Janice McCabe’s research on friendship wasn’t supposed to apply to everyone.
Her study, which followed subjects at a large public research university in the Midwest, was meant to dissect how friendship networks can affect college students’ performance at school.
But McCabe, an associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, said those who’ve read her new book, “Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success,” have felt compelled to categorize themselves as one of three types of friends — samplers, tight-knitters, and compartmentalizers.
People are using her work like the Myers-Briggs personality test, or like author Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of connectors, mavens, and salesmen.
“I can’t necessarily say that one type is best,” McCabe said, of the three models of friendship she introduces in her findings, also published in the journal Contexts. “They all come with different types of challenges and benefits.”
McCabe’s book gives lengthy definitions of these friendship models with examples, but she was able to boil it down for the non-academics.
McCabe describes “tight-knitters” as “students with one denselywoven friendship group in which almost all their friends know each other.” As students, tight-knitters performed well — or not — as a group. They could build each other up or bring each other down.
McCabe described compartmentalizers as students who have a few groups of friends, sometimes made through organizations, hobbies, areas of study, and so on. About half of the people in each group know one another. “I think the compartmentalizers have an easier time separating parts of their lives,” she said, of the advantage. The drawback can be time management; it’s not always easy to balance groups of friends and academic pursuits.
Samplers are subjects whose friends don’t know each other. Samplers might make friends like compartmentalizers, through activities and organizations, but those relationships happen one at a time. McCabe said the upside for samplers is that they’re not held back by their friends. The downside is that they can feel isolated.
McCabe said her research was inspired by her own undergraduate experience at Tulane University. In her senior women’s studies seminar, McCabe and her peers admitted they were disappointed by their friend networks at school.
“We realized that we all had expected and hoped to have these strong female friendships during college, and we hadn’t,” she said.
The students in her seminar wound up spending a year studying female friendships on campus.
Later, at Dartmouth, McCabe wanted to know more about gender and friendships and how friend groups affected success at school. But when she began interviewing students in 2004, she discovered that race played a larger part than gender, at least at this Midwestern institution (she doesn’t disclose the name), where 85 percent of students were white. McCabe saw, for example, that many students of color had become tight-knitters, to build a strong support system on campus.
Compartmentalizers, meanwhile, tended to be white women. They benefited from seeking out friends with similar interests, but spoke of the pressure to maintain connections in several communities. One subject in the book talks about feeling obligated to study with a friend even though she knew she’d be more productive alone.
“In order to maintain their membership in friendship group, students need to spend time with the group,” McCabe writes.
Samplers were the hardest to pin down, McCabe said. She suspects that some samplers are introverts, but also said “a good number of them were social butterflies. Friend collectors.” Her research also showed that the samplers, many of whom had jobs, worked more hours than other groups, which might have limited their group time.
McCabe said all three models can yield success — there’s no wrong way to make friends — but that a benefit of knowing what kind of networker you are is that you can be mindful of the limitations. It’s also possible that institutions can learn from the work by considering how their students make friends and why.
She’s continuing her research to see how other types of campuses in other locations — including a small liberal arts college, a community college, and a large public university — fit in with her model.
“With this new project, I’m trying to capture students in their second year of college and then get a snapshot as they’re graduating.”
McCabe said that while she can’t be sure her college-based research applies to other environments, like an office, her interviews with students after graduation suggests that there are parallels. After finishing school, her subjects often pursued new friendships in similar ways. When she did see change, it usually meant that a compartmentalizer or a sampler had become a tight-knitter. They needed a stronger support system as they got older.
“There’s something about the college environment that didn’t work for them,” she said.
McCabe said she’s an example of someone who hasn’t changed, however.
“I was a compartmentalizer in college,” she said. “I think I’m still a compartmentalizer now.”Meredith Goldstein writes the advice column Love Letters.
She can be reached at email@example.com.