Penepole Eckert's book Jocks and Burnouts provides compelling examples of the depth and complexity of insights that can be gained by one who is skilled in ethnographic research methods and sufficiently committed to the work to spend one or more years studying a specific social setting. In Eckert's work the social setting was "Belten" high school, set in a predominately middle class suburb of Detroit. All told, Eckert spent two years doing participant- observation, observation, and open-ended interviewing at this one school and the area in which it is located. In addition, she did shorter periods of ethnographic work (qualitative research or simply field work, if you prefer) at two other schools in the same suburban Detroit area.
While Eckert used the full complement of established ethnographic tools in studying "Belten" High, she relied most heavily on participant-observation. Since she was thrity-eight years old when she began her research, she could not have plausibly adopted the institutionalized role of student. The other roles available -- administrator, teacher, counselor, coach -- were part of the "Belten's" authority structure, with which Eckert did not want to be identified. Furthermore, any of these established adult roles would have limited her mobility, preventing her from freely visiting court yards, the cafeteria, the auditorium, or just walking the hallways to see what was going on and finding students with whom she might do informal, unstructured, open-ended inerviewing.
Eckert purposely avoided observation in classrooms, giving priority to student activities outside of class, and, in some instances, out of school in the larger social and geographical context in which "Belten" was located. Eckert avoided observation in classrooms as another means of avoiding being seen as part of the formal organization of the school, and because she wanted to be able to actually interact with students, not simply sit in the back of the room and watch.
Whether Eckert's avoidance of observation in classroom settings was wise is uncertain, especially given her interest in curriculum tracking and the differential treatment of students. Ethnographic classics such as Rist's (1972) book The Urban School: Factory for Failure have relied almost exclusively on in-class observation and taught us a great deal about the organization of learning opportunities in school settings. On the other hand, Willis' (1977) very influential book Learning to Labor relied almost entirely on observation of out-of-classroom student interaction, especially the formation and functioning of adolescent working class peer groups, an interest that Willis shares with Eckert. Ellen Brantlinger's (1993) ethnography, titled The Politics of Social Class in Secondary School, while not of the same stature as Rist's and Willis' work, is quite informative and relied exclusively on open-ended interviewing conducted outside of school, typically in students' homes. Eckert, in short, is not alone among ethnographers of schooling in foregoing the opportunity to do classroom observation, and it seems unlikely that her work suffered because of her out-of-class focus.
Eckert's participant-observation is devoted largely to understanding how different groups of students interpret and respond to the social organization of schooling in decidedly different ways. Her primary focus was on two antithetical categories, the Jocks and the Burnouts, along with their attendant ideologies. However, at least half of Belten's students belonged to neither category, comprising a separate continuum ranging the social and cultural distance between Jocks and Burnouts, and referred to as the In-Betweens. None of the categories were perfectly homogeneous with regard to hebavior and ideology, with the greatest diversity manifested by the In-Betweens.
By focusing on the Jocks and Burnouts, Eckert produced an ideal type, a set of categories that highlight distinctive aspects of the diverse school setting. The student-generated name Jocks is a bit misleading, because most of the members of this ideologically bounded group were not athletes, but they participated in extra-curricular activities of all kinds. As Eckert understood them, they were motivated by a desire to gain status within the hierarchically organized school environment; to obtain the limited but valued autonomy that often goes with extra-curricular participation, especially in leadership roles; and, perhaps most important, to fill their resumes with the kind of entries that increase the likelihood that they will be accepted by a prestigious college or university.
The Jocks were exclusively middle class stduents who acquired from their parents and other close associates a willingness and ability to work within what Eckert terms the corporate organization of schooling. In Eckert's view, Jocks enthusiastic participation in an ostensibly meritocratic organization characterized by unambiguous ranking prepared them for effective participation in a college or university, and later in a world of work that is increasingly dominated by large corporations. In a very real sense, "Belten" specifically and schooling generally, was organized and functioned in a way that was consistent with the Jock's educational and occupational aspirations and expectations for the future.
The Burnouts, in sharp contrast, constituted a working class category similar to that of the Lads in Willis' book Learning to Labor. As with the Lads, the Burnouts had come to reject schooling primarily because, given their likely future prospects, schooling offered too little in exchange for hardwork and fun postponed until after graduation.
The Burnouts recognized, nevertheless, that a high school diploma could be useful even for those who expected to reproduce their parent's experience as members of the working class, and their lives as members of working class families and neighborhoods alerted them to the unfortunate fact that working class, increasingly, meant working poor. In effect, their orientation toward schooling was even more instrumental than the outlook of the Jocks, and the Burnouts were contemptuously dismissive of those who used Belten's extra-curricular activities and hierarchical organization as means of self-aggrandizement. In the Burnout's view, the Jocks sought to separate themselves from their fellow students for purely self-serving, status-conscious reasons.
To make the oppositional contrast between the Jocks and the Burnouts even more starkly defined, Burnouts who had an intrinsic interest in a specific extra-curricular activity felt that they were shunted aside by teachers, coaches, and administrators. Even though the Burnout's comportment served, in many valuable ways, to prepare them to make the best of the working class future that they expected to live, teachers and others in positions of authority failed to appreciate this. Instead, the contrast between the Jocks and Burnouts was interpreted by school officials to mean that the Burnouts were drug-addled and thoroughly alienated. In this way, a self-fulfilling prophecy was generated that made school life still more difficult and pointless for the burnouts.
Jocks and Burnouts is a first-rate piece of ethnographic research. I had trouble concentrating while reading it because, again and again, it prompted flashbacks, most of them unpleasant, to my own time in high school as a member of a 1960's approximation of the Burnout category. This seems to me to lend veracity to Eckert's interpretations of what she saw and heard in and around "Belten," and especially when studying the category structure that contributed to defining "Belten's" students.
At the same time, however, there are fairly long sections of Jocks and Burnouts that seem only tenuously related to Eckert's ethnographic data. As a conspicuous example, in the second half of the book, Eckert relies havily on Rosabeth Moss Kanter's (1977) book Men and Women of the Corporation. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, in fact use of an established conceptual framework borrowed from others' research is laudable, making Eckert's work less exclusively dependent on her own field work, and situating it within a larger body of literature. Nevertheless, parts of Jocks and Burnouts read as if they could have been written relying exclusively on Kanter's book and without referring to Eckert's ethnographic data. I'm certain that is not how the book was written, but in places is does seem far removed from information gathered at "Belten" or any of the other participating schools.
I also think that Eckert sometimes over-interprets and attributes more self-conscious purpose to significant actors than they may possess. After all, do teachers really know how corporations are organized and how to prepare students to participate in the corporate world of work? In an abstract way, teachers may be imbued with the sort of ethos of ranked meritocracy presented by Parsons in his 1959 article "The School Class as a Social System," but it seems quite a stretch to say that teachers are knowlingly, willfully preparing students for the corporate world of work.
Nevertheless, Eckert does seem to be on the mark when she judges that schools are organized to meet the needs of the Jocks but function in a way that prevents them from making best use of the egalitarinism, openness, mutual supportiveness, and cummunitarian ethos that are characteristics of the culture shared by the Burnouts.
Eckert makes a good case for her focus on the polar opposite ideologies of the Jocks and Burnouts. One wonders, however, if the In-Betweens, who form a continuum between these two extremes, are not painfully marginal, picking and choosing from aspects of the way of life at the two extremes, but never really fitting anywhere. Whatever the answer, Jocks and Burnouts is fine piece of social reproduction research that merits reading by a broad audience, including policymakers, educators, parents, and especially students who are trying to figure out what is going on. The substance of the book is undeniably interesting, and Eckeert is a remarkably skilled prose stylist.