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Fraternity Hazing and the Process of Planned Failure

  • ALDO CIMINO (a1)

American fraternities have long engaged in hazing, subjecting their prospective members to curious and painful ordeals. Many fraternities also appear to incorporate planned failure within their inductions: near-impossible tasks where failure is punished with hazing. This paper provides evidence for the widespread use of planned failure in fraternities, describing its application in a modern hazing fraternity and presenting evidence of planned failure in other fraternities using interviews and decades of scholarly and non-scholarly accounts of hazing. Discussion is focussed on possible explanations for the existence and persistence of this ostensibly core feature of fraternity inductions.

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1 Allan, Elizabeth J. and Madden, Mary M., “The Nature and Extent of College Student Hazing,” International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 24, 1 (2012), 8390 ; Haas, Jack, “The Stages of the High-Steel Ironworker Apprentice Career,” Sociological Quarterly, 15, 1 (1974), 93108 ; Herdt, Gilbert H., ed., Rituals of Manhood: Male Initiation in Papua New Guinea (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1998); de Albuquerque, Carlos Linhares and Paes-Machado, Eduardo, “The Hazing Machine: The Shaping of Brazilian Military Police Recruits,” Policing & Society, 14, 2 (2004), 175–92; McCarl, Robert S. Jr., “Smokejumper Initiation: Ritualized Communication in a Modern Occupation,” Journal of American Folklore, 89, 351 (1976), 4966 ; Schlegel, Alice and Barry, Herbert, “Adolescent Initiation Ceremonies: A Cross-cultural Code,” Ethnology, 18, 2 (1979), 199210 ; Vigil, James Diego, “Street Baptism: Chicano Gang Initiation,” Human Organization, 55, 2 (1996), 149–53.

2 This is an operational definition and not a claim about the “true nature” of hazing. Indeed, the hypotheses explored in this paper suggests ways in which hazing may be group relevant to fraternities. That said, hazing has attracted the attention of academics and policymakers because it appears unjustified and in need of explanation. This definition is an attempt to demarcate the induction practices that prompt such first-order intuitions.

3 See review in Cimino, Aldo, “The Evolution of Hazing: Motivational Mechanisms and the Abuse of Newcomers,” Journal of Cognition and Culture, 11 (2011), 241–67.

4 For example, Cialdini, Robert B., Influence: Science and Practice, 4th edn (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2001); van Gennep, Arnold, Les rites de passage, trans. Vizedom, Monika B. and Caffee, Gabrielle L. (University of Chicago Press, 1960 ; first published Paris, France: É. Nourry, 1909); Young, Frank W., Initiation Ceremonies: A Cross-cultural Study of Status Dramatization (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965).

5 Such as the creation of a masculinized identity. Taylor, Brandy, Disrupting Fraternity Culture: Folklore and the Construction of Violence against Women (Boca Raton, FL:, 2010); Sanday, Peggy Reeves, Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus (New York: New York University Press, 2007; first published 1990).

6 For example, Dundes, Alan and Dundes, Lauren, “The Elephant Walk and Other Amazing Hazing: Male Fraternity Initiation through Infantilization and Feminization,” in Dundes, Alan, ed., Bloody Mary in the Mirror: Essays in Psychoanalytic Folkloristics (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002), 95121 .

7 In the manner of Walker, Milton Glenn, “Organizational Type, Rites of Incorporation, and Group Solidarity: A Study of Fraternity Hell Week,” Dissertation Abstracts International: Section A. Humanities and Social Sciences, 29, 2 (1968), 689 .

8 According to my primary informant, Alpha's induction process is orally transmitted and has no written, canonical version. (My primary informant, “Thomas” was the Alpha member with whom I had the greatest rapport: a senior member who talked to me at length about how the group functioned.)

9 See examples in James Allen Rhodes, “Selected Factors Related to the Scholarship of Undergraduate Men Living in Fraternity Houses at the Pennsylvania State University,” at; Svaan, John, “The Effect of Fraternity Hazing on College Socialization,” Dissertation Abstracts International: Section A. Humanities and Social Sciences, 27 (1967), 3518 ; James Berlyn Whitehead, “Fraternity Objectives and Programs at Indiana University: A Description and Evaluation,” at

10 These are common features of pledge books. See Alan Winthrop Johnson, “A Survey and Evaluation of Pledge Training in Three Undergraduate Social Fraternities for Men,” master's thesis, University of California at Los Angeles, 1941.

11 My agreement with Alpha requires that I withhold certain aspects of their hazing practices, including the specifics of the nauseating food fed to pledges.

12 Two interviewees not included here are worth noting. One appears to have been at least mildly hazed (he noted that he had to clean and run errands for actives). Though he seemed somewhat hesitant to discuss his induction, he stated nothing that directly indicated planned failure as part of his mild hazing. Another interviewee was from the same fraternity as Steve, and thus his inclusion would have been redundant. Like Steve, he indicated significant planned failure, noting that it was present in “pretty much everything” in his fraternity's induction.

13 For example, Piper, P. F., “College Fraternities,” Cosmopolitan Magazine, 22 (1897), 641–48.

14 For example, drinking games. See Allan and Madden, “The Nature and Extent of College Student Hazing”; Nadine C. Hoover, “National Survey: Initiation Rites and Athletics for Ncaa Sports Teams,” Alfred University, at; Nadine C. Hoover and Norman J. Pollard, “Initiation Rites in American High Schools: A National Survey. Final Report,” at

15 Johnson.

16 Ibid., 89.

17 Robert C. Stone, “A Sociological Study of a Fraternity,” at, 42, emphasis added.

18 Butler, William R., “Factors Associated with Scholastic Achievement in High and Low Achieving Fraternities,” Personnel and Guidance Journal, 38, 2 (1959), 134–41.

19 Ibid., 138.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., 139.

22 Golburgh, Stephen J., The Experience of Adolescence (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company, 1965), 16 .

23 Ibid., 1, emphasis added.

24 Leemon, Thomas A., “Fraternity Initiation as a Rite of Passage: A Description,” Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B. Sciences and Engineering, 31, 1 (1970), 31 .

25 Ibid., 161.

26 McMinn, Bobby Lawrence, “A Content Analysis of the Esoteric Ritual Manuals of National College Social Fraternities for Men,” Dissertation Abstracts International: Section A. Humanities and Social Sciences, 40, 7 (1980), 3815 .

27 Ibid., 154–58.

28 Raphael, Ray, The Men from the Boys: Rites of Passage in Male America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), 8090 .

29 Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape, 148–79.

30 Ibid., 173, 76–77.

31 Wright, Esther, Torn Togas: The Dark Side of Campus Greek Life (Minneapolis: Fairview Press, 1996), 78 .

32 Arnold, James C., Alcohol and the Chosen Few: Organizational Reproduction of an Addictive System (Boca Raton, FL:, 1998), 179 .

33 Nuwer, Hank, “Cult-Like Hazing,” in Nuwer, ed., The Hazing Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 3250 .

34 Ibid., 40.

35 Land, Brad, Goat: A Memoir, 1st edn (New York: Random House, 2004).

36 Ibid., 123–24.

37 Taylor, Disrupting Fraternity Culture.

38 Ibid., 42, emphasis added.

39 Matt Westmoreland and Josephine Wolff, “In the Hot Seat: Hazing at Princeton,” at

40 David Westol, email to author, 7 Nov. 2011.

41 Scott, Dwayne Joseph, “Factors That Contribute to Hazing Practices by Collegiate Black Greek Letter Fraternities during Membership Intake Activities,” Dissertation Abstracts International: Section A. Humanities and Social Sciences, 68, 3 (2007).

42 See examples in Butler, “Factors Associated with Scholastic Achievement,” 138; Nuwer, 35–36; Jones, Ricky L., Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), 78 .

43 Clark, Thomas Arkle, The Fraternity and the College: Being a Series of Papers Dealing with Fraternity Problems (Menasha, WI: George Banta, 1915), 72 .

44 Walker, “Organizational Type, Rites of Incorporation, and Group Solidarity,” 164–65.

45 Schein, Edgar H., “Organizational Socialization and the Profession of Management,” Industrial Management Review, 9, 2 (1968), 116 .

46 See review in Bauer, Tayla N., Bodner, Todd, Erdogan, Berrin, Truxillo, Donald M., and Tucker, Jennifer S., “Newcomer Adjustment during Organizational Socialization: A Meta-analytic Review of Antecedents, Outcomes, and Methods,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 3 (2007), 707–21.

47 Van Maanen, John and Schein, Edgar H., “Toward a Theory of Organizational Socialization,” in Staw, Barry M., ed., Research in Organizational behavior (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1979), 209–64.

48 Jones, Gareth R., “Socialization Tactics, Self-Efficacy, and Newcomers’ Adjustments to Organizations,” Academy of Management Journal, 29, 2 (1986), 262–79; Saks, Alan M., “Longitudinal Field Investigation of the Moderating and Mediating Effects of Self-Efficacy on the Relationship between Training and Newcomer Adjustment,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 80, 2 (1995), 211–25; Saks, Alan M., Uggerslev, Krista L., and Fassina, Neil E., “Socialization Tactics and Newcomer Adjustment: A Meta-analytic Review and Test of a Model,” Journal of Vocational behavior, 70, 3 (2007), 413–46.

49 Schein.

50 Ibid., 4.

51 Arnold, Alcohol and the Chosen Few; Desantis, Alan D., Inside Greek U: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power, and Prestige (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007); Walker.

52 Scott, William Abbott, Values and Organizations: A Study of Fraternities and Sororities (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965), 176 .

53 See for example McCarter, Matthew W. and Sheremeta, Roman M, “You Can't Put Old Wine in New Bottles: The Effect of Newcomers on Coordination in Groups,” PloS One, 8, 1 (2013), e55058 ; Simmel, Georg, “The Persistence of Social Groups,” American Journal of Sociology, 3, 5 (1898), 662–98; Walker.

54 See reviews in Wanberg, Connie R., The Oxford Handbook of Organizational Socialization (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

55 Golburgh, The Experience of Adolescence, 5–6.

56 Loeb, Edwin Meyer, The Eastern Kuksu Cult (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1933), 168 .

57 Bateson, Gregory, Naven: A Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1958; first published 1936), 131–32, emphasis added.

58 Turner, Victor, “Variations on a Theme of Liminality,” in Moore, Sally Falk and Myerhoff, Barbara, eds., Secular Ritual (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1977), 5270, 37, emphasis added.

59 Boyer, Pascal, Religion Explained (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 244 .

60 van Rooyen, Linda, Potgieter, Ferdinand, and Mtezuka, Lydia, “Initiation School amongst the Southern Ndebele People of South Africa: Depreciating Tradition or Appreciating Treasure?”, Intemational Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 13, 1 (2006), 1341, 31.

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