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Friendship refers to a broad category of positively disposed interpersonal relationships with equality, mutual goodwill, affection, and/or assistance varying according to social circumstances.
Friendships are characteristically voluntary, personal, equal, mutual, and affective. While social structural factors place people in functional proximity enabling friendships to develop, individuals voluntarily negotiate their mutual treatment as friends. Friendship’s voluntary quality contrasts with blood ties to kin, the legal and religious sanctions of marital bonds, and the economic contracts regulating work relationships. Second, friends are personally valued as particular individuals rather than occupants of roles or categorically. Third, friends communicate and treat each other as equals despite personal attributes and social statuses that otherwise create hierarchical relationships. Fourth, friendship requires fairly symmetrical mutual inputs into the relationship and to each others’ welfare. Fifth, friendship’s affections range from positive concern for the other’s well-being to heartfelt liking or love. The love of friendship is usually distinguished from sexual or romantic loving, with their possessive and exclusive overtones — though such relationships may include attributes of friendship.
Through the 1970s little social scientific work addressed friendship, primarily in social attraction studies emphasizing personality variables or residential propinquity, or in demographic and socio-metric studies contrasting friendships as a residual category with family and work relationships. Subsequent work identified four dialectical tensions of interpersonal communication in forming, maintaining, and dissolving friendships across the life course. The tension between the freedom to be independent and the freedom to be dependent describes patterns of autonomy and obligation of friendships within embracing social configurations. The tension between affection and instrumentality describes the concerns of caring for a friend as an end in itself versus a means to an end. The tension between judgment and acceptance involves the dilemmas in friendship between objective appraisals of a friend’s activities versus unconditional support. Finally, the tension between expressiveness and protectiveness addresses the tendencies to speak candidly with a friend and relate private thoughts and feelings, and the need to restrain one’s disclosures to preserve privacy and avoid burdening one’s friend.
Scholars disagree about the gender-linked patterns of friendship. Some argue the emotionally involved and interdependent friendships modally associated with females are more fulfilling than males’ activity-based and independent friendships. Others argue these patterns describe qualitatively different forms of friendship with equivalent satisfaction. Second, depending on actual practices and circumstances, either gender’s specific friendships may deviate from modal patterns and resemble the other gender. Third, contrasts diminish in women’s and men’s closer friendships. Fourth, these patterns primarily describe white, North American, middle-class participants. Robert Brain’s Friends and Lovers (1976) notably surveys cross-cultural variations of friendship.
Women friends tend to value interdependence in reconciling their freedoms to be independent and dependent while men enact more independence. Women friends experience cross-pressures between affection and instrumentality, describing more emotional involvement than men. Juggling multiple household, employment, and recreational activities, expectations of caring and mutual reliance occasions strain in women’s friendships. Men’s friendships seem less emotionally charged and overtly affectionate, offering and receiving instrumental assistance while maintaining independence through reciprocity. Potentially volatile interplay between judgment and acceptance energizes women’s friendships. Caring and expecting much from friends, women more typically communicate evaluations. Men seem less concerned and more accepting of friends’ behaviors. Finally, women tend to be more expressive with friends and trust them with confidences. Avoiding vulnerability or burdening friends with personal concerns, men are more reserved and protective.
Emerging inquiries address friendships facilitating moral growth during youth, contributing ethically to adult life, and providing a basis for community development and political participation. Investigations are spanning and enriched by differences of religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, race, age, gender, and sexual orientation. Scholars probe friendship in educational and work settings, and the interplay among friendship, romance, and marriage. Gerontologists assess the comparative value of intimate friends versus companions for relieving loneliness and serving life satisfaction.
- Rawlins, W. K. (1992) Friendship Matters: Communication, Dialectics, and the Life Course. Aldine de Gruyter, New York.
- Rawlins, W. K. (2009) The Compass of Friendship: Narratives, Identities, and Dialogues. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Werking, K. J. (1997) We’re Just Good Friends: Women and Men in Nonromantic Relationships. Guilford Press, New York.