Students research the tradition

Is hazing becoming a thing of the past in student associations?

ontgroening Foto: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Lisa Tessari (21) and Laurens van Voorthuizen (22), two students in UU's interdisciplinary honours programme, have conducted a study on the tradition of initiation rituals among student associations in Utrecht. Lisa has never participated in one and Laurens' experience was "horrible": he describes it as "long and boring". So, what is it about the topic that caught their eye? Lisa says that the hazing stories she has heard from her roommates fascinate her: "I thought they were interesting and kind of crazy. Hazing didn't have very positive connotations for me, but it didn't have a negative image, either." As for Laurens, he's managed to interpret his experience in a more nuanced way. "I could see the effect that the initiation ritual had had on me as if I were looking at myself from a distance. Then I realised that was not what I wanted at all." 

He ate little, slept little, and was physically challenged 

Laurens' hazing happened two years ago at a student association in Utrecht, which he does not want to mention by name. He ate little, slept little, and was physically challenged: he had to plank, stand with his arms up for hours, and eat dinner while kneeling upright. “That's really unpleasant after five minutes, let alone after an hour and a half. Lots of people fainted." They got medical care right away but Laurens still thinks things were way over the top. The decision to delve deeper into the subject as part of the Creative Challenge course followed the many conversations he'd had with Lisa about his experiences. 

In the media
Hazing excesses have been in the news quite often these past few years. An initiation ritual in an Amsterdam flat ended with limping, bruises and concussions; In Delft, someone's hair caught fire after being covered in candle wax; In Maastricht, people were pelted with urine; and in Leuven, Belgium, a student died after consuming copious amounts of fish sauce, swallowing live fish and spending hours in a grave filled with ice. Laurens and Lisa’s research idea came about because they wondered why these rituals seem to be a breeding ground for such excesses — and why the practice has been around for so long.

Initiation rituals have been going on since the dawn of universities, in the 17th century

After all, hazing has been around since the dawn of universities, in the 17th century. Laurens and Lisa explain this longevity using the theory of rites of passage, which "mark a transition of status, age, whatever it may be. Rites of passage serve many purposes, such as establishing a new status or making the transition easier.” Hazing is seen as an introduction to student life, a rite of passage to the phase between childhood and adulthood.

Strange balance
After interviewing five members of Dutch student associations, Laurens and Lisa make an important distinction between general hazing and the hazing that goes on in fraternities. According to them, a fraternity is a smaller, select group within a student association. General hazing is organised by a committee, which works on it for a year and has a large budget to organise it. It is supervised and it usually aims to teach the association's rules. According to Lisa, rules are an afterthought for fraternities, which tend to have less clear guidelines. “There is no supervision, the association does not know much about it. Often things are done at night and the people involved drink a lot.”

Initiation rituals to fraternities are often not supervised. Things are often done at night and people drink a lot

There is a strange power balance between students and freshers. “In most cases, there are no issues but several experts say that trouble is right around the corner." Laurens and Lisa interviewed a behavioural scientist, a social psychologist, and a health care psychologist, among others. They all confirmed that people who have had a tough initiation are more likely to take it out on the newbies. Behavioural scientist Allard Feddes mentions the "uncertainty identity theory", according to which people who feel insecure in a group, as though they don't fit in, try to reduce that feeling by impressing the established members. This can be done by taking what others are already doing to the extreme, in an attempt to stand out and prove their worth.

Intense experiences during an initiation ritual can cause your own identity merges with that of the group

The experts have also mentioned the "identity fusion theory", which states that intense experiences during an initiation ritual can cause your own identity to merge with that of the group, making sure that you adopt the group's norms more quickly. This means that members equate their own interests with those of the group. If severe hazing falls under the shared norm, it will persist within that group and humiliations will be seen as acceptable.

The five members of student associations interviewed by Lisa and Laurens confirm this. Laurens: “Someone said: 'The others must also go through what I've been through, right? Every year, we do their best to ensure that the new members will have the same experience as we've had or even more extreme.”

Some people have negative associations with hazing because of what they have seen in the news

Hazing has a bad reputation with some, due to the excesses they've seen in the news. But Laurens and Lisa show that initiation rituals can also have a positive side. “Literature shows that people are connected when they endure pain together,” says Lisa, to which Laurens adds: “Crawling through mud together can be quite unifying.” That's something he's experienced first-hand as well, despite the hardship.

Scientific research turned out to confirm Laurens' thoughts about hazing: “It's not only bad or good, it's much more nuanced than that." Initiation rituals are maintained because of tradition. But they also serve as a tool to select the most motivated members, according to the literature and the experts consulted. “People are more likely to be active and enthusiastic in a group if they had to do a lot to get in it," says Laurens. And that's why hazing continues to be the norm instead of being replaced by a low-key, non-committal form of initiation.

‘It’s not really fun anymore’
But that doesn't mean that nothing is changing. Lisa and Laurens have discovered that many associations have been scrapping rather harmless activities, such as crawling through mud, as a result of all the media attention. "Some students complained that nothing is allowed anymore, or that hazing is no longer fun. One even said that they feel sorry for the new generation because they will never endure the same kind of hazing as they did. In their eyes, hazing has given them a lot."

Some students complained that nothing is allowed anymore, or that hazing is no longer fun

Student associations are feeling pressured by the higher education institutions that fund them and the municipality, which may revoke their license to sell liquor. As a result, supervision is becoming more common during fraternity hazings and associations are taking extra steps to make sure that excesses do not occur. One association in Utrecht has even established a "reflection moment" at the end of each day, in which prospective members are asked whether anything has gone too far.

According to Laurens and Lisa, the most important thing about their research is that it reveals a less black-and-white picture of hazing. “It’s too complex to say it’s either good or bad,” says Lisa. Nevertheless, they do call on universities to actively combat harmful behaviour. “Some things have to change and universities can enforce that in collaboration with the associations,” states Laurens, stressing that it is in the universities' hands to ensure that the unifying nature of initiation rituals is preserved while preventing excesses.