Saturday, November 20, 2010

Book Review: Urban Tribes

I recently finished reading Ethan Watters's 2003 book Urban Tribes: Are Friends the New Family? I had known about the book for several years and, in retrospect, I wished I had read it earlier, as I found it extremely relevant to the study of Emerging Adulthood. The book grew out of a 2001 New York Times magazine piece by Watters, and the voluminous e-mails he received in response to the article (and other media appearances) from fellow tribe-practitioners around the world.

Urban Tribes are groups of friends, each member of which is usually single or in a dating relationship (in fact, a major theme Watters explores in the book is whether tribe membership helps or hinders one's prospects of getting married or establishing similar long-term relationships). There is great variation in group size, although 50 seemed like a typical number. Agewise, the twenties through forties would commonly define the range of tribe members. A term Watters uses that describes many tribe participants in a manner akin to Emerging Adulthood is Post-College/Pre-Family.

Emerging Adulthood-relevant passages just jump off the page. Young adults without spouses and children face an "excess of freedom" (p. 9) and "a remarkable amount of personal autonomy to make up our lives as we went along" (p. 27). Many live in a "world of confused roles, time lines, and expectations" (p. 9). Some had a feeling of having "delayed becoming an adult" (p. 21) and that it was "Perhaps... time to move on and become a real adult" (p. 23).

The activities tribes engage in can be quite whimsical, such as re-enacting senior proms or taking "elaborate costumed Halloween trips to Vegas" (p. 37). On the other hand, tribe members also did things that represented deep levels of commitment and caring for each other. As Watters describes:

"My group of friends also came together to tackle group projects such as painting a living room, critiquing someone's rough cut of a documentary, or caring for someone who had fallen ill. We moved each other's furniture, talked each other through breakups, and attended each other's parents' funerals. Those who had money loaned it to those who didn't. Everything we owned, from books to tools to furniture to cars, was shared, or loaned or given away on an ongoing basis..." (p. 37). It is these latter acts that led Watters to hypothesize that much of what goes on in tribes of friends might have the significance of what family members do for each other (see discussion on pp. 38-39).

Another key issue is the longevity of tribes. Although people come and go, the core members of some groups sometimes stay together for 15-20 years or longer. The closest example of an Urban Tribe that I could personally relate to was the collection of friends one of my Texas Tech faculty colleagues established as a single, new assistant professor upon her arrival to Lubbock. She and several of her friends and neighbors -- a ballet instructor, a research associate, and several faculty members -- would, among other activities, gather at her house for periodic parties. At one, people had to wear nametags on which their names were preceded by self-descriptive adjectives starting with the same letter (e.g., I was "Affable, Analytic Alan"). After I finished reading Urban Tribes, I asked my colleague if she considered her group to be such a tribe. She replied that, in addition to the parties, her group hung out at a local coffee house and so, to some extent, could be considered a tribe. However, many of the members moved away from Lubbock after a year or two, so the long-term continuity wasn't there.

One last thing I wanted to mention is that Watters reviews several areas of academic research and how they might relate to the phenomenon of Urban Tribes, such as network theory, social identity, and civic engagement (i.e., "Bowling Alone"). These connections would presumably increase the interest level of the book for social scientists, but absolutely no academic training in sociology or other related fields is required to enjoy the book.