Throughout our lives we interact in many and varied relationships. These can range from intense emotional and physical interactions, to casual acquaintances. Our ability to bond, congregate and network within these relationships is not restricted to the family or kin from whom we are born; many are the result of friendships formed within our societal settings.
We develop friendship relationships within the work place, sporting activities and shared community interests. The commonality of interest can be in residential status, class, race, gender and religious beliefs. The formation of relationships can have a multitude of meanings and importance to the individual, whether formed with family or friends. So how do the importance of relationships between family and friends differ?
According to Baker (2001, p.1) “Our ‘personal’ decisions and lifestyle ‘choices’ are influenced in a myriad, often hidden, ways by what happens in the wider world”. This suggests that as individuals we need the influence of the outside world to assist in our decision-making processes. However, both family and friendship relationships offer a range of external (social) and internal (private) life networks from which the individual or group can access personal and social knowledge, resources and support.
The difference in the level, mannerism and depth of needs attended to by both family and friendship relationships must then be discussed to access the importance of each and the role it plays in the life of the individual and society.
Goerg Simmel (in G. Little, 1993, p.31) saw friendship as pure sociability. Simmell “pictured society as a web of sociability, a subtle balance of delicate exchanges” … “it was only the name given to the comings and going of human beings, the interchanges that simultaneously link and separate people”. Simmel further describes friends as artists, claiming “friends must commit themselves to communicating well, putting all distraction aside”.
Simmell’s description of friendship in society, describes the way in which we communicate in our external lives, separate to that of family or kin relations. The communicative commitment we put into these meetings will depend on the level of interaction desired, given our commonality and interest. Therefore, the formation of friendships is based on the attention given to conversation, how well we communicate and the manner in which we construct our communication. All other encounters are purely polite exchanges of greetings between people we meet externally. Friendly interactions can therefore become an extension of our internal family lives.
A case study of social networks conducted by Lyn Richards (in Gilding, 1999, p.121-23) of a Melbourne suburb revealed how “residents constructed a wide variety of relationships with their neighbours”. The social exchange of neighbourhood residents extended to sharing equipment and getting to know each other on a more personal basis, allowing friendship relations to enter the internal domain family life by choice rather than necessity.
This offers an interesting perspective to Simmell’s analysis of friendship simply being polite but attentive exchanges of our everyday external lives. It suggests that we not only form friendships externally out of politeness but also internally to share our family relations. Richards noted however, that the association between friends and family relations are separated by the difference in time spent with family and friends.
Edward Shorter (1979, p.231) writes…”in traditional society the kin group counted for relatively little in emotional terms, being primarily a reservoir of material support in emergencies”. The view here is that friendship relations are an extension of family relations, allowing additional resources to be obtained. Friendship is then seen as an important commodity to completing our hierarchy of needs. Therefore, placing restrictions on the importance and position of family and friendship contributing factors to our family and societal needs, with the extent of these needs measured in material and emotional contexts.
Demographically family structures have endured many changes to the way in which family member conduct their lives. Changes to labour market forces, socio-economics and lifestyle choices, have left many with little or no time to conduct friendship relationships within the family unit.
The importance of emotional support and mental well-being is then passed onto external avenues such as social services and friendship alliances. Meaning, that whilst our physical needs are being met through income support (wages, benefits), our emotional needs are neglected over time taken to achieve our physical and material needs. Therefore, positioning friendship relations as an important aspect of our familial and societal structure.
Talcott Parsons (in van Krieken et al, 2000, p.328) described the functions of the nuclear family as the “primary socialization of children and the stabilization of the adult personalities of the population of society (1955a, p.16). Parsons analysis of socialisation and stabilisation functioning describes the family as a secure and sociable entity, capable of providing both social learning and emotional well-being.
To support Parsons description Bell and Zajdow (in Jureidini and Poole, 2003, p.275-76) describe the family “as an entity where people have their emotional needs cared for by a wife or mother has displaced the household whose primary purpose was to produce goods for the material well-being of family members”.
The descriptions of families given here, lead to families providing emotional support for its members, similar to that of friendship relationships. How can we determine at this point, which is more important? Family support and learning can be contained within the family, kept private and discussed with members whom share common kin ties. The emotional support of friendship risks private consultation becoming public and has no biological status. Therefore, the family as a social and emotional provider is viewed as more important.
The difference and diversity of families and friendship relations as pointed out in Shorter (1979, p.231-41) may provide insight into the importance of family dynamics. Shorter describes a variety of family and kin units, their origins and values placed on human contact. The research shows that despite having sociable human contact, preference is given to remaining close to family and kin, and protecting the family unit from external intrusion. Thus, providing the family with a direct sense of purpose and well-being for the individual, a place of sanctity and security when the outside world is no longer required or available.
Our experiences of the world are subjective, we engage in both physical and emotional stimulation to suffice our needs. However, the main source for supply and demand of these needs is found in our value of our family and kin relationships. Family values are found in family traits, traditions and familiarity of its members and
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its stability in a demographically changing social world. In this sense, friendships may come and go; however, family values will always remain, placing an emphasis on the importance of families.
Where do families achieve their stability and security? The structural functionalism of families can assist in maintaining stability and security, through its ability to “provide individuals with the opportunity for emotional support, companionship, sexual expression, reproduction and the socialisation of children”…”They maintain social order and control through disciplining their children and other members” (Baker, 2001, p.73).
The ability of families to maintain social and familial control provides members with a sense of self-control over ones life. A setting to which they can return to safe in the knowledge that emotional, physical and material guidance and support can be sought. Therefore, positioning the family as a place belonging and familiarity.
There appears to be little doubt that both family and friends play and important role in ones life. To measure to importance we cannot ignore the difference and diversity of both family and friendship relationships. For some the relationship of friends is extremely important, for others it is the relationship of the family.
To assess why friendship relationships appear to be more important, it is essential to recognise the demographic changes that have occurred in the past and the rate at which changes occur in the present. Family dynamics now share a variety of different relationship structures such as, defacto, stepfamilies, same sex partners, adoption and foster parenting. All of which have their own unique set of values, social and cultural traits.
The apparent multitude of difference and diversity of both family and friendship arrangements, in an ever-changing world, may embrace the need for external relations outside the family. Friendship relationships can become symbolic of demographic changes, be non-compliant with family traditions and have the flexibility to endure future change. Thus, placing an importance on the need and value of friendship relationships.