Background: The informant was born and raised in southern California. He is a sophomore at the University of Southern California and joined greek life in the spring semester of his freshman year. The following is a ritual that occurred at the end of his freshman spring semester just prior to his graduation from “pledge” to “active member.”
Context: This piece was collected in a casual setting in the informants apartment. It was a staged interview so it did not come from a completely natural recount of the ritual. We are good friends so the setting was relaxed, although the informant was adamant on retaining confidentiality surrounding his identity.
The following is a summary of a conversation, including a few direct quotations, so as to protect the identity of the individual and his fraternity.
After a semester of hazing, pledges (people who have pledged to join a certain fraternity but have not been completely initiated into the fraternity) the pledge masters (who are active members of the fraternity responsible for the hazing/initiation rituals) gather the pledges and any active members who are interested in participating in a large room in the frat house. The pledges and active members then form a circle. One of the pledge masters then goes into the center of the circle and says, “Pledges, who do you have problems with?”
The pledges then wait silently until one of them declares that they have a problem with another frat member (active or pledge). At that point, the member who made the declaration along with the member who they declared to have issue with enter the center of the circle along with the referee who is usually the pledgemaster. The surrounding frat members begin to cast bets on who will win while others bang on their chests and jeer. The fighting consists of “slap boxing” for three rounds regulated by the referee. Often if a pledge or active falls during the fight, the surrounding crowd will shout statements like, “Get the fuck up!” and encourage the continuation of the fight.
While both active members and pledges make up the circle, only pledges are allowed to call upon other members to enter the circle. It is considered taboo to refuse to enter the circle after being called out.
The informant noted that the night was a time to release pent up anger against fellow frat members who had issues with each other. The event occurs in the final week, dubbed “Hell Week,” before the pledges are officially inducted into the fraternity. It is not uncommon for participants to develop broken bones or other injuries during the event.
I wasn’t very surprised to hear that violence, an action that typically denotes masculinity in American culture, was so deeply intertwined in the tradition considering the heteronormative history of Greek life on university campuses. Although the ritual is violent, the informant was not bothered, often laughing as recounting the event and suggesting that the event is not perceived, at least by him, as a traumatizing event but is rather an empowering event.
The ritual serves as a brief dismissal from the hierarchy within the fraternity and allows for retribution. By seeking vengeance for abuse (perceived or real) at the hands of other pledges and active members, the pledges are able to gain equal status and regain respect and dignity by evening the score. The taboo on refusing to enter the circle further ensures that pledges are put on the same stage as other members of the fraternity who may have brutalized them. It allows pledges (who are to be inducted very soon) an opportunity to exert power over other members for the first time.