Schmidt & Kopple Discourse Community Article Review After reading the Schmidt and Kopple article, please answer the questions below; please answer in complete sentences.
How do Schmidt and Kopple define/characterize discourse communities?
Why is this important to understand? (You as a person, you as a writer, you as a writer for this class)
What parts of this article are most directly helpful for your DC project?
The article also argues that there is a positive association between rhetoric and access (or widening one’s access) to various discourse communities—how do you see this in your own world?
How does awareness of one’s status as insider or outsider of a discourse community relate to “understanding audience”?
How does understanding the concept of discourse communities relate to an awareness of diverse systems of meaning making present in academia—and the world? “Discourse Communities”
Gary D. Schmidt and William J. Vande Kopple
Most of you are probably at or near the point when, after considering the many different academic programs
available at your college or university, you must decide which program or programs to major in. For a few of our own
students each year, this decision is easy. One of our current students, for example, has known since before she was in high
school that she wanted to major in cultural anthropology in college.
But for some of our current students, the time when they review academic programs is one of great uncertainty.
Writing in her journal, one of our students described her uncertainty this way: “All the possible fields to study and you
must choose one. How in the world are you supposed to know?”
A few of these students actually find this time of uncertainty exciting. One wrote in his journal that “there are so
many areas that interest me.” He added that he would probably graduate with a “double major in biology and English with
a minor in sociology with an emphasis in engineering.”
For most of our undecided students, however, sooner or later this time of uncertainty leads to anxiety. One wrote
that “I am terrified of continuing in college and not knowing what to major in.” Another admitted that “in some bizarre
way I wish I lived in a country where someone would just tell me what to specialize in.”
What makes choosing a field to major in particularly frightening for some students is that as they read
assignments and listen to lectures in various disciplines, they have difficulty understanding what people are writing and
talking about. Some of our students have described to us how they have attended lectures in various disciplines, struggled
to find anything like threads in the arguments, and left with barely a suspicion as to what the lectures were about.
Our basic claim in this book is that, as you survey the various academic programs available to you , what you are
seeing are the products of many different discourse communities at work. In fact, at this point in your lives, quite possibly
you are being exposed to a larger number of various discourse communities than you ever will be again. The work of
some or many of these communities might not make sense to you now. But now you are probably not a full member of
any of these communities; you must choose which one or ones you want to learn the ways of and then work your way into
full membership. Our goals are to introduce you to many different discourse communities, to help you read and write
successfully within several discourse communities, and to aid you in understanding and evaluating the work of many
communities you do not become a full member of, both while you are in college and throughout the rest of your lives.
What is a discourse community? In general terms, it is a group of people who share ways to claim, organize,
communicate, and evaluate meanings. More specifically, if you and a friend have one or more discourse communities in
common, the two of you will probably spend a significant amount of time focusing your attention on the same issues and
things. And both of you will probably have a firm sense of why you focus on those issues and things. Moreover, the two
of you will share many ways to think and communicate about those issues and things, as well as many ways to evaluate
your thinking and communicating. Finally, the two of you will agree about many kinds of actions that your thinking and
communicating can and should lead to. In great measure, then, the systems of meaning associated with the discourse
communities that you belong to will be at the center of how you interact with others and the world.
To further clarify the nature of discourse communities, we should look at some of the ways they can differ from
each other. In the first place, we see that people from different discourse communities often differ in their fundamental
beliefs about reality. For example, one writer whose work we anthologize, the Venerable Bede (see 62), writes out of the
discourse community of medieval Christianity. Within that system of meaning he sees what many modern people would
regard as coincidences or accidents as miracles caused by God. On the other hand, Jean-Paul Sartre (see 378) writes out of
the discourse community of modern existentialism, and within that system of meaning he calls readers to face the
consequences of admitting to themselves that God is dead.
People working within different discourse communities also often differ in what they study and in what they are
concerned about. Sometimes they study altogether different objects or phenomena. For example, Mao Zedong (see 239),
writing within the tradition of Marxist art criticism, focuses on how artists in Red China should construct works of art to
elevate and educate the masses and thereby to strengthen the country’s commitment to Marxism. Fernand Braudel (see
109), working within the community of scholars practicing what is often called “total history,” examines how several
aspects of life in the Mediterranean world affected events in the age of Phillip II of Spain. And Benjamin Lee Whorf (see
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369), working as a linguistic anthropologist, studies whether the structures of Native-Americans’ languages lead them to
see the world differently from the ways that speakers of other languages, especially European languages, do.
Sometimes people from different discourse communities focus on different aspects of the same object or general
phenomenon. Both Gerda Lerner (see 137) and Carol Gilligan (see 529) focus generally on the place of women in the
modern world. But Lerner, who works as a feminist historian, tries to trace how, throughout the history of Western
culture, men have institutionalized a subordinate position for women. And Gilligan, who works within the discourse
community of feminist developmental psychologists, studies how women’s overall systems of morality are different from
those of men and how women develop these systems.
As you have probably guessed, members of one discourse community often employ methods in their work that
differ from those that members of other discourse communities use. Among the different methods described in the essays
that we include in this book are all of the following: probing one’s own memory, channeling voices from powers beyond
this world, speculating about people’s basic motivations, examining accounts of the lives of slaves in the American South,
reading several novels of a particular kind and thinking about what structures they have in common, interviewing subjects
of different ages and backgrounds, sending opinion surveys to other people, observing the actions of a tribe of people and
then asking a native informant what those actions signify, examining and measuring objects and animals in the natural
world, and analyzing sections of nerve tissue under a microscope in a laboratory. Some of these methods are occasionally
used by members of more than one discourse community; others are used only by members of one particular discourse
Of course, different methods lead to different kinds of evidence. To consider a few examples, in the essays we
include, the probing of one’s memory leads to personal testimonies or accounts. The reading of novels and thinking about
what their structures have in common leads to a classification of probable structures for that kind of novel. And the
laboratory analysis of sections of nerve tissue leads to precise measurements of how cells grow and become specialized
for different functions.
Different methods, then, produce different kinds of evidence. And these kinds of evidence are often so clearly
different from each other that one of the better ways for you to increase your skill in distinguishing one discourse
community from another is to ask, “What kinds of evidence does this one group of people accept? What kind does this
other group accept?” If both groups accept the same kinds of evidence, they are probably parts of an overarching
discourse community. If one group rejects the kinds of evidence that the other group values, then the two groups are
probably included in different discourse communities.
If one discourse community depends on evidence of a different kind from that which another discourse
community depends on, you would expect that these two groups would use different terms in communicating about their
work. And that is exactly what happens. As you read writers from the various discourse communities represented here, it
might occasionally seem to you that one writer is using a different dialect of English from another writer. For example,
Robert G. K. Waite (see 128), who represented a discourse community that has come to be called psychohistory, uses
terms such as primal scene trauma, castration anxieties, and Oedipal fantasies. Roger Fry (see 216), who helped to found
the discourse community of formalist art criticism, writes about “disinterested intensity of contemplation,” “rhythm of
line,” and the “balancing of the attraction to the eye about the central line of the picture.” Finally, Thomas S. Kuhn (see
408), who writes within the discourse community of the philosophy of science, writes about “normal science,” the
“emergence of a paradigm,” and the “genesis and continuation of a particular research tradition.”
Once a discourse community agrees about what counts as valid evidence, it also has to reach agreement about
how much of that evidence to use and about how to present that evidence. Here again, discourse communities can differ
radically from each other. Some demand that their members present all possible evidence. Others require only a
representative sampling of evidence. Some hold that their members ought always to proceed in a straight line, step by
logical step, incrementally. Others encourage their members to circle around from one bit of evidence to the next, hinting
at logical connections, gradually weaving the evidence into an appealing texture.
Additionally, different discourse communities make progress toward addressing their concerns in different ways.
Some make progress in small steps along the same line of inquiry. Others encourage some of their members to work along
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different lines. Still other communities operate along one line for a while and then abandon it entirely and pursue a
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, members of different discourse communities usually work to achieve
different ultimate purposes. In “Keeling Islands: Coral Formations” (see 611), Charles Darwin, one of the earliest
evolutionary biologists, aims to describe three classes of coral reefs and then to argue for his own hypothesis about how
they originate and change. Gerda Lerner, a feminist historian, has a very different ultimate purpose. In “The Creation of
Patriarchy” (see 137), she summarizes the steps in the historical development of the system of patriarchy and then argues
that both women and men need to step outside patriarchal thought and develop a feminist worldview. And Virginia Essene
pursues yet a different overall goal. Working within the community of New Age thinkers and writers, she seeks in “Why
You Came to Planet Earth” (see 420) to move young adults to recognize that they are bodies of light similar to angels and
that they chose to come to earth long ago to rescue the planet from such evils as war, violence, and negative thinking.
In view of the many specific ways in which one discourse community can differ from another, it is easy to see
why those unfamiliar with a particular community could be shocked or baffled by what and how those in that community
talk and write. Discovering that one’s way of claiming and communicating meaning is not the only way can be
devastating. The whole process of maturing reflects how people either learn or fail to learn how to encounter and respond
to the discourse of communities that are new them. Some people regard each encounter with a new discourse community
as unsettling and intimidating. Others view each such encounter as an exciting adventure. They look forward to
encounters with systems of meaning that are different from their own.
As you move through your college career, you might be surprised at how many systems of meaning there are and
at how different some of these are from your own. To this point we might have given you the impression that the only
different discourse communities in the world are the various academic disciplines. That is not the case. The different
academic disciplines do constitute different discourse communities, but other groups of people do too. For example,
people from different cultures usually make up different discourse communities. So do people with different religious
beliefs. And people holding different economic theories also usually make up different discourse communities.
In this light, it is easier to see that not all members of one particular discourse community will have overall
systems of meaning identical in all respects. It is possible for those who have one discourse community in common (for
example, the discourse community of quantum physics) to have others not in common (for example, the discourse
communities of different religions). And it is also possible for people to move in and out of discourse communities,
changing their systems of meaning as they grow older.
In view of all the ways in which members of one discourse community can differ from members of another
discourse community, you might wonder how the members of one would ever be able to communicate with the members
of another. Unfortunately, too often people from different discourse communities do not communicate well at all. You
might have had the experience of reading essays written by members of different discourse communities. With each essay
addressing the same issue or problem, perhaps you discovered that the writers seemed to write past each other, never
seeming to find common ground. Or worse, you might have read people who missed understanding each other so
completely that they gave up trying and literally had a fight using words on a page.
But is all speaking and writing between discourse communities just a babble of voices, a war of words? No. Often
people from different discourse communities do communicate well with each other. These people are usually those who
have worked hard to bring their differences into the open, to see the nature of these differences clearly, to seek the reasons
for these differences, and to react to them with humility. These people are also usually skilled in the art of rhetoric, an art
that enhances communication both within and between discourse communities. We believe that those who are skilled in
rhetoric are those who will be able to continue enlarging the number of discourse communities they can communicate
within. In so doing, they may actually succeed in bringing several different discourse communities together in one much
larger, overarching discourse community.
Schmidt, Gary D. and William J. Vande Kopple. Communities of Discourse: The Rhetoric of Disciplines.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1993.
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