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‘Friendship Changes Its Meaning and Function Through the Life Course Essay

In many western societies, friendship is portrayed in a very positive and desirable light, and most of all something people have the freedom to choose, unlike kinship. However as examined further in this essay, friendship means and functions as many different things to different people and can be influenced by an array of different social factors.

There are various stages in the life-course that provide both opportunities and threats to the development and maintenance of friendships, yet it is evident that friendship does change and evolve in meaning and function through the life course. Some sociologists believe that social change has affected the significance of friendship, and thus changed its function throughout the life course. Due to social change, choice and reciprocity have become highly valued in relationships; which is expected in today’s post-industrial society.

Many see the traditional ‘nuclear’ family as diminishing. This can be explained by the individualisation thesis (Giddens 1992, Ulrich Beck and Beck Gersheim 1995), who argue that set traditions and social rules are in decline, thus giving rise to voluntarism and democracy distinct from kinship; which can be recognised in the notion of the ‘pure relationship’ (Giddens 1992). Therefore friendship can be seen as the ideal relationship in society; differing much from the ‘fixed’ or ‘given’ relationships with kin and the community, which are seen to be declining in significance.

This has allowed friends to take the roles traditionally formed by families. The idea of ‘families of choice’ (Weeks et al 2001:9) suggests that trends such as increasing cohabitation, divorce rates, greater social and geographical mobility, increasing levels of female education, increased participation of females in the labour market, and the growth of non-heterosexual household arrangements along with a strong sense of individualization have led to families of choice.

This social suffusion of family and friends is especially evident amongst non-heterosexuals, due to their exclusion from the ‘family’ and ‘marriage’ in which they haven’t received support from families; they’ve chosen their own networks of relationships conceived as families. However it is important not to overstate the significance of friendship compared to relationships with family with much empirical evidence stating family relationships still remain significant.

Firstly, it is important to recognise that there isn’t a single universal definition of friendship; which can cause many sociologists to encounter problems when researching the notion of friendship, and thus how its meaning and function may change and evolve through the life course. There are many different forms of friendships, ranging from diverse and complex friendships which are ever-changing and evolving. Whether it is those we file in our address books to those who have a profound presence in our lives.

People attach the label ‘friend’ to those whom they’ve simply had a pleasant association with or as for as those who they’ve shared a lifelong relationship with. Some believe it is ‘the valuing of the other person for whatever is perceived as their unique and pleasing qualities’ (Wright 1978), which is said to be a defining characteristic. Research into what friendship means, reveals friendship as being voluntary rather than obligatory.

Though as explored further this element of choice of who we categorise as our friends, can be highly influenced by other social factors and elements of homophily; which changes as we enter different stages of the life course. There is much diversity within friendship, with every relationship being completely unique. There are many recurrent types of friendships, such as associates, useful contacts, favour friends and a fun friend which are categorized as a simple friend, which ranges to a helpmate, comforter, confidant and a soul mate; which constitute towards a complex friendship.

Research has found that the degree of intimacy of a friendship is affected by the amount of time friends have known each other. Furthermore, Pahl and Spencer categories the types of friendships people have in their personal communities into different types of friendship repertoire. They identify between the basic, intense, focal and broad repertoire, these typologies allow us recognise that some friendships strengthen in meaning whereas some even tend to get lost ad fade away as people enter different stages of the life course.

Through stages in the life course such as leaving school, going to college, starting work, living with a partner/getting married, having children, getting divorced, moving home and retiring etc, can provide new opportunities for friendship whilst even threaten existing ones. Kinship ties and especially primary kinship ties generally continue in some form, whereas change in friendship is routine and normal. Indeed some friendships are long-term with some even life-long, although for the majority this isn’t the case.

Usually friends occupy similar social positions to one another; tending to be the same age, be of a similar class position, same gender and occupy similar positions in the life course. Friendships are active in certain periods of our life and then gradually become less significant and meaningful, due to a change in people’s circumstances as they enter in stages of the life course, therefore sustaining that relationship becomes difficult. There are a variety of domestic circumstances that can affect friendship.

Typically there appears to be changes in people’s friendship patterns when they get married. This is because their existing relationships with other single people tends to become less central to their lives and be replaced by other couple friendships (Cohen 1992), this is how couples create a marital relationship in which ‘togetherness’ and mutual involvement is paramount. Along with this is sharing leisure and sociability therefore maintaining friendships with those who are single becomes difficult.

Not only that but divorce can also dramatically alter friendship, for men the effect may be less who will continue to be involved in the same work and leisure activities whereas women with children, their friendships patterns will alter more significantly due a change in their social, economic and domestic circumstances (Milardo 1987). Similarly shifts can occur in friendship when children are born, the aspects of family life will affect the space available for friendship.

Old activities that were once shared between two people often become problematic, especially in the early years of childhood Having children can be a very demanding job, therefore less time is left for developing new and servicing old friendships, and thus gradually old friends who are at different stages of their life course become less involved and are replaced by others who share a similar social position. In the same way, caring for an elderly relative can constrain the freedom for sociability.

However, we can also see how gender is affected within childcare which affects the space for friendship. As many women have less extensive social participation, and their character of domestic and paid labour, therefore there is less opportunity to develop social ties. Whereas, men tend to have more time and financial resources to devote to sociability because of their role within the domestic and paid division of labour. Equally, as people enter old age and retirement this can also affect the opportunities for friendship.

For some retirement may present them with more time to spend with friends, with the absence of work commitments. However others the reduced financial circumstances mean the engagement through social activities is limited, and the pool of social contacts is reduced through employment. Friendships can also alter due to a change in a person’s social location. For instance, if someone was to gain a promotion at work it could affect their friendship ties.

Not only that but with the idea of work as someone is in a different position within a hierarchy, they may have authority over others and thus increased earning capacity and an alteration of their life-style, maintaining existing friends becomes difficult especially as friendship is seen to be based on equality. Despite friendship being based on liking and trust and not on status hierarchy or difference, in essence the friendships becomes less active, and new friends who lead similar life-styles and of similar status replace old friends.

A person’s work situation affects the opportunities they have in meeting others as well as the resources of time, money and energy they have for sociability (Allen 1989). The demands and organization of a person’s work can also pattern their friendships both inside and outside the workplace. For example, different shift patterns, different levels of physical and mention exertion and different times being away from home call affect and individual’s capability and willingness to participate in sociability.

Nevertheless, it may be thought that due advances in technology, email and social networking increase the possibility of forming friendships with face to face conversation being absent. Yet, despite these new forms of communication, we are still more likely to have closer ties with people who live in closer geographical proximity to us. Friendship is dynamic; it may become deeper or fade as we enter different stages of the life course nonetheless as Pahl claims it does change meaning and functions throughout the life course.

Patterns of people’s friendships throughout the life course are structured around, people’s social and economic circumstances which influence their opportunities for social involvement. Different aspects of structural location such as work situation and domestic situation alter during the life course and change the meaning and function of friendship’s. Friendship is also linked to broader social and economic factors, and individual’s immediate social environment influences who they come in contact with and thus who they build friendships with. Word Count: 1,575.


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