The Sociological Lense and Problem of Hazing

Posted by Ronald | March 31, 2012  |  No Comment

By Patricia Warren Hightower, Ph.D.

In the United States, hazing has increasingly become a problem in high schools, fraternities and sororities, athletic teams, and other professional organizations.  Although there are a variety of scholarly definitions of hazing, for our purposes it is defined as individuals being forced to commit an act or acts in order to be initiated into or affiliated with a particular organization. Such events include but are not limited to, alcohol binge drinking, blood pinning, sexual assaults, drowning and psychological abuse.

In the US, the first-known hazing incident dates back to 1657 when Harvard University administrators, fined several upperclassmen for hazing freshman students.  Since that time, there have been other known fatal hazing incidences on college campuses which have led to student deaths at the University of Texas, University of Maryland, Auburn University and many other academic institutions.   As a result, by 2011, 44 states have passed anti-hazing legislation with the purpose of criminalizing individuals that engage in such acts while also sending a “zero tolerance” message.

Despite the large social movement surrounding hazing, one question continues to plague us is:   WHY DOES HAZING CONTINUE TO EXIST?  According to Hank Nuwer, several factors must be considered in order to understand the ongoing existence of hazing:

First, as an American culture we have not and do not publicly denounced it.  In fact, Nuwer notes that a fairly large percentage of the US population defends hazing as a necessary and important ritual.  In one of Nuwer’s studies, he found that several respondents openly accepted hazing as a “rites of passage” into certain clubs and organizations.” For example, one respondent stated that “America is the home of the free and if he wants to join organizations that beat the crap out of them then he should be allowed to.”   Another notable respondent, who is also mother stated, “There are so many wimps in US society. Everybody wants to be a victim. Hazing among athletic teams, and other social groups, is a rewarding and bonding experience.” These kinds of philosophical stances reinforce the culture of acceptance of hazing and until we publicly denounce it as a larger societal problem, it will continue to exist.

Next, we currently view hazing as an individual problem that only affects a few people.  This approach is problematic because it is does not view hazing as a systemic problem.  That is, hazing is a national epidemic that crosses racial, ethnic, class and university boundaries. High school and college administrators must be encouraged to create anti-hazing policies, just like they have adopted anti-bullying strategies. The policies must clearly define hazing and outline how they will punish those individuals who are caught engaging in such acts. Without such efforts hazing will continue.

Finally, it is still unclear why our children and young adults allow themselves to be hazed.  In order to more fully understand the realities surrounding hazing, we must accept the fact that we have generations of students who are “DYING TO BELONG.”  That is, they are so eager to associate themselves with a particular organization that they are willing to be beat, kicked, slapped, drowned in alcohol and sexually assaulted all for the purposes of “BELONGING”.  We must teach our children and young adults that brotherhood and sisterhood is not connected to abuse. Bullying does not signify love. We do not tell the domestic violence victim that they are being loved when they are being smacked around or verbally assaulted. Instead, we encourage them to get far away from their abuser as quickly as they can. So we must instill the same value in our children. We must also discourage the culture of silence that is associated with the need to belong.  Students must have a safe haven to report such abuse without fear of backlash from their peers and other organization affiliates.

These factors in combination will not solve the problem of hazing quickly.  Nor are these ideas intended to point the finger or blame any individual or academic institution.  Rather, the points expressed here should be used to call attention to the mechanisms that have given rise to a culture of hazing that is detrimentally affecting our young people.

Dr. Patricia Warren Hightower is an Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University.  She received her Ph.D. in Sociology in 2005 from North Carolina State University.   Her research interests include racial profiling, crime and social control, and racial disparities in sentencing.  Her research has appeared in some of the top journals in criminology including The Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Criminology, Criminology and Public Policy.  In addition to her published work she has been the recipient of several grants and awards including 2010-2011 McKnight Junior Faculty Development Fellowship, and the 2011 Florida State University Committee on Faculty Award Support.

Leave a Comment