Khanna: Likely to Get Labeled

Dartmouth’s prevalent social labels reduce diversity in the community.

by Maya Khanna | 2/28/19 2:30am

 Deviance is defined by sociologists as the violation of expected rules and behavior by a member of a group, resulting in discord between the individual displaying the deviant behavior and the social context in which they reside. Though what is considered “deviant” varies greatly based upon a group’s conventional behaviors, deviance itself generally serves as a way for communities to define and clarify the socially normative behaviors and identities expected from its members. However, an individual’s motivation for engaging in deviant behavior has been subject to a wide range of sociological theories that have attempted to explain why people choose to renounce the establishment of their communities. 

One of the most prevalent explanations for deviant behavior is based upon the proposition that an individual’s identity and actions are shaped by the formal and informal agencies at work within their social context. This philosophy, known as labeling theory, emphasizes the self-perpetuating nature of stereotypes within a society; individuals both act and react in response to the labels affixed to themselves or others. Labelling theory is most often used to explain criminal behavior, particularly when describing situations in which calling a person a criminal creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which that individual consciously or unconsciously acts in ways that reaffirm their categorization.

However, labelling theory also hints at the reluctance of the majority within a society to rebel against expectations that ascribe how a person who practices a given gender, cultural identity, physical appearance, activity or other characteristic should act. Since the very purpose of deviance within a group is to maintain conformity, an individual that diverges from these expectations is subject to the internal and external social sanctions that noncompliance yields. In other words, rebelling against the establishment of any group is uncomfortable. Yet the tenants of labelling theory take the vague discomfort inherent in nonconformity and suggest that not only do people generally avoid overt rebellion, but that individuals pre-emptively shape their identities in accordance with the expectations of their community. 

Dartmouth students come from all corners of the globe, creating a student body that is a melting pot of cultures, races, religions, beliefs, languages and traditions. The geographic diversity present on campus alone presents stunning potential for a community defined by its uniqueness. Potential, though, is as far as diversity extends here at the College. Though Dartmouth is home to more than 160 student groups, these organizations are an infinitely small fraction of the complex diversity that students enter college with. In attempting to meet the spoken and unspoken expectations that define what a member of these student groups should look like, it is all too easy for students to give up their unique blends of individuality in order to fit in. Electing to be an active member of the Dartmouth community means participating in a system that rewards conformity and obedience with success and acceptance. For the typical high-achieving Dartmouth student, trading in one’s unique identity for a handful of the 160 definitions of what it means to be a part of the campus community is worth it. 

Labelling theory, it would appear, perfectly predicts the dynamic of life at Dartmouth. Social expectations coupled with individual drive to fit in have created a community in which labels are as ever-present as upcoming midterms and long lines at King Arthur Flour Café. Members of the Dartmouth Outing Club are “crunchy.” The label on the black overcoats worn by varsity athletes proclaim a student’s sport of choice before they speak, associating themselves with the stereotypes affixed to various varsity teams at the College. Any student studying economics is considered “preppy” by association, while a women’s, gender and sexuality studies major is assumed to be “alternative.” It is often assumed that members of more rambunctious Greek houses party hard every “on”-night, with little regard for their schoolwork. The classification of students in this manner has created easily identifiable divisions that both separate communities from each other and reinforce cohesion within groups themselves. 

I am not suggesting that student groups are negative entities that must be avoided to maintain individuality. On the contrary, it is the strong sense of friendship and belonging provided by these organizations that make Dartmouth a comfortable place for many students. However, it is imperative that these environments do not make students feel welcomed because they conform to group expectations; rather, that members feel welcomed because of who they already are. In turn, students must actively seek to accept the discomfort inherent in resisting conformity, endeavoring to ensure that their identities reflect their true selves rather than the persona that they feel obligated to become. If students and campus organizations are able to work together to fulfill both responsibilities successfully, the Dartmouth community will be able to more fully recognize and accept identities that extend beyond the 160 labels currently available to students.