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Social Fraternities and Sororities

History, Characteristics of Fraternities and Sororities, Reforms and Renewal

The American college Greek-letter societies, consisting of fraternities and sororities, remain a popular form of association for students on college campuses in the early twenty-first century. Known as the oldest form of student self-governance in the American system of higher education and called perhaps the clearest example of a student subculture, fraternities and sororities have been a force on college campuses since 1825. The fraternity or sorority ideal cherishes and embraces all of the characteristics of a campus subculture: residential proximity through the chapter house, transmission of norms and values to the membership in a concrete and systematic way, a history of longevity, and social control for conformity. Artifacts, symbols, rituals, and shared assumptions and beliefs add significantly to the shared initiatives of scholarship, leadership development, service to others, and fellowship among members.


The American fraternity traces its genesis to the emergence of literary societies in the late eighteenth century. Debating and literary societies, whose names evoked memories of ancient Greece, emerged as purveyors of forensics, but their main contribution was that they were primary social clubs contrasting with the bleak campus dormitories. The elaborate lounges and private libraries they maintained outstripped those operated by colleges. As quickly as the literary societies filled the curriculum vacuum of the early college student, the fraternity emerged to fill the social needs of the more independent college students.

The need for a distinct counterpart for women became evident early on college campuses, especially in women's colleges. For many years, societies for young women bearing Greek and classical names were common at women's colleges and academies and were organized similar to fraternities. The first fraternity for women was Alpha Delta Pi, founded as the Adelphean Society in 1851. Sororities were chartered as women's fraternities because no better word existed. In 1882 Gamma Phi Beta was the first to be named a sorority.

From the beginning, the norms and values of fraternities were independent of the college environment. Since the founding of Kappa Alpha at Union College (in Schenectady, New York) in 1825 as the oldest secret brotherhood of a social nature, fraternities developed with different personalities and histories on each campus. The trappings of an idealized ancient Greece were added to those of Freemasonry to create secret societies dedicated to bringing together young men who were seeking conviviality. Members historically met weekly in a student dormitory room or rented facility for social and intellectual fellowship. To fight the monotony of mid-nineteenth-century colleges, fraternities institutionalized various escapes of a social nature.

In the 1890s the chapter-owned house became a reality and gave a physical presence to the fraternity movement. Supported by prosperous and influential fraternity alumni, the chapter house relieved the need for housing on many campuses. The popular German university model of detachment from the student replaced the English model of providing room and board. Colleges and universities began to shape college life rather than oppose it, and the institutions reluctantly began accepting the fraternity system.

As more and more fraternities occupied their own houses, their interest shifted from intellectual issues to that of running and sustaining a chapter house. The chapter house had great influence upon fraternity chapters. The increasing prominence of the chapter house in the 1920s illustrates the power of this social movement on most colleges and universities. The total number of fraternity houses in the nation increased from 774 in 1920 to 1,874 in 1929, and the subculture was strengthened at state universities, where half of the students belonged to a fraternity by 1930.

To keep the chapter house full, current members instituted a recruiting method to secure new groups or classes of new members. New students were "rushed" or recruited to become new initiates, commonly called "pledges." Once affiliated, the new pledges were soon put to work doing menial chores and running errands for upperclassmen. This was the beginning of the most troubling and reviled custom, hazing. Old-fashioned hazing generally was punishment for household jobs not done; it was left to later generations to introduce road trips, asinine public stunts and practical jokes, and forms of psychological and physical discomfort.

After surviving the Great Depression and World War II, fraternities returned to campuses in full and more diverse force. As American higher education became more democratic, the fraternity movement confronted the discriminatory nature of its membership polices. Slowly, Greek organizations began to admit members more reflective of the college-attending population. Fraternities and sororities saw great growth during the time between World War II and the Vietnam War. The war in Vietnam and the cultural changes that followed had a negative effect on fraternities. Their traditional and historic loyalty to the college was in direct contrast to social movements of the time. As in the past, fraternity and sorority membership rebounded. During the period between 1977 and 1991 students joined at a greater rate than at any time in the system's history.

The name of fraternities and sororities is usually composed of two or three Greek letters, such as Sigma Pi, Delta Zeta, or Phi Kappa Theta. These letters represent a motto, known only to the members, that briefly states the aims and purposes of the organization. The affiliated branches of the Greek organizations at other colleges are called chapters; they are organized by states or regions and often are designated by a Greek letter, such as Zeta Chapter of Sigma Pi. These chapters are organized under the banner of the national or international organization and are governed through an assembly of delegates and managed through a central office. Incipient chapters are called colonies until they reach full chapter status on new campuses. Almost all Greek organizations publish a journal and maintain close contact with alumni. Many have their own educational foundations.

Characteristics of Fraternities and Sororities

Fraternity and sorority leaders prefer to use the term general fraternity when describing what are commonly called "social" fraternities. General fraternities and sororities can best described by the umbrella group or coordinating association to which they belong. These organizations are the National Interfraternity Conference (NIC), which represents sixty-six men's groups, and the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC), which represents twenty-six women's groups. There still remain many local fraternities and sororities on college campuses that boast of long traditions and have never affiliated nationally. Professional, recognition, and honor societies that use Greek names are organized separately and can include general fraternity members.

It is estimated that more than 10 percent of all college students are members of a Greek-letter society. After hitting a record of more than 400,000 undergraduates in 1990, fraternity membership in the year 2000 in sixty-six national fraternities was estimated at 370,000 and is slowly increasing. In the early twenty-first century, there are more than 5,500 chapters on 800 campuses throughout the United States and Canada. National data suggests that women's sororities are healthy, with membership in the twenty-six national sororities exceeding 300,000 and the size of the average chapter on the increase. There are 2,913 chapters on more than 630 college and university campuses. Membership in local fraternities and sororities adds significantly to this total, and there are more than 10 million alumni members of Greek-letter societies.

Men's general college fraternities are mutually exclusive, self-perpetuating groups, which provide organized social life for their members in colleges and universities as a contributing aspect of their educational experience. They draw their members from the undergraduate student body. Women's general college sororities are primary groups of women at colleges and universities, which, in addition to their individual purposes, are committed to cooperation with college administrators to maintain high social and academic standards and do not limit their membership to any one academic field. Both fraternities and sororities provide unusually rich out-of-class learning and personal development opportunities for undergraduates.

Fraternities and sororities offer an organized and varied schedule of activities, including intramural sports, community service projects, dances, formals, and parties. The NIC and NPC make convincing arguments that Greek organizations benefit the sponsoring campus, stipulating that students who affiliate with a fraternity are more likely to remain in school and that alumni affiliated with a fraternity make significantly higher donations to the school. There is strong research to back up these claims. Affiliating with a fraternity or sorority enhances the development of mature interpersonal relationships, facilitates the development of leadership skills, teaches teamwork, fosters interchange of ideas, promotes values clarification, and can facilitate the development of sense of autonomy and personal identity. On isolated campuses, Greek organizations may provide the only social life.

Underlying the whole experience is the ritual that is exclusive to each fraternity or sorority. While often incorrectly associated with illegal and immoral hazing activities, a fraternity or sorority ritual is the solemn and historic rationale for an organization's existence. The ritual is often presented to new members during a serious churchlike ceremony where new members learn the underlying meaning of their respective organizations. Because of the esoteric nature of most Greek-letter societies, usually only members attend these ceremonies. The conflict between these stated ideals and the behavior of undergraduate members on campuses have caused confusion and lack of support for the fraternity system. From the 1980s into the twenty-first century, both constructive and destructive relationships have brought mixed results for fraternities on a number of campuses.

Reforms and Renewal

Many college administrators have sought to limit the role fraternities play within the social life and have taken a hard stand against illegal hazing and the use of alcohol among Greek members. Sororities have escaped most of the criticism because of their more adamant commitment to scholarship and service, stronger alumni intervention, and encouragement of campus oversight. A variety of concerns have been raised about fraternities, including that they encourage narrow social and academic experiences for members, have restrictive membership policies, practice hazing, discriminate on the basis of sex, perpetuate stereotypes about women, and wield too much power over social life. Also, there are allegations that racism, violence, and discrimination still exist. Most unfortunately, alcohol-and hazing-related deaths have occurred at fraternity events.

Reforms of the Greek system on college campuses, especially concerning fraternities, range from the complete abolition of fraternities and sororities to investing new personnel and increased resources into improving and enhancing Greek life. Attempts to make fraternities and sororities coeducational have not been successful, and even the U.S. Congress has expressed the belief that colleges should not act to prevent students from exercising their freedom of association, especially off-campus and on their own time. Some colleges have allowed fraternities to remain as approved student organizations but have forced them to separate from and close the chapter house.

Fraternity and sorority administrators agree that the abuse of alcohol is a contributing factor to hazing and is usually the cause of other destructive Greek problems. They have joined college and university trustees and administrators in taking a strong stand against hazing outrages. National fraternities and sororities are spending thousands of dollars educating and developing alternative programs. Hazing is one of the biggest problems facing fraternities and some sororities, who in the past never considered mistreating their pledges. Now every fraternity and sorority has stringent prohibitions against the practice. Members have been expelled and chapters have been closed when charges have been substantiated. Most states have antihazing legislation, and some make it a felony to practice dangerous or degrading activities against pledges or members.

For Greek organizations, especially fraternities, to survive and prosper, undergraduates must take the bans on hazing and alcohol excesses to heart. National officers and students continue to clash over efforts to transform fraternity culture, and many resist any changes that threaten the social aspects of Greek life that originally attracted students to affiliate. At the same time, much has been accomplished. Sororities are addressing eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, and several fraternities have devised pledging programs that emphasize academic development, leadership, and community service while de-emphasizing hazing and alcohol.

Altering Greek life obligates colleges to provide attractive alternatives for housing, dining, and social functions. Many campuses are increasing Greek life budgets and taking an active role in supporting Greek life and the cultural changes that are necessary to strengthen the experience. Fraternities and sororities, quintessentially American student organizations, remain a positive social option for college and university students in the early twenty-first century.


ASTIN, ALEXANDER W. 1977. Four Critical Years. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

ASTON, JACK L., and MARCHESANI, ROBERT F., eds. 1991. Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities, 20th edition. Indianapolis, IN: Baird's Manual Foundation.

HOROWITZ, HELEN L. 1987. Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

NATIONAL PANHELLENIC CONFERENCE. 2000. Annual Report. Indianapolis, IN: National Panhellenic Conference.

NUWER, HANK. 1990. Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing. Atlanta, GA: Longstreet Press.

RUDOLPH, FREDERICK. 1962. The American College and University: A History. New York: Knopf.


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