A House Divided: Competing Hierarchies
Various types of hierarchies exist in each fraternity house. These hierarchies may compete for power, which leads to many conflicts from within. In this section, fraternity member discuss their viewpoints about hierarchies and the value of maintaining them
It is stupid because we are not even admitting that sometimes there is a need for hierarchy. You don’t have to be an asshole about it. That is what most people think, “The higher ups are going to be assholes”. That is not necessarily true. You can provide good leadership and guidance and still have a hierarchy but it is still beneficial. But unfortunately…most higher ups, those in power, they tend to abuse that power. (Hugh G. Rection)
The common theory of negativity towards the hierarchy is that some people are in a higher position, and some people are in a lower position. I don’t buy that thought. I think that it is not negative. People that are in a higher position generally deserve to be in a higher position, than those in a lower position. (The Owl)
Traditional concepts of hierarchy are usually presented in a linear fashion. The rank or position of a member is most often described using two points of measurement, point “A” and point “B,” and categorizing the individual somewhere in-between depending on variables such as power, wealth, or status. However, these descriptions of hierarchy prove too simplistic to describe the fraternity situation in which there can be several different hierarchies within the same group at the same time. Not all fraternities have the same hierarchical arrangement and, not all members clearly understand their rank. The position of dominance or submission changes depending on the situation. Among fraternity members there is an inter-male dominance hierarchy that is constantly being created, contested, and changed. In the resulting power struggles, each member can align with several different hierarchies.
At any given moment in a fraternity house there are competing hierarchies. These hierarchies overlap and are interconnected. Fraternity members spoke to me about different categories of hierarchies: elected, social, charismatic, seniority, and social activity. There are also hierarchies that are promoted at one or two fraternities, while absent at others, e.g., bump order, initiation order. Futhermore, some fraternities have covert hierarchies which are not fully known about by its own members. The inter-male conflict in fraternities is strongly influenced by competing hierarchies and divided loyalty. The following list of hierarchies developed out of dialogue with participants, however each fraternity house experiences a different configuration of potential hierarchies.
Table 2. Internal Fraternity Hierarchies
1) Bump Order – This hierarchy is similar to the initiation order, however it appears that the individual has the ability to change his position if he works hard. This position can be very competitive and a bump number can change as often as every quarter. Bump points are acquired by social activity, competition, grades, and room improvement. A good bump order may reward fraternity members with the ability to select a room or an roommate.
2) Charismatic – This is a position achieved by an informal hierarchy in which members feel strong attachments to certain individuals or cliques within a fraternity house. Fraternity members may align themselves around a charismatic leader and create a separate hierarchy.
3) Covert – This hierarchy is used primarily for judicial reasons. It is often comprised of older members who live outside of the fraternity house. The members of this hierarchy are unknown to most others in the house. Forms of covert hierarchy can also exist among several fraternity houses as was the case of Theta Nu Epsilon.
4) Elected — This it he most formal and identifiable fraternity hierarchy. The hierarchical position is achieved either by fraternity vote or by appointment from the executive committee. These positions include president, vice-president, pledge coordinator, and treasurer. The elected positions are usually the most powerful in terms of regulating activities inside a fraternity house.
5) Initiation Order – This hierarchy is established during the initiation process. Each pledge is assigned a number at the point of initiation, thus giving pledges an incentive to work hard. The criteria for this number includes factors such as grades and performance during the initiation period. The initiation order is hierarchical in that it ranks members by numbers and, distributes rewards and privileges accordingly.
6) Seniority – This position is obtained by the amount of time a member has been active, or has lived, inside his fraternity. At some fraternity houses, the age of a fraternity member also improves his hierarchical status.
7) Social – This position is determined by what a member does inside his fraternity. It can include committee work, philanthropy, and athletics. Certain social activities are given priority over others, thus leading to a hierarchy.
Given that different hierarchies exist at the same time in the same fraternity house, it seems unlikely that social order can be maintained. My impression is that a fraternity house would be divided by shifting loyalties, competing demands, and conflicting management goals. Moreover, I believed that separate hierarchies would create conflict and friction at the expense of the male bone. On the contrary, participants overwhelmingly believed that these multiple hierarchies maintained social order, reduced competition, and encouraged members to work hard at their household responsibilities:
Part of culture is having a hierarchy. It is having organization, and I think there has to be some form of hierarchy because I think a lot of people are competitive. Without Hierarchy to define when they can be competitive and when they need to cooperate, there always is going to be competition and there always is going to be chaos and conflict. (Aaron)
When you are a pledge the first two terms you are trying to do the best you can, you are trying to do community service, do your duties, and have a good attitude. That way you know you might improve your bump or the possibility of getting a good bump…if you didn’t have that hierarchy you wouldn’t work hard. (White Sail)
I think there needs to be a little bit hierarchy, just to kind of make sure things stay on the right path. But I think, as far as working out problems and things like that, if you feel you don’t have the right to speak to somebody because they are higher than you, or whatever, than I think that is wrong. I think that some leadership is needed to kind of guide the house. (Lance)
Certain people are stronger; certain people are weaker, and some are meant to lead and provide a little more guidance and leadership, whatever. There is a hierarchy. It is almost depressing that it exists, but I know it is a facet of reality. (Hugh G. Rection)
Other participants supported hierarchy because they thought it necessary that people know their position or, that certain positions are known:
One of the most important parts of this hierarchy is the treasurer. This house has an annual budget in the hundred of thousand dollars per year. If you don’t have a treasurer the bills are not going to get paid, the people who live here are not going to pay their bills, and the money that the house owes to the other outside sources are not going to get paid. It is just going to collapse. (Aaron)
You know where to go for responsibility. Everybody has their responsibility. There is a set framework of roles and responsibilities are outlined to do that then. If “A” happens go to “B,” if “B” happens go to “C”. (The Owl)
Hierarchies develop in fraternities partially because of the dynamic of initiating new pledges. As different pledge groups are incorporated into the fraternal bond they gradually align with members they identify with. In time, these loyalties can develop and form separate hierarchies which compete among themselves. The household population is consistently changing as older members graduate and newer members are initiated. With each incoming pledge class, new sub-groups can form which might cause divisions in the male bond. Thus, the social order is tested periodically and the continuity of the male bond can be threatened.
In response, fraternities have designed methods to promote feelings of solidarity, e.g., rules, rituals, mottoes, and sanctioned outlets for competition. New members first learn these practices from older members during the process of initiation. It is perhaps no accident, then, that the hierarchy most commonly referred to by participants was that of seniority. It is possible that the seniority hierarchy plays the greatest role in setting a particular fraternity house’s male bonding pattern and establishing their social order:
For this house it is pretty lax. It goes back to how members treat freshman. It is so open, I mean, it is very liberal fraternity…in this house everybody has the right to tell the hierarchy to screw off if they want; but they don’t out of love for the house. (Lance)
Everybody pretty much laid off everybody else. In our fraternity there wasn’t a real hierarchy, except for a few older members, but I didn’t know them very much. (The World is Mine)
Fraternities need order because they are trying to organize all these people. Someone needs to be able to draw the bottom line. The fraternity justifies it because you have people coming in who don’t know anything about it and, you have people who have been living there for four years and know what it is about. (Jack B. Dalton)
There is always stuff, talk of respect, you know, the older think that they have been through it and can boss you around a bit. When I was a Freshman things were harder. Everyone has a sense of duties. There is a sense of division that we have gone through something that they have not. It is natural because you have already been through it and know everything that they are learning now. (John Deere)
My original impression was that, out of the seven potential hierarchies, the elected hierarchy would be the one that participants referred to most often because it was the most formal and definable. The elected executive members are known to everyone in the house and these leadership positions remain the same until the next election However, on further inquiry, it appears that participants considered each different hierarchy as playing a crucial role in negotiating social order. Individual fraternity members could find empowerment by aligning themselves with a selected hierarchy. For example, a member who lacked judicial power could collaborate with a charismatic leader to have a greater voice in fraternity affairs. Likewise, a member with low bump points could still use his seniority status to dominate younger members.
By hosting competing hierarchies, most members fluctuated in terms of subordination and dominance, and total control of the fraternity house could not be possessed by any one single group of men for long. Although the competing hierarchies cultivate inter-male conflicts, they are also a means to negotiate power, established identity, and to construct a structured relationship among members.
The fraternity support of hierarchy is not without merit. My own experience in a student cooperative suggests that large group living arrangements might require some type of hierarchical arrangement. The cooperative I lived in attempted to avoid hierarchy and to make decisions by group consensus but at times this proved to be more theory than actual practice. The cooperative experienced problems similar to a fraternity: Harassment occurred among house members, some co-op members did not adhere to assigned house duties and responsibilities, and budget problems threatened house stability. A hierarchical arrangement was in place for punitive or judicial purpose and selected board members held the power to make major financial decisions that would have impact on non-board coop members.
Hierarchy existed in both institutions, however the cooperative lacked the equivalent to the fraternity rituals, group philanthropy, and organized competition with a related housing group which are all important traits in fraternity male bonding. Nevertheless, this study focuses on bonding and conflict in fraternities. The following section looks at how identity is shaped among fraternity members.