Q&A with Janice McCabe

Sociology professor Janice McCabe talks about her upcoming book and friendships.

by Hayley Hoverter | 9/14/16 12:20am

Before I was called into sociology professor Janice McCabe’s airy office for our interview, I thought she was talking with a student. I was surprised to find that the voice I had heard was coming from her computer. She was listening to a voice recording from an interview with a Dartmouth student talking about friendship — the subject of McCabe’s forthcoming and first book, “Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success,” which will be published this year. McCabe has been collecting information about how Dartmouth students make friends. I was curious how this book and her previous article, “Friendship Talk as Identity Work: Defining the Self through Friend Relationships,” shed light on how people grapple with their individuality while making friends.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you ended up starting your book?

JM: I started interviewing students about their friendships for my dissertation. I started the interviews in 2004. The book has been a while in the making. I was interviewing them before and after college. How helpful are those friendships after college? Do those friendships stop? I’ve been listening to interviews with the Dartmouth students and asking them to give me a list of their friends. And I do network analysis, which is visually mapping and discovering patterns that are common among multiple networks.

How do the networks work?

JM: I just started in June or July interviewing Dartmouth students. An example is Valerie, who is connected to everyone because they’re all each other’s friends. She’s a “close-knitter.” With “compartmentalizers,” their friendships are divided into two groups like friends from campus [and] friends from home. Then there’s the “sampler.” A lot of Steve’s friends were one-on-one friendships, that he met in a club, online and from eating in a food court. His friends didn’t know each other. I’m also interviewing people from Manchester Community College and the University of New Hampshire.

What do you think your work says about authenticity?

JM: Authenticity is about where you draw the lines. Like, “They know the real me, I can let my guard down with them.” When students drew the line with a friend, it usually means close friend. They named between three and 60 friends. And then I asked them to narrow it down another level. How many people would that be then? Five or 10 or 100?

How many interviews have you done so far?

JM: I have 67 students’ full networks.

What are the patterns you have noticed?

JM: I tink the patterns came through pretty quickly in my analysis, such as the differences in how they navigate networks. The most obvious pattern was what I learned about tight-knit networkers. They had the lowest GPAs and graduation rates, which was puzzling. There were two types of tight-knit networkers — one group’s friends provided academic support and instrumental help. The other type of tight knitters’ friends distracted them. Whereas with compartmentalizers, they’d have a group of social and academic friends, and people who would give them academic support like sending texts saying good job. They got different things from different people. The samplers were academically successful with or without friends.

How did you isolate friendships as factors in your research?

JM: For the most part compartmentalizers during college were compartmentalizers after. With samplers, they weren’t samplers afterwards. They were dissatisfied because they once had one on one support from friends, which was unique to a college environment.

Do you have any interest in teaching a class about these friendship networks?

JM: In my “Youth and Society” class students have read chapters of my book. They told me that they thought most Dartmouth students would be samplers. I thought they would be tight knitters. They’re mostly compartmentalizers.

Do you know how college students’ friendship networks change from year to year at college?

JM: I don’t know for sure yet because I’ve only gotten one snapshot. I hope to see that.

Do you have a hypothesis about what you think happens?

JM: The similarity during and after college makes me think the “compartmentalizers” type is based on how you come into college. But something that came up in my interviews with compartmentalizers is that this configuration can be taxing because you are social with social friends and “football” with football friends. One student is like, “Sometimes I lose track of who I really am.”

Can you explain why you decided to frame the discussion about identity through talk about friendships in your article?

JM: I had planned to look at identity, but not in that way. It was written with a former grad student and I collected follow up data. They talk about the definition of friendship and how they change during and after college. Envisioning self through others, betterment distancing and situating with networks.

How do college students make friends?

JM: Through common interests. Sometimes through clubs and organizations on campus. Sometimes through seeing people over and over again encourages you to strike up a conversation even if you appear to be quite different people.

Does your book come across any key teachings for incoming freshmen?

JM: I asked students for advice they’d give to incoming Dartmouth students. The thing that students mention most is that they shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to clubs. I’d say join one or two — not ten, but a couple of clubs, organizations and classes. I think that everyone feels at the beginning of freshman year that they have friends and they don’t.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.