The Company She Keeps: An Ethnography of Girls' Friendships

The Company She Keeps: An Ethnography of Girls' Friendships

The Company She Keeps: An Ethnography of Girls' Friendships

The Company She Keeps: An Ethnography of Girls' Friendships


This lively and revealing study explores a sociologically invisible but important social relationship: girls' friendships. It uncovers often suppressed school-girl cultures, at times representing in their most condensed and dramatic form issues of intimacy, secrecy and struggle. Most women have memories of, and most mothers of young daughters become re-immersed in, these all-consuming but little understood passions. This taken-for-granted 'ordinary' relationship is examined using girls' notes, talk, diaries and interviews gathered by observing girls groups within city schools.

An important and previously ignored question is addressed by examining how girls' intimacy is structured through class, gender, sexuality and race, especially its paradoxical role in maintaining and challenging 'compulsory heterosexuality'. In this way, a series of case studies analyses how girls variously come to understand and construct "difference". In addition, this detailed analysis of girls' friendship contributes to our understanding of how girls simultaneously survive their schools, their families, their relations and subordination to boys and men.

Valerie Hey returns the reader to the terrain of loss and recollection, of girls' pleasure and pain in their friendship, and asserts the claims of the social through identifying how this is written into the cultural forms of girls' relationships with each other. Students of women's studies, education, sociology and social psychology will find this book to be an invaluable exploration of how every-day 'obvious' experience is played out as forms of subjectivity and power.


Ann Oakley

All relationships between women pose something of a threat to a culture like ours, which is organized around the notion that the most important people are men. Male bonding, whether expressed in the physical drama of the football field, the solidarity of masculine talk in the pub, or the masonic dealings that occur in the higher echelons of certain professions, usually passes without comment as a taken-for-granted part of the social fabric. The tradition of heterosexuality incites women to form their main alliances with men. A woman joined to a man is safe. Women’s solidarity with one another, on the other hand, is a Pandora’s box. What secrets might or do women tell one another? What stories about men and families might they share? What other, coarser, versions of womanhood might be shaped in such narratives?

This wonderfully refreshing book gives us a window on all these themes through the eyes of girls at school, who experience in their real relations with one another a domain of subterfuge, rebellion, power and pleasure which in important senses countermands the official lessons of both their schooling and their socialization more generally. As Valerie Hey and others have noted, schools are much more than a vehicle for narrow educational instruction; they also teach boys and girls how to become men and women in a sexist, classist and racist society. But the sociology of schooling has persistently ignored the extent to which messages are also given about emotions and personal relations, those very dimensions of social life in which women are taught to specialize. The making of oneself as a girl is thus not an easy thing, but an activity fraught with all sorts of ambivalences and contradictions.

The Company She Keeps is based on an ethnographic study carried out in two London comprehensive schools in the 1980s. This was a particularly difficult study to do, because the fieldwork demanded access to . . .

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