Screenshots from party bus footage Vindicat

The deviant image of student association Vindicat

16 minutes to read
Ruben den Boer

Corporal student associations in the Netherlands form elite social groups, largely closed off to outsiders. But, due to a plethora of scandals in the past years, they often find themselves subject to public critique. How do these student associations manage their group identity during the social aftermath of a scandal? And how are they perceived online? In this article, we will look for an answer by applying discourse analysis to a case study involving the Dutch student association Vindicat.

Vindicat and other scandals surrounding student associations 

In the Netherlands, student associations are clubs of students that are entirely run by students. They often consist of several smaller subgroups, like ‘jaarclubs’ (students who joined the association in the same year) and ‘disputen’ (students who live in the same house). Student associations are commonly promoted as being a great way to meet new friends, expand your professional network, and improve your time as a student (Wordlid, n.d.).

New members were covered in feces and forced to ingest dangerous substances during hazing rituals

In recent years, leaked information and footage that quickly spread on digital media has led to a series of notable scandals. A well-known 'scandalous' student association is Vindicat but it is definitely not the only one. For example: in 2002, Utrecht student associations Unitas and Veritas were stripped of their subsidies after new members were covered in feces and forced to ingest dangerous substances during hazing rituals (Trouw, 2002). And in 2010, a new member of the Groningen student association Albertus Magnus had to dress like Sinterklaas and was put on fire in his initiation period (NOS, 2016). 

Scandals like these contribute to a negative image for student associations within Dutch society. That begs the question: How do these student associations construct and manage their image to the outside world during the crises following such scandals? And how do people react to their strategies online? To better understand this, we will take a closer look at a case study involving Groninger Studenten Corps Vindicat atque Polit (hereafter referred to as Vindicat). In what follows, we describe our case and present our findings.

A party bus in corona times

On 3 December 2020, a group of around 40 Vindicat members rode a party bus around the region of Groningen without wearing face masks or maintaining a distance of 1,5 meters (RTL Nieuws, 2020). This went against the corona measures imposed by the Dutch government at the time. That same day, videos of this social event got leaked on social media, as well as a voice memo from a board member aimed at bus party attendees demanding to delete all footage they have of said party (@Kortom_Tom, 2020). These videos and the voice memo quickly caused a commotion on social media, and - not much later - in other news media.

All of this uptake - most of it critical of Vindicat - was answered by the student association with a press statement published the very same day. The statement was signed by the chair of the board: the ‘rector’. At the time of the incident, information science student Wessel Giezen was rector. In Figure 1, we have translated the Vindicat press statement from Dutch to English. The press statement has been placed behind a login wall, but we managed to retrieve it by using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. In the remainder of this article, we will closely analyze this press statement and the following uptake.

​​Figure 1: Press statement by Vindicat Atque Polit, released on 3 December 2020 (manual translation)

Social groups and deviance

To better understand how Vindicat tries to regulate its image to the outside world in times of crisis, we will examine the Vindicat press statement presented above using discourse analysis. Central to our analysis here is Becker’s theory on social groups and deviance. 

Becker (1963) argues that all social groups create and enforce (social) rules which define appropriate behavior and that deviance is a failure to obey these rules. When people do not obey the social rules in place, and are thus labeled as deviants, they might become regarded as outsiders by the other members of the group. Importantly, Becker defines deviance not as a quality of the act, but as behavior that people label as such. Therefore, deviance is a social construct. 

Additionally, we will turn to two concepts at play surrounding the Vindicat press statements: Critical Discourse Moments and Image Restoration Discourse. We will take a moment to explain these key concepts before commencing our analysis.

Critical Discourse Moments (CDM)

Critical Discourse Moments (CDM) are defined by Chilton (1987) as: “those acts in discourse that contradict the rights or beliefs or values of either the speaker or hearer or both.” CDMs are moments of discourse crisis. In simpler terms: discourse moments that contradict something that was said or believed prior. 

According to Chilton (1987), the role of CDMs in discourse analysis may be circular: “the critical analysis of discourse [...] may reveal or indicate a critical contradiction of a material nature in the circumstances of the interlocutor. [...] Equally, awareness of such contradictions might lead the critical discourse analysis to look for the verbal strategies that can be typically deployed to manage them.” In our analysis, we will specifically look at the press statement published by the student association in search of discursive strategies through the framework of Image Restoration Discourse.

Image Restoration Discourse

Image Restoration Discourse is an approach to develop and understand strategies for organizations to manage their image in crisis situations through discourse. According to Benoit (1997), a crisis arises when the organization is held responsible for an action that is considered offensive. We will use Benoit’s framework to analyze which discursive strategies Vindicat uses in their statements regarding the bus party.

For a consistent and thorough analysis of how Vindicat regulates its image, a clear definition of ‘image’ is needed. For this, we depart from the definition Dutton and Dukerich (1991) give, who argue that there are two key sides to organizational images. The first side is the ‘perceived organizational identity’, defined as what the members believe is distinctive, central, and enduring about the organization: the group identity. The second side is the ‘constructed external image’, that what members believe outsiders think about the organization: the image. In this analysis we will take both Vindicat’s group identity and image, and the friction between them, into account.

Image restoration through discourse

We have now presented our data and laid out the framework for our analysis. Below, we will apply the concepts of Image Restoration Discourse and Critical Discourse Moments to the Vindicat press statement through discourse analysis. 

First of all, it is notable that the student association decides to respond through an official press statement. In doing so, they operate like the public relations division of a company trying to please shareholders, rather than as a club of students trying to save face. This indexes their perceived organizational identity or group identity: Vindicat sees itself as an official and professional organization, one that should officially respond to incidents. 

It is worth considering that press statements do not necessarily provide a neutral and complete view of an organization. But they do convey what an organization wants to contribute to the discourse surrounding an event at a specific moment. Therefore, press statements can provide telling insights about the group identity of an organization and the image they try to manage or restore. 

In what follows, we will take a closer look at the press statement in question. To analyze the image restoration strategies used in this statement, we turn to Benoit (1997), who defines five image restoration strategies: denial, evasion of responsibility, reducing offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification. 

Figure 2: Image restoration discourse in Vindicat's press statement

As shown in Figure 2, the rector of Vindicat firstly tries to reduce the offensiveness of the act by claiming defeasibility: the board lacked the ability to respond in time, they were only later informed that Vindicat members were on the bus. The rector then applies the strategy of denial. He does so not by denying the bus party took place, but by shifting the blame away from the association towards the individual members and denying that the board of Vindicat had a part in organizing it. 

Here, we see how the rector discursively differentiates the deviants from Vindicat as a whole by emphasizing the multi-layered structure of the student association. It is not Vindicat as an association that is deviant. Rather, the individual members of the year clubs on the party bus are the deviants. He also states that Vindicat will take corrective action to improve the situation by imparting consequences to the members who were present at the bus party. 

The behaviour of the students in the party bus is at odds with Vindicat’s group identity

Within this press statement, two image restoration strategies are absent: evasion of responsibility and mortification. This indicates that, even though they do not evade their responsibility directly, Vindicat does not want to communicate the idea that they are the ones that need to apologize for the deviant behaviour of the Vindicat members depicted in the footage of the bus party.

We must, however, emphasize that, since we are dealing with a press statement, this does not necessarily mean that the board of Vindicat actually differentiates individual members or year clubs from Vindicat as a whole. It is simply what they want to communicate to the outside world at this specific moment. This communication is needed because the behaviour of the students in the party bus is at odds with Vindicat’s group identity. What that group identity exactly entails, deserves further analysis.

Vindicat’s group identity

Vindicat sees itself and wants to be seen as a civilizing and conforming institution. Their very name, ‘Vindicat atque Polit', is Latin for 'upholds and civilizes'. In a separate press statement regarding the revocation of Vindicat’s accreditation following the bus party (issued 10 December 2020, Figure 3), Vindicat associates themselves with the security region and the police. They even approach deviant behavior the way these institutions would and emphasize the consequences they will impart to educate these individuals to better conform to the group (and societal) rules.

Figure 3: Image restoration discourse in a separate press statement by Vindicat

Additionally, Vindicat often emphasizes that they want to positively contribute to society. On their website and social media, for instance, they often communicate about their positive contributions to charities. Emblematic of this is the fact that the only tweet Vindicat posted in the weeks following the bus party was about their contribution to the food bank in Groningen (see Figure 4) (@GSCVindicat, 2020). This helps construct their group identity and image as a responsible association that contributes to the city of Groningen and society (Vindicat, z.d.).

Notably, the multi-layered structure of the student association is not at all emphasized in these instances of discourse. Vindicat only has one website for their whole organization, their social media accounts represent Vindicat as a whole, and in their post about their contribution to the food bank in Groningen, they write: “We are in the supermarkets with all our first-year students”. So the fact that the board tries to discursively differentiate individual members and subgroups from Vindicat as a whole in their press statement, is a discursive strategy that deviates from their usual communication strategy. When times are good, Vindicat is one group. But when times are rough, the deviants are no longer part of that group.

Figure 4: Tweet by Vindicat, 2020 (screenshot)

Critical discourse moments

Now that we have analyzed Vindicat’s group identity and the discursive strategies they usually use to construct their image, it becomes clear that we can label the (leaking of footage from the) bus party as a Critical Discourse Moment (CDM): a discourse moment that contradicts something said or believed prior (Chilton, 1988). 

The behavior of the people in the leaked footage was widely regarded as deviant since the Vindicat members disobeyed the corona measures. This does not just contradict the general belief that we should all try to follow the government measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “Only together we will get corona under control”, as the Dutch government mantra puts it (Rijksoverheid, 2020). It also contradicts Vindicat’s group identity as a professional, socially engaged organization civilizing future academics.

Because of their contradictory nature, CDMs make public discourse on a topic stand out. They provoke commentary, critique, public awareness, and further media coverage (Chilton, 1988). Once Vindicat’s beliefs regarding their own group identity had been contradicted, their image was damaged as well. This image then had to be restored by a press statement in order to bring it closer to Vindicat’s group identity (again).

Becker on multiple layers 

As analyzed above, Vindicat uses a press statement to deploy several image restoration discourse strategies to manage the contradiction of belief within the initial social event, and to oppose the idea that their association is deviant. Vindicat emphasizes the fracticality and multi-layered structure of the student association by discursively differentiating the ‘deviant’ subgroups and individuals from the organisation as a whole. Since it was not Vindicat as a whole that was on the bus, but just some ‘deviant outsiders’, the leaked footage no longer contradicts how Vindicat sees itself and wants to be seen by the rest of society. 

The Vindicat board discursively tries to prevent the whole association from being labeled as deviant

Here we see an interesting dynamic taking shape. The multi-layered structure within Vindicat allows for Becker’s theory on deviance to play out not only between Vindicat and the rest of the Dutch (academic) community, but also between different entities within Vindicat. To go a step further: by labeling and differentiating deviants within the association, the Vindicat board discursively tries to prevent the whole association from being labeled as deviant.  

But how successful is this strategy? For the answer, we will have to take a look at the uptake. Below, we will analyze several instances of online uptake following the bus party by citizens on Twitter using the discourse analysis methods of indexicality and intertextuality. 


To get a glimpse of how the press statements influenced the image that ‘the public’ has of Vindicat, we used Twitter’s Advanced Search option to look for Tweets containing the word ‘Vindicat’ posted between 3 December 2020 and 17 December 2020. Many tweets posted during these two weeks were negative towards Vindicat. 

One Twitter user, see Figure 5, asks if Vindicat cannot just be abolished, saying: “That shit every time with that little club.. #headstrong but they do not learn, apparently..” (our translation). This statement intertextually refers to other scandals Vindicat has been involved in. And the “#headstrong” indexes their view of Vindicat members as bad students (in university and in life). Additionally, the derogatory “little club” indexes their idea that Vindicat is one singular entity that is not to be respected.

Figure 5: Tweet about Vindicat, 2020 (screenshot)

On 14 December 2020, more than a week after the bus party, another user turned to Twitter to blame the whole of Vindicat for the newly imposed lockdown that was announced that day (see Figure 6) (Rijksoverheid, 2021). After the first line “This #lockdown is made possible by” the user lists groups of people that have been in the news for not obeying the corona measurements. Next to Vindicat, he also mentions “free the people” and “#ikdoenietmee” (our translation), both referring to a light social movement led by conspiracy theorist Willem Engel (NOS, 2020). In doing so, the Twitter user indexes Vindicat’s status as a threat - an outsider - in the collective fight against COVID-19.

Figure 6: Tweet about Vindicat, 2020 (screenshot)

In our last example, a third user retweets a tweet by a professional news medium about a group of youth sabotaging a COVID-19 test site on Urk (see Figure 7). To express this dismay, they compare Urk (a notoriously conservative village) to Vindicat as a whole, calling them both a “constantly oozing whitehead” (our translation). This indexes their idea of Vindicat as something nasty, unhealthy and undesirable - something you would want to get rid of.

Figure 7: Tweet about Vindicat, 2020 (screenshot)

Within the scope of our research, it would be an impossible task to get a comprehensive overview of the effect Vindicat’s press statements have had on their image. What we can conclude, however, is that Vindicat’s discursive strategy of differentiating individuals from the organization as a whole has not had the desired effect. In the tweets we encountered, subgroups, year clubs, or individuals are rarely differentiated from the organization. Instead, the majority of tweets regarding Vindicat in the weeks following the bus party remain negative and condemning towards Vindicat as a whole. 

Outsiders of society

Dutch student associations often find themselves subject to public scrutiny and critique. This case study shows how Groningen student association Vindicat deals with negative publicity following a scandal. They operate as a professional organization by communicating through a press statement. Within this press statement, they use image restoration discourse to emphasize the multi-layered structure of their association and to differentiate separate entities within Vindicat (individuals, yearclubs) from the association as a whole. It is not Vindicat that is deviant, it is the individuals that are deviant. By using this strategy, Vindicat tries to correct the contradiction that the bus party poses to their group identity as a professional, socially engaged, civilizing association. And they try to bring their image closer to this group identity. Without much success. Online, Vindicat is still seen as one deviant social group. 

Since Vindicat consciously differentiates deviant individuals and subgroups from their organization as a whole to save face, this case study also shows how Becker’s theory on deviance can operate on multiple levels. Becker’s theory can not only be applied to analyze how a social group such as Vindicat tries to defend its status as insiders of a community. It can also be applied to analyze how this status is defended by a social group by labeling separate entities within their group as deviants and then distancing themselves from these ‘deviant’ entities. That is how Vindicat tried to manage its image after the bus party scandal. Further research could focus on other case studies involving other scandals and student associations to determine if this discursive strategy is a common feature of how student associations deal with scandals. 


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