The present narrative aimed to study hierarchies within a small community of a residential university. In order to study these structures, we asked the student community questions about the various forms of hierarchies that they have noticed and been affected by on the campus. We surveyed around 80 people, across batches of the undergraduate and postgraduate courses, roughly in the age group of 17 to 30 years. Though we had initially considered including the teachers, administration and non-teaching staff of the college as well, we decided to restrict the scope of our research only to the student body so as to make the scope of the study narrower and more streamlined.
The research methodology we followed was empirical, i.e. we collected first-hand information from students by putting a fixed set of questions to them, noting down their responses, and then collating the information gathered to see the commonalities and differences based on their position on the hierarchy.
The questions varied in terms of structure- while some merely required a yes or no answer, others were subjective requiring the respondents to elaborate on the reasoning underlying their answers. The basic questions we put forward centred on whether people noticed hierarchies playing out and how they sought to explain these. We enquired as to what parameters contributed to the formation of these hierarchies, and suggested options such as socio economic background, age/year of study, caste, region, language, etc. Where respondents identified factors beyond the ones we listed out, we took note of the same. We spoke to people about how their behaviour, or the behaviour of others had changed due to their relative positions in the hierarchies. Ample opportunity was given for respondents to exemplify their observations as well. Respondents were questioned on what they perceived to be the reasons for such hierarchies to exist, and how these hierarchies affected people socially and psychologically. Finally, we asked respondents whether they perceived hierarchies to be a necessary element of student life in their college, and whether their perception on the necessity of the hierarchy changed as they moved from a junior to a senior class.
- Types of Hierarchies Identified
Hierarchical power structures manifest themselves in various forms. In a University context, the power dynamics could be perceived in the subtle differential treatments awarded to students from belonging to different race, language, region, class, year and course of study, those having lower CLAT ranks and CGPA et al. Survey participants have identified the existence of a hierarchy in these broad areas and not even one among the 80 odd responses received, denied the presence of positional power structures in college. Hence, the egalitarian ethics that we swear by as students of the law seems to have been perverted by the active perpetuation of power asymmetries and positional relationships. For the sake of clarity, we can study the hierarchical relationships at three levels: within a batch, across batches and the intra-college power imbalance.
CLAT Rank: Based on our personal interactions with the students, we can say that this type of hierarchy is very subtle in its manifestation. Students who have lower CLAT ranks are silently excluded from certain peer groups and study groups, at least in the initial period before they can prove their merit in an exam. Those students with higher CLAT ranks conceded that they sometimes felt like they deserved a place in a premier law school more than those with a very low CLAT Rank. However, a sizeable number of people dismissed this conception as unfounded in reason and logic.
Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA): Exams aim to grade people based on their intellectual capacity, though the ideal is often not achieved. This gradation more often than not, penetrates into non-academic spheres of social life like peer groups. Several participants said that they felt ignored or excluded by certain people who were arguably ‘smarter’ than them. A small number of people, refused to accept that such divisions existed.
Race, Language & Region: Students from the Southern and the North-eastern parts of the country, during personal interviews, said that they felt cornered on this basis and silently discriminated against. Apart from being called offensive names, their lack of fluency in Hindi (the unofficial ‘national language’ of the country) was a major reason why they were singled out and ridiculed as ‘pardesi’. As they pointed out, this hierarchy also affects their social life though they try to hide it and escape it as much as possible.
Inter-Batch Senior-junior Hierarchy
Year of study: It is common to see the students in the first year being positively interacted with (read ‘ragged’) by the senior batches, at least in the first few months of college. Hence, the target is the freshmen who are victimised through intimidating questioning and demand of embarrassing favours that could run whole gamut from ludicrous performances of dance and singing to the more serious expressions of the inner perversions of the seniors. It was surprising to record that some first years were genuinely labouring under the delusion that such positive interaction (read ‘ragging’) is for their own good.
Course of study: In a law school, the students from non-legal courses like MBA are alienated and the majority of the mainstream LLB treats them badly. Surprisingly, the postgraduate students of law are also ill-treated by the undergraduate students despite their seniority in terms of age and intellect. The participants in the survey have confirmed this social common sense of the law school students. However, it is only true about the abstract conception of the ‘law schoolers’, which evades definition but has empirical support. During direct questioning on individual basis, several students said that they ‘do not mind the MBAs and the LLMs’.
Fig: Intra-college and Inter-batch Hierarchy
III. Perceptions of Hierarchy
It was observed through the survey and interviews conducted that the student body did not have a homogeneous view on the issue of hierarchy. Opinions on reasons for the existence of hierarchies varied greatly across batches as well as within batches; while some identified benefits arising out of hierarchies, others deemed them completely pointless and unnecessary.
Why do Hierarchies Exist?
Every person who took part in the survey agreed that hierarchies do exist in the college. Several underlying reasons were cited, the first being tradition. The hierarchy is not something that has established itself over a short period of time; it has been there from the very beginning of the institution and ways of behaving have been passed on or imbibed through batches, over several years. In that sense, even the unpleasant implications of the hierarchy such as ragging have been legitimized as a part of the law school experience that one first tolerates and then (in most cases), perpetrates. The rightness or wrongness of the tradition is of course debated. For instance, one respondent said, “While this hierarchy is neither sensible nor fair, it is still unavoidable.” Another said “The hierarchy is tradition; the way in which it is exercised by specific people determines whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.” The second set of reasons that emerged deal with notions of power, superiority complex and insecurities. Most students from the 1st and 2nd years seemed to believe that a lot of the seniors who ill-treated them were doing so just because they had the power to do so. Over the years it has been observed that the 2nd years are most enthusiastic in ragging the juniors (not to say that the other senior batches are not interested) and also the most aggressive. One obvious and repeatedly cited reason for this is that having recently moved up the social ladder, they seek to impose their superiority over the juniors. On being asked to elaborate on insecurity as a reason, a respondent said “People are so insecure about their own standing that they feel the need to intimidate others to feel better about their own selves. Hence, they perpetuate convenient hierarchies.” Third, in stark contrast to the other two reasons mentioned, it was also argued that the hierarchy helps in the acclimatization of the juniors to law school. While interactions start out in a field of intimidation and some discomfort, there are subsequent benefits that emerge from these interactions with relation to projects, moot court competitions, internships etc.
While most of the abovementioned reasons were cited with the hierarchy within the undergraduate students in mind, reasons such as the need to establish one’s superiority and self-validation were common for other hierarchies such as those based on courses, caste, CLAT rank etc. The next section discusses in some detail, the pros and cons of these hierarchies.
Do These Hierarchies Serve Any Purpose?
Contrasting opinions came to fore on the issue. A marginally larger fraction of the respondents believed that hierarchies are not an essential element of student life at the university. In fact, they argued, these are just remnants of unfounded practices, conveniently dubbed as tradition by those who support it. A 2nd year student said “It is nothing more than the desire to do to another what has been done to you. As we move onto subsequent years, we tend to say that our juniors have had it far easier than us; it’s a way of rationalizing our own irrationality”.
On the other hand, those who believe that there is a purpose that the hierarchy achieves contend that it is a harmless introduction of first years to a protected yet more real-life atmosphere as compared to high school- “Hierarchies are prevalent everywhere. Even when we intern and subsequently get jobs in law firms, corporations or courts of law, we will begin at the base of the hierarchy there. Relatively, those hierarchies are far more ruthless and the prior experience at college is actually preparing us to deal better with future situations.”
Transformation of Perceptions
A characteristic feature of the seniority-based law school hierarchy is that today’s alphas were once at the very bottom of the same hierarchy. Through our survey, we also sought to discover if the views of the students on hierarchy have undergone any transformation over the years. Almost 90% of the respondents said that their views had changed while a few claimed that their first-year disapproval of the hierarchy has only intensified with time. The responses quoted below appropriately represent the bulk of responses we received-
“Yes, I have become a perpetrator of the violence that is an inevitable result of this hierarchy.”
“Yes, my perception on the requirement of hierarchy has changed. In my first year of college I was not in favour of this hierarchy probably because I was at the lowest strata but as I moved to my second year I myself started enforcing and justifying this hierarchy maybe because I was no longer lowest in hierarchy and had someone below me in hierarchy to enforce it on.”
“No, it has made me all the more careful about not doing the exact same thing that was done to me. It is only hypocritical if I end up doing the same. Hence, there is a conscious effort to not reinforce the said system of hierarchies, which is not only unfounded but also unfair. My perception of this requirement has been the same and has rather become far stronger.”
- Socio-Psychological and Behavioural Impacts of Hierarchy on Students
It is often considered that hierarchy is a mere control of behaviour or conforming to a particular standard. However, from the responses it was evident that this hierarchy a deep socio-psychological impacts on the minds of students, both short-term and long-term. Most of the responses of the first year students as well as of seniors acknowledged this factor. One of the most common hierarchies faced by first year students is that with the senior students. It hints towards the socio-psychological impact that instances of ragging can lead to. These impacts could be of varying degree.
Many instances like giving nicknames, making fun of, etc. were narrated by the students which had socio-psychological impact on them. However the major impact that was highlighted by the students of the first year was that they started judging themselves from the perspective of others. Students started trying to conform to a particular set of standards without even considering whether such conformity to set standards of behavior is correct or not. In this process the student loses his confidence and in this web of hierarchy he or she starts pretending to be that which he or she is not. Students may start using abusive language, drinking alcohol, dressing in a particular way, etc. all to fit into particular groups considered superior in the hierarchy. More drastic instances narrated by a student included facing depression and inferiority complexes. Thus, this conformity to hierarchy leads to loss of individuality of a person.
Does this impact remain confined to socio-psychological or also impact the performance of a student?
This impact of hierarchy does not remain confined to the socio-psychological impact, but as a considerable number of students have pointed out, it affects the academic and co-curricular performance of the student as well. The feeling of imposition and need for compliance to a certain norm places a deep burden on the thinking of a person and distracts him. Their focus on studies gets lost due to these other issues which they face under the hierarchy.
For first years, these hierarchies impose an extra burden on them beyond the problems they already have to face like adjusting in new environment, home-sickness etc. It ultimately affects the performance of the student in academic and non-academic activities. A further issue is that in most cases the family members or a third person do not see hierarchy as a factor of bad performance. The whole liability of the underperformance is usually placed on the student. His merit is questioned, worsening his situation. These factors collectively contribute to the performance of the student. Thus the hierarchy has a substantial but hidden impact on the academic as well as non-academic performance of the student.
We started off with a premise of exploration. The aim was to document the hierarchy that exists in the college. Frankly, we didn’t expect quarter as many responses as we received. And it is not just the volume of the responses that surprised us, but the quality of the responses itself. As we set out on our path, being apprehensive of the culture on campus, we didn’t expect people to write in responses which highlighted the manner in which the hierarchy plays out. An unspoken proposition that we placed reliance on was that of the fifth years being the alphas of the University, incubating and perpetrating the hierarchy that exists on campus. To our much expected surprise, it turned out to be of complexity that this exercise cannot fathom to achieve.
Certainly as the responses show, hierarchy exists on this campus. It exists not only amongst the batches, but as has been highlighted, follows the contours of the larger societal relations like caste, class and language that exist in the real world. And while the ‘real world’ was used as a standard to enforce this hierarchy, except a few responses, not any highlighted the problems with that culture. The culture of oppression that breeds hierarchy in the society was left untouched by many, a fact that is worrisome. Hence the recognition acknowledging the culture that exists within the university did not extend to the oppression that is perpetrated as the system reinforces itself. The problem exists with the entrenchment of the culture within the student body, as was rightly pointed out by several respondents.
While several responses pointed out the psychological impacts of the imposition of hierarchy, those could not be explored in detail. Yet as has been noted, personal conversations with individuals highlighted how the hierarchical impositions in the form of ragging or subtle coercion can and do have long lasting impact on people. This does not necessarily replicate in the action being repeated, though instances of the same do exist. The problem exists not with the action itself, but the normalization of the same. This hierarchy is not seen as an exception to the culture, but rather an element of the student consciousness.
Certainly the exercise stops short of exorcising the ghost of this cultural problem. But that was never the aim. The aim was to document the existence of the hierarchy and to build a narrative around it to enable further steps to be taken in this research. We hope that we have achieved that objective, and acknowledging the shortcomings of our exercise, realise that much more needs to be done in order to understand the interplay of hierarchy in the student body. Alas as a 5th year noted, this culture embeds itself into the peer groups of the students resulting in a hierarchy of popularity. The question we should be asking then is, what is the job of the university and the students within it? We have stopped short of exploring ourselves, expressing dissent and cultivating thought. What we have achieved rather is the bondage of oppression.
(this inquiry was a joint effort of- Dipankar, Pallavi, Rakshanda, Lakshana and Vedant)