'Friendship Is the Invisible Thread Running through Society': Friends Can Give You Longer Life and Better Health. but They Can Also Be the Basis for Hierarchy, Social Exclusion and Hostility to Strangers. Another Word for Friend Is "Crony"

Article excerpt

It lifts hearts and lengthens lives. It has been hailed as the ultimate good by the greatest philosophers, promoted (at least in theory) by all the major religions and deified by revolutionaries. It even defeats the common cold. The wondrous good in question is friendship. Aristotle's highest goal for men and the third plank of the French revolution--liberty, equality, fraternity--friendship is as old as humanity and as important as love or justice. But while the shelves in one part of the bookshop groan with self-help books on how to snag the perfect partner, and others (usually in the basement) are packed with economic treatises on income distribution and philosophical texts on the nature of freedom, friendship barely gets a mention. Friendship is the invisible thread running through society.

Friendship may receive miserly theoretical and political attention, but its significance in our lives is, if anything, increasing. While the claim that "friends are the new family" is an overstatement, it is certainly the case that friendships figure prominently in both the lives people actually lead and the ones to which they aspire. Television programmes such as Friends and Sex and the City portray a world in which close friendships define the contours of the participants' lives: parents and children are allowed, at best, walk-on parts. Perhaps even more than the glamour, the settings and the apartments, we envy the friendships.

Advertisers know about this. Doritos ran a series of Christmas adverts contrasting a dull, grey Christmas at home with the parents with a group of young, attractive friends in a cool apartment having a fabulous time while snacking on "friendchips". As for American Airlines, it claims to have made the skies "friendly".

The little attention friendship does receive in academia is contradictory. On the one hand, scholars such as Anthony Giddens have emphasised the growing potential of "pure relationships"--untethered by ties of class or blood--as spaces within which individuals can make their own lives. On the other, theorists such as Robert Putnam have lamented the demise of friendship as an element of "social capital". Both views contain a germ of truth, but neither is true.

Meanwhile policy-makers and politicians hardly mention friendship. In part this is because of the triumph of economistic, contractual models of the world with which friendship is entirely at odds. But it is also because friendship is seen--with more than a little justification--as a private matter. While Aristotle and many Renaissance thinkers saw politics as the expression and extension of friendship, the last thing we want is a Minister for Mates.

But the strong links between friendship and other social goods--including better health, more effective job search and higher life satisfaction--should be enough to merit the subject greater attention. Similarly, the evidence for the powerful effects of peer group on both positive and negative behaviour suggests that friendship has more influence for good or ill than any Whitehall task force.

Businesses have come to realise that social connectedness and community are important ingredients in corporate success; the strongest determinant of a person's job satisfaction is the presence of a close friend at work.

Where, though, to look for compelling analyses of friendship? One school of social science sees the emergence of "families of choice", with networks of friends supplanting blood ties. We have parents and siblings; we make friends. Giddens, in The Transformation of Intimacy, pursues this line of thought and sees friendship as the relational type most suited to a contemporary world of individuality, equality, mobility and choice. The experience of the gay community in the creation of new "families" is seen as a precursor for wider society.

In fact, blood ties remain as strong as ever. Data from the official Social Trends series shows that family is as much the first port of call for support in times of crisis as it was three decades ago. …