Eckert Jocks and Burnouts

Within the world of English Language and linguistics, many linguistic studies look at the link between language and social groups. Social factors such as age, gender, class, occupation, ethnicity, and geographical 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 BurnoutsL Social Categories and Identity in the High School’.1 

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Table of contents

    The study revolves around the examination of two distinct social groups in a typical American high school: the 'Jocks' and the 'Burnouts'. Eckert observes their distinct behaviours, language usage, social norms, attitudes towards school and future aspirations, highlighting how social identity influences language variation and change.

    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.

    Penelope Eckert: background

    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. She has significantly contributed to our understanding of the relationship between language and social dynamics, particularly in youth culture. Her work, including the "Jocks and Burnouts" study, provides valuable insights into how social identities and categories are reflected and reinforced through language use.

    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.

    Penelope 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.

    Eckert Jocks and Burnouts, A group of friends sitting in a park with laptops and study books, StudySmarterFig. 1 - People with similar interests and hobbies will likely belong to the same communities of practice.

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

    Penelope Eckert: 1990

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

    Penelope 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.

    Penelope Eckert: 2003

    In 2003, Eckert co-authored a book, alongside Sally McConnell-Ginet, 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.

    Penelope Eckert - Jocks and Burnouts summary

    In 'Jocks and Burnouts,' Eckert presents a detailed analysis of the relationship between social identity and linguistic behaviour in a suburban Detroit high school. 'Jocks' are generally associated with school-sponsored activities, higher social status, and adherence to school norms, while 'Burnouts' are associated with resistance to school culture, lower social status, and non-school activities.

    Eckert found that these social categories influenced not only the students' behaviour and attitudes but also their linguistic choices. This study highlights how language can both reflect and reinforce social group identities. Eckert’s Jocks and Burnouts study is, therefore, 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 students 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.

    Eckert Jocks and Burnouts. Two American football players passing the ball in the middle of a game, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Jocks in Eckert's study were generally involved in school activities such as sports and other clubs.

    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.

    Eckert Jocks and Burnouts, A teenager posing for a photo in front of graffiti while holding a camera, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Burnouts in Eckert's study didn't really care for school and tended to rebel against authority.

    Penelope Eckert - Jocks and Burnouts findings

    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 an 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 therefore 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.

    Penelope Eckert - Jocks and Burnout's vowel variation theory

    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 belonged to different communities of practice. Thus, two students who are alike in every social aspect – same age, gender, ethnicity, class, and parent’s income – could still have different vowel pronunciations if they belonged to different communities of practice.

    Eckert Jocks and Burnouts, A group of people touching hands while studying ina circle, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Communities of practice are based on shared interests rather than other social factors.

    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.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Eckert Jocks and Burnouts

    Who did the Jocks and Burnouts study?

    Penelope Eckert conducted the Jocks and Burnouts study.

    What 2 groups did Penelope Eckert look at in Detroit?

    Eckert studied the jocks and the burnouts.

    What did Penelope Eckert do?

    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).

    When did Eckert do her Jocks and Burnouts study?

    Eckert conducted her Jocks and Burnouts study in 1989.

    What is a community of practice in sociolinguistics?

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

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