Saturday, April 28, 2007

Book Review: Pledged

I have just finished reading the book Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, by Alexandra Robbins. The book is a few years old (2004) and I was able to get a copy from a bookstore's discount shelf.

Robbins has strong connections to the study of Emerging Adulthood, having co-authored (with Abby Wilner), the 2001 book Quarterlife Crisis, which studies difficulties in the transition from college to the labor force. In connection with this book, Robbins appeared on a radio show with Jeffrey Arnett (see links section on the right of this page).

Participation in a sorority would seem to be a life experience that may affect -- for better or for worse -- a young woman's transition to adulthood, perhaps via some of the mechanisms discussed in the Emerging Adulthood literature. However, Robbins does not devote much discussion to individual development until the latter parts of the book, when she reflects upon how the sorority sisters she followed (whose names were disguised) may have changed over the course of the year.

One exception to the dearth of EA-related content is Robbins's examination of sorority members' potential for identity development. Not only do there appear to be rampant conformity pressures in the houses; from a given sorority's national office on down, there are numerous traditions, requirements, and expectations. Writes Robbins:

The danger of sororities, it became clear, is that instead of enhancing a girl's identity as she shifts from her formative years toward adulthood, the sisterhood could have a tendency to swallow that identity altogether (p. 175).

Another salient theme within EA is self-focus, as one takes on greater responsibilities and becomes more self-sufficient than before. It is here, in dealing with personality clashes, house politics, and substantial time demands, that sorority members may profit as they they move into the "real world." As Robbins conveys two sisters' thoughts on their own transformation during the past year:

"The way I see it, [these negatives are] just a part of life. I feel like from now on, I'm always going to have to juggle commitments and somehow you have to make them work out. So this is practice, I guess," [Sabrina] said. "Maybe once I'm in the real world I'll have an easier time being independent than my sisters" (p. 302; the phrase "these negatives are" was inserted by Robbins, the name "Sabrina" was inserted by me).

Caitlin concluded that she had changed more this year than any other year in her life. She had finally learned that at some point she simply had to give up her futile efforts to please her mother. It had taken an extraordinary amount of turmoil for her to feel like she was finally growing up, and now that she had wrestled with so many issues, it dawned on her that she was gradually starting to become what she had always pretended to be on the outside but was not truly until now. She was becoming -- she thought -- strong (p. 314).

Never having been involved with the Greek system myself, I saw Pledged as an interesting window into what, at some colleges and universities, is a major factor in campus life. That's not to say that Pledged offers a representative portrait of every sorority in the country, or even of the ones Robbins reported on. As a vehicle to study human development, the book is sporadic, at best. The subject matter is inherently interesting, in my view, and also offers a rich view of group dynamics.

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