composer and audience for a particular purpose.  This communication can take a variety of forms. 

Here are some common forms of discourse:

  • newspaper article
  • scholarly journal article
  • speech
  • radio or TV broadcast
  • published report
  • poem

However, also think beyond textual discourses, for example:

  • advertisement
  • emojis or memes
  • architecture or design, e.g. 9/11 Memorial
  • graffiti
  • tattoos
  • clothing styles

You are encouraged to think expansively about what counts as a discourse so that your work in English 2089 reflects the diversity and richness of 21st century discourses and communication practices.

Discourse Analysis

When considering any form of discourse, in addition to understanding WHAT is being said, also focus on WHO is creating the text, WHY they are doing so, and HOW the resulting discourse impacts or has impacted the issue.

Ask yourself the following questions to ANALYZE discourse:

  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What is the purpose of the information presented? (inform, persuade, entertain)
  • What types of evidence are used to support the claims of the information?
  • How is information shaped by a particular genre? (Consider the audience, layout, space, style, conventions, etc).
  • How literate, biased, and/or credible are those producing this discourse?
  • To what degree is the discourse mainstream (understood by the broad audience) or considered non-traditional or even avant-garde?

Analyzing the discourse on an issue is different from arguing a position on an issue.  See the chart below for an example of these differences:

Topic Arguing a Topic Analyzing Discourse on a Topic
Cars and pollution Should US automakers spend more money and research to make cars less harmful to the environment?
  • Who are the discourse communities in conversation about pollution controls in cars?
  • Which groups/companies/organizations have the most authority to influence the outcome and why?
  • How much influence do consumers have in this debate?
  • What forms or genres do groups use to convey their messages?
  • Who is or are the audience(s) for these messages?

Discourse Communities

A discourse community is 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." Anne Beaufort, College Writing and Beyond.

Different discourse communities will often discuss the same topic in very different ways. The concept map below shows some discourse communities involved in conversations related to obesity.
 

Discourse community concept map

Examples of Discourse Communities

Professional:

  • emergency room nurses
  • prison guards
  • political aides

Be careful to sufficiently narrow your focus so you are not trying to analyze a community with millions of members who have vastly different discourse practices (i.e. “scientists” or “business people”)

Societal:

  • activist organizations (PETA, NRA, Sierra Club)
  • a specific ethnic group (Amish, Native Americans living on reservations, Cajun)
  • a campus club or organization
  • charity organizations

Be sensitive to stereotypes if you analyze a community associated with race, religion, etc.

Civic:

  • the PTA or similar school groups
  • political action groups

Cultural:

  • fan groups (Trekkies, Potterites, the BeyHive)
  • Civil War re-enactors
  • game clubs (Dungeons & Dragons, Magic Cards, etc.)

Tips on Choosing a Discourse Community to Analyze

  • Choose communities that are in conversation on a particular topic or problem.
  • Select key communities that represent various perspectives on a topic.
  • Choose an organized or connected community that has a common purpose; for example, the animal rights group PETA.
  • Be specific: instead of Cincinnati Reds fans, choose members of the RedsZone or the Rosie Reds.
  • Focus on the discourse of an entire community, not on a specific person.

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