An academic perspective on hazing

A&M professors discuss research, theories on the practice’s prevalence

By Sanna Bhai @BhaiSanna

As hazing continues to make headlines across the country each year, ongoing research looks to explain why individuals and groups take part in these activities.

According to stophazing.org, hazing is “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.” More than half of college students, nationally, who are involved in any kind of club or team, experience hazing, the site reports. In 25 percent of all hazing incidents, students claim that advisors or adults in charge, were aware of the happenings.

The most frequently reported hazing behaviors include: drinking, singing or chanting in public situations, associating with specific people but not others, drinking large amounts of alcohol to a point of harming oneself, being deprived of sleep and being screamed, yelled or cursed at, according to stophazing.org

Heili Pals, assistant professor of sociology, said to summarize reasons for the persistence of hazing, scholars can look to macro theories, which are large-scale theories that can be used to explain or interpret a subject. Pals said the prevailing theories on hazing generally encompass three main reasons for the practice: hazing generates group solidarity, it is an expression of dominance and it allows for the selection of committed group members.

“One set of macro theories talks about how hazing generates group solidarity; we do it so that we feel that it is a group,” Pals said. “Another one may be that hazing is an expression of dominance because the members may already be part of a group, but you are not really equal to us yet. Also, selecting out who all is committed to this group.”

Some researchers continue to debate whether these actions are best studied in the realm of sociology or psychology. Both have a presence, but according to Pals, sociology has the most research and relevance to this topic.

Although psychologists make the case that the personality of the hazer is also significant, Pals said hazing is rarely done alone. Pals said hazers in a group assume those around them agree with the hazing, as no one speaks up.

“You do find psychological articles talking about hazing,” Pals said. “They would be talking about the personalities of those who are hazing and maybe that they are different,” Pals said. “It is not much evidence for that because it is a group activity.”

Summarizing the 2011 paper “Hazing as a Manifestation of Evolved Psychology,” Pals said one of the main goals of these rituals is to reduce the problem of free riders — those who get benefits without completing the work required to produce those benefits.

“The groups usually have a common good that they receive once they are part of the group, but you shouldn’t be receiving them unless you are a contributing member,” Pals said. “What this article was trying to show is that hazing ensures that you are not going to be a free rider and be a contributing member of the group.”

Jeffrey Winking, associate director of graduate studies and associate professor of cultural anthropology, said along with finding those “worthy” of a group, cohorts hope to create bonds through adversity, and the absurd nature of the ritual gives it an important significance as people are entering into a higher status.

“Naturally, as these become increasingly frowned upon or even criminalized, the costliness might become symbolic in nature or softened to a mere nuisance,” Winking said.