The Broad Spectrum of Friendship: Friends as the Second Family


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When we discuss family we often consider this in the biological sense and limit those deemed as family to those related to us by blood or by marriage. But as the diversity within families increase and dynamics change do we now consider friends as much a part of our families? Many people consider close friendships as an increasingly important part of their lives and who provide support often replacing other family members where distance is a barrier in maintaining closer family networks. While it is suggested that kinship and friendship represent different types of relationships, in the manner of their obligatory nature or those which are formed voluntarily. Over the years we have seen a rise in the number of people living alone and single parent families following separation or divorce, and while many see relationships can often be sort term many friendships last a lifetime frequently outliving marriages and providing immeasurable support through the breakdown of relationships but in turn strengthening friendships. With the suggestion that these friendships are growing increasing more intimate and flourish through mutual trust has friendship blurred the kinship boundaries and become the new family? To discuss this concept more closely I will explore what has been discussed as representing the typical family, the diversity in who we consider friends and whether different social classes, genders or cultures collectively support the idea that friends are the new family or if this is limited to certain social context.

Discussions surrounding the idealised ways in which to be considered a true friend and the romanticised views many have of the ways to “do” family, may not accurately represent the social constructs of today’s society. When we examine life as a lived experience we often see theses ideal paradigms becoming permeable and the distinctions between kinship and friendship become blurred as we see an increasing fluidity between these relationships. Pahl and Spencer discuss the concept of a personal community, this microsocial circle would encompass all the significant people who provide intimacy and support for any given individual. With the changes in relationships and family dynamics this more practical representation of interpersonal relations in which people are actually living (Pahl & Spencer, 2010). There has been an ongoing interest by researchers on the changing dynamics of the once typical nuclear family, with an increasing number of working mothers, instances of divorce and the formation of step families.

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Popenoe discussed the idea of family decline suggesting this was no longer considered a social institution and argues that “families have lost functions, power, and authority, that familism as a cultural value has diminished, and that people have become less willing to invest time, money, and energy in family life, turning instead to investments in themselves.” (Popenoe, 1993) He suggests that far from it being the main source of support the family once was people are more inclined to focus on surrounding themselves with the people the choose and who enrich their life through intimate, trusting friendships. Popenoe goes on to further discuss how changes in the typical nuclear family where statistical evidence shows increases in the number of single parent families, divorce and fragments extended family units. He suggests that many individuals seek external support in aspects of life where this is possible “Recent family decline is more serious than any decline in the past because what is breaking up is the nuclear family, the fundamental unit stripped of relatives and left with two essential functions that cannot be performed better elsewhere: childrearing and the provision to its members of affection and companionship.” (Popenoe, 1993)

While these suggestions do in part represent certain changes to the family structure and the way family values are upheld in society, these cannot be representative of all family circumstance. The ideological construct of family is merely symbolic in a conventional sociological sense, the typical nuclear family of old made no consideration for divorce and resulting step families or family rifts and dissolutions or that of friends who become like family. While Popenoe focuses on the change in family dynamics Stacey considers another angle and suggests that perhaps to ascertain a more accurate representation of the decreases in family unity is to consider changes in individuals values rather than changes to family structures. She details how this if often apparent in the research from America as there is a greater focus on values which are often affiliated with religion and special interest groups which may not always be apparent in European countries such as Britain. In a response to Popenoe’s idea that the family unit is an institution she writes “no positivist definition of the family, however revisionist, is viable. Anthropological and historical studies convince me that the family is not an institution but has a history and a politics.” (Stacey, 1993).

So while both project separate ideas of what defines family and the values attributed to this, we can see that by investing in ourselves more and changes to, or modifications of existing values we now place a greater emphasis on the people who provide support and intimacy without being blood related. These changes to the socially constructed ideas of the typical nuclear family may occur due to a number of social factors and although we may consider some friends as family how do we compartmentalise these qualifying traits? Argyle and Henderson draw upon some of the generalised etiquette that is seen within friendships, while certain legal rules are apparent within our kinship such as marriage and sexualised intimacy between family members, however there is no legal framework to regulate all aspects of friendship. The rules of friendship are normally characterised by a number of codes of conduct, these seek to regulate types of social behaviour which are deemed appropriate within a friendship setting. We often see specific examples of these within social groups where all members have a join opinion on the accepted levels of etiquette, appropriate behaviours and the defined social norms of that particular subgroup, although there are rules we follow in both kin and friend relationships there are social and legal differences between these, while the severity of breaking the social rules which encompass friendship have far less serious ramifications than the legal framework we see in family law. Despite the obvious legal distinctions between the rules within kinships and the rules we associate with our friendships, the unfollowing of social rules within friendships results in emotional trauma when the social construct of that relationship is disrupted and may lead to the deterioration of the relationship creating further emotional strain and distress (Argyle & Henderson, 1984).

The term friend often refers to a diverse number of people who we can distinguish between through our levels of intimacy. The higher individuals place within the friendship hierarchy demonstrates our closeness to them emotionally and with whom we would share more sensitive information as they are our most trusted friends and they ones we are inclined to refer to as family. The friends who feature further down in the hierarchy we may only share peripheral information with them as the trust bonds are less secure, these friends may include work colleagues and neighbours. We often categorise friends in this way as the rules and boundaries for these different groups may incur greater emotional risk if trust was broken through the sharing of sensitive information with a less intimate friend. Research suggests that we value each friendship differently dependent of the attributes associated with each friend, and while we may prefer to socialise with one particular friend due to their extrovert nature, we may not necessarily entrust them with sensitive information or consider them as family (Pahl & Spencer, 2010). The ways we self-present often represents the level of intimacy we have with our friends the more relaxed an informal we are showing the level of acceptance is greater and thus we are less likely to have to wear a certain social mask to conform in keeping with strict rule of that relationship (Goffman, 1956).

The relationships we choose to form with friends are often measured by the levels of support and intimacy we experience with those individuals. These levels often differ between men and women and the relationships they form with their friends. Women often tend to form closer relationships with their friends than men typically do and are more focused on kin and friend relationships. Women also tend to talk with friends more, reveal more personal information and seek support from friends. Men do not have as intimate a relationship with friends, although men do spend time with friends they tend not to talk as openly about personal issues or rely on friends as heavily as women. Where women focus on friend and kin relationships men are generally more concerned with their partner and workmates (Argyle, et al., 1985). As the research suggests women and men view friendship differently with women investing more time emotionally and in the ways they seek support with more intimate issues from their friends and thus may consider friends to be family more so than men due to this.

Research also suggests that there are substantial differences in the ways we view friendships due to age, similarly how friendships have changed over generations. Due to changes in family structures over the years there has been a decline in the typical nuclear family unit. While divorce, same sex couples and step families were far less common fifty years ago, families often lived much closer to each other and created the main source of support for all members of the kin, often family members worked together, and several generations lived together and everyone had the same commitment to the family coupled with the same value base. With the expansion of the social economy many families dispersed for work and property and led to the families becoming splintered due to geographical distance. Through this individuals from older generations still consider family in the biological sense due to the instilled family value from their upbringing, where younger people generally invest more time in friendships as a support network in which to seek support with this relationship being more informal yet intimate than that of a kin relationship (Argyle, et al., 1985). Similarly, our friendship groups often change as we grow older and often our friends from our youth do not continue to remain as a friend over our life course. Those who are a constant friend throughout all life stages tend to be our closest friends and will have provided support through many life events such as marriage, parenthood, relationship troubles and divorce (Pahl & Pevalin, 2005).

It has also been discussed that our social class and socioeconomic status may also influence the relationships we have with our friends. Our economic fluidity often defines the people with whom we become friends with, middle class people will have access to more social events and tend to participate in more interest and religious groups, whereas working class people often tended to socialise within each other’s homes or public places. Both groups categorised friends as people who are always there for them to provide support. While middle class people tend to have a broader group of friends, working class people tend to refer to members of their kin as friends this was a suggested result of less geographical mobility. However, in both instances where kin lived close by instances of friendship were apparent within kin networks. It was also seen within working class areas that friendships were often formed due to their close proximity to one another such as within families and neighbours whereas middle class friends often lived further apart. It was also discussed that working-class people placed greater emphasis on socialising with friends and a higher levels of material reciprocity whereas middle class people often focused more on leisure activities. While there are slight differences within social classes and the ways they classify friendships both classes have indicated that they both confided in friends and relied on them for emotional support, often before seeking support from family (Walker, 1995).

The ways in which friendships are categorised often differs but the importance of friends remains consistently essential as a support network for the vast majority of people. So with the suggestion that family are often referred to as friends the reverse of this is also apparent in that friends are often seen as family. With the idea of the conventional nuclear family and also the way we do family changing we see an increase in the fluidity of social and personal networks. Society now allows for the construction of personal communities without restriction from socially accepted norms and stigma. People now thrive through personal individualism and embrace their ability to, in essence choose their own support networks and family. With a greater sense of freedom in reclaiming their relationships, people often develop friendships centred around trust and emotional support, this creates a sense of solidarity which often equates to the solidarity of the family. The qualities we appreciate in our friends we often also attribute to members of our kinship and in turn we see characteristics of family members in our friends, so these qualities tend to overlap. Spenser and Pahl (2006) discussed this concept which they coined as suffusion, in which they suggest that there are similar characteristics in our relationships with family members and with close friends.

Although there are still standardised assumptions on the conventional defining of genealogical kinship there is now conceptual research to support the idea that friendship adds another dimension to kin networks. Suffusion supports the idea that many people often denote the term friend to members of their family, by affording this duel role of friend and family member we create a new domain where a friendship is developed though choice over and above the family connection and irrespective of social and cultural norms. Similarly, we may consider friend to be family and they to enter a duel role, friends are often indorsed into the friend/family domain due to continued levels of support and commitment, these are often long-term friendships when superficial friend traits have been surpassed and bonds are further strengthened by trust and solidarity. While this concept does support the ide that there is some fluidity between friend and kin relationships this has been discussed as an empirical matter and that these types of relationships vary across individualised personal communities. Also discussed was the ways in which fictive kinship role were determined, in many culture these roles are readily accepted and bestowed upon individuals who are not genealogical relations but have shown commitment and loyalty to the kin network, these fictive kin often supplement family to create a more robust support network. These type of fictive kin ties are often a representation of the closeness of the relationship, by giving a friend a family title such as aunt or godparent this emphasises the strength of that particular relationship and differentiates that relationship from less valued friendships. While friends can be welcomed into the family and granted fictive kin, family members recognised through genealogical connections may possess less kin significance than their fictive kin counterpart (Spencer & Pahl, 2006).

The family norms of years gone by are now generally no longer feasible in todays society, society today promotes an individualised culture were choice and autonomy are paramount importance. The restrictive norms of a bygone era have been replaced with norms that indorse reciprocity, equality and social mobility. These changes can be seen through our relationships and the choices we make in regard to these relationships, although we cannot choose our family we do have the ability to manage these kin networks maintaining positive kin relations and distancing ourselves from those who do not enrich our lives as we might desire. This is also true within our relationships with friends, are social class and geographical location may dictate where we find friend the maintenance of these friendships is individualised. While men and women both acknowledge the importance of friends there are distinct differences in the ways men and women do friendship, where women use friends to talk with and for emotional support men often use friendship as a social activity. Friends are chosen and categorised due to their personal traits and are often relied on differently in assorted social circumstances for an array of social and emotional needs. These friends are often arranged on a hierarchy of valued importance ranging from mere acquaintances, to friends who are considered family, these friends who are considered as family are so due to their continued levels of support, commitment and solidarity.

These types of friend relationships which develop in to family relationships have become prevalent today due to the increasing family mobility and distance between family members. The common supportive family unit has changed over the generations and the idealistic ideas of the nuclear family has had to develop to encompass step families and additional people through marriage our cohabitation who have become members of their household and have thus altered the way they do family. As it has become increasingly difficult to comprehensively define family due to the ever-changing social constructs associated with this, the same can be said when discussing the most comprehensive way to define friendship. The symbolic construct of friendship varies greatly in the way we categorise friends and a generational shift can be seen in the growing reliance placed upon friends were previously kin members bore this role. It has been discussed that while there are slight differences in the way men and women seek support from friends, both acknowledge their importance. Similarly, within different cultures and social classes there is evidence to support the idea that friends are featuring heavily within a family network and are often regarded as family and given fictive kin titles to validate their inclusion.

While it remains difficult to fully conclude a specific set of attribute and conditions which deem a friend to be considered a family member, research has shown that society has readily accepted that friendship is a broad spectrum in which we categories each friend due to their attributes and often we rely on each friend differently when times of crisis and for socialising purposes. There have been changes then to both the social constructs of both family and friendships and while family will always remain family through genealogical ties the increasing reliance upon friends through choice and/or necessity where family are unavailable has risen and these structured friendship roles are measured of equal importance to the bonds within kin relationships.

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