The construction of gender roles in peer groups

Term Paper 2004 13 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Peer groups and language
2.1. Social and linguistic function
2.2. Identification in a peer group
2.3. Peer pressure

3. Behaviour and language in peer groups
3.1. Mixed-sex peer groups
3.1.1. Structure
3.1.2. Strategies
3.1.3. Teasing
3.2. Same-sex peer groups
3.2.1. Structure & activities
3.2.2. Standard versus non-standard language
3.2.3. Topics
3.2.4. Conflicts and problem-solving
3.2.5. Teasing and exclusion
3.2.6. Conversational strategies
3.2.7. Explanations for the choice of same-sex peers
3.3 Comparison of the function of same-sex and mixed-sex peer groups

4. Explanations
4.1. Separate World Hypothesis
4.2. “with-then-apart” arrangements
4.3. Other influences
4.3.1. Parents
4.3.2. Culture
4.3.3. Media

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

At the beginning of the semester break, I wanted to seize the opportunity to relax and went to the beach with some friends. Since we arrived very late, we were glad to find one single space to spread out our towels. After a short time, we got to know why exactly this place was left: we found ourselves in the middle of two different worlds. On the left, there was a group of girls, about twelve years old. On the right, their counterparts were seated, a group of young boys. And the space between them was our now. Lucky us!

All my acquired knowledge about gendered behaviour was confirmed. The girls sat down and talked about relationships with their family and with friends; they brushed each other’s hair and sang together. On the other side were the boys making fun of each other and occupied playing soccer all the time. Unfortunately both of the groups were silent after I sat down with a pad of writing paper and a pencil, ready to observe them. Although I did not get any data, I got an impression about the structure, behaviour, and language of same-sex peer groups, and I decided to write my term paper on this topic.

I will work on the premise that especially same-sex peer groups are of vital importance for children’s development. There they learn gender appropriate behaviour and language.

In my term paper I want to explain the nature and function of peer groups and examine the language that develops in same-sex and mixed-sex peer groups. The paper will focus mainly on same-sex peer groups, because they are the basis for the differences in the development of girls and boys.

Therefore I organized my term paper the following way: Before I introduce the general concept of a peer group, I want to point out the importance of children for the reproduction of the social order in a particular society. I will also focus the attention on the linguistic significance of peer groups. After that I will sum up the different patterns of behaviour and communication of girls and boys in same-sex and mixed-sex peer groups, which I found in several papers on this topic. Then I will introduce the “Separate World Hypothesis”, which should, according to my thesis, explain the turned up differences. Furthermore I will try to demonstrate difficulties of the hypothesis and give other hypotheses opposing it. Finally I will point out problems which might come up during the study of peer groups.

2. Peer groups and language

Gender is a social construct: one has to learn to behave and to talk according to the appropriate gender roles, and language takes on a key role in this process. Gender roles are mainly passed on during socialization in childhood, and peer groups are one very important influence. „Demnach werden erst in der Sozialisation die Geschlechterrollen und geschlechtsspezifischen Verhaltensnormen vermittelt sowie eine Geschlechtsidentität ausgebildet, die zusammen zu geschlechtsspezifischen Wertorientierungen führen.“ (Microsoft Encarta Enzyklopädie Professional 2003)

2.1. Social and linguistic function

Although there is much known about children’s learning process in school, less attention is paid to the social learning process that occurs among peers.

Peer groups are places where children acquire knowledge about the society they live in, including stereotypes and expectations. Consequently, peer groups are important social constructs that help to create and maintain the prevailing social order of a society. With the more recent awareness of language as social behaviour, the important function of language in this process has been stressed. Being linguistically competent also means to learn how to behave as a member of a particular society.

2.2. Identification in a peer group

One can assert that in a peer group, children learn to get along in a world with people like them, who have similar interests and moral concepts. That is why children identify and therefore come to speak much more like their peers than their parents. With regard to the future development of a language, this is an important function: peer groups are significant sources of linguistic change, and especially adolescents carry over many stylistic innovations into adult language (Eckert 2003 : 390).

In the course of children’s development, the contact with peers gradually increases while that with adults decreases. Peer groups are not only sources for the linguistic and social development, they also give emotional support for both sexes of all ethnic groups.

2.3. Peer pressure

Nevertheless one must keep in mind that uniformity of language and behaviour in a peer group can also be a result of peer pressure.

Maccoby claims that peer pressure is more distinctive among boys than among girls. She works on the premise that much stronger forces bind boys’ groups than girls’ groups, which lead “to a much more exclusionary kind of play” among them (Hall 2003 : 367). Consequently, fitting in a particular peer group becomes a major concern especially for boys. One can suppose that this pressure could be a reason for the different grades of acceptance of non-conforming behaviour. In contrast to girls, boys are more likely to be excluded when they talk and behave like a so-called sissy. However, one might also argue that maleness has a higher value in society and therefore boys who do not fit are rejected, whereas girls who adopt some kind of male behaviour are not considered being odd, because they confirm to the norm.

Eckert, in contrast, points out that “girls experience greater pressure than boys to be ‘popular’ but have fewer outlets for achieving this status” (Romaine 1999 : 206). While boys can become popular for instance by doing well in sports, girls can do nothing but look, talk and behave the right way.

3. Behaviour and language in peer groups

Most of the researchers agree on the basic descriptions of children’s behaviour and language in same-sex and mixed-sex peer groups. The following chapter will summarize these findings.

3.1. Mixed-sex peer groups

Since research focuses mainly on same-sex peer groups in order to explain sex differences in communication, there is less information available concerning the language in mixed-sex groups.


From early age on, boys tend to dominate mixed conversation. Like men, who talk more than women in mixed company, boys tend to use longer utterances than girls. Studies found out that in school and in the family, all participants worked together to achieve male dominance (Coates ²1993 : 153). One can assume that this is also valid for peer group talk.

3.1.2. Strategies

Haas’ 1978 study of child language revealed different conversational strategies in mixed-sex peer groups. Boys used more direct forms and sound effects, whereas girls laughed a lot and used forms that show agreement. Boys’ conversational part can be interpreted as being more active and entertaining, while girls are in general more supportive (Coates ²1993 : 162).

Both adapt their linguistic behaviour in mixed conversation, but girls are likely to do it more often and in greater proportions than boys. 1990, Tannen noticed in a study that girls are aware of the differences in communication and “can style-shift to suit the sociolinguistic context; boys, on the other hand, tend to be mono-stylistic” (Coates ²1993 : 165). As mentioned in connection with peer pressure, their can be several reasons for girls being able to style-shift while boys are not able to.

3.1.3. Teasing

Although girls are said to be more sensitive and mitigating, studies found out that girls are also likely to join when boys are teasing each other. So girls and boys contribute to the reinforcement of gender stereotypes. Since teasing is also a way of flirting, girls’ role can be interpreted in this direction.

3.2. Same-sex peer groups

According to Jennifer Coates, gender is the organizing principle that structures children’s activities. “One of the chief reasons that girls and boys develop different styles of talk is that the all-girls and all-boys groups to which they belong interact in vastly different ways.” (Coates ²1993 : 157)

3.2.1. Structure & activities

Boys tend to play in larger, hierarchically organized groups. Joint activities are the main principle that their friendships are based on. On the contrary, girls prefer smaller groups or even pairs, and not activities but talk is the basis of their friendship (Coates² 1993 : 157).

The structure of same-sex peer groups is mainly determined by the activities the group engages in. Lever (1978) and Goodwin (1990) contrasted the different activities children participate in according to their gender. While sitting inside and talking was an often observed activity of girls, boys tended to play group-games outside, which are mainly based on competition like running or wrestling (Tannen 1994 : 128).

3.2.2. Standard versus non-standard language

When growing up, the usage of non-standard forms declines among girls and is stable or even increases among boys. These findings match with the usage of non-standard forms among adults. One can assume that gender norms, which become more significant when children get older, cause this shift.



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Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald – Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik
Gender Linguistics



Title: The construction of gender roles in peer groups