Have you ever considered how your friendships were formed or analysed the factors that bring people together?

American author Erica Jong once wrote that friendship is the invisible glue that binds together a bad marriage. For many, judgments on friendships are largely a personal matter and little thought is given to how our personal relationships affect wider society. In Rethinking Friendship, Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl go further than Jong, arguing that friendship is an important bond for all of society, to date overlooked by social sciences and public policy.

The authors are responding in particular to theories about social capital that have dominated UK policy-making in recent years. These state that formal associations – be they political parties, religious organisations, unions or sports clubs – generate the bonds of trust that hold society together, but which are now in decline in our increasingly atomised society.

The authors illustrate this with reference to the title of Robert Putnam’s seminal book, Bowling Alone, which refers to someone ten pin bowling by themselves, as opposed to being part of a league. However, they explain, he was not really bowling alone, he was with friends and family, and this oversight reflects a wider pessimism about how connected we really are.

The book has a timely message for the future of race relations. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation study published this year revealed that young adults from all backgrounds consider ‘friend’ to be the most important element of their identity, while pollsters often ask people how many friends they have from different backgrounds to gauge how integrated society is. And policy makers are starting to wake up to marketing ideas about how friends, rather than big advertisers, are often the key opinion formers.

The book is based on 70 interviewees, each asked to map the ‘orbit’ of their ‘personal communities’ of friends and family in concentric circles of importance. It offers a novel framework from which to understand less formal ties. The subject matter rings true to personal experience, enabling readers to relate theory to practice. The clear structure supports readers, steering those not so inclined away from the more academic chapters; something rare enough to be appreciated, although perhaps a little intrusive at times.

Having set out the theoretical background and identified some of its gaps, the authors look at the different types of friends people have: simple ‘associates’ who share a common activity like work or a hobby, the ‘favour friends’ like the neighbour we lend our lawnmower to, and the more complex ‘confidants’ and ‘soul mates’. The model is actually more sophisticated than this simple hierarchy, and taking into account other issues like frequency of contact, it steers a course between an artificially neat structure and uncritical description.

A point made early on is that studies of friendships have to date been predominantly quantitative; but without qualitative analysis, the term ‘friendship’ can mean so many things that it ends up meaning nothing. This is therefore a welcomed qualification to headline-grabbing statistics about how few friends people have from different ethnic groups (most recently Trevor Phillips’ warning that 70 per cent of us hardly ever choose to meet someone of a different ethnicity in our own homes).

The implication is that what is needed instead is understanding about the quality of these relationships: do friends from different ethnic groups tend to be associates or soul mates, or something in between? What is the value of each?

Unfortunately, the book does not dedicate much attention to friendships between people from different backgrounds, or how patterns vary between ethnic groups. Where it does touch on the subject, the most helpful – if obvious – point is that people tend to be friends with people like themselves. This reminds us that the society we might want to realistically strive for is not one where friendships are colour-blind, but where coherent groups (whether based on ethnicity, religion or class) are able to interlink with one another, and where sticking to your own kind is not entirely a bad thing. This chimes with a recent study of Black African adolescents, which found the biggest mental health problems occurred not only when there were no inter-ethnic friendships, but also when people had no friends from the same ethnic group.

One area of weakness in the book is that the contrast between social capital theory and the authors’ theory of personal communities is confused by the difference in scales: at times it seems that the theory of friendship simply transposes what happens in organisations when people come together to a personal level. The real questions are whether contact alone, without even the weakest friendship, has any value in social terms, and whether meaningful friendships can exist outside formal associations.

On this latter point the authors’ conclusion is that they can, since the friendships they identify are forged in a number of other ways, from the school gates to the neighbourhood. At the very least, this reminds us that such spaces need to be shared by people from all backgrounds to avoid segregation. But we also know that being in the right place with a good mix of people isn’t by itself enough. Without some kind of formal structure to support them, the risk is that friendships remain narrow and limited to people ‘like us’. In Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles, friendships between Protestants and Catholics only really existed where there were organisations like rotary clubs and cricket clubs to maintain them.

Bowling Alone was in part so successful because the findings were timely, the implications rang true and the message was clear. While not scaling the same heights, Rethinking Friendship delivers a similarly important message with admirable clarity and no less a sense of timing. The authors do a fine job of reminding us that friendships cannot be measured only in numbers.

This article first appeared in the January/ February 2007 edition of Catalyst magazine

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