A mixed bag of buddies

On Friendship
November 30, 2001

The study of friendship has long been overlooked by social scientists. There is something frivolous about announcing oneself a "sociologist of friends", so far better to focus on more weighty matters such as "stratification" or "organisational behaviour". Yet who has not heard someone say, after having faced a divorce, death or job loss: "I found my real friends then"? Who can miss here the identification of friends as critical to surviving trauma? And who has not come across the dismissal by the young of those they despise - "no friends"?

It is to the great credit of Ray Pahl that he has produced a short and elegant book that effectively explores the subject. He has made a habit of taking seriously questions that can seem too trivial for mainstream researchers.

Some years ago, Pahl wrote a splendid polemic, After Success , that hinged on the complaint that studies of mobility presupposed that a move from a manual to non-manual job represented success. Pahl used interviews to show that things were much more complicated. There are plenty of people who are materially successful but remain failures, trailing stories of divorce, failed relationships and misery. Insights such as this can subvert mountains of quantitative research.

As soon as one starts to ask questions, the very definition of "friend" becomes a problem. Aristotle distinguished friends of pleasure, virtue and utility, which is useful, but we need even more categories to distinguish "fossil friends" from "best friends", or "friends you don't like" and "friends you like, but not their partners", or "work friends" as opposed to "friends in the pub".

Notions of friends change as one grows older, being quite different for the youth and the widower. Conceptions also change over a larger timescale, such that while once upon a time one's wife was mere family, today she is likely to be one's very best friend. Nowadays, it seems commonplace to have friends within the nuclear family.

Beware too any idea of a decline in friends, though there is a ready picture of superficial "luvvies" that can be set against durable alliances once formed in childhood that last through life. In the distant past, one's closest relationships were indeed with family and neighbours, and these could be of enormous consequence, but there was as often as not enmity as well as camaraderie. The Italian saying, "brothers' knives", echoed in Lawrence Stone's aphorism that "the family that slays together stays together", reminds us that friendships today might be preferable to the old ties.

Perhaps the one common denominator today is that friends should be freely chosen and that they ought to be accepted "for what they are". There is a becoming egalitarianism here, though if notions of calculation intrude, then the basis of friendship is threatened. Pahl coins the term "social convoy" to capture the role of friends in helping us through life. As communities decline, and as we become increasingly able to adopt a preferred lifestyle, so do friends become more central to our lives. Accordingly they merit very serious study. On Friendship reviews what is known. I look forward to talking it over with my (academic) friends.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, University of Birmingham.

On Friendship

Author - Ray Pahl
ISBN - 0 7456 2280 1 and 2281 X
Publisher - Polity
Price - £40.00 and £11.99
Pages - 189

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