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Discourse Community Ethnography

Pamala Baber

The University of Texas at El Paso



A discourse community is a group of individuals who share a common set of goals and

communicate to achieve these goals (Swales,1990). Discourse communities are something that

happens around us all the tie, but we dont usually recognize them for what they are. Based on

Swales characteristics of a discourse community, I observed and scrutinized the University of

Texas at El Pasos (UTEP) Athletic Training Department to find out if the community met the

necessary criteria to be considered a discourse community. At the end of my observation and

research, it was concluded that the UTEP Athletic Training Department is considered a discourse

community because individuals in this community have a common set of goals, have

mechanisms of communication among themselves to provide information and feedback, use

multiple genres and a specialized lexis to achieve their goals, and hold a hierarchy of different

positions due to educational level.



A discourse community is a group of people who share a common set of goals and

communicate to achieve these goals (Swales, 1990). Discourse communities happen to be around

us all the time. We as a society just never seem to notice them. According to The Concept of

Discourse Community, it is defined by six characteristics. Based on these six characteristics I

studied and examined The Athletic Training Staff of UTEP to find out if they as group followed

the characteristics of a discourse community. After overseeing my investigation, I found out that

The Athletic Training Staff upholds majority of the characteristics of a discourse community

conducted by Swales (1990). This community falls in line with the characteristics because the

athletic trainers in this department play a role in all six of Swales concept of a discourse


Literature Review

In the article The Concept of Discourse Community, by educator John Swales (1990)

he talks about his idea of a discourse community. In his article, he brings up six different

characteristics about discourse communities. He concludes and argues that we need a set of

descriptive characteristics for discourse communities. Ones that will make a community

discourse itself, even when we dont seem to realize it. Swales compared his definition of

discourse community to that of a similar speech community. The difference between the two

were concluded that unlike speech communities where individuals must be present in order to

communicate with each other, an individual in a discourse community can be in different places

and may not ever have to meet to discuss any goals they may have amongst each other. When

that occurs in a discourse community, thats what swales calls Genres. Genres are one of the

most important and complex characteristics swale uses.


Too add to the these characteristics swales implies in his concept of a discourse

community that all together there are six characteristics that make up a discourse community.

First of all, the characteristics that swales mentions are all an agreed set of common public goals

that a group wants to achieve. Second, the community has mechanisms of intercommunication

among their members. In other words, they may talk in person, through phone, or maybe even in

video chat. A discourse community also utilizes its mechanisms primarily to provide information

and feedback. For example, meetings, blogs, and emails are often used for feedback. Other

writings like a FAQs or newsletter webpage would be used as a part of information. The group

also interacts by holding either one or more genres; meaning any form of text. According to

Swales (1990) a discourse community will also obtain a specific lexis like how lawyers and

judges that work inside the court room may have their own law terminology. Furthermore, a

discourse community also has members in the group with a level of degree to add to their

expertise and knowledge on the discourse. Meaning that there are levels of hierarchy inside a

discourse community. For instance, in the hospital a doctor has more knowledge over a patient

than a nurse.

In the article Intertextuality and the Discourse Community Porter explains the power of

a discourse community. Intertext in the article is defined basically as the discourse composed of

many traces of other pieces of texts. Porter (1986) then breaks down the two types of

intertextuality. Iterability being the repeating of a certain text, and presuppositions which is when

you make an assumption about the writing. Porter also adds to the term of discourse community

by stating that rhetoric can be a part of it. He Lastly emphasizes that discourse communities

should make an individual writing noticeable because the community will provide the confidence

and social status gained by being a part of a discourse community.



For me to examine and completely understand if the UTEP Athletic Training Department

was considered a discourse community, I first had to observe my community and collect

evidence to prove so. I started off by hanging in the main athletic training building observing as

much evidence as I could. I played really close attention to the individuals in their working

environment and took notes. I observed every hour and a half and took notes for about three

days. After sitting down and really going through my notes, I noticed that in this community

whenever it came to communication individuals used mildly medical terminology and specific

texts and documents. Whenever someone in the community wasnt sure what to do with a certain

task, they would ask specific individuals. To really understand and connect to my observations, I

proceeded to interview an athletic trainer by the name of Allegra Ortiz, a senior in school for

kinesiology. I asked Allegra any questions I may have had regarding to how the athletic

department works. It helped me to piece up evidence and understand how the UTEP athlete

department would be considered a discourse community.

I spent an hour and a half almost every day for three days straight around the UTEP

athletic department, observing and obtaining to find out all the information I needed. Any

information I recorded was handwritten in a notebook, then later transformed in a word

document in a cornel note layout. It made everything easier to understand what I had observed

and obtained, and if I needed to add additional information I was able to do so.


According to John Swales (1990), a discourse community is made up of six essential

characteristics. The UTEP Athletic Training Department demonstrates all six characteristics in its

own way.

1. A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals (Swales,

1990; p. 472).

The UTEP Athletic Training Department consists of a group of individuals dedicated to

serving as care givers for student athletes, clinical educators, supervisors, and mentors for

athletic training students pursing state licensure in athletic training. Their primary goal as a

community is to protect and return the injured student athletes to sport participation, as quickly

and safely as possible. In order to reach and maintain this goal, they follow certain protocols and

procedures. For instance, when an injury occurs amongst an athlete the first thing that an athletic

trainer does is observe the injury to see what kind it is. They document and answer questions like

Can this injury be fixed shortly, or would it require surgery? Is it a fresh, old, or overused injury?

They then take action by reducing any pain, inflammation, or swelling they might have. This

could take a few days to a few weeks, but that is an important step for athletic trainers to reach

their goal. According to the interview with Allegra, getting rid of the swelling and inflammation

first is essential because it can inhibit an athlete or put them at risk for further injury if they

return to play. Allegra States that depending on the injury they may need to follow a physicians

protocol (A Ortiz, personal communication, April 6, 2017). Where a physician sets orders and is

the one to determine whether an athlete can return to play or not. Other injuries like an ankle

sprain can be left up the athletic trainer. All in all, athletic trainers in this community take

percussions and decide whats best for an athlete in order for them to return back to sport safely.

2. A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members

(Swales, 1990, p.472).

The athletic training department at UTEP communicates with each other in a bunch of

different ways. Usually over the phone and face to face are the primary sources of

communication they use. In the interview with Allegra, she explains how staff have monthly

meetings and assistances have semester meetings. The meetings for the assistances occur one in

the fall and one in the spring. These meetings are usually held in the training room. They come

together to discuss the future and primary goals of the department and touch bases on any other

subject they may need to touch up on. As far as communicating through the telephone goes, if

anyone throughout the day has a simple question or needs help with a certain situation they can

always call or text one another.

3. A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide

information and feedback (Swales, 1990, p.472).

The athletic trainers possess knowledge in injury prevention, injury recognition, and

evaluation. They also assess in immediate care, and the treatment, rehabilitation, and

reconditioning of an athletic injury. For them to do this, they do need to communicate with

the athlete about the when, wheres, and hows. When did the injury happen? Where did this

happen at? And How? They also answer questions on injury reports and acquire feedback

from it. An athletic trainer and the rest of the community itself also gives off and receives

information and feedback when they participate in the acquired meetings. They make use of

the process of evidence based practices that goes on in the community in order to keep the

information and feedback up to date.


4. A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the

communicative furtherance of its aims (Swales, 1990, p. 472).

Amongst the UTEP Athletic Training Department, they refer to a specific text called the

National Athletic Training Association. Every official athletic trainer must be certified. Every

state has what they call a scope of practice for their athletic training department. Each state is

different, but a scope of practice in the book provides an athletic trainer with a set of rules of

what they can and cannot do. What the community also adds to this characteristic is that for

every athletic injury, a trainer must complete an injury report. These injury reports are always

kept and documented down in some form of journal for specific reasons only.

5. In addition to owning genres, a discourse community had acquired some specific lexis

(Swales, 1990, p.473).

Its very beneficial that as a member of the athletic training program they realize the type of

vocabulary that will be used. A lot of medical terminology is used throughout the community.

When injuries happen its best to know what kind of injury it. For instance, in the interview I had

with Allegra she explains that when an athletic injury happens you must know if its acute or

chronic. A type of vocabular you need to know when feeling out injury reports, and receiving

information from a following member.

6. A discourse community has a threshold level of members with suitable degree of

relevant content and discourse expertise (Swales,1990, p.473).

The members apart of the UTEP Athletic Training Department fall into a level of hierarchy

depending on their educational level. It includes new members applying to athletic training and

members who have pioneered the field and are now considered the experts. At the beginning of

the hierarchy are those with the highest educational level and at the bottom of the hierarchy are

those still learning and working towards it. In this community, there are two head trainers Dawn,

who is head of everyone, and Tony who is the assistant head. Then there are 3 full time assistants

who already have their masters in kinesiology and stay with their given sport permanently. Under

the full-time assistants, there are 5 graduate assistants that are still working towards their

masters. Lastly at the way bottom of the hierarchy, there are student assistants that are working

towards their under graduates in kinesiology.

To sum it up, since all six of Swales characteristics are met within the UTEP Athletic

Training Department, it is qualified as a discourse community.


All in all, the UTEP Athletic Training Department is considered as a discourse

community because it abides by every single one of Swales characteristics. The UTEP Athletic

Training Department has a specific primary goal, obtains a specific lexis, uses multiple genres

for communication, communicates within its members, and lastly has members in a hierarchy

manner based off their level of education.



Porter, J. E. (1986). Intertextuality and the discourse community. Rhetoric Review,

5(1), 34-47.

Swales, J. (1990). The concept of discourse community. In D. Downs & E. Wardle (Eds.)

Writing about Writing (2nd Ed., 466-474). Boston: Bedford St. Martins