Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success, by Janice M. McCabe

Friends can help undergraduates blossom, but there’s not enough mixing of students from different backgrounds, says Lorenza Antonucci

January 19, 2017
Sorority friends

The mysteries of university students’ social lives have given rise to a host of contradictory perceptions. The media typically depict undergraduates as twentysomethings bent on heavy drinking and partying. In policy papers, in contrast, they are atomistic individuals preoccupied with augmenting their skills to compete in the competitive labour market. The greatest merit of Janice McCabe’s study is that it presents a more nuanced and realistic view of students’ social lives, acknowledging the tension between the desire for sociality and the awareness of academic obligations.

Conducting research over 10 years at an unnamed large public institution in the US Midwest, McCabe collected a wide range of material on students’ friendship networks, via interviews, focus groups, surveys and network data. Alongside very valuable in-depth narratives, her explanation of findings is aided by visual representations of networks of friendships – although, surprisingly, there are no references to Facebook or other digital media.

She groups students into three main network types: the “tight-knitters”, with densely woven friendship groups; the “compartmentalizers”, who have separate clusters of different kinds of friends; and the “samplers”, who have only individual, unlinked friendships. McCabe shows that tighter friendship networks can provide greater emotional and social support, but also have the potential to negatively affect students’ academic outcomes if they lack intellectual engagement and other support. In principle, this finding is also relevant for European higher education, whose campuses lack the fraternities and sororities common to the US but have students’ unions that in some cases create the basis of similarly tight networks.

Although it is filled with useful descriptive material, the explanatory power of this book is strongly limited by its lack of analysis of the social milieu in which these friendships are formed. For example, the group of “tight-knitters” McCabe identifies is composed almost entirely of black and Latino students. She explains the “under-achievement” of some students in this group as a consequence of the lack of intellectual engagement and other useful contributions from their close group of friends. The students are reminiscent of the working-class undergraduates at elite institutions that the UK education scholar Diane Reay calls “strangers in paradise”: the race discrimination and alienation they encounter on campus leads them to find comfort in culturally familiar friendships. McCabe’s suggestion to those students would be “to avoid the model of lower-achieving networks”, but friendship is presented as a purely rational choice, and there is no discussion of the structural limitations involved.

In reality, friendships are born out of cultural proximity, and even contact with people from different backgrounds is influenced by the unequal distribution of material resources. The case of the “samplers”, namely students with academic success but very little social life, illustrates this point. According to McCabe, these students could have more success by finding “friends with academic benefits”, but when she asks them about what prevents them from having more friends, one of her interviewees candidly replies “my background”. Although this book’s aim was to find the secret of academic and social success, its most interesting findings point to the failure of campuses where students from different backgrounds remain socially separated. The only way to allow students to truly connect is to unravel, and then tackle, the social factors underlying such divided networks.

Lorenza Antonucci is senior lecturer in social policy and sociology, Teesside University, and author of Student Lives in Crisis: Deepening Inequality in Times of Austerity (2016).

Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success
By Janice M. McCabe
University of Chicago Press, 216pp, £78.15 and £21.00
ISBN 9780226409498, 9528 and 9665 (e-book)
Published 28 November 2016

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