July 2004

Matt Richmond

nonfiction

Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment by Ethan Watters

I almost never read nonfiction books. When I do pick up a work of nonfiction, it’s usually for the title. The last time I read a book of nonfiction, I just couldn’t resist the perilous doom in the title Amusing Ourselves to Death -- that was five years ago. Before that I was 17. I picked up In the Shadow of Man because I thought it was a lost Tolkien novel. Turns out it was all about monkeys.

Recently I came across Urban Tribes by Ethan Watters. The subtitle left me a little cold: “A generation redefines friendship, family, and commitment,” but the main title was so ripe with possibilities (like the possibility of the book being all about ME) that I had to take a look. The first thing I learned upon opening the book was that Watters has been on Good Morning America, and that his first use of the phrase “urban tribes” (not his coinage) was in a New York Times Magazine article entitled “In My Tribe,” in which he defended delayed marriage and slacker-ism. Apparently, so many letters and emails poured in after its publication in October 2001 that someone with a calculator decided a book was a good idea. And in terms of selling books, it probably was. In terms of conveying useful or interesting information, it’s a little superfluous.

Here’s the supposed phenomenon: we young people move away from our families and into cities, but we wait much longer to get married than previous generations did. As a result, our friendships become a substitute for family, but since among friends there are no clear distinctions in terms of authority, we take on small social roles (the organizer, the compromiser, the slut) and the group becomes loosely organized as a tribe. Watters argues that this tribal behavior is primarily a good thing, as it indicates increased value placed on individual growth and understanding that will help the institution of marriage in the long run, even though it looks like it’s killing marriage now. Thanks to the patience, circumspection and creativity our generation achieves while sorting paper clips at our temp jobs, marriage will be saved, art and music festivals will proliferate and everything will be great. Until then, these tribes support and inspire us.

So, basically, “Mom, chill out. I’m fine.” Watters puts a positive spin on traits of the current twentythirtysomething generation that the rest of the world labels as negative. Of course, the inability to make decisions and follow through is a trait our generation possesses, too, and Watters typifies this with his wishy-washy delivery of lukewarm suppositions. Watters hems and haws over mild statements that he immediately half-retracts once they’re made. On page 57, referring to his NYTM article, he writes:

“…[M]y description of the tribe as ‘tight-knit’ and ‘us-versus-them’ was only half a mistake. While my sources let me in on the fact that these tribes were quite fluid in their membership, they recognized the emotional truth of what I was trying to get at. Despite changing membership, at any given moment in time these groups could give the feeling of exclusivity, of being clearly defined.

“At first this seemed like a paradox:…”

And on and on. I hear this crap every time some stoned member of my urban tribe tries to explain how good his donut is. The first 65 pages are a barrage of caveats, preambles and ass-covering that serves only to convolute any definition of terms that Watters comes close to establishing. In fact, throughout the book, I was often struck by how fair Watters was, often second-guessing himself on the page. Which was nice and all, but it didn’t help much in the comprehension department. By the end of the first section it seemed to me that “urban tribes” could describe just about any two people on earth.

Once the book gets past the first 70 pages or so, it picks up a little. Watters visits with experts on psychology, anthropology, sociology. There’s even a guy who knows about monkeys. (He contends that gossip is the human equivalent of chimps’ grooming, serving as the social glue that holds our tribes together. I guess I can stop shaving my best friend’s back.) Watters describes the insights of these experts well. He also does well to explore the darker sides of tribal life, presenting through case studies the peer pressure and insecurities members inflict upon each other.
He ties the information together with a loose narrative about the process of researching and writing the book – not forgetting to mention how helpful his friends were along the way – but the story never takes on much life and never really leads to a conclusion. In fact, the book feels like it’s laid out backwards. Watters begins with definitions of the urban tribe phenomenon, then kind of works his way back to its causes, dedicating the second half to an examination of the sources of delayed marriage. Then he ends the whole shebang with a disclaimer that probably should have appeared at the beginning, entitled: “Admitting to the Bias that Makes this Entire Book Suspect.”

Watters himself, referring to his New York Times Magazine piece, states the main problem with his book: “In the end, I had given [readers] little more than the preciously coined phrase ‘urban tribes.’” Unfortunately, 213 hardbound pages later, the same holds true.

Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment by Ethan Watters
Bloomsbury USA
ISBN: 1582342644
272 Pages