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Urban Tribes

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An obscure eighteenth century poet once called friendship the “mysterious cement of the soul, sweetener of life, and solder of society.” Early twenty-first century writer Ethan Watters would not quite agree. In his book Urban Tribes, he examines the circles of friendship among single, urban twenty and thirty-somethings – the social phenomenon that has been popularized by television shows such as Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and countless other sitcoms – and asks what purpose do they serve? Are they the social equivalent of our father’s Lions Clubs and our mother’s Ladies Auxiliaries? Or are they a social by-product of a generation too self absorbed to find true love and happiness in the traditional mode of marriage and family? And, as the editors of the magazine article which gave birth to this book asked, just what is it that makes them different from any other circle of friends at any other time of life? One might also add, what makes them different from any other circle of friends in any other age?

Not much, it turns out, although Watters tries hard to find some sort of unique social significance for them. They’re a bulwark of support, both emotional and professional for their members. They’re a network of business opportunities. Some of them even manage to play civic roles. But, in the end, there’s nothing new or unique about people grouping themselves according to interests or habits. The phenomenon is, well, as old as the word tribe itself. There’s a tendency, sometimes, to read too much into an observed phenomenon, to make it more significant than the situation warrants, just because it appears to be happening to all of those around us. This is one of those times. Midway through the book Watters strains so much at his thesis that it reads like a college term paper assignment. It goes something like this: Our parents lived in families centered around children. Ethan Watters and his friends, and a lot of other single adults, live lives centered around themselves and their friends, ergo this is a new sociological trend. But the history of the world can’t be viewed through the prism of a 1950’s sitcom. Our parents may have married earlier on average than we do, but our mothers still had bridge clubs and neighborhood circles of friends, our fathers had poker clubs and the Kiwanis. What’s more, before they were married they had circles of single friends, too. And at every stage of their lives their circles of friends served the same purpose as the “urban tribe.” They just didn’t write about them. The only thing “new” about the current circles of single friends is that there are more of them, largely because more people (especially women) can afford to wait and marry for love rather than convenience.

Luckily, by the last third of the book, Watters realizes this. And luckily, he’s a charming and self-effacing writer, never taking himself or his thesis entirely seriously. As a result we get amusing anecdotes about love and sex among urban young professionals. He attends a convention of psychologists to try to find out why so many of his circle have put off marriage, only to discover that science (if you can call psychology a science) hasn’t the answer. He examines himself and his friends’ lives closely and still can’t find the answer. By the end, however, the answer comes to him, quite unexpectedly, when he isn’t looking for it. Friendship may be one poet’s “cement of the soul, sweetener of life, and solder of society,” but it’s another’s “Love without his wings.” Watters’ urban tribe receded in importance once he met his best friend for life. Tellingly, the book is dedicated not to his circle of close friends, but to his new bride. Watters found his pair of wings.

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  • I think urban tribes sometimes replace families. Many people are not close to or estranged from the nuclear units of their youths or come from fragmented families. I also think urban tribes may serve a communal purpose for people who stay divorced or never marry. In cities with high rates of singles such as Portland and Seattle, a large segment of the population lives alone. People in the demographic use their tribes as their main form of interaction. The relative affluence of American singles may also have something to do with this. If people could not afford their own living spaces, I believe they would spend more time with family members or roommates.