Friendship: A History (2014)

Here are some highlights from this book:

* The second half of the twentieth century saw the triumph of the particular form of intimate and reciprocal friendship traced in the preceding chapter. In Western societies, and especially in the individualized urban and suburban worlds in which most people made their home, it became more and more common to rely on friends for the kinds of advice, resources and recreation that might once have involved family, kin and neighbours. This form of friendship – both as an experience and as something prescribed in a range of written and visual texts – also came to be characterized by an even greater emphasis on emotional and private rather than practical and public obligations. Now, in the new twenty-first century, friendship may still have practical effects – and even influence people – but gaining advantage or fulfilling obligations are not its chief intentions and in fact could be seen as undermining it. And because friendship is freely chosen, it has become more and more different from other kinds of relationships, in which instrumental benefits or assumed obligations play a larger role, such as those with family, kin, co-workers or neighbours. Indeed, only some of those people will be our friends, and our “real” friends will often help us sort through the difficulties that can arise in those relationships that are chosen for rather than by us. As British sociologist Ray Pahl put it, “friendship is reaching new levels of depth and complexity in the modern world … [and] is suffusing kin and family relationships as never before.”

* female friendships became even more central to popular as well as academic versions of ideal bonds. In movies and television shows, at least, the strongest friendships were between women and, from about the 1980s, between women and gay men. Male friendships did not completely disappear but, by century’s end, anxieties over friendlessness and the incapacity to make and keep friends seemed almost to assume that such problems mostly involved heterosexual men.

* the ability to choose friendship with selected people also rested on an increasing ability to suspend, limit and even deny obligations to others, such as kin and neighbours, in the knowledge that they would in some sense be protected by the more distant agencies of the city, state or nation. The ability of a far-greater number of people to prioritize chosen over obligatory personal relationships and to idealize friendship as an emotional rather than instrumental bond relied upon robust, universal and public entitlements. Friendship is always in some part a selective and exclusive relationship. For much of the twentieth century, the implications of that were tempered by most people’s ability to access forms of entitlement predicated upon less personal bonds, such as citizenship. As that century ended and a new one began, the strength of those bonds would once again come into question.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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