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Eckert Jocks and Burnouts

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English

Within the world of English Language and linguistics, many linguistic studies study the link between language and social groups. Social factors such as age, gender, class, occupation, ethnicity, and region can greatly affect a person’s language use. Linguist Penelope Eckert has conducted many studies into the link between such social factors and language. One of her most notable studies is her 1989 work on the ‘Jocks and Burnouts’.1

In this article, we’ll first familiarise ourselves with the work of Eckert. We’ll then look at the Jocks and Burnouts study and link it to the broader field of social groups, exploring how the study relates to other linguists’ findings.

Who is Penelope Eckert?

Penelope Eckert is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University in California. She is well known for her work in variationist sociolinguistics and primarily focuses her research on language and gender.

Variationist sociolinguistics is a field of sociolinguistic study that focuses on the social variation of people who use the same dialect. It focuses on the contexts of language use.

You may have come across Eckert’s name within your English Language studies. We’ll have a quick look at the four years that are most often associated with Eckert’s work (1989, 1990, 1997, and 2003) before focusing on her Jocks and Burnouts study.

Eckert 1989

1989 is the year we’re most interested in in this article. In 1989, Eckert released her study 'Jocks and Burnouts: Social Categories and Identity in the High School' 1, which looks at communities of practice and their language habits.

A community of practice (CoP) is where people come together due to sharing common interests, problems, or activities. They have a mutual engagement in the shared practice and work together to fulfil individual and group groups.

Examples include classes at school, a netball team, governments, a digital marketing team, and so on.

As this is the study we’re looking at in this article, we’ll leave it here and come back to it later on.

Eckert 1990

In 1990, Eckert released an article called Cooperative Competition in Adolescent Girl Talk,2 where she looked at different social factors and the corresponding language patterns – particularly with the occurrence of gendered language. Eckert is well-known for her views on language and gender, noting the importance of other social factors such as class and communities of practice are equally as important as gender in altering a person’s speech.

Eckert 1997

In 1997, Eckert released some works that discuss a range of social aspects of language use. One of her articles, ‘Gender and Sociolinguistic Variation’,3 focuses on how gender affects language use.

A different publication, ‘Gender, Race and Class in the Preadolescent Marketplace of Identities’,4 looks at a broader range of social factors and how they relate to people creating identities for themselves through their language use.

Eckert 2003

In 2003, Eckert co-authored a book focusing on gender, aptly named Language and Gender.5 This book looked at the use of different language features such as slang in youth culture and how teens use these features to differentiate themselves from older generations.

Jocks and Burnouts: summary

Eckert’s Jocks and Burnouts study is an ethnographic study of social class in Detroit high schools.

An ethnographic study is a qualitative study that collects the data through interviews and observations. This data is then analysed to see what conclusions can be drawn about how individuals and societies function in everyday, real-life environments.

Eckert was motivated to conduct her Jocks and Burnouts study as most prior studies of language and class focussed on the speech of adults. Instead of this, Eckert wanted to look at the link between class and language from the perspective of teenagers.

Within this study, Eckert looked at communities of practice in schools and defined two prominent groups of teens. These were split into the jocks and the burnouts. We’ll look at these two groups in more detail and then at the language patterns associated with each group.

The Jocks

The first community of practice defined by Eckert was the Jocks. These people embodied middle-class culture and were keen to integrate into school life. They played an active part in school activities such as sports clubs, choir, and other clubs. These people also respected authority, aiming to gain praise and recognition for their actions.

The Burnouts

The Burnouts were the opposite of the Jocks. They typically embodied the working-class culture and did not actively involve themselves in any school-life activities. Instead, the Burnouts tended to engage in more rebellious behaviour and had a general anti-school point of view, which also meant that they were generally against authority and did not seek the approval or praise of their superiors.

What did the Jocks and Burnouts study show?

Eckert found that language differences were more closely linked to communities of practice rather than to specific social differences (class, ethnicity, gender etc.). Regardless of someone’s background, they were more likely to speak like someone who shared interest or activity with them than with someone who didn’t.

When people are in the same community of practice, it does not mean they have to have the same social background. Instead, it means the community members share and carry out certain practices together.

A 12-year-old female of African-American ethnicity and high-earning parents may participate in the choir as a social practice. On the other hand, a 17-year-old white male with low-earning parents may also participate in choir. These two people would be unlikely to be grouped going by social factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, and class. Despite this, they both enjoy the social practice of attending choir and are part of the same community of practice and may share some common language features.

This finding shows a more human approach to sociolinguistics, showing that people are more likely to speak like their friends (regardless of differing social factors) than those with whom they share a social demographic.

A social demographic is a certain selection of characteristics to make up a definable group. These characteristics include age, sex, gender, ethnicity, education, occupation, and class. If you are female and aged 16, you share a social demographic with other 16-year-old females.

Vowel variation

Within Eckert’s findings, she saw a difference in vowel variation amongst the teenagers. This variation correlated with the social categories (such as gender, age, ethnicity and class) and the communities of practice associated with these categories.

Vowel variation is where speakers may use slightly different pronunciations of vowel sounds.

For example, in British accents, the /a/ in bath is often pronounced differently in different regions – a long /a/ in the south and a short /a/ in the north. As the /a/ can be pronounced differently and retain the word's meaning, it has vowel variation.

This aligns with many other sociolinguistic studies where it is found that social factors such as age, class, ethnicity, occupation, or gender can have a significant impact on a person’s language use.

For example, an older female will likely use different language features than a younger male.

Eckert’s work goes one step further, looking at the communities of practice that people belong to in conjunction with their language differences. People were more likely to have differing language use (vowel variation in this study) if they were in different communities of practice. Thus, two people who are alike in every social aspect – same age, gender, ethnicity, class and parent’s income – could still have different vowel pronunciations if they were in different communities of practice.

Eckert- Jocks and Burnouts - Key takeaways

  • Eckert’s Jocks and Burnouts study was released in 1989.
  • The Jocks and Burnouts study looked at socio-demographic factors and practice communities.
  • The Jocks were the people who actively participated in school life and activities and embodied middle-class values.
  • The Burnouts were the social opposites to the Jocks, with anti-school and anti-authority views, and didn’t participate in school life and embodied more working-class values.
  • The study showed vowel variation occurred because of different social factors such as age and gender and because of people being part of different communities of practice.

1 Penelope Eckert. 1989. Jocks and Burnouts: Social Categories and Identity in the High School. Teachers College Press

2 Penelope Eckert. 1990. Cooperative Competition in Adolescent Girl Talk. Discourse Processes.

3 Penelope Eckert. 1997. Gender and Sociolinguistic Variation. in: Jennifer Coates ed. Readings in Language and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell.

4 Penelope Eckert. 1997. Gender, Race and Class in the Preadolescent Marketplace of Identities. Paper presented at the 96th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Washington DC.

5 Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 2003. Language and Gender. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Eckert Jocks and Burnouts

Penelope Eckert conducted the Jocks and Burnouts study.

Eckert studied the jocks and the burnouts.

Penelope Eckert is a linguist who focuses on variationist sociolinguistics. She primarily concentrates on language and gender and is well known for her Jocks and Burnouts study (1989).

Eckert conducted her Jocks and Burnouts study in 1989.

A community of practice is where people come together due to mutual engagement in everyday activity.

Final Eckert Jocks and Burnouts Quiz

Question

What year did Eckert release her Jocks and Burnouts study?

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Answer

1989

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What is variationist sociolinguistics?

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Answer

A field of sociolinguistic study that focuses on the social variation of people who use the same dialect.

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Question

What does the Jocks and Burnouts study focus on?

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Answer

The Jocks and Burnouts study focuses on communities of practice in high schools and their corresponding language habits.

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Where did Eckert carry out her Jocks and Burnouts study?

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Answer

In Detroit high schools.

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What is a community of practice?

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Answer

A community of practice is where a group of people come together due to mutual engagement in a common activity.

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What is the Jocks and Burnouts an ethnographic study of?

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Answer

The Jocks and Burnouts is an ethnographic study of class in high schools.

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Question

What is an ethnographic study?

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Answer

A qualitative study where data is collected through interviews and observations. The data is analysed to draw conclusions about how individuals and societies function.

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What were the two communities of practice Eckert found in her 1989 study?

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Answer

The jocks and the burnouts.

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How does Eckert describe the Jocks?

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The Jocks are the people whose lives revolve around school and are actively involved in aspects of school life such as clubs and school events. The jocks are often thought to embody middle-class culture.

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How does Eckert describe the Burnouts?

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The Burnouts are the people who are anti-social and anti-authority. They tend to engage in more rebellious behaviour revolving around drinking, smoking and sex. The burnouts tend to embody working-class culture.

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What did Eckert find from the Jocks and Burnouts study?

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Answer

That language differences in teens are influenced more by the communities of practice they belong to than solely by social factors such as age, gender and class.

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Question

In the Jocks and Burnouts study, what did vowel variation correlate with?

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Answer

Vowel variation correlated with both communities of practice and social categories.

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