Elad Ben Elul

Anthropology, Digital Life & Food

What is “friendship”? A semi-anthropological semi-personal account about a complicated social concept

My friends! (or maybe my family?)

My friends! (or maybe my family?)

I always tried to place myself in friendship groups and was on a quest after the one in which I can be who I am to the maximum; some attempts were very successful and some looked like a pathetic attempt to belong where you actually don’t. Eversince the early days of school, it was clear that centres of power emerge from within the friendship group- there are groups of popular kids, and those of the much less popular kids- but the ones most vulnerable and lonely were those who did not manage to be included in some sort of social gathering (which we often call “friendship”).

Anthropology has often neglected the study of friendship; with its intense focus on kinship and biological relations on one hand, and on financial and institutional relations of trades and politics on the other. Friendship, with its slippery existence between those spaces, seems to be a tough nut to crack. Moreover, there is always the risk of interpretating friendship as a Western tradition with particular definitions and mannerism. I would like to address some of the takes anthropology did have on friendship, by discussing my own complex interaction with it. As the topic is incredibly wide, I will be dealing specifically with friendship groups or “micro-communities”, and less on dual friendships (e.g. two best friends), which have their own dynamics as well. Aristotle states: “Friendship is only really possible between people who see themselves in each other”, which is a nice attempt to phrase a universal definition of friendship; but in anthropology “universal” is a problematic term, and so is “friendship”.

As a child, I found it incredibly hard to find friendship groups, as they seemed to be highly gendered in nature- girls became friends with girls and did girly things, and vice versa. It seemed like my interests and ideas of “fun” did not co-ordinate with the gender group I was suppose to make friends with, which meant I never really belonged in either side. This became easier as groups turned more gender-mixed and individuals were able to move relatively freely between both genders in one group. In some sense, the multi-gendered friendship group started the blurring of friendship and kinship (family relations)- as the highly divided gender gangs of children, turned into a more familiar domestic environment, whereby the micro-community or social unit, is formed of both genders (at least in most secular-Western groups).

Friendship in Anthropology

How can one define friendship? according to “The Ways of Friendship”, a collection of anthropological articles on friendship around the world, some see the birth of friendship as we think of it today with the rise of Capitalism and Modernism, when kinship was “reduced to the nuclear family and ties of friendship have increased in importance” (Amit Desai & Evan Killick, 2010). In other words, as communal family/village life declined, and urban life took off- our need for friendship became stronger and more visible. However, this theory is highly problematic as it might suggest that in rural communities whereby family still sets the main structure of society, friendships are of less value or worse- do not exist. Truth is we can often think of a cousin, a sibling or even a parent as “our friend”, which means structures of kinship do not always out-rule the practice of friendship. According to Craig R., who studied friendship in Telefomin (Papua New Guinea), relations are not distinguished by kin versus not kin but by friends versus strangers.

Another attempt to define friendship portrays it as a non-hierarchial relationship. That definition is even more tricky, for I must say there is a very strong element of egalitarianism in friendship groups and it involves a strong sense of liberation from the often oppressive structures of power between older and younger family members, school teachers and students, bosses and employees etc. Friendship then, becomes associated with leisure, playfulness and relief due to its non-hierarchical nature. However, this also simplifies friendship as it can most certainly exist under hierarchical structures. Rezende’s study on middle-class Brazilian women’s relationships with their maids (in another important collection of articles on Friendship edited by Bell and Coleman) shows how friendship could become a norm in highly institutionalised interactions. On the other side of the same argument, I have encountered friendship groups where age, position, and gender were all on equal terms and yet a hierarchy was incredibly visible- in these cases, however, the hierarchy was often considered less legitimate and clashing with the pure idea of friendship.

The third (and last) definition I will refer to is the model of friendship as “fictive-kinship”, which according to Desai & Killick is a common approach that sees friendship as a practice formed in reflection of the local model of kinship. Perhaps the strongest force in the practice of friendship is its love-hate relationship with kinship, but seeing it as fictive is problematic for it suggests that so-called biological kinship is not fictive. As Anderson established in “Imagined communities”,  social units follow the cultural concept of how they should behave as a group (For example, we think parents “should” live with their children). How,then, can we deconstruct friendship?

Friends in-law: three types of friendship groups from my life

I will not forget the moment, when I was 14 years-old, and I felt like I finally found “true” friendship. Our group was formed around a shared love to a folk-singer, which contained many other shared values and conveyed a sense of exclusivity and intimacy. These ingredients were vital to the formation of our micro-community, which distinguished itself from the rest of the world by reinforcing commonalities. However, crisis was inevitable when some members wished to share those common grounds with “outsiders”, which to me seemed as a threat to what makes us a group. I can stress then, that in my secular-Western understanding of friendship, a sense of exclusivity and trust was essential but often did not match the need people have to express their identity outside their group. Disputes between friends about exclusivity (e.g. we only tell each other secrets, we’re only allowed to hang out with each other) are something many will identify with, which is why they might be able to teach us about friendship. Our group did not survive the clashing demands around exclusivity, as the negotiation between who we were as individuals and who we were inside the group, became too hard to manage.

Years went by and in my early 20s I found myself in another group- this time exclusivity was something we all agreed on. In a way, we all loved the comfort and assurance of having an exclusive group, which becomes a home (or a “family”) of leisure and sharing. This time, however, it wasn’t the stability of the group that was threatened but that of the individual relations that form it. When we have a group of “best friends”, are we really best friends with each member of the group or are we simply best friends with the idea of the group? It seemed like each relation became dull and unfruitful, lacking a certain fire, which eventually led to the breaking up of the group- not because it was not functioning as a group- but because the parts that formed it were no longer attached. In the television sitcom, “Seinfeld”, when Jerry cancels going to a film with Elaine and George, Elaine says: “I can’t go to a film with George alone!”, “Why not? Your friends!” asks Jerry, “We’re more like friends in-law”, she replies. In that sense, our yearning for a friendship group is at times stronger than our affection towards its individual members. This might be due to the glamorising of such groups in popular culture references (most notably “Friends” the TV show). We want our own version of “Friends”, we want a secure social life where we have exclusivity, common values and where we feel “natural” and free, as if we are amongst family, which brings me to my final point.

My latest group of friends, and one that is very dear to my heart, was formed abroad, in the big city of London, where loneliness is always around the corner and families are often far away. The big city is very daunting when trying to form a social life as people are very different and distant from each other. That is why when a group was finally formed, exclusivity, common values, and strong inter-personal links were a must. So strong are those bonds in the big city, that we often exchange the friendship group with our family unit, or hope to practice it with similar values of commitment and rituals. I often hear friends refer to themselves as family, or feel the need to state that they are “more than friends”. Friendship is considered a less committing and hence more fickle form of relationships, in oppose to the strong roots of biological kinship- which can never be touched. However, friendship is also a space where we choose to be, and a group of people who we chose to spend our spare time with. Due to it’s non-institutionalised nature, one of the strongest pillars of friendship is choice. Why then, do we still feel the need to “upgrade” our friends to the category of family?

One “Rosh Hashana” eve, I really wanted to host a holiday dinner with my friends but when inviting them, not only were they busy doing other things but they also didn’t really care about it (makes sense as they are not Jewish). I was very upset to realise they do not behave like family. The friendship/family paradigm often becomes visible around issues of debt, when we feel like counting what we give versus receive in friendship, is considered a degrading form of moving it away from its imagined familial atmosphere into the world of trade and work. Of course, this is also a Western pathology: “Friendship is diminished in moral quality if friends consciously monitor the balance of exchange between them, for this implies that the utilities friends offer each other constitute their relationship, rather than being valued as expressions of personal commitment” (Silver, 1990). It was those experiences, with my deep love for the group as a group and as individuals, that led me to decide to embrace the fact that my friends are not my family- which is the worst but mostly the best thing about them.

We all aspire to find our own version of "Friends"

We all aspire to find our own version of “Friends”


By discovering my complex experience with friendship groups, I tried to de-construct the contemporary understanding of friendship amongst many Western/Secular/Urban communities. Each group I spoke of contained the issues of its proceeder but shed lights on other aspects as well. Friendship is a type of “third space” between kinship and work/school, that is associated with a liberation from systems of hierarchy and relations of power through fun, playfulness and leisure. The friendship group is often a way of achieving security and belonging in a larger environment that might be threatening and where family is not accessible. Friendship has ambivalent relations to kinship for it aspires to be as committing and stable but also celebrates its casualness and the element of choice. Finally, our ideas of what friends should be like, or what are the codes of conduct within a friendship group, are culturally constructed and always evolve, keeping a constant dialogue with media images, our location and our familial state.


One comment on “What is “friendship”? A semi-anthropological semi-personal account about a complicated social concept

  1. Michal Weizman Ben Elul
    June 29, 2013

    beautiful !! in the end its all about the path of our soul its like a g.p.s to get to the right place ,to get to our private home .we have to say thank you for each one if he was a friend or just someone ..love mom …

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This entry was posted on June 29, 2013 by .
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