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,...