Beaufort: "Operationalizing the Concept of Discourse Community: A Case Study of One Institutional Site of Composing"

Beaufort, A. (1997). Operationalizing the Concept of Discourse Community: A Case Study of One Institutional Site of Composing. Research in the Teaching of English, 31(4), 486-529.



Notes since 1980s trend of social context research in composition. Beaufort working particularly with "that mid-space, beyond the level of immediate rhetorical context but not as broad as entire cultures - a space that composition specialists have referred to increasingly as discourse communities" (487). Wants to know "at what social borders do writing practices change?" (487). (Uses example of asking if writing processes look the same at all automotive companies, just at Ford, at for-profit US corporations). Understand that social borders always in flux.


The Theoretical Framework: A Notion of Discourse Community


Issues of defining discourse community-- boundary issue (where/how to distinguish one community from another) and pragmatic problem (for every thesis, an antithesis). Beaufort argues for three critical features:


  1. "modes for communication - oral and written - whose interplay affects the purposes and meanings of written texts (Basso, Heath)
  2. overarching norms for texts with regard to genre features, which may be unique to a given community or shared with overlapping communities (Swales)
  3. roles for writers (including how writing roles are distributed), and specific writing tasks as defined by the communicative situation (Basso, Swales)" (489)


Plus three influencing factors:


  1. "a set of underlying values and goals for the community that influ- ence all aspects of text production (Rafoth, Swales)
  2. material conditions, such as spatial relations among participants, and available tools for communication, that influence writing activities (Chin, Gunnarsson)
  3. ndividual writers'' histories, goals, and skills as brought to bear on community writing practices (Bazerman)" (489)


Draws pretty picture on 490.


States research questions:


  1. "What were the salient features of the discourse community under investigation that influenced or complemented writing activity?
  2.  What was the interrelationship of genres and the discourse community in which they were used?
  3. What issues arose when writers had to learn new genres as they moved from academic contexts for writing to this professional context for writing?" (490)


Context of the Investigation


The Research Site


Year-long study. Large (approx 50 employees) non-profit in urban area. Fictional name: JRC/Job Resource Center. Chosen to examine academic to professional writing learning transfer.




Four women managers interviewed; two newbies (Ursula and Pam) two 3 and 5 yrs'' (Birgitte and Selma) experience. Estimated 50% of their work week devoted to on-the-job writing.




Data Collection


included audio taping of open-ended  interviews; document collection; discourse-based interviews; audio-taped convos between indies about writing projects; observation of various writing activities, day2day operation of org, position of mailboxes, and convos at Xerox machine, microwave, special events.


Beaufort did not assist with writing activities to avoid skewing data but was participant observer. Attended JRC public functions, wove research questions into conversations.


Also interviewed supervisors, those outside JRC who recieved the informants'' texts, writers in other organizations, etc. Provides table indicating data collection (3710 pages of writing samples, 65.5 hours taped interviews, etc.)(494).


Data Analysis


sorted xscripts and entering coded sections into dbase under three broad cats: community, text, and writer-- plus number of sub-cats (493). Developed a variation on Swales''s schema to interpret data.


Even notes her transcription practice.




describe "communal aspects of writing which the data revealed" (494).


The Focal Discourse Community


Notes relationship between organization''s goals and ''high stakes'' for some JRC docs. Grant proposals, etc. received most attention; if for major request, Exec Dir would be involved in writing doc; if over 500K, might hire professional grant writer. "The number of people involved with the production of a text - and at what levels in the organization - was in direct proportion to its significance to the organization''s goals" (495). Internal communications shaped by both material conditions and org''s goals and values. Creates "Hierarchical Relationship of Texts" graphic on 496.


Cites Pam''s process norming to internal discourse (Awww, another memo!). Interesting anecdote of person who was fired for just "holing up in cubicle and writing endless internal memos" (498)-- not getting that the memo dictated by social organism.


Notes written discourse normally evolves "out of office talk" (500).


Overlapping Discourse Communities, Shared Practices


Tie in to practices at other insitutions (biz, feds, local gov, private foundations). Provides bubble chart (Venn diagram?) of overlap.


Ursula''s understanding evolved-- originally irritated to write letters thanking for "small services," but eventually saw what boss Mei saw-- how these furthered relations.


Demonstrates a cultural "distancing" as ethnographer: "In American business values of politeness, deference in accord with social rank (e.g., never in the closing to a letter ask someone of higher rank to initiate a call,) appeals to individuals'' self- interest, and leaving sensitive matters implied or unsaid ensures that multiple and often conflicting purposes can be achieved in face-saving ways and in ways that also protect individuals and institutions legally, as Leong pointed out" (503).


Sub-genres of business letter-- include Letter of request. Covers establishing contact and how that works into interaction.


Overlapping Discourse Communities, Differing Practices


Looks to two sites external to JRC to view how practices percieved. "Again, the data are not meant to typify discourse community features for all government agencies, nor do the data give the full range of communicative practices of those entities. I present instead a view of two particular institutions involved in awarding grants to agencies like JRC and the differing practices associated with a shared genre, the grant proposal" (507).


Covers writing federal grant proposal. Usually in this grant process do not communicate except for technical questions-- this time had f2f meeting for awards ceremony.


Compares to local government communication. Shorter, and oral comunication important part of process (e.g., schmoozing).


See Table 2 (511).


Explores how Pam''s understanding develops over the year-- e.g., 1 day to write proposal instead of five. 


Written text only a starting point.


Pushing Against Discourse Community Norms


Mostly has observed Pam and Ursula''s attempts to learn/follow discourse community norms. Also wants to show where they''ve pushed against, citing two reasons: "to accurately represent the data and to further test the heuristic power of the notion of discourse community and what experiences might be encountered at border crossings from one community to another" (514).


Ursula struggled between sense of good writing and the community requirements. (Matters of business letter etiquette). Holdbacks from other discourse communities (e.g., the University) and values.


Pam-- similar situation. (ethnographic training and proposal)




Consider this as meta-function-- the broader issue of "whether the data enable us to operationalize the notion of discourse community as a meaningful unit of analysis and whether there is heuristic power in the concept for purposes of teaching writing" (518).


Discourse Community as Unit of Analysis


Commonalities (such as business letters and sub-genres) suggest "American business at large can be recognized as a stabilizing social entity in relation to certain textual practices" (518). "The broad features of the activity, even the category of genre was similar, but differing social purposes and values led to different appropriations of communications modes (oral and written) and to differing textual norms for the genre" (519).


Factors Influencing Discourse Communities


Community values and goals: supports how found in community. "The community''s values influenced what was communicated via what mode, the norms for texts, and writers'' roles" (519).


Material conditions: Physcial proximinity; "family values"


Individuals'' communicative goals and values: Ursula (just facts) vs. Pam (tell all let reader decide). Little influence to change community''s discourse practice, but potential influence.


Communicative Activities


Three aspects:


Choice of communications modes: Primarily oral/function of discourse community, then written


Norms for texts: genres "fluid and flexible" (521).


Writer''s roles and tasks: complex social relations; not just a matter of thesaurus but f2f/phone convos needed. "A writer''s relative status in the organization was in proportion to the level of importance of the text to the organization''s overall goals. In the case of JRC, the highest status was given to those who wrote grant proposals" (522).


Unit of Analysis Reconsidered


Arrives at working definition of discourse community: "A discourse community is a dynamic social entity within which a set of distinctive, yet changeable, writing practices occur in relation to other modes of communication as a result of the community''s shared values and goals, the material conditions for text production, and the influence of individual community members'' idiosyncratic purposes and skills as writers" (522). Size less important than there are distinguishing features. "Genres are intellectual scaffolds on which community-based knowledge is constructed" (Berkenkotter and Huckin 501; qtd. in 522-23).


In sum the data suggest that looking at multiple dimensions of writing from the perspective of community practices allows us to see dynamics we might otherwise miss: 1) the influence of values and ideology on modes of communication, norms for genres, and writers'' roles and tasks, 2) the relationship between oral and written communication at a particu- lar site for composing and how those relations shape the written dis- course, 3) the symbolic functions of texts - apart from any imparting of information - in negotiating social relationships, and 4) the ways in which differing values for written text - even for the same genres, such as the grant proposal - may vary or clash across discourse communities. (523)


Discourse Community as Heuristic in Teaching Writing


Application to instruction. Can''t help students understand more than the discourse community that they''re in, but should have metawareness of principles or schemata (problem-solving, critical thinking).


Sees discourse community as in a middle ground; social activity. Offers as example:


For example, positing the notion of discourse community as I have operationalized it here leads to a series of questions that can be asked of a text in order to understand its community function:


1. What other communications accompany this text - before or after it is written? How do these communications shape the text?


2. What is communicated by the fact that the mode of communication is written rather than oral discourse in this rhetorical situation? What purpose and meaning does that give to the written communication?


3. What is said by what is left out of the written text?


4. What is the value placed on the text by the communities using it, and given those values, what social role does the writer play in the community?


5. How do the goals and values of the discourse community inform the norms for genres, and the rhetorical strategies employed in those genres? (526)



Issues: Cites Pratt but wrong title! Very up front and anticipatory as to research design.



Author''s Abstract:




Scholars have employed a number of theoretical frames for interpreting the social dynamic in acts of composing text: constructivist relations between writers and readers, genres as situated action, systems of genres, inter textuality, and discourse communities. The latter has been disputed on philosophical grounds and has not been operationalized in concrete terms through empirical research. This study takes a systematic approach to defining and operationalizing the notion of discourse community, drawing on data from a portion of an ethnography of writing in a workplace setting. Textual dynamics and acts of composing could be seen in their fully contextualized manifestations when examined at the level of community prac- tices. For example, a single genre varied in form and function depending on the specific discourse communities in which it was used, and writing events took on layered meanings - some practical and some symbolic - as they were viewed in relation to other communicative activities. Discourse community norms and val- ues also established hierarchies of texts and different writing-related roles for mem- bers. The data suggest the validity of discourse community as a theoretical con- struct and point to the importance of anthropological approaches for studying sites of writing. In addition to theoretical implications, there are educational implications as well. If writing were fully contextualized for students and the overarching framework of discourse community were made explicit, writers would be aided in the necessary boundary crossings from one community of writing practice to another.