Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Big Is Too Big?

For as long as I have worked with sororities, questions regarding ideal chapter size and “how big is too big” have been hotly debated in many circles.  There seems to be a general consensus that the 300 woman “super-chapters” are far too large, but there is no clear agreement on where the line should be drawn separating “just big enough” from “too big.”

First, we need to determine the criteria upon which the “ideal size” should be determined. We have a lot of criteria from which to choose: student satisfaction, retention, risk management infractions, academic achievement and chapter operations, just to name a few. One could make the case for using any combination of these criteria in an effort to determine the “ideal” sorority size.

Based on the research that Josh Schutts, Sarah Cohen and myself have conducted over the last year, I would suggest that the criteria upon which this decision should be based can be simplified down to a single variable: how women in a chapter think about sisterhood.

Last year at the AFA Annual Meeting, Josh and I presented our research related to brotherhood to a standing room audience. The session went great, and we had tons of questions and received a great deal of positive feedback. After the session, representatives of two different NPC sororities asked us if we would be interested in replicating our study and looking at how women in sororities define and conceptualize sisterhood. We have engaged in that work for the last year, presenting our findings at AFA this past December (check out our slides here).

Women think about sisterhood in five distinct ways. I will briefly summarize them here.

Sisterhood Based on Shared Social Experiences: Described as “surface level sisterhood,” this is a sisterhood that revolves around doing fun things together and always having someone to do something with. Women who think of sisterhood in this way see themselves as the recipients of sisterhood whenever they are doing something fun with their sisters. This type of sisterhood is greatly tied up in the emphasis one places on the social standing of their group, and women who joined their particular chapter primarily because of its place in the social hierarchy are more likely to think of sisterhood along these lines.

Sisterhood Based on Encouragement and Support: Women who think of sisterhood in this way give and receive sisterhood through demonstrations of support.  “Sisters are always there for you” and “My sisters encourage me when I’m feeling down” are the most salient notions for women who see sisterhood in this way.

Sisterhood Based on Belonging:  This schema of sisterhood involves a sense of connection that goes beyond friendship. Women who think of sisterhood in this way describe their sorority sisters as “family” and their sorority as their “home away from home.” The connection is based on a sense of shared values and a feeling of being appreciated and accepted despite one’s flaws.

Sisterhood Based on Accountability: When operating in this schema, women understand that sisterhood is best demonstrated when sisters make one another better women by holding one another to high standards based upon shared expectations.

Sisterhood Based on Common Purpose: The highest notion of sisterhood, women operating in this schema understand the “bigger picture” and describe sisterhood as something transcending the individual and even the chapter. They describe sisterhood as a connection, rooted in the ritual, to all sisters past and present, and the nobility of working towards a common goal together.

Unlike men, who describe brotherhood in a vary static way (i.e. a chapter has a defined culture of brotherhood that does not change much at the individual level over time), women describe sisterhood almost as a developmental process. Women come into the sorority expecting and experiencing the social aspects of sisterhood and, over time, grow and understand the more evolved ideals of sisterhood.

One woman described this as the “the transcendence from a sisterhood of selfishness to a sisterhood of selflessness.” You might graphically depict this idea in a simple diagram:

Based on our research so far, it appears that there are factors that both contribute to and inhibit this transcendence at the chapter level. Having a chapter house, holding an office, and having a positive experience with the standards process all appear to have positive influences on this transcendence to higher levels of sisterhood.

Chapter size, it would appear, has a negative effect.

Josh, our statistical guru, subjected our data to a process called ROC Curve Analysis (more on that here if you’re interested). We were interested in seeing if chapter size had any perceivable impact on any of the five different schema of sisterhood. The ROC Curve can be used to measure inflection points, or a given point at which a set of data shifts in some noticeable direction.

When we conducted the analysis, what we found was that there was, in fact, an inflection point related to chapter size that significantly predicted decreases in the last two schema (Accountability and Common Purpose). In other words, at a certain chapter size, we can predict that individual scores on both the Accountability and Common Purpose schema will begin to decline, and the further beyond that number the size of the chapter grows, the more noticeable the decline.  As it turns out, the number was exactly the same for both the Accountability and Common Purpose Schema.

That number?  150.

When a sorority becomes larger than 150 members, it becomes much more difficult for members to transcend from selfish levels of sisterhood into the more evolved, selfless levels of sisterhood. In those chapters, most women remain stuck in a place where they see their sisters as a source of fun, encouragement and support, remaining largely oblivious to the more advanced notions of Accountability and Common Purpose. That is not to say that chapters over 150 cannot achieve a place where most members transcend to higher levels of sisterhood, but the data do suggest that as a chapter grows beyond 150, that task becomes increasingly more difficult.

These findings, once published, will almost certainly have implications for practice in our industry. What implications will this have on expansion policies? Recruitment rules? Housing? Knowing that having chapters larger than 150 is not ideal, how should campuses respond? How should national organizations respond?

I do not propose that I have the answers to any of these questions, but I am very much looking forward to the conversation.


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  2. I have long felt this way. When I was at Arizona State, our 12 chapters were around 120 members and I felt that even as a new member and a senior I was at least familiar with the names of the girls who were at the other end of the age group. Contrast that with some experiences I've heard from girls at who were members of superchapters. They barely knew everyone in their pledge classes, much less the entire chapter. Take for instance the way that we dealt with infractions- we would often have personal knowledge of the sister and the girls from the large chapters seemed to feel like it was a form of blind punishment that did not take into account that particular person. I think generally it's easier to partake in any type of negative behavior- gossip, punishment, hazing even- when you don't really know the person or people. When you actually do know the sister, not giving them a second chance and the opportunity to grow or to haze them is almost unthinkable. That's obviously not to say that negative behavior cannot happen in smaller chapters or groups but I just think it's less likely based on my own personal experience.

    1. Exactly - there are bad chapters with less than 150, and chapters that still have a transcendent sisterhood that are larger than 150. Lots of factors go into that (we plan to write about them in the weeks ahead), but having a general idea of where the "danger zone" is is helpful.

  3. "The Rule of 150 says that congregants of a rapidly expanding church, or the members of a social club, or anyone in a group activity banking on the epidemic spread of shared ideals needs to be particularly cognizant of the perils of the bigness. Crossing the 150 line is a small change that can make a big difference." Malcolm Gladwell from the Tipping Point. Interesting connection.

    1. I had heard of the rule of 150, and considered mentioning it here but decided against it. Interesting to see that the data backs up the theory in such an exact way. With both schema, the cut point was 150 on the nose - we didn't round at all.

  4. I would be curious to see if the size of an institution impacted this concept as well. Working at a small (roughly 1050 students) college with an average chapter size of 90, our women are having a hard time moving past the superficial level of sisterhood that you addressed. Through conversations with our students, we have discovered that one of the issues is that our women are finding a disconnect between their collegiate experience and their experience as a sorority women. Student choose our campus because they are seeking personal attention, a close-knit community, and the opportunity to feel like they matter as an individual. However, then our women join chapters that constitute roughly 8-9% of our entire student population and they find themselves feeling like "just a number". I would love to see further examination into this topic and how environmental factors play into the numbers game we often play with our sororities.

  5. I was thinking 150 before I saw it in this blog because I too had read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, as referenced by Aaron George. It seems to make sense, and especially good to have some data to back that up. For the first time in my experience, our Panhellenic is considering lowering Total in the non-formal recruitment semester, in consideration of the individual membership experience.


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