Initiation, Hazing or Orientation? A case study at a South African University

Vivian de Klerk


In this paper I explore the various meanings of the term ‘initiation’, in the context of certain traditions and practices at Universities, which can cause personal physical or psychological harm if not contained and regulated. The paper focuses on a case study of the practice of ‘serenading’ at a small residential University. It draws on an eclectic assortment of methodological approaches in order to get closer to the ‘truth’ about this social practice, and to assess whether it should be viewed as a form of initiation, or as something which is intrinsically positive. These methodological approaches include a deeply personal account, rooted in narrative research, and the results of two large-scale surveys. Results accord with social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), in terms of which group identity tends to override personal identity in certain contexts where belonging and fitting in is important, and with cognitive dissonance theory (Aronson & Mills, 1959; Keating et al., 2005), in terms of which people tend to attribute a greater value to something they had to put a lot of effort into doing or achieving (as opposed to its actual worth). These demanding and humiliating tasks lead new initiates to increase the subjective value of the group, and this contributes to group loyalty and solidarity. Those students who had ‘survived’ the tradition were keen to impose it on new students, and argued that it is good for them. But selected personal accounts and the survey results suggest that the practice was not entirely free of coercion, and that there is some danger in allowing certain traditions to reproduce ‘dominant discourses’ which inevitably construct certain students (the ones who do not wish to participate) in deficit terms.

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