The second half of the book descends into personal narrative. Although I did find it quite amusing, Ethan's exploration of male/female relationships as they pertained mostly to himself and his friends did not as I saw it further the message of the earlier part of the book. I laughed as Ethan attempted to navigate various pop-psychology theories about mating, particularly when he tried to convince his friends that evolutionary psychology should dictate the rules of the game. Then there is his analysis of the latest dating advice books, such as The Rules. I hadn't realized that anyone had taken them seriously, but there was an astonishing amount of articles pressuring women to marry. It is all very entertaining.
At the end, as Ethan describes his happy marriage and the transition from tribe-life to married-life, I felt dissatisfied. If this was to be a book about the Urban Tribe, it should not have become a book about marriage. If this was a book about marriage, why muddy it with the concept of Urban Tribes? In the beginning, he takes great care to describe how the "never-marrieds" of his generation are much more than single people, and how they are forging a new type of life for the coming century. However, his ending reveals that he too believes that marriage is the eventual goal for all people. I don't have a problem with marriage, but I think he lost his way on his own argument.
In summary, this book contains a great introduction to the Urban Tribes concept, followed by a very funny personal narrative about dating, and ends with an analysis of marriage in our times. I cannot say it was a good book, but if I had read each of its parts individually, I would have said I enjoyed them all.
The first part of this book is generally introspective and autobiographical with Watters drawing on his own experiences in attempting to understand his own status as a "yet to be married" member of an urban tribe. The latter part of the book is more outer-directed and analytical, and Watters discusses some social theories and sociological data which may help to shed light on the development of this new type of community.
There are a few initial problems with which the author wrestles early in the book. One is the difficulty with defining exactly what an urban tribe is and what differences and similarities may exist that characterize various tribes in varying settings. A second is the question of why so little attention has been paid to this phenomenon and why it has had so little public recognition. Finally, a question that I think is at the core of the book: Why have so many of these "yet to be married" opted to settle into urban tribes instead of forming a conventional family as previous generations have done?
These are interesting questions and Watters approaches them in a number of ways at various stages of his very personal quest. Along the way the reader will be introduced to the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert, the American Association of Single People, the activity of "social networking," the problem of defining the word "single," an academic discipline called evolutionary psychology, information about mating behavior, and the concept of "social capital." The reader will also hear about the author's attempt to glean some insight from experts at a national convention of the American Psychological Association and the author's participation in a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Philadelphia to which, Watters pointedly notes, no Hispanics had been invited.
One of my favorite segments, however, was the author's discussion of "gossip and grooming," a notion based on the work of biological anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who suggests an intriguing association between the use of language and the size of groups we humans choose to socialize in. Monkeys and other nonhuman primates spend a great deal of time in the practice of grooming one another. The time and effort involved in this grooming seems to have some effect on the size of the social group with which the individual animal associates. After all, there is only so much time a monkey has for this type of activity. Dunbar theorized that human beings had replaced grooming with talking, specifically gossiping, and that the size of a human social group might be limited by the number of people one could effectively gossip with. There's more to this matter, of course, and I have oversimplified my description of it, but the entire discussion of gossip and grooming is rather fascinating, as are the conclusions that Watters draws at the end regarding its usefulness in understanding the size of human groups.
I suspect that this work will appeal more to those in their twenties and thirties than it will to people of my generation, the one which came of age in the 1950s and 60s. My peers and I were still attached to the notion of the traditional marriage and family fast-track which had been the heritage passed down to us by a previous period. Things have apparently changed since then and Watters, who is in his late thirties, sets out on a personal investigation to find out why his generation has deviated from what once was considered the "norm" -- finish your education, find a job, get married, and start your family, without much lag-time in between these stages.
This is not to say that those of the generation prior to the one described by Watters have nothing to learn here. Undoubtedly they do. The fact that many of the senior members of contemporary society are critical of the current trend of young men and women waiting until much later to get married and have children shows, at least, that they are becoming cognizant of the phenomenon. To his credit, Watters does confront this criticism head on and he attempts to deflate it, explaining that things may not be as bad as some critics have suggested.
This is not a book written from a sociologist's perspective. Watters is a journalist by profession and his writing is very personal throughout the book; he is actually involved much of the time in investigating his own life and the choices he's made. While clearly understanding the serious social impact of the topic he discusses, Watters still manages to write with a bit of wit and humor and a flair for mixing objective analysis with subjective synthesis, not an easy thing to do when dealing with any subject, especially with one as complex and illusive as social interactions. "Urban Tribes" is a good first-attempt at analyzing and understanding an interesting contemporary issue.