Friendship theory: some philosophical and sociological themes

Picture: Circle of friends by the Arches Creative Learning Partnership. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons ccby2 licence

Friendship: some philosophical and sociological themes. Many people’s understanding of friendship in northern societies is rather thin. We explore some classical views of friendship, the development of theory and practice in ‘modern’ societies, and some key aspects of the current experience of friendship. On a linked page we examine some of the implications for educators.

Contents: introduction · classical views of friendship · ‘modern’ views of friendship · the experience of friendship today · conclusion · further reading and references · links · how to cite this article · linked article: friendship and education

When approaching the notion of friendship, our first problem is, as Graham Allan (1996: 85) has commented, that there is a lack of firmly agreed and socially acknowledged criteria for what makes a person a friend. In one setting we may describe someone as a friend, in another the label may seem less appropriate. We may have a very thin understanding of what friendship entails. For example, Bellah et. al. (1996: 115), drawing upon Aristotle, suggest that the traditional idea of friendship has three components: ‘Friends must enjoy each other’s company, they must be useful to one another, and they must share a common commitment to the good’. In contemporary western societies, it is suggested, we tend to define friendship in terms of the first component, and find the notion of utility a difficult to place within friendship.

What we least understand is the third component, shared commitment to the good, which seems to us quite extraneous to the idea of friendship. In a culture dominated by expressive and utilitarian individualism, it is easy for us to understand the components of pleasure and usefulness, but we have difficulty seeing the point of considering friendship in terms of common moral commitments. (op. cit.)

Many contemporary writers in the west tend to present friendship as private, voluntary, and happening between autonomous individuals. According to this view ‘friendship becomes a special relationship between two equal individuals involved in a uniquely constituted dyad’ (Bell and Coleman 1999: 8). This contrasts in key respects with the classical view, and, as we will see, derives from a particular view of selfhood. Furthermore, as Graham Allan (1989) has argued, relationships that are often presented as voluntary, informal and personal, still operate within the constraints of class, gender, age, ethnicity and geography – and this places a considerable question against the idea that friendship is a matter of choice.

Two classical views of friendship

Aristotle provides us with one of the great discussions of friendship. He distinguishes between what he believes to be genuine friendships and two other forms: one based on mutual usefulness, the other on pleasure. These two forms only last for as long as there is utility and pleasure involved, whereas genuine friendship does not dissolve. It takes place between good men: ‘each alike wish good for the other qua good, and they are good in themselves’. Aristotle continues, ‘And it is those who desire the good of their friends for the friends’ sake that are most truly friends, because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality’ (Aristotle 1976: 263). This also entails appropriate self-concern.

Exhibit 1: Aristotle on friendship

Friendship… is a kind of virtue, or implies virtue, and it is also most necessary for living. Nobody would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things…. There are, however, not a few divergent views about friendship. Some hold that it is a matter of similarity: that our friends are those who are like ourselves… Others take the contrary view….

There are three kinds of friendship….

Friendship based on utility. Utility is an impermanent things: it changes according to circumstances. So with the disappearance of the ground for friendship, the friendship also breaks up, because that was what kept it alive. Friendships of this kind seem to occur most frequently between the elderly (because at their age what they want is not pleasure but utility) and those in middle or early life who are pursuing their own advantage. Such persons do not spend much time together, because sometimes they do not even like one another, and therefore feel no need of such an association unless they are mutually useful. For they take pleasure in each other’s company only in so far as they have hopes of advantage from it. Friendships with foreigners are generally included in this class.

Friendship based on pleasure. Friendship between the young is thought to be grounded on pleasure, because the lives of the young are regulated by their feelings, and their chief interest is in their own pleasure and the opportunity of the moment. With advancing years, however, their tastes change too, so that they are quick to make and to break friendships; because their affection changes just as the things that please them do and this sort of pleasure changes rapidly. Also the young are apt to fall in love, for erotic friendship is for the most part swayed by the feelings and based on pleasure. That is why they fall in and out of friendship quickly, changing their attitude often within the same day. But the young do like to spend the day and live together, because that is how they realize the object of their friendship.

Perfect friendship is based on goodness. Only the friendship of those who are good, and similar in their goodness, is perfect. For these people each alike wish good for the other qua good, and they are good in themselves. And it is those who desire the good of their friends for the friends’ sake that are most truly friends, because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality. Accordingly the friendship of such men lasts so long as they remain good; and goodness is an enduring quality. Also each party is good both absolutely and for his friend, since the good are both good absolutely and useful to each other. Similarly they please one another too; for the good are pleasing both absolutely and to each other; because everyone is pleased with his own conduct and conduct that resembles it, and the conduct of good men is the same or similar. Friendship of this kind is permanent, reasonably enough; because in it are united all the attributes that friends ought to possess. For all friendship has as its object something good or pleasant — either absolutely or relatively to the person who feels the affection — and is based on some similarity between the parties. But in this friendship all the qualities that we have mentioned belong to the friends themselves; because in it there is similarity, etc.; and what is absolutely good is also absolutely pleasant; and these are the most lovable qualities. Therefore it is between good men that both love and friendship are chiefly found and in the highest form.

That such friendships are rare is natural, because men of this kind are few. And in addition they need time and intimacy; for as the saying goes, you cannot get to know each other until you have eaten the proverbial quantity of salt together. Nor can one man accept another, or the two become friends, until each has proved to the other that he is worthy of love, and so won his trust. Those who are quick to make friendly advances to each other have the desire to be friends, but they are not unless they are worthy of love and know it. The wish for friendship develops rapidly, but friendship does not.

Aristotle The Nichomachean Ethics, 1155a3, 1156a16-1156b23

Suzanne Stern-Gillet suggests that friendships of utility and pleasure can be seen as processes, whereas friendships of virtue are activities. Such activities are central to living the good life. It is only friendship based on virtue that allows a relationship between whole persons.

To perceive a friend , therefore, is necessarily in a manner to perceive oneself, and to know a friend is in a manner to know oneself. The excellent person is related to his friend in the same way as he is related to himself, since a friend is another himself.

As Ray Pahl (2000: 22) states in relation to Aristotle, virtuous friends ‘enlarge and extend each other’s moral experience’. He continues, ‘ the friends are bound together, as they recognize each other’s moral excellence. Each can be said to provide a mirror in which the other may see himself’. In this we love the other person for their own sake not just for what they are or what they can offer, and we put the interests of the other before our own. We can also see that we are separate and different from each other. We know ourselves and the other. The moral excellence of friendship, thus, ‘involves a high level of development and expression of the altruistic emotions of sympathy, concern and care – a deep caring for and identification with the good of another from whom one clearly knows oneself to be clearly other’ (Blum 1980: 71).

Friendship of this kind necessarily involves conversations about well-being and of what might be involved in living the good life. Through networks of friends, Aristotle seems to be arguing, we can begin to develop a shared idea of the good and to pursue it. Friendship, in this sense, involves sharing in a common project: to create and sustain the life of a community, ‘a sharing incorporated in the immediacy of an individual’s particular friendships’ (MacIntyre 1985: 156).

Arguably, the other major classical treatment of friendship was Cicero’s Laelius de Amicitia. Cicero (106-43 BC) was a Roman statesman and orator whose writings on ethics, the philosophy of religion and natural law have been influential. His belief in the notion of human rights and the brotherhood of man became important reference points. As with Aristotle, Cicero believed that true friendship was only possible between good men. This friendship, based on virtue, does offer material benefits, but it does not seek them. All human beings, Cicero concluded, are bonded together, along with the gods, in a community of shared reason. But in the real world, friendship is subject to all sorts of pressures.

Exhibit 2: Cicero on friendship

Let this, then, be laid down as the first law of friendship, that we should ask from friends, and do for friends’, only what is good. But do not let us wait to be asked either: let there be ever an eager readiness, and an absence of hesitation. Let us have the courage to give advice with candour. In friendship, let the influence of friends who give good advice be paramount; and let this influence be used to enforce advice not only in plain-spoken terms, but sometimes, if the case demands it, with sharpness; and when so used, let it be obeyed. (section 13)

[I]n friendship and relationship, just as those who possess any superiority must put themselves on an equal footing with those who are less fortunate, so these latter must not be annoyed at being surpassed in genius, fortune, or rank. (section 20)

Now, by “worthy of friendship” I mean those who have in themselves the qualities which attract affection. This sort of man is rare; and indeed all excellent things are rare; and nothing in the world is so hard to find as a thing entirely and completely perfect of its kind. But most people not only recognize nothing as good in our life unless it is profitable, but look upon friends as so much stock, caring most for those by whom they hope to make most profit. Accordingly they never possess that most beautiful and most spontaneous friendship which must be sought solely for itself without any ulterior object. They fail also to learn from their own feelings the nature and the strength of friendship. For every one loves himself, not for any reward which such love may bring, but because he is dear to himself independently of anything else. But unless this feeling is transferred to another, what a real friend is will never be revealed; for he is, as it were, a second self. But if we find these two instincts showing themselves in animals, – whether of the air or the sea or the land, whether wild or tame, – first, a love of self, which in fact is born in everything that lives alike; and, secondly, an eagerness to find and attach themselves to other creatures of their own kind; and if this natural action is accompanied by desire and by something resembling human love, how much more must this be the case in man by the law of his nature? For man not only loves himself, but seeks another whose spirit he may so blend with his own as almost to make one being of two. (section 21)

It is virtue, virtue, which both creates and preserves friendship. On it depends harmony of interest, permanence, fidelity. When Virtue has reared her head and shewn the light of her countenance, and seen and recognised the same light in another, she gravitates towards it, and in her turn welcomes that which the other has to shew; and from it springs up a flame which you may call love or friendship as you please. Both words are from the same root in Latin; and love is just the cleaving to him whom you love without the prompting of need or any view to advantage-though this latter blossoms spontaneously on friendship, little as you may have looked for it… And since the law of our nature and of our life is that a new generation is for ever springing up, the most desirable thing is that along with your contemporaries, with whom you started in the race, you may also teach what is to us the goal. But in view of the in-stability and perishableness of mortal things, we should be continually on the look-out for some to love and by whom to be loved; for if we lose affection and kindliness from our life, we lose all that gives it charm… (section 27)

This is all I had to say on friendship. One piece of advice on parting. Make up your minds to this. Virtue (without which friendship is impossible) is first; but next to it, and to it alone, the greatest of all things is Friendship. (section 27)

Cicero, M. T. On Friendship

The ground covered by Cicero would be very familiar to Aristotle’s original students. It might be the case, as Anthony Gottlieb (2000: 409) has commented, that ‘the fact that Cicero had almost nothing original to say was of little significance given how beautifully he said it’. Certainly his work was to influence generations of thinkers – and in particular the intellectual elite that emerged with the growth of monastic and cathedral schools from the end of the tenth century (Pahl 2000: 24-7). However, there was some tension in these and other Christian settings, between this notion of friendship and the more universal idea of Christian love (agape). One way of approaching this is to see friendship as being more narrow in its focus. It is preferential and reciprocal. In contrast, Jesus’ injunction to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ can be understood as being applicable to friends, non-friends and even enemies (Meilaender 1980). (Whether there is such a tension between what might be termed ‘Christian friendship’ and agape is a matter of some debate – see Hauerwas and Pinches 1997: 31-51).

Some ‘modern’ views of friendship

A good deal of sociological comment about friendship is based on the assumption that a traditional society characterized by face-to-face and largely convivial relationships has been replaced by a more competitive and individualistic one. In this respect the work of Ferdinand Tönnies (1887) is often cited. He saw friendship (along with kinship and place) as one of the three pillars of traditional community (gemeinschaft) that were disrupted by the rise of the more impersonal forms of society associated with industrialization, urbanization and capitalism (1955: 48-50, 233). Just whether traditional communities were of this nature is, however, doubtful. There are significant indications that friendships in the periods prior to large-scale industrialization in countries like England were often instrumental. Relationships were frequently characterized by considerable caution and suspicion. Ray Pahl (2000: 53-8) draws upon the innovative analysis of the emerging commercial-industrial society by Allan Silver (1989, 1990) to demonstrate that while there was a significant shift amongst many groups in society in their experience and appreciation of friendship.

The replacement of much previous instrumental friendship by the rules of commercial society allowed the free expression of a new morally superior friendship based on ‘natural sympathy’ unconstrained by necessity. These new, freely chosen relationships reflected the new universalism emerging in civil society. The well-regulated market frees the classic Aristolelian friendship of virtue from friendship of utility. Commercial society requires ‘authentically indifferent co-citizens’ rather than potential enemies or allies. (Pahl 2000: 57)

The new forms of market relationships and exchanges, it is argued, helped to create the conditions for a move towards more benevolent forms of friendships among key groupings in the eighteenth societies involved.

A new generation of thinkers began to chart these shifts. David Hume, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson each explored aspects of this (Hill and McCarthy 1999). They celebrated the movement away from a narrow instrumental view of friendship. For example, Adam Smith was acutely aware of the way in which market societies ‘broke with the dependencies of feudalism’.

Commercial society brought a degree of autonomy right down to the ordinary tradesman and the street porter. Thus, where Rousseau in his Discourse on Inequality saw only inequality and dependence, Smith saw the possibility of well-being, achieved through a system of mutual co-operation, grounded on freedom, and a form of social organization which accorded independence to ordinary people; independence of a sort that they had never enjoyed before. (Sheamur and Klein 2000)

However, Adam Smith recognized that the emergence of commercial society was a mixed blessing. On the one hand he claimed that commercial society promoted ‘probity and punctuality’, at least in commercial relationships. On the other, he believed that it also carried significant moral issues that required state intervention. In particular, he argued that the focus on industry and commerce would lead to a neglect of education and a ‘degradation of morals’. In his famous analysis of the increasing division of labour involved in manufacture he argued that the narrowing involved could have a detrimental impact on personality and relationships. Similarly, the new urban conditions created the possibility for neglect.

While a man [of low condition] remains in a country village his conduct may be attended to, and he may be obliged to attend to it himself. In this situation, and in this situation only, he may have what is called a character to lose. But as soon as he comes to a great city, he is sunk in obscurity and darkness. His conduct is observed and attended to by nobody, and he is therefore likely to neglect it himself, and to abandon himself to every low profligacy and vice (Wealth of Nations, 747).

As a result Smith advocated people joining associations and groupings such as churches in order that their ‘conduct’ may be ‘attended to’ by others. He also saw a role for significant state intervention.

Exhibit 3: Adam Smith on friendship

The man who, not from frivolous fancy, but from proper motives, has performed a generous action, when he looks forward to those whom he has served, feels himself to be the natural object of their love and gratitude, and, by sympathy with them, of the esteem and approbation of all mankind. And when he looks backward to the motive from which he acted, and surveys it in the light in which the indifferent spectator will survey it, he still continues to enter into it, and applauds himself by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed impartial judge. In both these points of view his own conduct appears to him every way agreeable. His mind, at the thought of it, is filled with cheerfulness, serenity, and composure. He is in friendship and harmony with all mankind, and looks upon his fellow-creatures with confidence and benevolent satisfaction, secure that he has rendered himself worthy of their most favourable regards. In the combination of all these sentiments consists the consciousness of merit, or of deserved reward. (Smith 1759, Section II, Chapter 3)

David Hume was more optimistic, ‘welcoming a new sociability which he identified with the pleasures of politeness’ (Hill and McCarthy 1999). ‘It is remarkable’, he wrote (1740), ‘that nothing touches a man of humanity more than any instance of extraordinary delicacy in love or friendship, where a person is attentive to the smallest concerns of his friend, and is willing to sacrifice to them the most considerable interest of his own’. Adam Ferguson was significantly less optimistic. He argued that friendships could be difficult to sustain in the face of competition and the demands of a market society governed by contract (Hill and McCarthy 1999).

What we can see here is the emergence of some of the key tensions and themes that were to become part of the ‘modern’ discourse on industrialization and urbanization. The concern with the supposedly anomizing effect of urbanization; the new opportunities that existed in what was seen as the more anonymous and impersonal world of the city; the impact of changing economic and technological requirements on everyday relationships and so on. New circumstances required the development of more abstract notions of trust and, in some significant circles at least, allowed for the development of relationships on the basis of choice. However, for many people living in the new urban areas there was relatively little chance of benefiting from the ‘new’ forms of friendly relations. The long hours they had to work, and the conditions they had to endure may not have left neither the space nor the wherewithal to enjoy such relationships. This said, very large numbers of working men and women were involved in mutual aid activities during, for example, the nineteenth century (see Prochaska 1988). By the 1880s around 75 to 80 per cent of working class men belonged to a friendly society and large numbers were involved in mutual improvement activities (see Rose 2001) that were commonly described as ‘<href=”#process”>friends educating each other’. Out of companionship in study or common activity, according to C. S. Lewis, direct friendship could grow.

Exhibit 4: C. S. Lewis on friendship

Companionship is, however, only the matrix of Friendship. It is often called Friendship, and many people when they speak of their ‘friends’ mean only their companions. But it is not Friendship in the sense I give to the word. By saying this I do not at all intend to disparage the merely Clubabble relation. We do not disparage silver by distinguishing it from gold.

Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one’….

In our own time Friendship arises in the same way. For us of course the shared activity and therefore the companionship on which Friendship supervenes will not often be a bodily one like hunting or fighting. It may be a common religion, common studies, a common profession, even a common recreation. All who share it will be our companions, but one or two or three who share something more will be our Friends. In this kind of love, as Emerson said, Do you love me? means Do you see the same truth? – Or at least, ‘Do you care about the same truth?’ The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance, can be our Friend. he need not agree with us about the answer.

C. S. Lewis (2002 – first published 1960) The Four Loves, London: HarperCollins, pp. 78-9.

The scale of collaborative activity among working class and lower middle class people in nineteenth century Britain was substantial. Organized around churches and chapels, trade unions and associations, or political and cooperative groupings and the like, such activity entailed utility and at least some pleasure and interest in the good. The extent to which it grew into the sort of affection and commitment with which Lewis (and Aristotle) were concerned is a fascinating, and peculiarly difficult, question to answer.

The experience of friendship today

It might be thought that with the vast numbers of community studies and ethnographies that appeared in the twentieth century that we would have, by now, a rich appreciation of the developing state of friendship within different societies. Unfortunately, with just a few exceptions, much of the research undertaken has involved the use of fairly rudimentary tools and models and the basis of our knowledge about the contemporary situation is relatively slim (Allan 1996: 3). We can, however, make a number of fairly obvious points. These tend to run from a central appreciation that friendship is wrapped up with other aspects of people’s social and economic lives. Friendship tends to be a product of time and place (op. cit.). Here it is important to note three points.

There are significant differences in the ways that different social groups organize their ‘friendlike’ ties. Research studies tend to highlight, for example, contrasts in the way that those in the middle and working classes name and develop their friendships.

The middle class pattern of friendship formation is quite clear and essentially the dominant one in terms of what friendship is taken to mean. Essentially when people are met who are liked, the common pattern is for the relationship to be developed by extending its boundaries through involving the other person in other social contexts… The use of the home for entertaining is particularly significant….

In contrast, working-class sociability has traditionally not been routinely organized in the same way. From the various evidence available, and it must be recognized that much of it is now quite dated, it appears that… the tendency has been for non-kin relationships to remain bounded by the initial setting for interaction… Thus, by and large, workmates are not seen elsewhere unless they also happen to share other activities in common: people from a leisure or sporting club are routinely invited home; neighbours are only rarely included in other sociable activities. (Allan 1996: 87)

There are also differences in the ways that similar relationships are named. For example, the term ‘mate’ was found to be used by working class people for certain types of relationships. ‘Mate-like’ relationships, are often linked to meeting people in particular places like work, clubs and pubs, and tend to be more fluid. As Graham Allan (1996: 88) has again commented, ‘They arise through participation in the context rather than deliberate arrangement’. People are seen routinely.

Whilst there is the possibility of over-emphasizing gender differences in friendship patterns and content, there do, nevertheless, appear to be some important differences. As Ray Pahl (2000: 112-122) has argued, sociologists have been prepared to make some wide-ranging generalizations about men’s and women’s friendship patterns.

Men were held to be emotional reticent – fearful perhaps of homoerotic overtones, while women were held to be more articulate and emotionally accomplished…. In what is perceived to be a more unstable and fluctuating world, men were less likely to expect to find close friends at work: the occupational communities had gone and increasing competition meant that colleagues at work became potential rivals… Survey evidence demonstrated that [women’s] regular contact with family and friends declined from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. This was attributed partly to the pressures consequent upon the successful juggling of family and work responsibilities. (ibid.: 116)

It might be that the role many women have had, and continue to have, in the management of relationships within the home and family, for example, means that relationships become an important focus for conversation. However, it is increasingly difficult to hold onto the sorts of stereotypes around gender and the experience of friendship that were the stock in trade of earlier generations of sociologists. Changing employment and education patterns, shifts in the use of leisure time (in particular around the viewing of television and other home-based forms of entertainment), the development of telephone and internet use, the more general move to the ‘suburbs’ and the rise of nuclear family have had a major impact on the extent to which people engage in face-to-face relationships and belong to groups and associations (see, the discussion of declining ‘social capital‘) have all had an impact.

Our experience of friendship alters with age. There has been a substantial amount of research and model-making around the development of children’s abilities to make friends. One way of presenting this is as a stage-based model (which has its own problems – see life span development and lifelong learning). One approach is to use a five stage model:

Aged 3/4

Children start to use the term ‘friend’ to describe playmates

Aged 4/7

Children start to appreciate that own views and identity is different from others

Aged 6/12

Children start to be able to ‘put themselves in other peoples’ shoes’.

Aged 9/15

Children/young people are able to take on the perspective of a ‘third person’; to look at interactions and, thus, to work on relationships.

Aged 12+

There is a recognition that individual friendship is part of a larger network of relationships – and that friends are linked with others in ‘personal communities’. (Pahl 2000: 99-101)

The final stage here, if achieved, is seen to continue into adulthood.

Dependence and independence are perceived as having a dialectical relationship with each other. Friends rely on each other both for support and a sense of personal identity, but also accept that each needs the space to develop relationships with others. There follows a growth in maturity through such experiences. (Pahl 2000: 101)

Models such as this are notoriously slippery and subject to considerable debate and disagreement – and can lead to rather wooden interventions to ensure that children have reached the appropriate stage. This said, it does seem to be fairly reasonable to work on the basis that the quality of the relationships one is able to form as a child and young person will have a significant impact on the nature of the friendships we are able to make in adult life. However, it is also important to recognize that the effect of these experiences is not set in stone. Adults can transcend, for example, rejection by peers at school.

As people enter the labour market, move in with partners, have children and so on, there is an impact on the character of the friendships they are able to develop and sustain. From the preceding discussion we can see that context and setting play a significant role. Friendship needs time, space and material resources to develop and will be impacted upon by the particular social environment and setting in which it arises. The nature of friendship among older people has excited a significant amount of scholarly attention – not surprisingly by gerontologists. Friendship is of great significance to older people – as partners and relatives die, friends play an increasingly important role in people’s lives. This is especially the case where the person does not have children – or where they live at a significant distance. Club-going and associational life emerges as a strong feature of such friendship – and opens up wider networks into which pairs of friends can integrate (Jerome quoted by Pahl 2000: 137).

Conclusion – changing friendship?

Commentators like Ray Pahl (2000: 5) have argued that friendship is becoming an increasingly important ‘social glue’. Today, many societies are held together by very different social bonds than from three centuries before. Kinship obligations, civic responsibilities and ‘the mutual care of reciprocities engendered by being trapped in communities of fate’ (such as mining, farming and other single-industry communities) have weakened.

Basically, it seems likely that two quite distinct processes are taking place at the same time. On the one hand, friends may be taking over various social tasks, duties and functions from family and kin, simply out of practical necessity…. The second process is the changing meaning of friendship. Our ideas of what it means to be a good friend, a close friend, a really close friend or a best friend are changing. Our expectations and aspirations are growing and we are even prepared to judge the quality of our relationships with kin on the basis of some higher ideal of whether we can be closer to them as friends. (Pahl 2000: 8)

Others have questioned this deepening in friendship:

I contend that the friendships of today are simply thinner than before and increasingly restricted. By “thin” I mean there is less to them. By “restricted” I mean that friendships have been pushed out of key social institutions such as business and are increasingly seen as belonging to recreation. (Anderson 2001: 30)

Both Anderson and Pahl agree on one thing though, there has been a remarkable lack of scholarly attention to the phenomenon – and what has been written too often ignores important questions – such as the different forms that friendship can take.

The relative lack of attention to differing experiences of friendship is of particular significance if we are to address the arguments of Robert E. Lane (2000) and others with regard to the loss of happiness in market democracies. Lane marshals the results of a growing body of studies to demonstrate that income has relatively little to do with happiness once people rise above the poverty level. He argues that companionship, by which he means both family solidarity and friendship (‘social support to social scientists’), is the main contributing factor to subjective well-being (Lane 2000: 77).

If our experience of friendship is changing in many countries – and we are increasingly likely to turn to friends rather than kin (and, indeed, to judge family by standards of behaviour expected of friends), then this is something that we need to take careful note of both in relation to education and to questions of welfare more broadly. We have a substantial amount of evidence to suggest that social support in the form of social contact and group membership has a very significant impact on our feelings of happiness, our health and our ability to handle difficult episodes in our lives (see the discussion of social capital). However, we do need to examine the quality and nature of the networks of which we may be a part and the attitudes and behaviours of our friends, peers and kin. It is an obvious, but sometimes overlooked, point in discussions of social capital, that if our peers and friends are engaged in activities that are detrimental to their well-being and health then it is makes it more difficult for us to break away from that behaviour. As Ray Pahl (2000: 148) has again commented, ‘It is not friendship per se that is important, but rather the trust, security, feelings of self-esteem and feelings of being loved for one’s own sake that flow from it’. Knowing that ‘significant others’ like us, respect us and can provide practical support is likely to make for a happier life.

It is also important to underline the extent to which economic, social and cultural context impacts upon the experience of friendship (and the ways in which friendships sustain the existing order).

[O]ur friends, in numerous ways, challenge our pretensions and evaluate our claims, all the while confirming our personal and structural identity. Through such validation of the self, the significance of friendship in binding the ‘bricks of social structure’ together can be readily recognized. So just as friendships take on characteristics of the cultural, economic and social settings in which they arise, equally those ties are consequential in helping sustain the order there is within those settings (Allen and Adams quoted in Pahl 2000: 10)

Friendship can be viewed as personal and freely entered into – but it is formed in particular social, economic and cultural circumstances and this has a very significant impact upon the people we meet, and our ability to engage in different activities. It is of profound social as well as individual significance. Through friendship we gain practical and emotional support, and an important contribution to our personal identities. Friendship also helps us to integrate us into the public realm and ‘act as a resource for managing some of the mundane and exceptional events’ that confront us in our lives (Allan 1996: 114).

See: friendship and education

Further reading and references

Allan, G. (1996) Kinship and Friendship in Modern Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 143 + x pages. A good introduction to the area. See, also, Graham Allan’s (1989) Friendship: Developing a sociological perspective, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Adams, R. G. and Allan, G. (1998) Placing Friendship in Context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Anderson, D. (2001) Losing Friends, London: Social Affairs Unit. 206 pages. Anderson’s thesis is that friendships today are shallower than before – and that this is a matter of grave concern for the health of society. Agree or disagree, his book provides a useful introduction to the area.

Aristotle (1976) The Nicomachen Ethics, London: Penguin. 383 pages. Books Eight and Nine are ‘must reads’. The first explores different ‘kinds’ of friendship and the second the grounds of friendship.

Bell, S. and Coleman, S. (eds.) (1999) The Anthropology of Friendship, London: Berg. 204 + xvi pages. Variable collection of chapters – but the editors provide a useful overview of the anthropology of friendship, and there are some good pieces.

Blum, L. A. (1980) Friendship, Altruism and Morality, New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall. Key elements of Blum’s argument are reproduced in L. A. Blum (1993) ‘Friendship’ in J. G. Haber (ed.) Doing and Being. Selected readings in moral philosophy, New York: Macmillan.

Giddens, A. (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy. Sexuality, love and eroticism in modern societies, Cambridge: Polity Press. 224 pages. Argues that the transformation of intimacy, in which women have played the major part, heralds radical changes in the relationship between the sexes.

Hauerwas, S. and Pinches, C. (1997) Christians Among the Virtues. Theological conversations with ancient and modern ethics, Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press. 230 + xvii pages. Contains a very helpful discussion of Aristotle (and Martha Nussbaum’s interpretation) in the light of Christian thought.

Lane, R. E. (2000) The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, New Haven: Yale University Press. 465 + x pages. Important study demonstrating declining happiness in market economies, and the significance of companionship as a contributor to well-being.

Lewis, C. S. (1960) The Four Loves, London: Geoffrey Bles (2002 edn. published by HarperCollins). 170 pages. Well-liked exploration of love as affection, friendship, Eros and charity.

Murphy, P. (ed.) (1998) Friendship: A special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly 97(1), Durham NC.: Duke University Press. 226 pages. Includes Heller on the beauty of friendship; and Aubenque on friendship in Aristotle.

Nussbaum, M. (1986) The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Important treatment of Aristotle (and friendship).

Pahl, R. (2000) On Friendship, Cambridge: Polity. 200 pages. An excellent introduction of to the idea of friendships and of contemporary experience with some useful suggestions about further reading and exploration.

Pakaluk, M. (1991) Other Selves. Philosophers on friendship, London: Hackett Publishing Company. 288 pages.

Zeldin, T. (1998) An Intimate History of Humanity, London: Vintage. 488 + viii pages. A historical investigation of emotions and personal relationships rather than friendship, but contains some interesting insights.


Bell, S. and Coleman, S. (1999) ‘The anthropology of friendship: enduring themes and future possibilities’ in S. Bell and S. Coleman (eds.) The Anthropology of Friendship, London: Berg.

Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., Swidler, A. and Tipton, S. M. (1985; 1996) Habits of the Heart. Individualism and commitment in American life 2e, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Blum, L. (1980) Friendship. Altruism and Morality, New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall.

Bulmer, M. (1986) Neighbours. The work of Philip Abrams, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burkowski, W. M., Newcomb, A. F. and Hartup, W. W. (eds.) (1996) The Company they Keep: Friendship in childhood and adolescence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carrier, J. G. (1999) ‘People who can be friends: selves and social relationships’ in S. Bell and S. Coleman (eds.) The Anthropology of Friendship, London: Berg.

Cicero, M. T. On Friendship Translated by E. S. Shuckburgh,

Derrida, J. (1997) The Politics of Friendship (trans. G. Collins), London: Verso Books.

Duck, S. (1983) Friends for Life: The psychology of close relationships, Brighton: Harvester Press.

Gottlieb, A. (2000) The Dream of Reason. A history of philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, London: Penguin.

Heller, A. (1998) ‘The beauty of friendship’ in P. Murphy (ed.) (1998) Friendship: A special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly 97(1), Durham NC.: Duke University Press, pp. 5-22.

Henriques, B. (1933) Club Leadership, London: Oxford University Press.

Hill, L. and McCarthy, P. (1999) ‘Hume, Smith and Ferguson: Friendship in Commercial Society’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 2(4).

Hume, D. (1740) Treatise of Human Nature,

Lynd, R. S. and Lynd, H. M. (1929) Middletown. A study in American culture, New York: Harcourt Brace.

MacIntyre, A. (1985) After Virtue. A study in moral theory, London: Duckworth.

Meolaender, G. (1981) Friendship. A study in theological ethics, Notre Dame, Ind : University of Notre Dame Press.

Prochaska, F. (1988) The Voluntary Impulse. Philanthropy in modern Britain, London: Faber.

Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Rose, J. (2001) The Intellectual Life of British Working Classes, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Seeley, J. R., Sim, R. A. and Loosley, E. W. (1956) Crestwood Heights, New York: Basic Books.

Shearmur, J. and Klein, D. B. (2000) ‘Good Conduct in a Great Society: Adam Smith and the Role of Reputation’ in J. D. Klein Assurance and Trust in a Great Society, Occasional Paper Number Two, Foundation for Economic Education. On-line version:

Silver, A. (1989) ‘Friendship and trust as moral ideals: An historical approach’, European Journal of Sociology, 30: 274-97.

Silver, A. (1990) ‘Friendship in commercial society: Eighteenth century social theory and modern sociology’, American Journal of Sociology 95: 1474-1504.

Smith, A. (1759) The Theory of Moral Sentiments,

Smith, A. (1776) The Wealth of Nations, London: Penguin. Online version:

Stern-Gillet, S. (1995) Aristotle’s Philosophy of Friendship, New York: SUNY Press

Tönnies, F. (1887, 1955) Community and Association (Gemeinshaft and gesselschaft), London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Waddell, P. (1989) Friendship and the Moral Life, Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.

Wirth, L. (1938) ‘Urbanism as a way of life’, American Journal of Sociology 44: 1-24.

Zorbaugh, H. W. (1929) The Gold Coast and the Slum, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


friendship and education

To cite this article: Doyle, M. E. and Smith, M. K. (2002). ‘Friendship: theory and experience’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ . Retrieved: insert date]

© Michele E. Doyle and Mark K. Smith 2002