Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

“Untitled” (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Amanda Sumanasekera

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.


My name is Amanda Sumanasekera and I conducted fieldwork over a  three month period in a National Panhellenic Council sorority at the University of Toronto. I observed 36 women, taking the sorority as a site of politics.  Given the secrecy the sorority is shrouded in and the fact that its official status with respect to public comments that of “no comment”, the institution and  its members are anonymized. In this vein, the some of the practices, rituals, and songs described are also disguised. At the time of writing I am also a member of her community of study. My observations within the sorority, suggest how critique may involve, given feelings of powerlessness, women seek to discover, within a configuration of power, a space in which to mobilize to secure privilege, and cultivate forms of cultural capital which the university does not provide (Li, 2018, p.3).  These women, in their crystallization of how privilege is made desirable and engaged, show how structures of power are both reproduced, and reproduced as powerful.

Reproducing Structures of Power: Curated Visibility

When beginning my research in a community in which I am already a member, I anticipated how my own position as insider was a highly valuable tool. The official position of the sorority to any press is “no comment”. However, I believed my access to the group and the trust I cultivated among members would guarantee easy entry. This was not the case. My research spurred alarm, almost spurring a vote amongst the chapter. I was instructed to “be careful”, where the implication was that my membership within the community created a duty to present that community in strictly positive ways. Indeed, girls are required to engage in the sorority’s effort to curate its own visibility and that of its members. Girls cannot circulate images of themselves drinking and they cannot engage in unsavoury behaviour. They are feminized professionals, a sisterhood of women with model behaviour. And yet, some sorority practices include the singing of songs that are highly sexist, painting women as both hyper-sexualized and conservative . I observed a social events with themes like hunter (fraternity men) and deer (sorority women).Women are unofficially required to maintain Controls on membership that do not read in the values of Labour, Purity, Friendship, and Philanthropy. These controls include determining membership based on gender performance, sociability, and physical attractiveness.

These things contradict the narrative of female empowerment and modesty espoused by the sorority. They are unsavoury and warrant critique, but what is the danger of their exposure? I perhaps shortsightedly forgot that, for Foucault, “visibility is a trap”. So too, then must visibility, for the few who are structurally advantaged and who persist in the realm of those “seeing” rather than “being seen” (Foucault, 2008). Being completely visible and transparent can entail a challenge within a particular power dynamic. Requests to remain invisible are data. What is the significance of hiding one’s tax returns? Or of a form of bureaucracy that defies any transparency? I believe it is is the same significance of forming secret societies, or of maintaining institutions ot groups whose “elite’ status simply demonstrates that a lack of visibility itself is characteristic of privilege. A lack of visibility entails freedom from critique, freedom from regulation, and freedom from recognition by a larger public who are subject to broader forms of surveillance. During my research, I gathered that the reproduction of a structure of power as powerful is not automatic. My interest in studying up was in discovering tactics used to reproduce power. The sorority, an institution predicated on teaching historically constituted and presently contested forms of capital to a privileged group must reproduce their own legitimacy in the present day. Women then must act as both prisoner and prison guard and must police themselves and one another to relegate the sorority to the realm of invisibility.

Moments of Disjuncture

When voting for the new member class, myself and all actives sat in formal wear in the chapter room. The name of one girl was raised to the chapter for consideration.   One girl asked, “which one was she?”, to which another girl responded that she was the bigger girl with the blonde dyed hair. A girl Hara put forward that she was “nice” and another girl, Jillian immediately corrected her by saying “yeah but we can’t have her” and proceeded to say she did not meet the aesthetic requirements of membership. Some girls already knew this, but it was the articulation of this requirement of a structure the girls are a part of which produced much discomfort in the room. Some girls looked taken aback. Where girls were laughing, they were now far more silent. Ultimately, all women voted against having her be allowed membership. Upon leaving the chapter room I wandered into a discussion between a small group of actives about their discomfort. I asked one woman why she cast her vote as such. She responded, “well you know why Amanda”, alluding to a shared understanding that membership ought to be prioritized to women who are somewhat conventionally attractive. This you know” produced discomfort in me. It implied that not only did we have the same knowledge base of the unofficial requirements of membership, but that we both consented. The rules which govern a space are often obscured either intentionally or unintentionally. How and when does a space get articulated and how doe this articulation open up the possibility for a space to change? The sorority as community and as fun shifts in these moment I witnessed. It is not the case that active members discussed the exclusivity and problematic types of performance facilitated within the space daily, or spoke to one another at length about the implications of membership within this structure of power. The power of a paradigm, even a problematic one is that it is unarticulated, i t never has to br justified. It was in these moments that I saw within girls pause and disjuncture. What this disjuncture moved them to do or not do is what I discovered only later.

Critique Out Loud: The Aftermath of Withdrawn Membership

In order to expand upon my research on critique, I sought out two women who had left or “disaffiliated” from their sorority. Working off of my theorization of how the impetus to subvert critique or translate it into less visible forms only sustains oneself within a structure of power, I saw leaving a structure of power as a significant act. Self suspension is not unlaughter, or a meme, or a form of concealed protest; it is critique out loud (Dodds & Kirby, 2013; Zhi Li, 2018). It is critique that sacrifices one’s own benefit and privilege within a given structure of power to articulate that the goings on do not align with personal beliefs or values. One woman, a first year was policed excessively with respect to drinking and her body. She went on vacation and was fined, while abroad for posting an image of a toast amongst family. She also described how her personal style was not that of her sorority. She had full day classes and lived uptown, often forgetting her formal blacks or couldn’t carry around heels all day given that she was highly involved in the Criminology Students Association and in other clubs. She didn’t understand why she was constantly being fined, and why some girls in the house demonstrated a coldness towards her. Executive members listened sympathetically and offered support..

The second girl, Coraline was highly involved in the sorority and served on executive council and as finance director. Yet, during her fourth year she left. She disclosed that while she loved her sisters, she hated he institution and couldn’t in good conscience be a part of it anymore. Coraline’s Chapter fined her consistently for missing meetings, something which my chapter does not do. Her voice shook as she said, “we’re supposed to put school first and when we take time away from (the sorority) for school, we get fined for it”. Another complaint she had was that the institution did not care about her individuality, but only that she perform well publicly and pay her dues. She said, “what am I paying for?”. She had tried to change some policies around dress, arguing against practices she did not agree with and her voice was respectfully heard and “respectfully dismissed”. Both women left, and both women experienced a similar reality of losing one’s access to social capital and to alienation by a community in which they invested time, money, and emotion. Both women described how their sisters, with whom they had shared memories, sleepovers, and study hours with had unfollowed them on social media. Some girls did not talk to them and Coraline described how she had heard that she was gossipped about not only by her chapter, but by other sorority and fraternity members. Both lost access to events, friendships, and to spaces carved out for Greeks.  Both women were required to turn in their badges, and could not enter the house. This of course caused pause for me, but it did not suprise me. Sorority members describe networks in terms of kinship, with much affect and performance, yet , these relationships are true insofar as girls maintain their membership. Forsaking a structure of power involves forsaking the ways in which one benefited from membership within that structure. It is possible, as I have seen, that the allure of privilege can not come at the cost of suppressed critique. It is also possible, as I have seen, that withdrawing membership produces a cost, and the reality of forsaking privilege can entail disadvantage.. This being said, both women described their academic and personal successes since leaving, employing narratives emphasizing “I’ or “my”. Both women spoke in positive terms of the self reflection they have done and the ways in which they have grown and benefited since leaving. Coraline described it as a ‘safe space” and she had to learn who she was, and actually go out and work for what she wanted. This discourse starkly contrasts that utilized by sorority members. They are not only obligated to the sorority and see their freetime diminish, but because of the emphasis on identity as x member, their accomplishments are painted as possible because of the sorority, or because of a caliber of women produced by it, not independent of it.



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Theory of Practice (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, pp.
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Butler, J. (2011). Bodies That Matter. London: Routledge

Dodds, K., & Kirby, P. (2013). It’s not a laughing matter: Critical geopolitics, humour and
unlaughter. Geopolitics, 18(1), 45-59. doi:10.1080/14650045.2012.668723

Doerr, N. M. (2015). Introduction to the special issue, commitment to alterity and its disavowal: The politics of display of belonging. Ethnos, 80(2), 149-167.

Foucault, M. (2008) Panopticism from Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison Michel Foucault . Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts  2 (1) pp. 1-12

Li, T. (2018) Politics, Interrupted. Anthropological Theory0(0) 1–25Shahbazi, K (2017)The Breakdown: the origins of Greek life on campus A brief history.
The Varsity. Retrieved from:


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