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My Work on Language and Adolescence and Preadolescence

Since adolescents lead all other age groups in sound change, their social practice is key to understanding the social mechanisms of change. This - along with the fact that I think adolescents are cool - is what motivated me to undertake ethnographic work with adolescents starting in the early eighties.

I chose the school as the main site for the research because this was where almost the full range of kids from a community are brought together. It is an important site for the construction and the reproduction of social categorization schemes such as class,\ race, gender, age. The school is also important to studies of adolescents because the school institution is at the center of discourses of adolescence in the US, and hence dominates the lives of adolescents in the US whether they attend or not. And while my work focused on the kids, their social practice and their language, I couldn't help but think a lot about educational practice. See my publications on this topic.

From the moment I decided to work with adolescents, social and linguistic analysis became inseparable in my mind. This was particularly so because the social science literature I found on adolescents took an adult-centered and/or pathological perspective. I was unable to base any linguistic analysis on the available literature, and my shock at the available literature became a commitment to fill what I saw as a serious gap. Before I began writing on the linguistic aspects of my work, therefore, I wrote on the ethnographic ones which, frankly, I considered to be the more important. See my publications on this topic.

Ethnographic Projects

Jocks and Burnouts
In the early eighties, all the theory about the significance of class in variation was based on adult class categories. But since it is adolescents who are the movers and shakers in linguistic change, I wanted to see what class meant to them. More generally, I wanted to examine the relation between variation and adolescent social structure. So in 1980, I undertook an ethnographic study in some suburban Detroit high schools.

The Preadolescent Heterosexual Market
This study grew out of the work on Jocks and Burnouts. It asked the following questions - how does the peer social order emerge? How do the gender differences that emerge with this social order come about? How do adolescent linguistic styles emerge from kid talk? How can we theorize style as social practice? This project is based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork in Northern California.