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Thursday, December 16, 2004

My Big, Fat, Greek, University System.

I recently had the opportunity to read Alexandra Robbins' new book Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities. Now, I know that many of you probably think that I did so out of some sort of voyeuristic interest in the all-female wing of collegiate Greek life. After all, as a diehard GDI I was never deeply embroiled in hedonistic world of fraternities or sororities, right?

Well, you're partly right, and partly wrong. I was, indeed, a God Damned Independent in college. I was, in fact, the only person on my freshman hall of either sex who did not participate in Rush. (Well, okay, except for that one girl who tried to commit suicide in the first six weeks, but she's a special case.) Actually, not participating in rush gave me the opportunity to do something else quite special: wander bare-ass naked through my dorm while everyone else was at Greek rush. Now, how many of you can claim to have done the same thing?

In any case, despite my reluctance to rush I was not untouched by the Greek system. The local chapter of Alpha-Tau-Omega, a Southern fraternity that on our campus was known for comparatively gentlemanly behavior, tried to informally rush me for a while. I might have given in had I not objected to the culture of alcoholism and sexism promoted by even the best fraternities at my school.

As a side note: Sweet Jesus do I sound like a radical feminist. Why is it that in my blog I rarely come across as the misogynist bastard I really am? Or am I misperceiving my blog?

Beyond this flirtation with brotherhood, however, I also received an introduction to Greek life through the sorority system. Most of my friends in college were women and a number of them were Greek. As a general rule my friends were either members of Kappa-Kappa-Gamma (A middle-of-the-road sorority at my school), Alpha-Phi (the low-status, but diverse and interesting group), or Alpha-Phi-Omega (A co-ed service fraternity distinguished as much by its community service, as by its marked lack of mental stability and tendency towards inbreeding). I was partciularly treasured by my friends as a reliable and acceptably fun friend-date, who could be counted on as an entertaining and sober companion. As a result, I got to know quite a few sorority sisters, as well as their boyfriends. I also came to be familiar with some of the particular, and subtly disturbing, aspects of sororities, such as the KKG ritual that involves kneeling, clapping, floor-pounding, and singing in unison. This particular display of collective effervesence probably would not have been so disturbing had the sisters not been in evening gowns at the time.

So, despite my independent status, I did get a few lessons in the Greek system. Hell, come to think of it, I pimped one of my friends to Alpha-Phi- helping her meet sisters and get a spot-bid since she couldn't afford to participate in formal rush. Thus, I was not reading Robbins' book out of a voyeuristic need to peer into the sorority system, but rather in the hopes of getting some interesting sociological insights from a journalist's account. Hey, it worked pretty well on other occasions with a variety of different subjects.

Unfortunately, while voyeurism was not what I went in search of, voyeurism is all that I got. While Robbins does inject a certain amount of interesting background into her essentially ethnographic discussion of sorority life, her book is sadly lacking in analysis. It is, in almost every respect, merely a recitation of events in the lives of several sorority sisters, with relatively little attention paid to the social context, and next to no deep analysis of what was happening.

This superficial quality is most frustraing in two places: her discussion of hazing practices and her account of negotiations within a sorority over an abusive boyfriend. In the case of the former, Robbins does go into considerable detail about hazing, its history, and its persistence in the Greek system, but she utterly fails to ask the simple question, "Why is hazing so important to Greeks?" A barely competent social scientist could easily conjure forth accounts dealing with shared experiences for building group solidarity, and the need for rituals to mark life transitions. Durkheim could, doubtless, have discussed the topic at length. Further, the unpleasant aspects of hazing can easily be explained as emerging from the mechanism of cognitive dissonance: once one has survived the hazing experience, one must conclude that the organization is very important and worthy in order to justify tolerating humiliation at the hands of one's new "sisters." Harsh hazing emerged because it can often be a highly effective tactic for ensuring group solidarity. Unfortunately, for all her skill as a journalist Robbins is not even a barely competent social scientist, and fails to express anything but bafflement at the behavior of her subjects.

In the case of the abusive relationship, an opportunity to illuminate critical aspects of Greek culture was entirely missed. To explain, one of the book's focal women was involved in a somewhat violent altercation with her boyfriend, who was routinely verbally and emotionally abusive. The subject's friends within the sorority intervened and required the subject to sit down at a private meeting with them and the sorority "house mom" to decide on a course of action. The outcome of this meeting, however, was fascinating: the subject was prohibited from seeing her boyfriend at the sorority house, where she lived, and was compelled instead to see him at his off-campus apartment. This is fascinating to me in a particular sense: the subject had clearly been physically imperiled, although it was hard to tell how far the male in question might have gone. Her sorority sisters had intervened and required a meeting of her, presumably out of concern for her well-being. Yet, the conclusion of that meeting was a decision that protected the sorority itself from being publicly embarrassed by having a violent confrontation in its house, but in the process exposed one of its members to greater personal risk. One would have expected, if the sorority was truly concerned with its members, that the subject would have been advised not to see her abusive boyfriend anywhere BUT the sorority house, where a number of sympathetic allies would be close at hand. Instead, it appears that individuals became a resource for the collectivity, and that the collectivity is not a resource that can be drawn upon by members. Despite this fascinating example of social parasitism, however, "Pledged" simply rolls on uncaring and without any analysis.

Matters only go downhill when one at last reaches the concluding chapter where the author offers suggestions for the reformation of the Greek system. Of course, as there has been virtually no analysis to this point there has been no indication the author even believes that reformation may be necessary, and no case has been made as to why. So, the reader is caught somewhat by surprise. The suggestions themselves, aside from being poorly grounded in the text, are almost laughably absurd. One of the central recommendations is that hazing and pledging be eliminated- perhaps a good idea in theory, but not one that is likely to be successful. Groups need rituals to constitute themselves, and they need rituals to integrate new members. Calling for an end to those rituals is essentially equivalent to demanding that the sun cease its tireless movement through the heavens. Further, Robbins' repeated suggestion that responsible adults be more involved in Greek life is problematic in two senses. First, college students are already legal adults, who may vote, sign contracts, and go to war. As such, perpetuating the middle-class tendency to treat college students as big children simply reinforces their tendency to act as such. Second, one of the few nuggets of analysis provided by Robbins is that the national organization of many sororities, operated by older women, may actually drive them to more conservative, and destructive, places than the active college membership would go otherwise. As such, her call for more adult participation seems, at best, contradictory and, at worst, hopelessly naive.

"Pledged" had potential, but unfortunately falls far short. A chapter or two might be valuable as supplemental material for an undergrad class, but otherwise this book is of little use to the professional sociologist or the interested layperson. The time necessary to read it would be better spent elsewhere.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Kappa "ritual" you are talking about must be "Oh Pat", which is not so much ritual as a public song. I just wanted to clarify. The difference between ritual and song/chant is that ritual is private - meaning only initiated sisters should know & that should never be written down.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 7:50:00 PM  

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