Media Consumption

Urban Tribes by Ethan Watters, Part I…

When Kevin Smokler originally posted about reading Urban Tribes: a Generation Redefines Friendship, Family and Commitment on his personal website, I thought it sounded like a very interesting book. When I found out that it was being reviewed in the Virtual Book Tour this month, and I would have a chance to read it myself, I was thrilled. I was not disappointed. Overall, I think it is a book that many of us can relate to – and that is a Good Thing.

While this book is technically non-fiction, I felt that it was a smooth read. I found myself nodding my head time and time again as I agreed with the concepts that Ethan Watters shared throughout the book. As I read, I took notes on parts that I had additional questions about and sent them to the author for his response. The book has left me with a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head, and over the next few days I will post more of my thoughts on the book and how it relates to my life. But let’s start at the beginning and talk about the book itself:

Starting with the basics – what is an Urban Tribe?

The Urban Tribe is the name I’ve given the communities of friends that have formed during the current marriage delay. The current generation of young adults have delayed marriage longer than any generation in American history. We have also stayed outside the social groups our parents belonged to. This has left something of a vacuum in our lives. My theory is that we have relied on chosen communities composed mostly of friends to survive (and thrive) in this time.

How did you first become involved with your own Urban Tribe?

My tribe, like many, formed rather organically over several years. Another freelancer and I started our Tuesday night dinners where we would meet at the same restaurant once a week and invite a few people along. Over time, these dinners became a organizing point for our group. It was also an easy place to integrate new people. Most tribes do not have one point of origin (as in: “we all went to college together”). Rather they form slowly as the group gains a certain social gravity over time.

Have any marriages or long-term commitments come out of your own tribe? Or is there a no date rule?

My tribe has an unwritten and unspoken “don’t around rule,” which is different from a ?no date rule.? If you are going to be romantically involved with someone inside the group, you’d better do it with a sense of fair play and good faith. Several serious relationships and one marriage have formed within the group, and we couldn’t be happier about that. Those who cruelly game others for sex are not tolerated for long.

You raised the point in your book that it is difficult for a tribe to remove a member – has your own Urban Tribe experienced this first hand? How did you deal with it ultimately?

People are never removed from our tribe in one moment. Those who are untrustworthy or break the “don’t around rule” are eventually moved to the sidelines of the group. This has happened to our group. It’s a slow process. No formal decree is made, nor is there a vote. The person simply gets less and less invites to the group’s smaller gatherings. Soon they get
less and less invites to the larger gatherings and eventually they are out of the group’s orbit. Groups do this naturally. The process is relatively painless for all involved and it leaves plenty of time for the person to change their ways or for the group to change its collective mind.

You mention in the book that while some tribes contain married couples (or couples in long-term commitments), they are normally comprised of members that have never been married. With our generation as a whole often living far from their families, don’t they form Urban Tribes too? How does a group of married couples who gather often differ from an Urban Tribe?

There are groups that are composed of married couples and many Urban Tribes that include married couples. The differences are more in character than kind. My case is that the needs, activities and desires of a group of never-marrieds are somewhat different that those of a group of married couples. Groups composed primarily of those who have delayed marriage are worth looking at separately because the marriage delay has put so many more people in this category for so much longer.

Are modern day Urban Tribes different from the social groups that were prevalent in America in the 1920s through the 1960s? Women had quilting circles, there were bridge clubs, men had poker nights. People attended functions through church or civil organizations. Small groups gathered often back then. How is the Urban Tribe different?

I’ve never made the case that the nature of Urban Tribes is something new under the sun. Humans naturally gather in groups for support and this sort of thing happens at every point in our lives and in every generation. There are some differences with Urban Tribes. For one they are have no official apparatus as in a church or a bowling league. As a generation we seem to actively avoid such social groups. They also seem to have a momentum that is actually increasing the time we spend outside of families. Of course there are many parallels to the groups you have mentioned above. Again, my case is not that these groups are entirely different but rather that they are distinct enough to warrant giving them a close look.

Do Urban Tribes form out of our need to feel a part of a small community, much like a small town in rural America 60 years ago, while living in the big city? Is the phenomena of Urban Tribes something that we see as the result of the urbanization of society as a whole around the globe?

I think you are exactly right. Much of city living seems like it would be dehumanizing. However, we humans are sneaky and resourceful. Faced with the social wilderness of the cities we have forged small camps of people who we know and trust. We deeply desire that small town feeling and it would take more than urbanization to keep us from that goal.

Do you think people are more tolerant of behavior among the members of their tribe then they are of people that they date or people outside of the tribe? Is this the result of people wanting to protect their family unit, as the tribe replaces the traditional family?

When it comes to romantic behavior, I’d agree. Tribes are deeply warry of the motivations of non-members who come around looking for love. One misstep and the group can become viciously critical. The same behavior perpetrated by a group member is often laughed off. Tribes have taken over the gate-keeping role that parents once had.

In what ways has your own Urban Tribe helped you grow to be a better person? Do you ever feel as though they are holding you back?

Much of the book is taken up going back and forth about this question. There are times when I’ve felt strongly both ways. There is a huge opportunity cost for spending ten or twenty years living this way. Over all, I believe this has been a positive experience for me.

One clear way that my tribe has helped me be a better person is in supporting my writing career. I spent years struggling along making a pittance. My friends never wavered in their support of that dream. In their eyes I was always a successful writer even during those years when the world at large did not agree. A few other struggling writers and I even managed to
start an office space to support each other.

My story is not unique. Many people have told me stories of friends supporting such risks. There?s a whole chapter on it in the book.

What inspired you to continue your research beyond the initial article you wrote to complete a book about the Urban Tribes?

The flood of responses I got from that article was my main motivation combined with the knowledge that my original conception of these groups was wrong. In that first piece I maintained that these groups had rigid boarders with clear us vs. them boundaries. The people who described their groups to me told a different story. These groups were better conceived of as network nodes that connect us to the city at large (as opposed to wall us off from others). They were right and I was wrong. The book gave me a chance to describe these groups in greater and more accurate detail.

And the bonus question – the one I just have to ask because I think it every time I look at the cover of the book:

Since “Seinfeld” comes up more than once in the book, and is even mentioned on the back cover – do you ever find yourself thinking that “Urban Tribe” is a lot like the phrase “Urban Sombrero?” Is that just a coincidence?

(I went on to explain to Ethan that I was really sorry and I had watched way too many late night reruns, so I just had to ask! I told him that he didn’t have to answer that one though…)

My group has many Seinfeld moments. Just yesterday I showed up at Rob’s house unannounced and discovered three other group members had done the same. “Kramer is here,” he said to the others as I came in. It is very possible that the Urban Sombrero influenced my thinking.

Now here is your chance to answer some questions:
Has anyone else read this book yet? What did you think of it? Based on what you have read so far here, do you have an Urban Tribe? What has been your experience?

Thank you again to Ethan Watters for taking the time to answer my questions about Urban Tribes, and to Kevin Smokler for all of the hard work, time, love, and energy that he puts in to the Virtual Book Tour!

By Christine

Christine is an Avenger of Sexiness. Her Superpower is helping Hot Mamas grow their Confidence by rediscovering their Beauty. She lives in the Heights in Houston, Texas, works as a boudoir photographer, and writes about running a Business of Awesome. In her spare time, she loves to knit, especially when she travels. She & her husband Mike have a food blog at Spoon & Knife.

13 replies on “Urban Tribes by Ethan Watters, Part I…”

You know how commercials for breakfast cereals always say that their product is a “good part of this balanced breakfast?”

I’d say something similar for Urban Tribes. They are a good thing. But they are “a good part of this balanced society.” They are not a substitute for marriage, Church, civic groups, and the other institutions that hold our society together.

As long as we can keep that distinction — and I think that the author blurs it in a few places — I like the Urban Tribes concept.

(BTW, back in 2000 at the World Futures Society conference, two school chums of mine held a workshop entitled something like “The Tribal Society of the Future” that asserted much of the same thesis. Chalk one up for Sandra and Mike.)

And hey, I linked you from my blog today. Happy virtual book tour!

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Urban Tribes
The first time I saw the term Urban Tribe was in a Meg Hourihan post about the book Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family and Commitment (book // website // weblog) by Ethan Watters. It is an attempt to describe the social systems tha…

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