Skip to main content
Select Source:



Friendship is a relationship with broad, ambiguous, and even shifting boundaries. The terms friend and friendship mean different things to different people and different things to the same people at different times. To think and communicate effectively about the topic, people find it necessary to use distinctions such as true friends, best friends, good friends, casual friends, work friends, social friends, and friendly acquaintances. In spite of friendship's vague and seemingly indefinable quality, friendships contribute in important ways to psychological development and health and well-being from early childhood through the older adult years.

Social and behavioral scientists devoted little attention to friendship prior to the late 1960s. Since that time, however, friendship has become one of the more favored topics among relationship scholars. The study of friendship is interdisciplinary in nature, concerning researchers from various sub-fields within psychology as well as sociology, communications, anthropology, social work, family studies, and psychiatry. It is also international in scope with researchers from many parts of the world making significant contributions to the empirical and theoretical literature. In terms of the sheer number of scholars focusing their work on friendship, countries from North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East (primarily Israel) are especially well represented. Cross-cultural research is common, especially with respect to comparative studies of children's friendships (Schneider et al. 1997). In spite of this disciplinary, geographic, and cultural variety, there is a remarkable degree of agreement about the fundamental meaning of friendship and in documenting its importance.

Definition and Characteristics

Unlike other important relationships, friendship is not defined by kinship, legal ties, or formal social obligations. Normally, there are no ceremonies surrounding the formation of a friendship. In fact, friendships rarely begin with two people declaring that, "from this day forward, we will be friends." Rather, friendships develop gradually and often unwittingly as the partners begin doing "friendship things" together. Once formed, friendships are largely free of clear social norms or expectations that dictate when the partners should get together and how they should interact when they do. When friendships end, they generally do not do so as a result of an announced decision by one or both parties. Occasionally, of course, friendships end abruptly due to obvious breaches of good will such as dishonesty or betrayal. Most often, however, friendships merely fade away as the partners cease doing the things that gave the relationship its meaning.

This lack of social definition gives friendship its vague and intangible character. Nevertheless, it is a relationship that seems to exist almost, but not quite, universally across cultures. This combination of factors led anthropologist Robert Paine (1969) to describe friendship as an institutionalized non-institution (Suttles 1970). What, then, verifies a friendship? A friendship exists in the fact that the partners commit time to interaction with one another apart from outside pressures or constraints. In friendship, the partners' lives are interdependent on a voluntary basis. In more structured relationships such as marriage, the partners' lives are also interdependent, but much of the interdependence is based on social norms and expectations obliging them to relate to one another in prescribed ways. Thus, many social and behavioral scientists, in fields ranging from sociology to psychology to anthropology, emphasize voluntariness as an essential feature of friendship.

A second key aspect of friendship is what Gerald Suttles (1970) called the person-qua-person factor. That is, friends respond to one another as unique, genuine, and irreplaceable individuals. They do not see one another as mere role occupants or representatives of particular groups or statuses. Friends express this focus on individuality as a personalized interest and concern. Combining these two characteristics provides the following definition: Friendship is a relationship in which the partners respond to one another with an individualized interest and concern and commit time to one another in the absence of constraints toward interaction that are external to the relationship itself. The more these two factors are in evidence, the stronger the friendship.

According to this definition, friendship is a matter of degree rather than an all-or-none proposition. It would undoubtedly be more accurate, even if awkward, to speak of degrees of friendness rather than friendship versus non-friendship. Anthropological studies suggest that forms of relating following this pattern are found in most, but not all, cultures (Leyton 1974; Bell and Coleman 1999).

Benefits of Friendship

As part of their unconstrained and personalized interaction, friends benefit one another in innumerable ways. They listen, encourage, give advice, help with chores, loan money, have fun, exchange trivia, share confidences, and simply "are there" for one another. The specifics vary from time to time and from one friendship to another.

Several scholars have suggested ways of grouping these benefits into a manageable number of categories. Many researchers consider just two classes of rewards adequate for most purposes. These two classes are most often labeled as instrumental and expressive. Instrumental rewards involve receiving tangible resources such as goods or money, and obtaining assistance in completing tasks or reaching goals. Expressive rewards involve receiving emotional support, encouragement, and personal advice from an understanding confidant. Israeli psychologists Mario Mickulincer and Michal Selinger (2001) developed a somewhat different two-way classification, proposing that individuals pursue friendships to fulfill either affiliative (companionship) or attachment (socioemotional) needs.

Although such two-fold classifications are adequate for many purposes, people sometimes find it useful to consider more specific rewards that are (or are not) present in a friendship, or that are present in one friendship but not another. Some researchers have developed more detailed sets of rewards for exploring such nuances. Robert B. Hayes (1984), for example, formulated a list of four rewarding friendship behaviors: companionship (sharing activities or one another's company), consideration (helpfulness, utility, support), communication (discussing information about one's self, exchanging ideas and confidences), and affection (expressing sentiments felt toward one's partner).

In a similar vein, Paul H. Wright (1978, 1985) identified five interpersonal rewards or friendship values: these are utility (providing material resources or helping with tasks), stimulation (suggesting new ideas or activities), ego support (providing encouragement by downplaying setbacks and emphasizing successes), self-affirmation (behaving in ways that reinforce a friend's valued self-characteristics) and security (providing a feeling of safety and unquestioned trust).

Voluntariness and Contextual Factors in Friendship

Although most authorities agree that voluntariness is the sine qua non of friendship (Carrier 1999; Krappmann 1996), it is important to consider what they do and do not mean by this term. Voluntariness indicates only that friendships are nonobligatory, in other words, that they are formed by personal preference and not on the basis of external requirements or expectations. Furthermore, once formed, they are non-obligatory in the sense that friends are much freer to choose what to do or not do with another than partners in more structured relationships. Voluntariness does not mean that a person has either the freedom or possibility of becoming friends with virtually anyone they might choose. Indeed, as sociologists Rebecca G. Adams and Graham Allan (1998) emphasize, both friendship choice and the specific forms of interaction that take place in friendships are affected by contextual factors, in other words, personal, circumstantial, societal, and cultural influences that can be facilitative, limiting, or some of each.

Adams and Graham's point concerning context is illustrated by comparative data on children's friendships collected in East and West Berlin prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union (Little et al. 1999). Eight- to fourteen-year-old children in the two cities were similar in their perceptions of their friendships' quality and reciprocity. Even so, consistent with the restrictive social climate of the time, children in East Berlin reported more conflict, enjoyed fewer mutual visits and sleep-overs, and had less fun in their play. Canadian psychologists Anna Beth Doyle and Dorothy Markiewiscz (1996) documented contextual factors in a different way, reviewing studies showing that children's friendships with other children are enhanced in both number and quality if their parents have high quality relationships between themselves and with friends outside the family.

On a broader social level, given the voluntary and preferential nature of friendship, there are cultures in which such relationships cannot thrive. There are a few cultures, for example, where personal relationships are closely formulated in terms of status and kinship (DuBois 1974), or where speaking taboos are confining and rigidly enforced. In such cultures, friendships are rare or nonexistent. However, as Lothar Krappmann (1996) suggests, individuals in such restrictive cultures often find ways of maintaining ties akin to friendship. Sarah Uhl (1991), for example, found that some women in the Andalusian region of Spain bypassed explicit prohibitions against forming friendships. They established voluntary and personalized non-kin bonds under the guise of interaction required by their domestic chores.

In sum, friendship is a non-obligatory and personalized relationship that is embedded in a context composed of an individual's personal circumstances and social and cultural milieu. Such contextual factors influence the number and specific kinds of friendships an individual has the opportunity and personal resources to form and maintain. Due attention to contextual factors is, therefore, basic to a full understanding of the friendship relationship.

Friendships Throughout Childhood

From an adult perspective, friendship involves voluntary interaction between two persons who relate to one another on a personal and individualized basis. As such, friendship is beyond the capacity of most children until about the age of ten or twelve. Prior to that time, however, children experience friendship in less complete but increasingly sophisticated ways, beginning with a rudimentary conception at about three years of age (Howes 1996; Rose and Asher 2000).

In 1992, William K. Rawlins proposed a means of categorizing children's friendships from toddlerhood through preadolescence with a classification system that has stood the test of time. Following Robert L. Selman (1981), Rawlins describes friends in the first phase (ages three to six years) as momentary physicalistic playmates. Children respond to age-mates they meet at, for example, day care or the playground, on the basis of physical characteristics or possessions. The children are "friends" as long as they are participating jointly in some enjoyable activity. They are often inclusive of one another and exclusive of "outsiders" when other children attempt to join them. This exclusiveness is transitory, however, as the children often lose interest in one activity and pick up another with different partners or new "friends." Brief quarrels, usually over toys or space, are common. Although short in duration, these quarrels involve expressing emotions, sometimes having one's own way, and sometimes being compelled to "give in." They often lead to shifts in playmates. During this period, children start developing some of the social skills necessary for forming more enduring friendships. They begin learning, for instance, to take turns and manage their emotions. Moreover, as they become familiar and comfortable with children they meet repeatedly, they start showing some degree of consistency in their preferred playmates.

Friendships of children from about six to nine years of age follow a pattern that Rawlins (1992) describes as opportunity and activity. The friends usually live close to one another and are of the same sex and similar in age, social status, and social maturity. They spend most of their time together in physical activities (skating, biking, sports), make-believe games related to domestic or work situations, fantasized athletic accomplishments, and "adventures" modeled after favorite fictional heroes.

Children at this age still tend to describe their friends according to physical characteristics and possessions, but sometimes think of them in more relational terms, such as showing liking and supportiveness. Whereas they realize that different people may see and respond to the same situation in different ways, they feel that friends should share points of view. Thus, one child is likely to see another as a friend only during times when their ideas coincide and when they like doing the same things. When they are not, they are not friends. During the "friendship times," they exchange benefits on a tit-for-tat basis. Thus, at this stage, friendships are on-and-off relationships that are largely self-oriented and opportunistic.

Between the ages of roughly nine and twelve years, children increasingly respond to others in terms of internal characteristics (attitudes, beliefs, values). They learn to infer these characteristics by observing the ongoing acts of others, and they are aware that others can, in turn, infer internal characteristics in the same way. With this cognitive ability, a child can "step outside" of the self and take the perspective of the other, including the perceptions the other has of her or him. This enables them to form friendships that Rawlins (1992) labels reciprocal and equal.

At this stage, children usually choose friends whose beliefs agree with their own. Such agreement confirms the correctness of their emerging views, thereby providing what psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan (1953) called consensual validation. To the degree that their perspectives differ, however, friends at this age are able to accommodate some of the differences and arrive at a shared outlook. Although the children still tend to be self-oriented and opportunistic, they realize that their friends are equal to them in the sense of being entitled to benefits from the relationship. Therefore, the exchange of rewards tends to be normative and reciprocal. That is, the child provides benefits when the friend has a need for them because that is what friends are supposed to do. That friend, of course, is expected to return the benefits for the same reason. Thus, friends are people who share ideas, interests and feelings, and who provide rewards on a broadly reciprocal basis. In the reciprocity and equality phase, then, children are on the fringes of a conception of friendship as a relatively stable relationship that transcends occasional disagreements and periods of separation.

At preadolescence (about ten to fourteen years of age), children acquire the ability and inclination to respond to other children in terms of personality traits and styles (nice, easy-going, mean, selfish) and special interests and attitudes. They sometimes see these characteristics as combining to make the other person uniquely admirable and attractive. This sets the stage for what Rawlins (1992) calls the period of mutuality and understanding in children's friendships.

According to Sullivan (1953), preadolescent children experience a need for interpersonal closeness in an especially poignant way, and express this need as a strong desire to establish a same-sex "chumship." Research generally confirms the nature of these chumships and the importance Sullivan attaches to them.

As two children come to recognize uniquely attractive features in one another, they are likely to become "real" friends. Such friends consider one another intrinsically worthwhile. They are loyal to one another and provide rewards, not with the expectation of reciprocation, but simply because the partner is deserving. Preadolescent friends share common day-to-day experiences to which they often react with an intensity and immediacy that either puzzles or amuses important adults such as parents and teachers. Therefore, chums are especially capable of providing empathy and understanding. At this stage, friendships not only build each child's self-esteem, they also provide a context for expressing and trying out personal thoughts and feelings in a free and unguarded manner. Such freedom is possible because friendships, while close and caring, lack the socially mandated responsibilities and inequities present in many relationships, such as that between parents and children.

Thus, children approaching adolescence begin to experience friendship in its full-blown form, that is, as an enduring relationship involving voluntary interdependence and a mutual personalized interest and concern. Through these friendships, they experience and practice empathy, altruism, unselfishness, and loyalty. There is, however, a darker side to preadolescent friendships. Because they are intense and exclusive, they often encourage cliquishness and animosity between sets of friends. At times, too, the friends themselves disagree, become jealous, become competitive, and have an occasional falling out. At this point, however, the partners have a conception of friendship as a relationship that usually persists in spite of episodic difficulties.

Throughout all the phases from toddlerhood through preadolescence, children are generally inclined to select friends of their own sex. Furthermore, girls' and boys' friendships differ, on the average, in several ways. Girls' friendships, for example, are more exclusively pair-oriented whereas boys' are more group- or gang-oriented. Girls tend to talk, "gossip," and exchange secrets more than boys, who concentrate on games, "projects," and shared activities. These contrasts fore-shadow overall gender differences that appear in adolescence and persist through adulthood.

Friendships Throughout Adolescence

Adolescence extends from the onset of puberty until the individual begins young adult life by entering the work force or undertaking postsecondary education. Because of the developmental tasks characteristic of this period, the meaning and values of friendship acquired during preadolescence continue and expand (Berndt 1996). Throughout this time, the typical adolescent encounters differing ideologies and values, a variety of activities to pursue or forego, and potential lifestyles to consider. The adolescent's two-fold "task" is to discover which options can and should be committed to, and to integrate them into a personal identity.

Although parents normally remain an important source of guidance and support, part of the adolescent's struggle is to work toward independence from them. Thus adolescents continue to rely on their parents for material support and instrumental rewards, normally respecting their ideals as sources of continuity and stability. They are less likely, however, to see their parents as helpful in developing their views on present and future issues. For their part, parents generally feel an obligation to socialize their adolescents "properly" and, hence, tend to be judgmental as their adolescent children explore different directions. Therefore, close friendships, because they involve nonjudgmental yet caring equals, help the adolescent develop a sense of identity by offering "a climate of growth and self-knowledge that the family is not equipped for" (Douvan and Adelson 1966, p. 174).

As they carry out their friendships, girls are more likely than boys to emphasize expressive rather than instrumental rewards. As in preadolescence, both girls and boys usually form friendships with members of their own sex. Even so, cross-gender friendships are not uncommon, and most adolescents maintain careful distinctions between opposite-sex partners who are friends and those who are romantic or dating partners. Where cross-gender friendships exist, both girls and boys find them valuable sources of information and insight about the opposite sex in a relationally neutral ("safe") context. Boys, especially, find cross-gender friendships advantageous because they provide expressive rewards that are not as readily available in their friendships with other boys. The qualities of cross-gender friendships evident in adolescence tend to persist throughout adulthood (Monsour 2002).

Friendships Throughout Adulthood

Close friendships are possible and, in fact, common at all stages of adulthood. Also, regardless of whether they involve women, men, or cross-gender pairs, close friendships provide benefits that are similar in kind and degree. There are, however, circumstances at young, middle, and later adulthood that affect typical friendship patterns (Adams and Blieszner 1996; Matthews 1996).

Young adulthood starts with the individual's loosening of emotional ties with parents and family while beginning to explore stable work opportunities or pursue further education. This development includes changes in commitments and activities, and often changes in residence. Such changes usually disrupt the individual's network of non-kin associates, creating the opportunity, if not the necessity, of forming new friendships. Indeed, young adults who succeed in forging new friendships report being happier, less lonely, and better adjusted than those who do not. Individuals at this stage are relatively free of obligations and social roles (e.g., professional advancement, marriage, and parenthood) that might conflict with forming friendships. Consequently, single young adults report more friendships, including cross-gender friendships, than adults at any other stage.

Gender differences in friendships are as much in evidence during young adulthood as at any other time. That is, women are, on average, more expressive and personally oriented in their friendships than men. Moreover, the friendships of women are generally stronger than those of men with respect to both voluntary interdependence and the person-qua-person factor. As in adolescence, males find that their cross-gender friendships provide expressive rewards to a greater degree than do their same-gender friendships.

With such life events as marriage, parenthood, and accelerated career development, young adulthood merges into middle adulthood. Following marriage, both women and men report having fewer cross-gender friends. One obvious reason for this is suspicion and jealousy, but there are other factors. Michael Monsour noted, for example, that "marriage curtails opportunities for cross-sex friendship formation because spouses spend most of their free time together rather than separately in social situations that might lead to cross-sex friendship formation" (2002, p. 156). Furthermore, when people marry, they generally become more dependent on spouses and less so on friends for meeting social needs. Men especially tend to rely on female friends as confidants, but when they marry they find that their wives meet their expressive needs by becoming live-in confidants, that is, "friends."

Also during middle adulthood, men show a drop in the number and intensity of same- as well as cross-gender friendships. This is partly because their preoccupation with career development leaves them little time to cultivate anything but superficial friendships. In addition, men most often meet other men in work settings. Because of this, many of their potential friends are people with whom they compete for raises or advancement, or with whom they are involved either as supervisors or subordinates. Neither of these conditions is conducive to the openness and personalized concern necessary for the development of a close friendship. When friendships do develop between male work associates, they are likely to center around shared activities and camaraderie rather than personal self-disclosure and expressiveness.

The "friendship situation" for women in middle adulthood is complex. Prior to the arrival of children, marriage has little impact on the number, strength, or expressive character of friendships. With the arrival of children, however, women report a decrease in the number of friendships. This is probably due to women's traditionally greater responsibility for the home and family. The fact that many women also work outside the home further limits the time and energy they have to pursue friendships. Even so, the friendships they are able to maintain retain their expressive and highly personalized character. Later in middle adulthood, presumably as their children become more independent, women report increasing numbers of friends. Women, like men, often form friendships in work settings. However, they are likely to see such relationships as acquaintanceships rather than friendships. They commonly make distinctions among work friends, activity friends, and "real" friends (Gouldner and Strong 1987).

But what about the friendships of adults who never marry? One often hears anecdotally that such never-marrieds cultivate more friendships and treat their friends as special "family." Research, however, does not bear out such a "friends as family" trend. Rather, findings suggest that most unmarried adults increase their contact with relatives rather than forming more or different kinds of friendships.

Older adulthood, usually considered to begin when a person reaches about sixty-five years of age, is marked by two kinds of changes that affect friendships. On the one hand, increasing health concerns, reduced mobility, and declining vigor reduce opportunities for contact with friends and the energy the individual has to devote to them. On the other hand, retirement and reduced social and family obligations increase the free and uncommitted time the individual has to nurture existing friendships and to develop new ones. Not surprisingly, these factors have a different impact on the friendships of older women than those of older men (Field 1999).

For women, the increasing flexibility of middle adulthood continues into older adulthood. Older women are thus able to sustain established friendships and to form new ones as friends die or relocate. Throughout life, women's friendships tend to be more expressive than those of men. In older adulthood, then, women have both the social skills and inclination to continue this pattern. Moreover, women are more likely than men to face the prospect of widowhood and to fill the relationship void by emphasizing their friendships. Whereas widows rely on adult children, especially daughters, for material and practical support, they rely on same aged friends to meet their expressive needs and to maintain their morale.

Because men's friendships are centered mostly around work affiliations and shared activities, when men retire and curtail their activities they often lose their friendships as well. Men are less likely than women to form new friendships to replace the ones they lose. Even so, they retain their primary source of personal and emotional support: their wives. In the relatively rare case where a man outlives his wife, he is likely to remarry rather than seek out new friends. With the loss of friends, however, men do lose the stimulation, fun, and camaraderie that goes along with shared interests and activities. Therefore, men who depart from the average and maintain close same-gender friendships throughout life are likely to lead fuller and more satisfying lives in their older adult years.


Friendship is, in many respects, a "comfortable" love relationship. Friendships involve as little or as much intimacy as the partners are inclined to express at any given time. Friends are not normally obligated to exchange benefits, but do so in ways that are often so natural as to be unwitting. The ties that bind them are by unfettered mutual consent. In spite of its being so comfortable, in fact because of it, friendship contributes in unique ways to personal development and well-being.

See also:Affection; Attraction; Intimacy; Loneliness; Love; Peer Influence; Self-Disclosure; Social Networks; Trust


adams, r. g., and allan, g. (1998). "introduction: contextualising friendship." in placing friendship in context: structural analysis in the social sciences, ed.r. g. adams and g. allan. new york: cambridge university press.

adams, r. g., and blieszner, r. (1996). "midlifefriendship patterns." in a lifetime of relationships, ed. n. vanzetti and s. duck. pacific grove, ca: brooks/cole.

bell, s., and coleman, s., eds. (1999). the anthropology offriendship. oxford, uk: berg.

berndt, t. j. (1996). "friendship in adolescence." in alifetime of relationships, ed. n. vanzetti and s. duck. pacific grove, ca: brooks/cole.

carrier, j. g. (1999). "people who can be friends: selves and social relationships." in the anthropology of friendship, ed. s. bell and s. coleman. oxford: berg.

douvan, e., and adelson, j. (1966). the adolescent experience. new york: john wiley & sons.

doyle, a.b., and markiewiscz, d. (1996). "parents' interpersonal relationships and children's friendships." in the company they keep, ed. w.m. bukowski, a.f. newcomb and w.w. hartup. new york: cambridge university press.

dubois, c. (1974). "the gratuitous act: an introduction to the comparative study of friendship patterns." in the compact: selected dimensions of friendship, ed. e. leyton. st. john's, newfoundland: institute of social and economic research.

field, d. (1999). "continuity and change in friendships in advanced old age: findings from the berkeley older generation study." international journal of aging and human development 48:325–346.

gouldner, h., and strong, m.s. (1987). speaking offriendship. new york: greenwood.

hayes, r. b. (1984). "the development and maintenance of friendship." journal of social and personal relationships 1:75–98.

howes, c. (1996). "the earliest friendships." in the company they keep, ed. w. m. bukowski, a. f. newcomb and w. w. hartup. new york: cambridge university press.

krappmann, l. (1996). "amicitia, drujba, shin-yu, philia,freundschaft, friendship: on the cultural diversity of human relationship." in the company they keep, ed. w.m. bukowski, a.f. newcomb, and w.w. hartup. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press.

leyton, e., ed. (1974). the compact: selected dimensions of friendship. st. john's, newfoundland: institute for economic and social research.

little, t. d.; brendgen, m.; warrner, b.; and krappmann,l. (1999). "children's reciprocal perception of friendship quality in the sociocultural contexts of east and west berlin." international journal of behavioral development 23:63–89.

matthews, s. h. (1996). "friendships in old age." in alifetime of relationships, ed. n. vanzetti and s. duck. pacific grove, ca: brooks/cole.

mickulincer, m., and selinger, m. (2001). "the interplaybetween attachment and affiliation systems in adolescents' same-sex friendships." journal of social and personal relationships 18:81–106.

monsour, m. (2002). women and men as friends: relationships across the life span in the 21st century. mahwah, nj: erlbaum.

paine, r. (1969). "in search of friendship: an exploratoryanalysis of 'middle-class' culture." man 4:505–524.

rawlins, w. k. (1992). friendship matters. new york:aldine.

rose, a. j., and asher, s. r. (2000). "children's friendships." in close relationships: a sourcebook, ed. c. hendrick and s. s. hendrick. thousand oaks, ca: sage publications.

schneider, b. h.; smith, a.; poisson, s. e.; and kwan, a. b.(1997). "cultural dimensions of children's peer relations." in handbook of personal relationships, 2nd edition, ed. s. duck. new york: john wiley & sons.

selman, r. l. (1981). "the child as a friendship philosopher." in the development of children's friendships, ed. s. r. asher and j. m. gottman. new york: cambridge university press.

sullivan, h. s. (1953). interpersonal theory of york: norton.

suttles, g. d. (1970). "friendship as a social institution."in social relationships, ed. g. j. mccall. new york: aldine.

uhl, s. (1991). "forbidden friends: cultural veils of female friendships in andalusia." american ethologist 18:90–105.

wright, p. h. (1978). "toward a theory of friendshipbased on a conception of self." journal of human communication research 4:196–207.

wright, p. h. (1985). "the acquaintance descriptionform." in understanding personal relationships: an interdisciplinary approach, ed. s. duck and d. perlman. newbury park, ca: sage publications.

paul h. wright

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Friendship." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Friendship." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . (December 10, 2017).

"Friendship." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from



Friendship as an institution

Friendship as interaction

Selection of friends

Problems for research


Friendship is a voluntary, close, and enduring social relationship. The behavior of friends varies greatly among societies and situations and according to personality variables. Values about friendship vary less and can be summarized as involving closeness, solidarity, absence of ulterior ends, reciprocity, impulsiveness in mutual choice, and, perhaps, independence of social distinctions such as age, sex, and class. Friendship is intimate but less so than love and some family ties. Supplementing sexual and familialties, friendship is a residual cultural category subsuming close and expectedly enduring ties. Since friendship involves voluntary commitment, intimacy, and spontaneity, its consequences for the individual and for society, through individual growth and security, are presumably crucial. Possibly for this reason, to be without friends often involves shame.

Most other important social relationships exclude friendship. Even highly compatible and close brothers are brothers rather than friends, and friendship tends to be incompatible with such relationships as those of mother and child, lovers, and employer and employee. This incompatibility is probably due to the fact that the obligations and rights of friends typically are subject to overruling by other ties. The impulsiveness of choice and the reciprocity or symmetry of the friendship relation also rule out various choices. If friends are impulsively chosen, few brothers will be friends. Reciprocity and symmetry imply rough equality in mutual rights and obligations and in qualities and performances, requiring fairly equal status in significant respects between friends. In general, friendship can be logically and culturally expected to occur only when there is a low probability of higher or strongly sanctioned obligations intervening directly between friends.

Like distant kinship terms, “friend” is a relational designation: “friend” and “friendship” refer to a relationship between two or more persons rather than to the characteristics of one or more persons. This is in contrast to close kinship terms, which are simultaneously relational and categorical, and to occupational designations, which are on the whole categorical. Accordingly, while friendship is significant in personal terms, it is no less an interpersonal structure. It follows that variants of friendship structure may well be a characteristic of collective units.

In theoretical terms, friendship is definitely a relational phenomenon: it is impossible to assign meaning to statements such as “He is a friend” without implying to whom “he” is related in this way. However, empirically the matter is less clear, partly because the friendship role is vague. Also, the friendship relationship as a social type is made ambiguous by personal descriptions such as “He is friendly,” “He is a great friend,” or “He is every body’s friend.” The suggestion has been made that a highly differentiated society with a high degree of mobility and an emphasis on specific performance cannot also support enduring and important intimate relationships beyond those of the nuclear family. This may be the structural source of “pseudo Gemeinschaft”—that is, appeals, usually commercial, that use a presumption of closeness to transfer modes of behavior from a friendship setting to strangers, with the consequent growth of values of superficial friendship, friendliness, and popularity.

Friendship is a distinct institution. In Western societies (loosely the basis for the above considerations) it is a vague institution, whereas in other societies friendship is often more salient and differentiated. In either case, friendship is a low-order (as well as a crosscutting) institution: it is found everywhere but is not a distinct, comprehensive segment of society. It is comparable to money, language, and love rather than to religion, the family, or the economy. Partly for this reason, friendship is not at present a specialized field of inquiry in sociology. While few studies focus on friendship, many find it, since closeness to others is a pervasive potentiality in man.

Friendship as an institution

To say that friendship is an institution is to ask the cross-cultural question: What links are there between variations in the structure of friendship and in the structure of society? Two studies have initiated the general cross-cultural study of friendship (Eisenstadt 1956; Cohen 1961). At the least, these studies provide a spectrum of variation in friendship institutions; at their best, they provide hypotheses or findings about the place of friendship in encompassing social structures.

Variations between societies

S. N. Eisenstadt’s subject is “ritualized personal relations,” including blood brotherhood, blood friendship, “best” friends, compadre and godparent relations, and cases of contractual servitude. All these relationships are particularistic, personal, voluntary, and fully in stitutionalized (usually in ritual terms). They are both diffusely affective and instrumental, always in the economic sphere, often more broadly (politics, etc.). Eisenstadt hypothesizes that these kinshiplike but voluntary relations are to be found in predominantly particularistic (that is, kinshipdominated or caste-dominated) societies because they alleviate strains in and between the groups that constitute such societies. In effect, Eisenstadt proposes that ritualized personal relations, similar to friendship in Western terms in that they are voluntary and personal or intimate, are mechaisms of social integration. They are parallel to such institutions as kinship extension, extralineage kinship obligations, various types of associations, hospitality toward strangers, and joking relation ships in providing ties cutting across groups and categories. Ritualized personal relations are also mechanisms of social control. [SeeKinship, article on Pseudo-Kinship.]

Yehudi A. Cohen presents a typology of friendship institutions that loosely expresses a dimension of degree of commitment between friends. Inalien able friendship is a variant characterized by ritual or ceremonial entry and, ideally, permanence—in the main corresponding to Eisenstadt’s ritualized personal relations. Three other somewhat separate categories are close, casual, and expedient friendships. In a sample of about sixty societies, twenty have the inalienable type of friendship as the dominant form, thirty have close friendship, three have casual friendship, and four have expedient friendship (there are no data for ten societies, and some are counted twice because of structural changes). Activities in the friendship relation commonly include material exchange (and/or economic as sistance) and sociopolitical and emotional support; in some cases they include the more specialized activities of go-between in love affairs and marriage arrangements, homosexuality, sponsorship in rites of passage, mourning obligations, and exchange of children. Formalized friendship is far more frequent among men than women and is rare across sex lines. Inalienable friendship carries with it incest taboos in half the cases. It is almost invariably joined with just one partner, who in some cases has to be chosen inside the local solidary group and in other cases outside of it; in a few societies either choice is open.

Cohen predicts covariation between type of friendship and the nature of the significant soli dary grouping to which the individual is attached. He expects inalienable friendship to coincide with the maximally solidary community (generally, localized descent groups where nuclear families and households are socially, physically, and emotionally close as a societal nucleus sharply distinguished from other groupings). Close friendship is expected to be associated with the solidary-fissile community (where solidarity is split between kinship group and community). The nonnucleated society (where isolated, solidary nuclear families are tied loosely together) is expected to be associated with casual friendship. Finally, an expedient type of friendship institution is expected to occur in individuated social structures (where there is emphasis on individual amassing of wealth and relatively little solidarity even in the nuclear family).

Roughly speaking, Cohen’s hypotheses are suported by his data. There is an association between the degree of solidarity in the local community and the degree of commitment in the friendship institution (although the number of cases in extreme types of friendship and solidarity is small). Of 13 societies with maximally solidary communities, 11 have predominantly the inalien able type of friendship; of 35 societies with solidaryfissile communities, 27 have close friendship.

Cohen’s interpretation of this finding is in terms of holistic compatibility in culture and personality. A dimension of personal generosity versus with holding seems to be the basic variable that unites community structure with friendship structure. There is a correlation between childhood gratification versus deprivation, on the one hand, and adult food sharing versus individual amassment of food or money on the other. For the present, it remains an open question as to how this holistic pressure can be translated into detailed questions about the operation of social arrangements.

Cohen’s study raises formal questions about his variables: To what extent are his four-point variables adequate and reliable in use? Is inalienable friendship a more significant category than formalized friendship? Further, under what conditions, and with what effects, are intragroup and intergroup friendships mandatory or preferred? The most crucial and stimulating question would seem to be this: Is institutionalized friendship (i.e., ideal and/or dominant forms) a more relevant variable than distribution of actual forms of friendship? This question leads to interesting problems in Western societies. What, in various settings, is the distribution of close, casual, and expedient friendships? Is degree of differentiation of societies correlated with dominance of expedient friendships? Is a possible dominance of expedient friendships to be contrasted with some of our values concerning friendship rather than with our past—or has there been a real change in the friendship institution over, say, the last fifty years, concomitant with industrialization and increasing differentiation?

Variation within one society

Additional dem onstrations of the dependence of norms regulating friendship on an encompassing social structure emerge if we compare separate settings within one society rather than comparing different societies. In a study of the merchant marine in a society where it is a significant element economically and culturally, Aubert and Arner (1959) found that the culture and the social structure of the Norwe gian merchant marine include a near taboo on personal friendships. This trait is probably a conse quence of (as well as a contribution to) other structural elements: the ship is a “total institution” (Goffman 1958); top positions can only be reached from the bottom; there is an extraordinarily high rate of turnover; work roles dominate (to the extent that terms of address and reference are largely job titles, the alternative being home region); there is a cultural and realistic emphasis on crises requiring discipline; and, finally, there is a peculiar combination of equality and inequality (in a number of respects the crew are sailors “in the same boat,” yet each man and his position is unique through pay and shift arrangements). In outline, the occurrence and forms of friendship among the crew are reinforcing consequences of the nature of the ship as a place of work, in particular through its arrangements for interaction, physical closeness, and recruitment. In a significant con trast, friendship is a standard occurrence among the crew in the Hull distant-water fishing fleet (Tunstall 1962); the distant-water trawler lacks the character of the total institution that is inher ent in the Norwegian merchant vessel.

Friendship as interaction

Perhaps the most penetrating study of friendship yet to appear is W. F. Whyte’s Street Corner So ciety (1943), a description and analysis of life in an immigrant slum in the late 1930s. Whyte’s topic is the interaction between young men, the significance of this interaction for individuals, and its relationship to career, welfare work, and poli tics. In the first place, Whyte gives a vivid picture of voluntary association among “Cornerville” young adults. This association is marked by a strong in formal structure. Loosely integrated gangs, con sisting of small cliques, have a clearly hierarchic structure in terms of influence and prestige. Par ticipation and acceptance in these groups are cru cial for the balance of individual personalities. Changing and stable group structure is symboli cally expressed in interaction. The typical group ties the individual to his community in many ways; it takes membership in atypical groups to foster career ambitions beyond Cornerville. In the first place, then, Whyte describes the social realities, of which friendship is the predominant one, for young men in Cornerville. Second, he analyzes the interrelations of friendship and the Cornerville culture with racketeering and politics, which are intimate, as well as with traditional welfare work, which cuts itself off from the mainstream of Cor nerville life.

The kind of friendship structure that Whyte describes is, in all likelihood, unusual. Friendship groups are rarely as highly structured in a hier archy as in Whyte’s community; friends are rarely as dependent on leadership; they are rarely as significant for each other and so often and so regularly in each other’s presence; friends are rarely so sharply segregated from nonfriends; and friends of one person are rarely to such an extent also friends of each other. Whyte described a situ ation that was unusual, arising as it did from the historical accident of a major depression in a lower-class environment of second-generation im migrants.

Several themes above have been investigated in later, more specific studies of friendship. Elizabeth Bott (1957) has investigated friendship networks, stressing the difference between connected networks, where one’s friends are also friends of each other, and open ones, where friends do not make up an interconnected group. Her exploratory study of families and their friends indicates that if a married couple is involved in a close-knit set of friends, the couple tends to have a rigid separation of roles in the household. On the other hand, if the network of friends is loosely connected, separation of roles among husband and wife is at a minimum.

Adolescent friendship

In his study of friendship among young men, Whyte related variants of friendship to career ambitions in distinguishing between “corner boys” and “college boys.” Friendship among adolescents may be more significant than at earlier and later ages, both in general and specifically for career choice. What is the nature and significance of friendship among adolescents? In a discussion of David Riesman’s hypothesized “other-directed” personality type, with its assumed peer dependence among adolescents, Parsons and White (1961) see adolescent friendship as a mechanism for loosening children’s dependence on parents and as a channel for the testing of career choice. Relying on findings from studies of friendship choices in high schools, they conclude that the adolescent’s dependence on peers is far from a seeking of free-floating approval; relations among peers partially consist of commitments to normative standards. Parsons and White emphasize that there are two kinds of normative culture among high school students: one is rather hedonistic, characterized by much value on popularity and reluctance to accept the achievement orientation in the adult world, and the other, which is somewhat less fre quent, includes a strong commitment to mastery of this achievement orientation. The availability of friendship cliques (of either type of culture) is both a sorting mechanism and a testing ground for longterm educational and career commitments.

The finding of two distinct normative cultures among adolescents, one centering on hedonism and the other, nearly as important, on scholastic achievement, is unusual. Coleman (1961) found widely varying social climates in the ten high schools that he studied. In all of them, athletic achievement was the major basis for recruitment to the informal elite of the school; scholastic achievement was always a decidedly minor basis; the strongest position of all was held by the allrounder. Gordon (1957), in a case study of a Midwestern high school, found a salient structure of dominant cliques, within which close friendship might occur. Cliques centering on scholastic achievement were quite unimportant, although students showed increasing fulfillment of school expectations for scholastic achievement with each additional year in school. The students’ school and social life seemed to be dominated by a fierce competition for prestige that was achieved on the basis of conformity to highly developed normative patterns. Adolescent life in school was dominated by efforts to achieve a differentiated social status —that is, essentially a search for identity. Membership in a group gives the protection of being visibly and actively “somebody,” but friendship appears to be largely an instrumental and regulative structure rather than a supportive and permissive one. However, the detailed regulation of behavior implied in the adolescent culture is partly (as in dress) a symbol of autonomy relative to adult society and partly (as in puritan morals) an acceptance of explicit adult values.

In spite of variation in content of adolescent culture and friendship groupings, Parsons and White’s main points are valid: adolescent culture, with cliques forming around variant values, affords standards of right and wrong, affects career choice, and enforces a degree of independence from parents. Nevertheless, the central place of popularity in this adolescent culture leaves Riesman’s claim of a growing “other-directedness” an open issue.

Friendship in work groups

Adolescent friendship approaches being a way of life, although a transitional one, related to love and a future family as well as to work and a future career. Friendship is also important in careers. The influence of friendship on recruitment to and work in a career has been shown in community studies (Warner & Lunt 1941, pp. 188-199; Seeley et al. 1956, p. 135). The importance of friendship in one line of work was shown dramatically by Coleman, Katz, and Menzel (1957): doctors’ adoption of new therapeutic drugs depends to a considerable extent on membership in informal friendship cliques.

The theme of friendship in work has been a significant one in social science at least since the Hawthorne studies in the 1930s. In one setting it was found that a differentiated set of friendship relations among male workers supported a broad normative orientation, including a norm limiting productivity (Roethlisberger & Dickson 1939, part 4). In another setting, friendly relations among female workers were suggested as an explanatory variable behind a continuously climbing curve of productivity under varying and controlled external work conditions (ibid., part 1). The concept of an informal social structure in organizations has been with us since these studies. With respect to friendship or friendly human relations, these two findings have been duplicated over and over again, in industrial and bureaucratic settings as well as in research on problem solving in laboratory groups: friendly relations may lead to either increased or decreased productivity. The normative basis of friendship, particularly the definitions of relations to higher authorities, is presumably one decisive differentiating variable.

Selection of friends

The initial view of friendship given in this article is a romantic one; it is empirical in that it formulates surface values concerning friendship in our culture. However, while it may be true that friends are culturally expected to be chosen im pulsively, it is certain that choice follows socially structured paths. Friends tend to share social position. The tendency of friends to be alike is well illustrated by a finding in a study of a political election that compared voters’ choices with those of their best friends. A sample of voters was divided into four subgroups according to whether three, two, one, or none of their best friends intended to vote for the Republican party; among those whose friends were all intending to vote Republican, 61 per cent expressed strong intentions of voting Republican, and the percentage dropped to 37, to 23, and to 2 for the other three subgroups, respectively (Berelson et al. 1954, p. 99). Two explanatory principles are needed: friends select each other on the basis of similarity, and they in fluence each other to become similar. The system atic study of similarity and dissimilarity between friends was opened up by Lazarsfeld and Merton (1954) when they asked how selectivity comes about and how it varies for different kinds of attributes and within different kinds of social structures. While they clarify many issues in their article (for example, by distinguishing between status-homophily and value-homophily), their contribution has remained programmatic.

Similarity in attitude is one basis on which friendships are formed. Longitudinal studies (e.g., Newcomb 1961) indicate that the explanatory principle of selectivity in terms of similarity outweighs the principle of similarity resulting from friendship. The balance of the evidence for the view that friends select each other on the basis of complementarity of needs rather than on the basis of similarities is negative (Secord & Backman 1964). Findings based on sociometric studies of friendship concerning other bases of choice have been summed up as follows:

. . . a person is likely to choose the following individuals: (1) those with whom he has a greater opportunity to interact, (2) those who have characteristics most describable in terms of the norms and values of the group, (3) those who are most similar to him in attitudes, values, and social-background characteristics, and (4) those whom he perceives as choosing him or assigning favorable characteristics to him, (5) those who see him as he sees himself, and (6) those whose company leads to gratification of his needs. (Secord & Backman 1964, p. 247)

Two theoretical formulations with implications for the study of friendship have appeared in recent years (Thibaut & Kelley 1959; Homans 1961). Both are exchange theories of interaction, where basic terms are costs, rewards, outcomes, and comparison levels. This framework allows the analysis of steps in attraction processes (Secord & Backman 1964, chapter 7): friendship is the outcome of sampling and estimation, bargaining, commitment, and, finally, institutionalization.

Problems for research

Both sociometric findings on friendship and Secord and Backman’s exchange analysis of friendship focus on the initiation of friendship structures; that is, their central theoretical topic is attraction rather than established friendship relations. Research on friendship needs more concentration on the substantive contents of friendship itself. How, in fact, are rights and obligations in friendship experienced in various social environments? What are the institutional and actual encouragements and limits to friendship in various contexts—politics, business, everyday life? What are the major rewards and strains in friendships? Is the ambiguity of friendship a circumstance that serves to initiate as well as to terminate other kinds of relationships? Under what conditions will friendships end? Is friendship, more often than other types of relationships, a subjectively sustained reality in the face of decreased overt inter action? For partial answers to such questions, and for the generation of other specific and significant questions about friendship, analysis of detailed reports on the behavior and orientations of friends, acquaintances, strangers, and enemies in everyday life is required. It would seem that such studies, which demand more descriptive patience than we now see in social science, can give a rich yield, since friendship, as a kind of cement in personality and social fabrics, is probably more strategically related to other social relationships than research has indicated so far.

Odd RamsØy

[Other relevant material may be found inLeadershipandSociometry.]


Aubert, Vilhelm;and Arner, Oddvar1959 On the Social Structure of the Ship. Ada sociologica 3:200–219.

Berelson, Bernard; Lazarsfeld, Paul F.; and Mcphee, William N. 1954 Voting: A Study of Opinion For mation in a Presidential Campaign. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Bott, Elizabeth1957 Family and Social Network: Roles, Norms, and External Relationships in Ordinary Urban Families. London: Tavistock.

Cohen, Yehudi A. 1961 Social Structure and Personality. New York: Holt.

Coleman, James S. 1961 The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenager and Its Impact on Education. New York: Free Press.

Coleman, James S.; Katz, Elihu;and Menzel, Herbert 1957 The Diffusion of an Innovation Among Physicians. Sociometry 20:253–270.

Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. 1956 Ritualized Personal Relations. Man 56:90–95.

Goffman, Erving1958 The Characteristics of Total Institutions. Pages 43-84 in Symposium on Preventive and Social Psychiatry. A symposium held at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in 1957. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Gordon, Cwayne1957 The Social System of the High School: A Study in the Sociology of Adolescence. Glen-coe, 111.: Free Press.

Homans, George C. 1961 Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms. New York: Harcourt.

Lazarsfeld, Paulf.; and Merton, Robert K. 1954 Friendship as a Social Process: A Substantive and Methodological Analysis. Pages 18-66 in Morroe Berger, Theodore Abel, and Charles H. Page (editors), Freedom and Control in Modern Society. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.

Naegele, Kaspard. 1958 Friendship and Acquaintances: An Exploration of Some Social Distinctions. Harvard Educational Review 28:232–252.

Newcomb, Theodorem. 1961 The Acquaintance Process. New York: Holt.

Parsons, Talcott;and White, Winston 1961 The Link Between Character and Society. Pages 89-135 in Seymour Lipset and Leo Lowenthal (editors), Culture and Social Character: The Work of David Riesman Reviewed. New York: Free Press.

Roethlisberger, Fritzj.; and Dckson, Williamj.(1939) 1961 Management and the Worker: An Ac count of a Research Program Conducted by the Western Electric Company, Hawthorne Works, Chicago. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.→ A paperback edition was published in 1964 by Wiley.

Secord, Paulfw.; and Backman, Carl. 1964 Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Seeley, Johnr. et al. 1956 Crestwood Heights: A Study of the Culture of Suburban Life. New York: Basic Books.

Thibaut, Johnw; and Kelley, Harold.H. 1959 The Social Psychology of Groups. New York: Wiley.

Tunstall, Jeremy 1962 The Fishermen. London: Mac-Gibbon & Kee.

Warner, W. Lloyd;and Lunt, Paul S. 1941 The Social Life of a Modern Community. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Whyte, William F. (1943) 1961 Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum. 2d ed., enl. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Friendship." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Friendship." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 10, 2017).

"Friendship." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from



Discussions of the experience and the value of friendship, construed primarily in male terms, pervade Western cultural and literary tradition. The late-twentieth-century feminist reassessment of the uniqueness and significance of female friendship stimulated a variety of empirical investigations of the characteristics and function of friendship in contemporary society as well as several social historical examinations of the nature of past friendships. The latter work yielded two major new insights: the recognition that friendship is a socially constructed, historical phenomenon, mediated by the dominant emotional culture and various social and structural factors in a particular periodgender socialization, for exampleand the recognition that friends have played a variety of important, and sometimes central, roles in the lives of both women and men.

Recent social scientific studies indicate that friendship also plays a significant role in children's lives from birth to adolescence. While social relations within the family constitute a major component of the social environments of children, peer relations, including friendships, represent another important context for socialization. Psychologists have observed friendships between infants as young as eight or ten months. By the age of three, the development of social skills creates a wide range of friendship possibilities, and by the age of five, children can pretend and play creatively. Between the ages of seven and twelve, friends still function as playmates, but they also provide mutual respect and affirmation. In adolescence, as in adulthood, female friendship involves a major component of trust and personal disclosure.

As children's social groups expand to include more than one "best" friend or a small, informal circle of close friends, their friends may be drawn from organized peer groups such as school classes, athletic teams, special interest clubs, scout troops, or gangs. Such groups also comprised significant social environments for nineteenth-and twentieth-century children. Factors such as access to schooling, period of compulsory schooling, length of school day, school size, diversity versus homogeneity of student body, and urban or suburban setting shaped children's social worlds and thus influenced their friendship patterns in the past. The modern history of friendship must deal with the growing importance of schooling as a bastion of friendship and a need for friends. Increasingly precise age-grading within schools has had a strong effect on the range of children's friendships. However, data concerning children's actual interactions with one another are not readily available for the historian who seeks to trace change and continuity in those patterns.

Some historians argue that the high proportion of childhood deaths in the premodern Western world conditioned children not to invest emotionally in their playmates, but we know very little about childhood friendship prior to the eighteenth century. The presence of large numbers of siblings also affected friendships outside the family. As with the history of childhood more generally, accessible sources of information about children's friendships from the eighteenth century on primarily reflect the point of view of middle-class adults. For example, child-rearing manuals, children's books, travelers' accounts, and the diaries and correspondence of parents document middle-class standards and cultural prescriptions and expectations for children's friendships. Yet these sources reveal little regarding either children's actual friendship practices and experiences in small, face-to-face groups or their feelings about their friends. Direct information concerning the dynamics of young children's friendships is particularly difficult to find, but sources such as autograph books, photographs, diaries, journals, and letters can offer insight into the experiences and feelings of older children and adolescents. Autobiographic recollections can also provide data about individuals' childhood friendships, albeit through the filter of memory. Despite the limitations of the available sources and the absence of a fully developed historical perspective on friendship in general, the outlines of a history of this aspect of childhood experience are beginning to emerge.

Girls and Friendship

Late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Western culture promoted the development of strong female friendships. Didactic and prescriptive middle-class literature emphasized affiliation as opposed to achievement as the appropriate focus for women's lives and assigned them a subordinate place in the social hierarchy. Shared religious, educational, biological, and domestic experiences created powerful bonds between women and constructed a world of intimacy and support that distanced them from their male relatives. Victorian emotional standards, which began to take shape in the 1820s, also fostered close friendships, particularly through an emphasis on intense family love that extended into friendship. Middle-class, nineteenth-century families often discouraged daughters from playing with boys, although some preadolescent girls chose boys as companions. Nevertheless, most young girls, surrounded by models of intimate adult female friendship and exposed to periodical literature that romanticized such relationships, typically replicated them in their own lives, sometimes choosing cousins or sisters as their closest friends.

The rise of educational institutions for girls provided an important setting for the development of close friendships. From the middle of the eighteenth century, middle-class young women interacted with each other in boarding schools, female academies, and seminaries where they formed intimate, often lifelong relationships. Affectionate language and suggestions of physical intimacy pervade the correspondence of nineteenth-century school friends and highlight the central role of friendship in their lives. In the early twentieth century, the enrollment of growing numbers of girls in junior high and high schools provided additional opportunities for peer interaction and friendship.

Like their predecessors, adolescent girls in the first two decades of the twentieth century expressed affection for friends, shared confidences, and relied on one another for emotional support. However, this period marks the beginning of a transition to different expectations and priorities with less emphasis on female intimacy. A new emotional culture stressed emotional restraint, and an explicit cultural preference for heterosexual relations stigmatized same-sex intimacy. These influences discouraged emotional intensity and closeness between female friends. Preadolescent girls were encouraged to go to parties and dances and to talk to boys. By the 1950s, ten year olds were worrying about being popular with boys. This distinctly new heterosexual imperative also dominated high school relationships, as the content of female friendships increasingly focused on boys and dating, and young women's friendship choices often explicitly reflected their efforts to be perceived as members of the right group of girls to insure popularity with the opposite sex.

Although late-twentieth-century feminism re-emphasized the value and importance of female friendship, the impact of this ideology on young girls and adolescents is not clear. Several current studies describe a culture of aggression, backstabbing, and exclusive cliques among junior and senior high school girls, suggesting that friendship is fraught with problems for young women in contemporary society. While these descriptions of mean, calculating, and devious young women may be unrepresentative or exaggerated, they invite further study in the context of the history of children's friendships.

Boys and Friendship

Prior to the nineteenth century, boys spent more time in the company of adults than with their peers. As soon as they were old enough, they helped their fathers with farm work or served as apprentices or servants in other families. Certainly they had opportunities to play, but the structure of their lives offered limited occasions for independent activities out of the presence of adults, and hence for building friendships. This situation changed as urbanization and longer periods spent in school exposed them to larger groups of peers on a regular basis. In this context, boys developed a distinctive peer culture in which friendship played an important role.

Unlike those of girls, the friendships of young boys were unstable and superficial. Boys played outdoors, roaming more freely than their sisters were permitted to do. They chose their friends, often cousins and neighbors, pragmatically, more by availability than by any feelings of special affinity. Their relationships emphasized loyalty and good companionship rather than intimate confidences. Boys made friends easily, but conflict and rivalry were integral to their culture. Hence, their friendships shifted regularly, and fights between gangs from different neighborhoods, villages, or social classes were common. Frequently friends, as well as rivals, engaged in physical combat, such as boxing matches. Numerous informal clubs that met in attics and basements brought boys together for athletic and other activities. Because these groups typically excluded certain individuals from membership, they actually promoted division as well as unity and companionship among boys.

Nineteenth-century boyhood ended in the mid-or late teens when young men typically left home to find a job or pursue further education. In this period of transition, often referred to by historians as youth, friendships became stronger. Individuals relied on peers for reassurance as they entered a new stage of life. Formal, self-created youth organizations first appeared in the late eighteenth century as descendants of earlier apprentice societies, and they proliferated. These groupsliterary and debate clubs, religious societies, secret societies, fraternities, and lodgesprovided a setting in which young men often found one or more close friends. In contrast to boyhood relationships, these new friendships displayed qualities similar to those of adolescent young women's friendshipsintimacy, sharing of thoughts and emotions, expressions of affection, and physical closeness. However, while many nineteenth-century women maintained such friendships throughout their lives, intense male attachments ended as young men reached manhood and took on the responsibilities of marriage and careers.

As in the case of young women's relationships, the stigmatization of homosexuality in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century society and the post-Victorian emphasis on emotional restraint discouraged intimacy in young men's friendships. Affectionate male relationships disappeared as a new pattern of interpersonal distance between young men emerged in response to the fear of being labeled homosexual. Despite social criticism of this pattern in the context of concerns about the personal isolation experienced by late-twentieth-century boys and young men, and some efforts toward male bonding among adults, homophobic social pressures continue to influence the nature of male friendship from childhood through adulthood.

See also: Boyhood; Emotional Life; Girlhood; Love.


Cahane, Emily, Jay Mechling, Brian Sutton-Smith, et al. 1993. "The Elusive Historical Child: Ways of Knowing the Child of History and Psychology." In Children in Time and Place: Developmental and Historical Insights, ed. Glen H. Elder Jr., John Modell, and Ross D. Parke. New York: Cambridge University Press.

MacLeod, Anne Scott. 2000. "American Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century." In Childhood in America, ed. Paula S. Fass and Mary Ann Mason. New York: New York University Press.

Rosenzweig, Linda W. 1999. Another Self: Middle-Class American Women and Their Friends in the Twentieth Century. New York: New York University Press.

Rotundo, Anthony E. 1989. "Romantic Friendship: Male Intimacy and Middle Class Youth in the Northern United States, 18001900." Journal of Social History 23: 126.

Rotundo, Anthony E. 1993. American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York: Basic Books.

Simmons, Rachel. 2002. Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. New York: Harcourt.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. 1985. "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America." In Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America, ed. Carroll Smith Rosenberg. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Thompson, Michael, and Grace O'Neill, with Lawrence J. Cohen. 2001. Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social World of Children. New York: Ballantine Books.

Wiseman, Rosalind. 2002. Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. New York: Crown.

Yacovone, Donald. 1998. "'Surpassing the Love of Women': Victorian Manhood and the Language of Fraternal Love." In A Shared Experience: Men, Women, and the History of Gender, ed. Laura McCall and Donald Yacovone. New York: New York University Press.

Linda W. Rosenzweig

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Friendship." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Friendship." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . (December 10, 2017).

"Friendship." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from



Theorists generally conceptualize "friendship" as a voluntary relationship between equals. This definition of friendship is an abstract conceptualization rather than a description of reality. As Graham Allan observed, in Western society there are no formal rules about who should be friends, but people generally establish relationships with others who are similar to them in terms of race, gender, class, religion, education, and so forth. Although friendships are generally more voluntary than relationships with family and neighbors, this tendency for people to be similar to their friends suggests that there are constraints on friendship choice that are not obvious to the participants. If no hidden rules about what types of friendships are appropriate or desirable existed, friendship patterns would exhibit more variation. Similarly, the statement that friendships are egalitarian is a theoretical rather than an empirical observation.

Older adults define friendship differently than theorists do. Adams, Blieszner, and De Vries found that older adults tend to define friendships in terms of the concrete behaviors involved such as self-disclosure, sociability, day-today assistance, and shared activities. Many of them also define friendship cognitively in terms of loyalty, trustworthiness, and shared interests. Not all older adults conceptualize friendship in the same way, however. For example, Paul Wright described women's friendships as face-to-face and men's as side-by-side and concluded that older women emphasize the emotional qualities of friendship. In contrast, older men mention indirect indicators of shared friendship activities such as frequency of contact or length of acquaintance. Lawrence Weiss and Marjorie Lowenthal reported on another source of variation, stage of life course; older adults perceive more complexity than younger people.

Research on the dimensions of older adult friendship

Most of the research on adult friendship has been conducted since the early 1970s. Early studies focused on the number of friends people had and how much time they spent with them. More recently researchers have shifted their focus to the study of other aspects of friendship structure such as what proportion of people's friends know each other, whether the friends treat each other as equals, and whether they are demographically similar to each other, to dimensions of friendship process such as feelings, thoughts and behaviors involved in a relationship, and finally to the variation in both friendship structure and process across contexts. As Adams and Allan discussed elsewhere, these changes in foci reflect the realization that friendships are complex and that they vary tremendously depending on the network, community, and society in which they are formed and maintained.

Gerontologists have examined friendship processes more closely than they have examined friendship structure. In addition to the studies of what people think about their friends, such as those on how older adults define friendship mentioned above, gerontologists have researched how older adults feel about their friends and what they do with and for them. For example, some researchers have reported that older adults feel more satisfied with their friendships when the favors they do for their friends are reciprocated, but Karen Roberto and Jean Scott found that reciprocity was less important among close friends than among casual ones. This finding has implications for the durability of friendships as people age and can no longer help others as much as they could when they were younger.

Most of the research on older friendship, however, has focused on what friends do together, such as sharing companionship, communicating with each other, and especially helping each other. Eugene Litwak noted that in contrast to family members who help older adults with tasks that require long-term commitment, friends are more likely to help older adults with shorter-term tasks or events that they share in common. For example, the friends of older adults might help them adjust to widowhood, make a decision about when to retire, and decide whether to relocate, whereas family members might nurse older adults with chronic physical problems or manage their finances. The difference in the ways which friends and family members may help older adults may have implications for the welfare of older adults without families.

The research findings on the structural features of older adult friendships are much less conclusive than those about its processes. More research has been conducted on the size of older adult friendship networks and how similar friends are to each other than how likely the friends of an older adult are to know each other. Power and status differentials between older adults and their friends have not been studied at all.

Each study of friendship reports a slightly different average number of friends for older adults. Some of the variation in findings can be attributed to differences in the contexts in which older adults live. For example, researchers commonly report that institutionalized older adults report fewer friends than those who live independently. Differences in the demographic composition of the populations studied also contribute to varied results. For example, like many other researchers, Claude Fisher and Stacey Oliker reported that older men have fewer friends than older women. This suggests that researchers who study samples of older adults in which women are overrepresented will report more friends on the average. The age composition of the sample also affects the average number of friends reported. Many early studies reported that the older adults were, the fewer friends they had. Given these findings, one would expect researchers who study populations in which the average age is high to report a smaller number of friends than those who study younger populations. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that a loss of friends with age is inevitable, universal, and linear, because other researchers such as Colleen Johnson and Lillian Troll and more recently Dorothy Jerrome and Clare Wenger, have demonstrated that some people continue to add new friends to their networks as they age.

The findings regarding the similarity of older adults and their friends and the proportion of the friends of older adults who knew each other also vary by study. It is clear, however, for older adults as well as for people of other ages, that the characteristics of a contest affect the characteristics of the networks embedded within it. For example, Pearl Dykstra and others have reported that during old age the proportion of women's friends who are women is higher than the proportion of men's friends who are men. Although this gender difference exists in all age groups, it is larger in old age, probably because women live longer and thus more of them are available to be friends. The tendency to form relationships with people who are similar to them and the relatively low proportion of men who reach old age suggests that men may be at a disadvantage in establishing new friendships and women may have difficulty developing a diverse network. As Litwak observed, a diverse friendship network is desirable because different types of friends have access to different resources and can help older adults in varied ways.

Studies of the proportion of an older adult's friends who know each other also illustrate the importance of contextual effects. Comparing results in studies of different contexts reveals that the friends of older adults in nursing homes are more likely to know one another than the friends of older adults in age-segregated housing, and that friends of older adults in age-segregated housing are more likely to know one another then the friends living in age-integrated community settings (Blieszner and Adams). The proportion of people's friends who know each other has implications for the types of help they can seek from them. Consider a situation in which an older woman expects to be bedridden for a substantial period of time. If a high proportion of her friends know one another, only one phone call may be necessary to activate a helping network. If, however, her friends do not know each other, then a whole series of phone calls may be necessary. In contrast, imagine an older man with a secret to share. If his friends all know each other, he may worry gossip will spread. If his friends do not know each other, he can be confident that his story will not be retold to anyone who matters to him.

How friends influence the lives of older adults

Studies have suggested that friendships contribute to physical health and longevity, possibly because friendship and happiness are associated with each other. Since the 1960s when Majorie Lowenthal and Clayton Haven demonstrated that having a confidante was important to older adult mental health, or certainly since the 1970s when Reed Larson summarized the clear connection between friendship activity and psychological well-being, gerontologists have assumed that friendship has positive consequences for older adults. The connection between friendship activity and psychological well-being is one of the most frequently reported findings in the social gerontology literature.

Nonetheless, it is not clear whether friendship leads to happiness or happiness leads to friendship, because researchers have not studied multiple groups born at different times repeatedly as they age. It is only recently that researchers have begun to compare the friendship patterns among older adults of various ages and to examine friendship patterns over time (see Field, for a discussion of some of these studies). It is also not clear how consistently friendship activity and happiness are related to each other in different cultures, because cross-cultural research on older adult friendship has been and is still rare. Until longitudinal studies of multiple cohorts in different contexts have been conducted, the consequences of friendship will be implicit rather than explicit.

Rebecca G. Adams

See also Kin; Sibling Relationships; Social Support.


Adams, R. G., and Allan, G., eds. Placing Friendship In Context. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Adams, R. G., Blieszner, R.; and De Vries, B. "Definitions of Friendship in the Third Age: Age, Gender, and Study Location Effects." Journal of Aging Studies 14, no. 1 (2000): 117133.

Allan, G. "Friendship, Sociology and Social Structure." Journal of Personal Relationships 15, no. 5 (1998): 685702.

Blieszner, R., and Adams, R. G. Adult Friendship. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1992.

Dykstra, P. A. Next of (Non)kin. Amsterdam: Swets and Zeitlinger, 1990.

Field, D. "A Cross Cultural Perspective on Continuity and Change in Social Relations in Old Age: An Introduction to a Special Issue." The International Journal of Aging and Human Development 48, no. 4 (1999): 257351.

Fischer, C. S., and Oliker, S. J. "A Research Note on Friendship, Gender, and the Life Cycle." Social Forces 62 (1983): 124133.

Jerrome, D., and Wenger, G. C. "Stability and Change in Late Life Friendships." Aging and Society 19, no. 6 (1999): 661676.

Johnson, C. L., and Troll, L. E. "Constraints and Facilitators to Friendships in Late Life." The Gerontologists 34 (1994): 7987.

Larson, R. "Thirty Years of Research in the Subjective Well-Being of Older Americans." Journal of Gerontology 33 (1978): 109125.

Litwak, E. Helping the Elderly. New York: Guilford, 1985.

Lowenthal, M., and Haven, C. "Interaction and Adaptation: Intimacy as a Critical Variable." American Sociological Review 33 (1968): 2030.

Roberto, K., and Scott, J. P. "Friendships of Older Men and Women: Exchange Patterns and Satisfaction." Psychology and Aging 1 (1986): 103109

Weiss, L., and Lowenthal, M. F. "Life-Course Perspectives on Friendship." In Four Stages of Life. Edited by M. E. Lowenthal, M. Thurner, D. Chiriboga, and others. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1975. Pages 4861.

Wright, P. "Men's Friendships, Women' Friendships, and the Alleged Inferiority of the Latter." Sex Roles 8 (1978): 120.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Friendship." Encyclopedia of Aging. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Friendship." Encyclopedia of Aging. . (December 10, 2017).

"Friendship." Encyclopedia of Aging. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from



The visibility of "friendship" in historical writings has fluctuated over time. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, friendship was the dominant paradigm. In medieval Europe, Christian teachings subordinated human friendship to spiritual friendship. In the modern period, with its focus on impartiality, friendship was relegated to the private sphere. Toward the end of the twentieth century there was a revival of writings on friendship, with a resumption of discussions about the role of friendship in society, and debates about the politics and the ethics of friendship. Friendship, which involves close personal relations, affection, caring for and commitment to another, is intertwined with other emotions such as love, passion, patronage, spiritual love, sexual love, romance, and kinship. Different aspects and interpretations of friendship have been emphasized in different eras.

Male-Male Friendship

Anthropological evidence gives many examples of the role of friendship in different societies and cultures. For example, the Arapesh of northwestern New Guinea, the Hopi of Arizona, and the Tikopia in the Solomons created ritual or ceremonial bonds of non-kin friendship, mainly between males. Yet the traditions that focused most explicitly on friendship were the societies of classical Greece and Rome, and it is the treatises of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero that form the linchpin around which the subsequent philosophical debate has turned or to which it will return. Most of the classical philosophical writing on friendship presupposes a sociological context of male-male friendship. Greek writers, such as Plato and Xenophon reporting on Socrates' teaching, discuss eros and philia almost interchangeably to describe the very close relationship between men or between men and boys. Aristotle limits his concept of perfect altruistic friendship to men of virtue. The extension of friendship into a civic bond between fellow citizens is, for Aristotle, the ideal basis for politics. Cicero's accounts of friendship or amicitia in ancient Rome are also linked to politics and describe not only personal male heterosexual friendship, but also the concept of patronage, which sustained business and political relationships.

The ancient canon of friendship, which stresses the interests of the "other self," reciprocal consideration, and the role of friendship in contributing to a virtuous and good life, was superseded, in the medieval period, by the concept of spiritual friendship. With the rise of Christianity and hieratic religions, based on a divinity and priesthood, the relationship between man and godhead assumed prominence. The guiding emotions in religions with a supreme and omnipotent god, and especially in Christianity, were agape, or the love of God, and caritas, or charity toward others. Concepts of love and friendship were redefined by monks and theologians, as human relationships were triangulated to include God as an essential mediating force between human friendships. St. Augustine (354430), Aethelred of Rievaulx (c. 11101167), and Thomas Aquinas (12251274), reworking the treatises of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, write of spiritual friendsthe need to love God in order to make possible friendships between men.

Other religious traditions also synthesize classical ideas of friendship. The Muslim theologian al-Ghazali (10581111) builds on the Aristotelian ideal of friendship, overlaying it with notions of the spiritual bond of Sufi brotherhood. Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides; 11351204) the Jewish sage, reflects both Socratic and Aristotelian ideas in advocating the importance of finding a friend.

In the modern period, few philosophers have considered friendship worthy of attention, with some notable exceptions. Francis Bacon (15611626) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882) write in praise of friendship. For Michel de Montaigne (15331592), his friendship with the writer Étienne de La Boétie (15301563) represented a pure and unique experience of the finest thing in life, but was unobtainable by most men and all women. Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) challenges the complaisance he sees in the thinking about friendship. He describes a friend as the "third" between I and me, with the true friend being one's best enemy. Like Aristotle and Montaigne, he considers that only "higher" forms of humans are capable of friendships. Jacques Derrida continues Nietzsche's interrogation, using the mantra "O my friend, there is no friend" to illustrate the contradictions and anomalies in the history and politics of friendship, including the omission of women in this history of friendship. The distinction between love and friendship becomes, for Derrida, submerged into ideas of "aimance" or "lovence."

Female-Male Friendship

Most philosophy, poetry, and literature discusses male-female relationships in terms of eros, romance, passion, sex, and marriage, rather than friendship. Friendship between males and females was acknowledged by some of the ancients, but almost exclusively as husband and wife. In Homer's Odyssey, Penelope had a role in extending xenia or guest friendship to various visitors to the family home in the absence of her husband, Odysseus. Her loyalty to Odysseus meant that this relationship got no closer. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 b.c.e.65 c.e.) and Plutarch (c. 46after 119 c.e.) both write about the importance of friendship between husband and wife. The only philosopher of antiquity to consider women and men as equally capable of engaging in friendship was Epicurus (341270 b.c.e.), whose Garden of Friends was open to allmen, women, and slaves.

Courtly love of the Middle Ages and the idealized relationships of the Romantic era emphasized not equal affectionate friendships, but unattainable, idealized, and exclusive male-female intimacy. It was the movement for women's equality that transformed relationships for women, both with men and with other women. The personal and political were combined in, for example, the friendships of one of the first feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft (17591797), during the French revolution with dissenters such as Richard Price (17231791) and Joseph Priestly (17331803), or in the bohemian literary and art circles of the early twentieth century, as with the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield and the Scottish painter J. D. Ferguson. Women's participation in the civil rights and the antiwar movements in the 1960s brought men and women together as friends fighting political battles. However, the concurrent sexual revolution, which endeavored to free women from the restraints of Victorian attitudes, focused on uninhibited carnal relationships rather than nonsexual friendships. The literature of heterosexual relationships became dominated by the field of psychology and includes warnings to women to avoid "love addiction" or advice about sexual enjoyment.

Female-Female Friendship

For women, whose traditional role has been in the home, social mobility meant that friendship assumed more importance as kinship ties were stretched or broken. Stories, such as the Old Testament account of Ruth and Naomi, two women related by marriage, illustrate the strength of female kinship. When friendship between women is discussed, it includes both lesbian and nonlesbian relationships. The love poems of the best-known woman writer of antiquity, Sappho (fl. c. 610c. 580 b.c.e.), could be describing both heterosexual and lesbian relationships, but her community of women on the island of Lesbos has become the symbol of modern lesbianism.

Medieval monastic writings often portray women as a danger to men, the object of inferior emotions such as carnal desire. Suspicion was also cast upon groups of women living together in convents, especially as the nuns adopted Aethelred's notion of spiritual friendship, a companionship of souls, which sanctioned particular intimate friendships. The writings of women mystics and saints, such as Teresa of Ávila (15151582) Catherine of Siena (13471380), and Juana Inés de la Cruz, (16511695), expressed passionate love of the souls of their sisters.


Philia: friendship

Eros: passionate/sexual love

Agape: unselfish love

Amicitia: friendship/patronage

Caritas: charity

Lovence: friendship/romance

Aimance: friendship/romance

Gyn/affection: female friendship

Xenia: guest friendship

For evidence of women's friendships, we have to rely not on the treatises written about male friendships, but on personal correspondence, diaries, novels, and poetry. Nineteenth-century romantic friendships between women were expressed in affectionate letters to each other. The suffragettes of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century interspersed their political communication with expressions of personal friendship.

Women's friendships with women, as well as with men, became civic bonds important for politics in the twentieth century. The second wave of feminism in the 1960s, with its slogan of "the personal is political," produced a women's network of consciousness-raising groups. Women relied on the friendship of other women for support. Janice Raymond's term "Gyn/affection" aims to describe female friendships involving not only fondness and affection, but also the sense of empowerment that female friendships can create.


Contemporary writings on friendship all point to a lacuna in modern literature. But toward the end of the twentieth century this gap was being addressed by various challenges, both to the impartiality of liberalism and to the objectivity of modernism by movements such as communitarianism, feminism, and post-modernism, which created a rich and ongoing scholarly debate and which resurrected some of the ideals of classical philosophy in an attempt to recognize the valuable role that can be played by friendship in the twenty-first century.

See also Emotions ; Feminism ; Love, Western Notions of .


Badhwar, Neera Kapur, ed. Friendship: A Philosophical Reader. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Bell, Sandra, and Simon Coleman. The Anthropology of Friendship. Oxford: Berg, 1999.

Blosser, Philip, and Marshell Carl Bradley, eds. Friendship: Philosophic Reflections on a Perennial Concern. Lantham, New York, and Oxford: University Press of America, 1997.

Derrida, Jacques. Politics of Friendship. Translated by George Collins. London and New York: Verso, 1997.

Hunt, Mary E. Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship. New York: Crossroad, 1991.

Hutter, Horst. Politics as Friendship: The Origins of Classical Notions of Politics in the Theory and Practice of Friendship. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1978.

King, Preston, and Heather Devere, eds. The Challenge to Friendship in Modernity. London: Frank Cass, 2000.

Leaman, Oliver, ed. Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectives. Richmond: Curzon, 1996.

Pakaluk, Michael. Other Selves: Philosophers on Friendship. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991.

Raymond, Janice. A Passion for Friends: Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Rouner, Leroy S., ed. The Changing Face of Friendship. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

Heather Devere

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Friendship." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Friendship." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 10, 2017).

"Friendship." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from



From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, friendship is one of the bonds that arise from sexual impulses when their attainment of a directly sexual goal is inhibited. However, this is a process of inhibition rather than sublimation. This approach to a sexual satisfaction that is never consummated forms the basis for especially strong and enduring ties between people.

Both in adolescence and in adulthood, Freud had some intense and deep friendships, but he did not write on this subject at any great length. However, friendship, as he defined it, plays a key role between individuals to the extent that it appears as a metaphor for those relationships between two people that, unlike the state of romantic love, lead to a broader form of unity. In this sense, Freud connects it with these other ties that are based on the aim-inhibited sexual impulses: the tender relationship between parent and child, and conjugal love in which the sexual relationship has gradually fallen into second place. These two bonds form the basis for the broader unity that is constituted by the family, just as friendship is the foundation for the creation of social ties.

However, these different kinds of bond should not be confused, because the homosexual libido can develop into friendship whereas the conjugal bond is in essence heterosexual and the parent-child relationship involves an elaboration of the parent's narcissistic libido. These ties can even conflict: "a pair of lovers are sufficient to themselves, and do not even need the child they have in common to make them happy" (1930a [1929], p. 108).

At the theoretical level, Freud refined the concept of sublimation by distinguishing it from the inhibition of the aim of sexual satisfaction and, in this respect, friendship constitutes a good example. Using the examples of Plato and St. Paul (1921c), Freud emphasized that the libido corresponds to love understood in a wide sense, including, along with the state of romantic love, self-love, filial and parental love, friendship, and even the attachment to physical objects and abstract ideas. The sexual basis of these ties is attested to by the fact that they retain some of the primary sexual aims: "Even an affectionate devotee, even a friend or an admirer, desires the physical proximity and the sight of the person who is now loved only in the 'Pauline' sense" (pp. 138-139).

However, these aim-inhibited drives are not only capable of being combined with non-inhibited drives but can also be transformed back in the opposite direction to revert to the directly sexual form from which they have originated. Friendship, admiration, and even the religious bond therefore remain close to the sexual bond itself.

There is a particular kind of friendship that merits further considerationthe form that is shared by male homosexuals and leads to the formation of social ties. In relation to Daniel Paul Schreber, Freud wrote that homosexual tendencies "help to constitute the social instincts, thus contributing an erotic factor to friendship and comradeship, to esprit de corps and to the love of mankind in general. How large a contribution is in fact derived from erotic sources (with the sexual aim inhibited) could scarcely be guessed from the normal social relations of mankind" (1911c [1910], p. 61). He bases this on the hypothesis that the shared homosexual impulse is generally aim-inhibited and constitutes a source of unused libido that is therefore available for these various ties. Moreover, the degree of homosexual drive in an individual determines their particular capacity for forming such ties, provided that they continue to inhibit it from direct satisfaction.

This highly simplistic economic perspective, which ignores the entire tradition of homosexual friendship in antiquity and mentions only the form that is not aim-inhibited, is somewhat baffling. This is a long way removed from the depth of Freud's analysis of the resexualization of sublimated homosexual ties that leads via narcissism to paranoia (1911c [1910]). However, Freud continues to subscribe to this specific affinity between the homosexual bond and the constitution of the group through friendship and esprit de corps : "It seems certain that homosexual love is far more compatible with group ties, even when it takes the shape of uninhibited sexual tendencies" (1921c, p. 141).

While the "social sense," a "sublimated" (or, rather, inhibited) form of the male homosexual libido, may take the form of love of humanity, it can also be extended to a relatively large group. Solidarity is therefore the form of expression given to the recognition of what is identical to the self.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Alter ego; Double (the); Eros; Homosexuality; Persecution; "Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)."


Freud, Sigmund. (1911c [1910]). Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (dementia paranoides). SE, 12: 1-82.

. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.

Further Reading

Rangell, Leo. (1963). On friendship. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 11, 3-54.

Rubin, Lowell B. (1986). On men and friendship. Psychoanalytic Review, 73, 165-181.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Friendship." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Friendship." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . (December 10, 2017).

"Friendship." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from


284. Friendship (See also Loyalty.)

  1. acacia traditional symbol of friendship. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 172]
  2. Achilles and Patroclus beloved friends and constant companions, especially during the Trojan War. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 194]
  3. Amos and Andy dim-witted Andy Brown and level-headed partner Amos Jones, owners of the Fresh Air Taxi Cab Company. [Radio and TV: The Amos and Andy Show in Terrace, I, 54]
  4. Amys and Amylion the Pylades and Orestes (q.v., below) of the feudal ages. [Medieval Lit.: LLEI, I: 269]
  5. Biddy and Pip friends for life. [Br. Lit.: Great Expectations ]
  6. Castor and Pollux twin brothers who lived and died together. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 52]
  7. Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo Chingachgook as Natty Bumppos constant sidekick and advisor. [Am. Lit.: The Path-finder, Magill I, 715717]
  8. Damon and Pythias each agreed to die to save the other. [Gk. Hist.: Espy, 48]
  9. Diomedes and Sthenelus Sthenelus was the companion and charioteer of Diomedes. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 248]
  10. Fannie and Edmund Bertram while others ignored Fannie, he comforted her. [Br. Lit.: Mansfield Park, Magill I, 562564]
  11. Fred and Ethel the Ricardos true-blue pals. [TV: I Love Lucy in Terrace, I, 383384]
  12. Friday and Robinson Crusoe Friday was Robinson Crusoes sole companion on desert island. [Br. Lit.: Robinson Crusoe ]
  13. ivy leaves symbolic of strong and lasting companionship. [Heraldry: Halberts, 31]
  14. Jane Frances de Chantal and Francis de Sales, Sts . two of most celebrated in Christian annals. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 183]
  15. Jonathan and David swore compact of love and mutual protection. [O.T.: I Samuel 18:1-3; 20:17]
  16. Lightfoot, Martin and Hereward Herewards companion during various wanderings. [Br. Lit.: Hereward the Wake, Magill I, 367370]
  17. Nisus and Euryalus fought bravely together; Nisus dies rescuing Euryalus. [Rom. Hist.: Wheeler, 259; Rom. Lit.: Aeneid ]
  18. Peggotty, Clara, and David Copperfield lifelong friends. [Br. Lit.: David Copperfield ]
  19. Petronius and Nero Petronius as nobleman and intimate friend of Nero. [Polish Lit.: Quo Vadis, Magill I, 797799]
  20. Philadelphia nicknamed City of Brotherly Love. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 2127]
  21. Pylades and Orestes Pylades willing to sacrifice life for Orestes. [Gk. Lit.: Oresteia, Kitto, 6890]
  22. Standish, Miles and John Alden best friends, despite their love for Priscilla. [Am. Lit.: The Courtship of Miles Standish in Magill I, 165166]
  23. Theseus and Pirithoüs Pirithofis, King of Lapithae, was intimate friend of Theseus, Athenian hero. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 195]
  24. Three Musketeers, The three comrades known by motto, All for one, and one for all. [Fr. Lit.: The Three Musketeers ]
  25. Tiberge and the Chevalier Tiberge as ever-assisting shadow of the chevalier. [Fr. Lit.: Manon Lescaut ]
  26. Wilbur and Charlotte spider and pig as loyal companions. [Childrens Lit.: Charlottes Web ]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Friendship." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Friendship." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . (December 10, 2017).

"Friendship." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from



Companions or peers with whom one has common interests, emotional bonds, and social relationships.

Research has shown that people who have friends tend to have better physical health and report a better sense of psychological well-being than those with weak or no network of friends. Although some people may know a lot of people, they have a more select group of friends and an even smaller number of "best" friends.

Friends provide support in three main ways: emotional, cognitive guidance, and tangible help. Friends give each other emotional support by demonstrating care and affection. They also provide guidance during times of decision-making. Friends give help by meeting practical needs, such as loaning a car, cooking a meal, or taking care of a dog while a friend's on vacation. Psychologists have hypothesized that friends are actually coping mechanisms; by providing companionship and resources, friends alleviate stress in a person's life.

There are cultural differences in the way friends are viewed across the world. In cultures that value familial network, such as the Asian culture, the function and role of a friend are often found within the family structure, and friendships are not given the same weight of importance as in another culture. There are also varying definitions as to what constitutes a friend. Someone might call another person "friend" because they have mutual interests and activities, while another person considers a friend someone he shares similar attitudes, values, and beliefs.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Friendship." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Friendship." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . (December 10, 2017).

"Friendship." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from


friendship Although friendship is a common term in modern cultures it has not been studied much by social scientists. The word is loosely applied in Anglophone society, although there seems to be general agreement that it has a deeper meaning in Europe than in North America. Arguably, in non-Western cultures, it has a more explicit meaning and is used as the basis of structured social relationships. In all contexts, friendship is not a kin term, but it does imply some type of reciprocity and obligation between otherwise unrelated individuals, although this varies according to situation and context. Friendships can range from the relatively casual, depending on shared activity or setting (such as a sports club), to deep and enduring relationships of mutual support.

The systematic study of friendship has two main strands. The first is the social-psychological study of the ways in which children develop friendships, and the correlation of types of friendship with chronological age in childhood. Studies of friendship among adults concentrate on patterns of sociability and tend to focus on class differences. Graham Allan (Friendship: Developing a Sociological Perspective, 1989) claims that working-class friendship choices are dominated by kin links, although neighbours and workmates also feature. The middle classes, on the other hand, have a greater fascination with personal relations and a wider, more conscious choice of friends.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"friendship." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"friendship." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (December 10, 2017).

"friendship." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from


friend·ship / ˈfrendˌship/ • n. the emotions or conduct of friends; the state of being friends. ∎  a relationship between friends: she formed close friendships with women. ∎  a state of mutual trust and support between allied nations.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"friendship." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"friendship." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 10, 2017).

"friendship." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from