Let's Talk About Context: Problematic Patterns in Hazing


Hazing is often defined as a specific set of actions, but looking at an isolated behavior ignores some important context. Taking a situational perspective allows us to see a clearer path through discussions about hazing. This approach asks us to go deeper than a checklist of potential hazing activities to identify patterns - environmental and social factors - that define what is truly problematic about these activities.

Consider the following problematic patterns that often appear:

  • Information imbalances - intentionally withholding information needed to be successful

  • Cultivating confusion - constantly changing the date of initiation and other events

  • Restricting freedom of choice - new members can only wear certain colors for a particular time period

  • Social or emotional manipulation - creating arbitrary requirements as a quid pro quo

These are just a few examples provided to illustrate patterns that might make an activity problematic. By evaluating and addressing each one, groups can move towards a healthier and less problematic new member experience.

For example, it is not possible to determine whether a scavenger hunt - at face value - is an example of hazing. How it happens makes all the difference. Imagine if it takes place on a random weeknight, is ‘strongly encouraged for membership’ by chapter officers, is undertaken without clear instructions, and includes searching for various arbitrary items. As you could imagine, this is more problematic than if these factors were reversed: a scheduled, intentional, educational activity with clear purposes and instructions.

The situational approach challenges us to think critically, which isn’t easy and takes time. The questions are bigger, but so is the potential for growth. Embracing this complexity creates an opportunity for student and professional growth.

Start with this: talk to the colleagues who are in it with you, especially adjudicators, investigators, and advisors. Discuss what situational factors would make each hazing activity more or less problematic. Think about how this might be applied in advising and conduct scenarios.

When you have a grasp of these situational factors, talk with students. Incorporate it into both preventative and reactive conversations. Ask students to identify the specific features of an activity that make it more or less problematic. This perspective can help all of us do a better job articulating what is identified as hazing and why.