Rebecca G. Adams and Graham Allan, eds. Placing Friendship in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 206 pp. $US29.95 Cloth.

Placing Friendships in Context is a provocative addition to the sociological literature, particularly as it draws together perspectives and work from various sub-disciplines and challenges the reader to think structurally about a phenomenon typically seen as psychological and personal in nature. Specifically, the primary contribution of this book is to re-introduce the element of social constraint in the form of social structure and the structure of social relations, as these impinge on individuals’ abilities to freely choose their personal relationships. In so doing it provides a fresh look at an essential building block of social life.

The chapters that form the substantive body vary in their approach and methodology, from more macro, theoretical pieces (e.g. O’Connor, Allan) that develop their arguments from existing literatures to more micro, empirical analyses of interview data (e.g. Marks, Harrison) in which the lives of those interviewed are sketched in great detail. Greater attention to contextual factors other than gender and economic class (such as ethnicity, or life-course position) would have rounded out the collection better; but, by presenting works that vary in their approach and perspective, the authors manage to convey the complex multi-layering between the macro/social structural and the more micro/social network questions that are at the heart of their efforts to understand friendship sociologically. Most important, the seven substantive chapters are framed by well-developed introductory and concluding chapters that serve to integrate the material presented into a cohesive set of essays. Together, these present new insights and interesting research questions that are a mine of ideas for the seasoned researcher and student of sociology alike.

In the introduction, co-editors Adams and Allen do a superb job of locating the book within the existing literature and of clearly defining their own theoretical framework. Their purpose is to examine the factors (such as gender or economic class) that affect the creation, maintenance and dissolution of friendships – social structural factors that shape the opportunities and choices available to individuals. The authors define context in broad terms as those conditions that are external to and which surround friendships, and that contexts in turn have different ‘levels’, by which they mean how close each context is to the level of the individual. Thus, the papers in this volume examine four ‘levels’: the personal environment, the network, the community, and the societal.

In the first substantive chapter, Oliker traces current gender differences in the practice of friendship to social structure and patterns of the nineteenth century. She finds that concepts of individualism interacted with men’s and women’s different institutional positions to encourage an affectionate individualism in the latter that was prohibited to the former. This difference persists today despite the spread of education and paid employment to women because domestic structures have changed far less, with women continuing to be primarily responsible for nurturing of children and for the management of the household.

Marks also examines the friendships of women involved in the Hawthorne Experiment in the 1930s. Using the colourful words of the women themselves, Marks shows that their personal and working lives were inextricably intertwined and resulted in life-long friendships characterized by “inclusive intimacy” that is group-oriented, and yet devoid of interpersonal exchanges or private thoughts or feelings. He argues that the structure and culture of gender at the time was so pervasive a contextual element that in ‘doing’ friendship, these women were in effect ‘doing’ gender.

Tracing friendship in the twentieth century, Allan examines how social structural contexts (such as poverty) shape relational boundaries and condition interpersonal exchanges in the expression of friendship of working-class men. That is, in post-war England, he traces how lower-class males practiced friendship in public spaces in order to manage scarce resources, and how changes to economic, domestic and social relationships have since altered the organization and expression of their friendships.

Harrison takes middle-class women’s friendships as her focus, and like Marks, finds their friendships to be constrained by their structural and cultural positions in society resulting from the practice of patriarchy. For these women, friendship is largely associated with ‘identity work’ and the on-going construction of the self. Harrison clearly links the macro and micro elements of the book using interesting quotes from those interviewed: unlike the Hawthorne women, their friendships are both inclusive (group-oriented) and exclusive (dyadic, emotionally-engaged).

O’Connor’s paper concerns the effects of patriarchy and capitalism in the post-modern era on women’s friendships. She argues that women’s “shared victimization” serves as the basis for their friendships, and that these friendships end up supporting the dominant ideologies. As women become increasingly visible within society’s power structures, O’Connor hopes that their friendships may incorporate a transformative element that will assist women in critiquing the definition of themselves as ‘the Other’. This chapter criticizes the established power structures more directly than any other, and so is an important addition; however, more work to explicate its densely-written post-modern style would better link the ideas to the other papers in the book.

Feld and Carter demonstrate the strength of the social network approach in understanding the link between micro- and macro-sociological processes, and it is in this paper that the balancing act between the constraints of social structure and opportunities of personal agency in affecting friendships is best achieved. They demonstrate that friendships result from repeated contact in one or more foci of activity, and that the friendship dyad is embedded in larger networks of social relationships arising from these various foci of activity. Taking the example of divorce, they show how marriage dyads are embedded in wider networks that influence their development, and reciprocally, how changes at the level of the dyad have ripple effects out through the network.

Finally, Adams examines the effects of changes in technology on traditional notions and characteristics of friendship. She demonstrates how the advent of the Internet and online relationships poses new problems for our understanding of friendship, and how new research in this area can be used to refine and elucidate the meaning of context within friendship research.

This book contains a wealth of research ideas, and goes some distance to fulfilling its own calls for more interdisciplinary research. Collections of papers can be disjointed, but the editors do a great job of integrating the material, and in demonstrating the value of a structural approach to this topic. In particular, they make an excellent case for using social network analysis methods and approaches in the study of friendships, and so bridge the gap between interpersonal/dyadic research and that dealing with larger questions of the nature of social organization and of social change.

Stephanie Potter
University of Toronto

September 1999
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