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In one group you’re cast as the leader – in another you play the child. It’s fascinating how the chemistry and dynamics of social groups push us into particular roles – encouraging some aspects of our personalities and discouraging others. (Which I suppose is why author and teen-psychologist Andrew Fuller thinks young people should belong to multiple social groups – so they don’t get stuck in any one ‘character’.)
I’ve been reading up about tribal roles within friend circles in Ethan Watter’s, Urban Tribes (2003). The book argues that strong friendship groups or ‘urban tribes’ are ‘becoming the new family’ – or at least performing many key family functions. Watters describes himself as a ‘reluctant trend spotter’ and first put forward his theory in a two-page article which captured the imagination of Good Morning America. The story got a big response from audiences who started sending Watters stories and descriptions about their own ‘urban tribes’ – which Watters collated and analysed.
He draws together an interesting list of tribal roles – can you recognize yourself or other’s in any of these positions?:
>> the ‘organizer’ – also ‘mother figure,’ ‘party planner,’ or ‘social director,’
>> the ‘advice giver’ or ‘therapist’ – also ‘shoulder to cry on’, “Switzerland”
>> also ‘new project innovators’ who come up with the next crazy scheme … ‘assistants in charge of details’ who support the main organiser … the ‘comedian’ the ‘worrier’ who frets about everything and ‘the life of the party’ …
I particularly liked Watter’s description of the ‘children’ of the group:
“There were often two or three ‘children’ in a group. These were not literal children, but adults who seemed always to be in trouble or in need. “The cynic” appeared to be one variation of “the child.” The cynic had the disgruntled demeanor of a two-year-old, and other group members seemed to enjoy spending large amounts of time trying to improve the cynic’s mood. While you might think that groups would avoid such personalities, these ‘children’ appeared to offer something of a group activity. The “child” would show up on a camping trip having managed to pack only hot chocolate mix. While such habits were exasperating, providing the “child” with food and shelter for the weekend made for a challenging, and ultimately enjoyable, group project. The organizer and the assistants in charge of details would rally and prove their acumen. The challenge was made more meaningful by stories told later about the weekend. Often it was the boneheaded actions of the “children” that became the groups most beloved stories to retell. p47
I’m only half-way through reading Urban Tribes – so still working out what I think of it. But the feeling that our friends are our true family is one that resonates in the My Tribe exhibition. Have a look at Home and Family, a recent work by Contributor Emma Judd. It’s a lovely reflection about belonging and housemates who become “the closest things to a family ‘unit,’ that I have had in the past 10 years.”