Student Life as Relational Networks. Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success by Janice M. McCabe (review)
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Student Life as Relational Networks. Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success
Janice M. McCabe
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016, 226pages, $30.00 (softcover)

As student affairs practitioners and researchers, we are often taught to view our campuses as communities of individuals. Our counseling backgrounds prompt us to see individual differences, take into account individual circumstances, and work with students on a case-by-case basis. Likewise, our research training prompts an autonomous agentic view of students whereby we presume independent decision-making and action amidst varying contexts and environments that make up the college milieu. And further, we all base much of our current work on a foundation of empirical and theoretical literature that for over half a century has reinforced an independent-individual conception of college student behavior. This bias toward individualism is highly effective, particularly from a developmental point of view. We understand that students develop psychosocially on individualized trajectories, and this understanding helps us support the particular challenge that they are facing.

The last two decades, however, have witnessed a successful challenge to the primacy of the individualist perspective in social science. In 1997, sociologist Mustafa Emirbayer published “The Relational Manifesto,” a call to scholars to pursue our understanding of the social world from a relational frame, wherein we conceptualize action among individuals as not only interdependent but fully formulated by the relations they inhabit. More recently, Clarke and antonio (2012) made a similar plea directed to scholars of higher education, imploring them to develop “a better understanding of the nature and structure of the relations in which students are embedded, the learning outcomes that are attributable to them, and the organizational factors that affect such structures” (p. 32). Janice McCabe answers these calls with the first book-length study of college students using a relational approach. Connecting in College is a major contribution toward moving the study of college students in this much needed direction.

McCabe, a sociologist trained at Indiana, takes seriously the assumption that student action is in fact dependent on the relationships with whom they are tied or connected. McCabe’s work lies in the well-cultivated area of academic and social success, but her relational framing raises an entirely new question: How does the structure and character of student friendship ties matter? Using a mixed-method approach, McCabe examines the friendship networks of 67 undergraduates at a large, public research university in the Midwest. She purposefully sampled students across involvement in various activities as well as oversampled Black and Latinx students (together about half of the sample). McCabe chose not to oversample the similarly sized Asian American Pacific Islander population (there are 3 in the sample), noting that other marginalized groups do not suffer similar educational inequities. This rationale is disputed by the literature (Museus & Kiang, 2009) and represents a lost opportunity for this important study. Native Americans appear to be a tiny fraction of the student population [End Page 472] and also were not studied. She makes use of surveys and interviews collected from students while attending college and 5 years later, allowing for an examination of how friendship networks change after college.

McCabe’s relational approach nets us a new vantage point on student life. She carefully collects from informants a description of their friends—and most importantly—information on how their friends are connected to each other. The resulting collection of these egocentric friendship networks are descriptions of students, not as singular individuals, but as people inextricably woven into a web of friendships that provide social and academic support. McCabe finds three unique network structures among her sample, dedicating a chapter each to students possessing them: tight-knitters, compartmentalizers, and samplers.

Tight-knitters have a single group of friends that are generally all friends with each other. This group tends to describe their friends as socially supportive and emotionally close, with a fictive kinship quality. Within these networks there is a sense of community, easily shared information and other resources, and a fair amount of social control exerted among friends. Interestingly, McCabe’s 22 tight-knitters were primarily Black and Latinx; only 2 were White. She...