“What is Professional Discourse?” by Kenneth Kong

9781107025264The following is from the first chapter of Professional Discourse:

What does it mean to be a professional? What does a professional do to distinguish themselves from laymen and other professionals? To many people, being a professional means a degree from a medical school, many years of experience in an occupation or even just an affiliation with a particular organization or guild. A profession is much more than these. In order to understand how a professional undertakes duties and jobs in their daily routines, an interdisciplinary approach is inevitable and discourse analysis is in a well-placed position to do this because its assumption that discourse is mediated by different social contexts allows insights from different disciplines to be integrated into the analysis.

Professional discourse is the language used by professionals including lawyers, doctors and engineers. However, the term ‘professional’ should be extended to emerging professions, which are part of a phenomenon that Gee et al. (1996) call the ‘new work order,’ whereby workers are empowered by regulatory forces once common only in traditional professions to increase their motivation and productivity. Besides this practical reason of motivation, the call for professionalism in any job is also driven by two other important factors: the increasing need of specialization and the exercise of control through language. The modern workforce has been increasingly specialized and the traditional division of jobs may not be sufficient. There can be different types of specialization. Some are more focused on mechanical operation and others are more on manual or mental abilities (Freidson 2001). The distribution of everyday, practical, formal and tacit knowledge will be all different accordingly. The division of jobs into different professions also serves the function of what Foucault calls the ‘objectification’ of subject. By objectifying people into categories or professions, they can be more easily controlled and manipulated from institutional view.

In narrow sense, professional discourse refers to the language used by certain professionals, such as doctors and lawyers. In broader sense, professionals may include any individuals who have undergone some specialist training in the workplace. This may include teachers, marketers, sales executives, financial planners, etc. This broader view of professional discourse resonates with Gunnarsson et al.’s view (1997) of professional discourse as the language used by a diverse range of ‘professional areas’ or ‘domains’ such as legal, medical, social welfare, educational and scientific fields which are marked by ‘a unique set of cognitive needs, social conditions and relationships with society at large’ (1997: 5). This also underscores what Gotti (2003: 24) refers to as ‘specialist discourse’ which refers to ‘the specialized use of language in contexts which are typical of a specialized community stretching across the academic, the professional, the technical and the occupational areas of knowledge and practice’ To a large extent, any profession or company represents a ‘discourse system’ (Scollon and Scollon 2001), which links members through a shared ideology, socialization, face systems and discourse forms. This book takes the broader view of professional, that is professional may include any individuals who have undergone some specialist training or education before they are eligible to become a member of certain professions.

What is Professional Discourse?

Professional discourse is the language produced by a professional with specialist training to get something done in the workplace. Some scholars hold that it involves only communication between a writer and reader who are both professionals. Others maintain at least one of the participants has to be a professional. For example, Bargiela and Nickerson (1999) argues that one of the defining characteristics of professional discourse is status dimension in which one has a professional role and hence a higher status than a lay person, which is the reason why professional discourse usually takes place in an institution. The broadest, yet a more comprehensive notion of professional discourse is provided by Linell (1998) who argues that professional discourse can be divided into three categories:

(1) Intraprofessional discourse, or discourse within a specific profession, such as communication among academics;

(2) Interprofessional discourse, or discourse between individuals from or representatives of different professions, such as communication between medical doctors and pharmaceutical sales persons, or between accountants and engineers; and

(3) Professional-lay discourse, such as communication between lawyers and their clients, or between advertisers and their potential customers.

Added to these categories is the regulatory professional discourse which is used to regulate or control a profession, for example, the codes of practice issued by a hospital to doctors and nurses. Regulatory professional discourse, usually taking an occluded form, should belong to the categories of intraprofessional or interprofessional discourse. Certainly, regulatory discourse can be written by peers or professionals of other categories but there is a very significant difference comparing with other kinds of communication, mainly in that regulatory discourse has a very strong normative function in shaping and forming the profession in question. Another important dimension that should be added to conceptualizing of professional discourse is the interactional or affective function of language in professional contexts, where interpersonal negotiation of meaning is always at stake in addition to exchange of information. Lastly, the language used by professionals plays an important role in socializing their professional roles and identities, as many have argued professional discourse is a ‘licensed belonging’ to a profession (Candlin 1997: xi-xii) or a ‘banner of identity’ (Wenger 1998). As pointed out by Mertz (2007: 3), ‘a lawyer thinks like lawyer because one speaks, writes and reads like a lawyer’. Learning how to communicate like other professionals is always the first step of getting into a profession. This is especially the case in professions which heavily rely on communication, such as the law and public relations.

In brief, professional discourse can be defined as any semiotic forms-spoken, written or visual-constituted by and constitutive of social and domain-specific contexts, and used by professionals with special training in order to achieve transactional and interactional, as well as socialization and normative functions. As an interdependent system relating to ideology and social relationship, professional discourse can be oriented among professional peers and different professionals, be targeted to laymen or be used as a regulatory force to control the practice of professionals themselves. This definition will be explained in detail in chapter 2. Analysis of professional discourse has been deeply entrenched in the traditions of teaching of English for specific purposes in Britain and the European continent and the teaching of composition or rhetoric in USA. This pedagogical focus has shifted attention away from the central issues of power and domination to the more practical values of use or functions. While there is nothing wrong with this functional approach to professional discourse, there are many issues that have been intensely raised in other cognate approaches (such as Critical Discourse Analysis) but remain unanswered or even unexplored in the analysis of professional discourse. This is surprising because most of our time are spent in the workplace. There are several theoretical assumptions that that have to spelt out before moving on, i.e. social constructionism and social practice, socialization and identity, and indexicality, reflexivity and performativity.

[More about Professional Discourse can be found here.]


hlmKenneth Kong is Associate Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Tadewos Elka says:

    Dear all, thank you for what you had put and reflected in this field. I have used your idea. But, one question to you. what is the base or parameter of classifying the professional discourse into 3 or 4. E.g intraprof….. , interprof…., or professional – lay discourse. .?

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