In his essay, "Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction and What is Literacy?" James Paul Gee writes about Discourses—not little "d" discourses, as in connected stretches of language that make sense, but capital "D" Discourses. According to Gee, capital "D" Discourses are defined as "ways of being in the world; they are forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and social identities as well as gestures, glances, body positions, and clothes." He goes onto describe them as "a sort of ‘identity kit’ which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, and often write, so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize." So Discourses, then, act as identities. They are combinations of speech, actions, existences, values, and beliefs, which vary among social settings.
Capital "D" Discourses can be divided into two groups: primary Discourses and secondary Discourses. Primary Discourses are the ones we develop at home, before we are exposed to differing social settings. These are the Discourses that are given to us. Secondary Discourses are those which develop away from home, for example, the identities we form for school or church or work. We are able to choose these Discourses.
People enter into secondary Discourses in order to assimilate with others' primary Discourses. But secondary Discourses are often influenced by primary discourses, an idea which has the potential to either help or hinder a person in her attempt to assimilate. For example, a girl whose primary Discourse is heavily influenced by athleticism may have trouble being fluent in a secondary Discourse like pageantry. And if she struggles to be fluent in this secondary Discourse, she may be viewed as a "pretender" and not "one of" those who claim pageantry as a primary Discourse.
Here is a video clip which provides an example of failed fluency in a secondary Discourse:
Disney's Mulan is a great example of how (1) secondary Discourses can be affected by primary discourses, (2) failure to be fluent in secondary Discourses can result in alienation, and (3) people can be forced into adopting secondary Discourses.
(1) In the film, Mulan is presented as an atypical daughter in the Chinese tradition. She is bold, clumsy, and boyish. Her primary Discourse hinders her fluency in the secondary Discourse of becoming the "perfect bride."
(2) In the scene following the one above, we see that Mulan fails to impress the matchmaker, and as a result she is alienated by the rest of the female community.
(3) This clip shows that secondary Discourses may not be chosen, but can be forced upon people. Mulan obviously does not desire this path for her life, but she takes it in the hopes of bringing honor to her family.
Those of us who have seen Mulan in its entirety know that she later becomes fluent in another secondary Discourse—the military. In this case, Mulan's primary Discourse assists her in her quest to become fluent in the ways of the Chinese army, and she is eventually accepted (after an initial struggle) by the other warriors. This idea is particularly interesting to me, because it implies that those who are brought up in certain primary Discourses may be limited in the types of secondary Discourses they are able to successfully adopt later in life. For example, a man who grows up in the back woods of Alabama may find it difficult to become fluent in a corporate business Discourse. This idea has the potential to create a sort of "rich get richer, poor get poorer" effect (loosely speaking). If primary discourses lay the foundation for secondary Discourses, does this mean that people with lower-status primary Discourses cannot succeed in high-status secondary Discourses?