A fraternity (Latin frater : "brother") is a brotherhood, though the term usually connotes a distinct or formal organization. The only true distinction between a fraternity and any other form of social organization is the implication that the members freely associate as equals for a mutually beneficial purpose, rather than because of a religious, governmental, commercial, or familial bond, although there are fraternities dedicated to each of these topics.
In many instances fraternities are limited to male membership but this is not always the case, and there are mixed male and female, and even wholly female, fraternities. For example, for general fraternities; Grande Loge Mixte de France, Honorable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons, Grande Lodge Feminine de France, Order of the Eastern Star.
Fraternities can be organized for many purposes, including university education, work skills, ethics, ethnicity, religion, politics, charity, chivalry, other standards of personal conduct, asceticism, service, performing arts, family command of territory, and even crime. There is almost always an explicit goal of mutual support, and while there have been fraternal orders for the well-off there have also been many fraternities for those in the lower ranks of society, especially for national or religious minorities. Trade unions also grew out of fraternities such as the Knights of Labor.
The ability to organize freely, apart from the institutions of government and religion, was a fundamental part of the establishment of the modern world. In Living the Enlightenment, Margaret C. Jacobs showed the development of Jurgen Habermas' 'public space' in 17th century Netherlands was closely related to the establishment of lodges of Freemasons.
There are known fraternal organizations which existed as far back as ancient Greece and Rome and analogous institutions in the late medieval period called confraternities, which were lay organizations allied to the Catholic Church.
The development of Freemasonry in the early 1700s became a watershed moment in fraternal organization, and there have been hundreds of varieties of Freemasonry, and thousands of closely parallel organizations since then. Virtually all fraternal organizations today bear some debt to the models of organization first worked out in Masonic lodges.
The development was especially dynamic in the United States, where the freedom to associate outside governmental regulation is expressly sanctioned in law. There have been hundreds of fraternal organizations in the United States, and at the turn of the last century the number of memberships was equal to the number of adult males, although, because of multiple memberships, probably only 50% of adult males belonged to any organizations. In 1944 Arthur M. Schlesinger coined the phrase "a nation of joiners" to refer to the phenomenon. Alexis de Tocqueville also referred to the American reliance on private organization in the 1830s in Democracy in America.
There are many attributes that fraternities may or may not have, depending on their structure and purpose. Fraternities can have differing degrees of secrecy, some form of initiation or ceremony marking admission, formal codes of behavior, disciplinary procedures, very differing amounts of real property and assets.
College and university fraternities
Main article: Fraternities and sororities
Fraternities have a long history in colleges and universities, and form a major subsection of the whole range of fraternities. In Europe, students are organized in nations and corporations since the beginnings of the modern university in the late medieval period, but the situation can differ greatly by country.
In the United States, fraternities in colleges date to the 1820s, but did not fully assume an established pattern until the 1840s. They were strongly influenced by the patterns set by Freemasonry. The main difference between the older European organizations and the American organizations is that the American student societies virtually always include initiations, the formal use of symbolism, and the lodge-based organizational structure (chapters) derived from usages in Freemasonry