Review: William Rawlins’s “Friendship Matters”

by Miles Raymer

Friendship Matters

Late last year, I spent several months writing a series of essays on the nature of friendship. I wish I had read William Rawlins’s Friendship Matters before undertaking that process, but unfortunately I only discovered it after completing the essays. This dry but extremely thorough examination of friendship is an essential text for anyone who cares about this subject and wants to see it receive more attention from intellectuals and the general public. It’s also an excellent way to reflect on one’s personal journey by revisiting past friendships, contemplating current ones, and planning for the future.

Rawlins’s stated purpose is as follows:

In this book I develop a broad conceptual perspective for tracing and probing the varieties, tensions, and functions of friendship over the life course. I explore how friendships are situated vis-a-vis other personal and social relationships at given points in time, how they are managed communicatively, and how they influence and reflect continually evolving senses of self and social participation. My concern is with the communicative conduct of friendships in light of their changing and persistent forms and functions throughout life. I argue that friendship involves inherent dialectical tensions: (1) as a specific category of relationship within middle-class American culture, (2) in the actual communicative practices occurring between friends, and (3) within and across developmental periods of the life cycle. Consequently, I conceive the formation, maintenance, and dissolution of friendships as presenting continual challenges to communicators. As relationships within networks of involvements, friendships are ongoing communicative achievements often pursued in the face of incompatible requirements. (2-3)

This passage accurately summarizes Rawlins’s project, and also reveals the dense, academic character of his writing. There’s plenty of great content waiting for readers willing to wade through the verbiage, but Friendship Matters is not a particularly accessible text from a stylistic standpoint.

Fortunately, Rawlins’s methodology and formal consistency are rock solid. He begins by clearly laying out his dialectical mode of analysis, discussing first “contextual” dialectics (private vs. public and ideal vs. real), then moving on to “interactional” dialectics (dependance vs. freedom, affection vs. instrumentality, judgement vs. acceptance, and expressiveness vs. protectiveness). This dialectical framework overcomplicates matters at times, but is most helpful for exploring the fine-textured nuances of friendship:

These dialectical features of managing friendship configure and function differently according to a variety of factors. First, specific individuals will negotiate particular practices within given friendships at various stages in the development of the relationship and in light of each participant’s personal attributes and social activities (such as those modally linked with gender). Second, influenced by the foregoing factors, distinct configurations of these dialectical principles develop characterizing certain types and degrees of friendship. Third, particular friendship types enact these contradictions differently at various stages in the friends’ life cycles. Finally, the typical patterning of all of these factors will reflect prevailing cultural practices of the moment. Taken together, these considerations emphasize the contextual and mutable nature of communication within friendships. (23-4)

From this point, the book proceeds in dyads of chapters that focus on different stages of friendship over the life course: childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood, and old age. Each dyad contains a theoretical chapter coupled with a chapter of “illustrative analysis”. The illustrative analysis chapters present examples from interviews as well as fiction, and while they ably substantiate Rawlins’s claims, I found them generally less engaging than the theoretical chapters. It is easy to imagine, however, a different sort of reader having the opposite reaction.

Rawlins does an admirable job of synthesizing his research into useful lessons about how friendship changes as we mature, learn, and grow old. He acknowledges something that many people intuit but rarely articulate, which is that friendship is an important type of relationship that “has no clear normative status within publicly constituted hierarchies of role relationships” (9). Friends, therefore, often struggle with questions of how to properly balance various social commitments, and our cultural schemas for how to “do friendship” the “right way” are less clearly developed than schemas for our other interpersonal roles.

The result is that participants in friendship possess an unusually high degree of flexibility and autonomy to define what friendship means in any given context. Rawlins points out rightly that this feature is both a strength and a weakness:

The frustrations and delights of friendship emerge during childhood and continue throughout life. Despite their virtues and satisfactions, friendships are often vexing relationships, intermingling each person’s expectations, and public and private responsibilities and loyalties in ways difficult to resolve. (5)

Rawlins refuses to downplay the difficulties of friendship, diving into the many sources of strife that can compromise or dissolve friendly bonds. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that healthy friendships rely heavily on collaborative communication and mutual trust that builds over time. Uncongenial competition is toxic, and the keeping of confidences is paramount in order for people to safely reach the high level of self-disclosure that most close friendships demand. Additionally, once safe self-disclosure is achieved, each friend must sincerely affirm and accept their counterpart while also judging and disagreeing respectfully when necessary.

Friendship Matters offers many useful insights about the different ways that men and women approach friendship. The key distinction here is that women tend to favor a “communal” friendship style, and male friendships tend to be more “agentic”:

Two modes of friendship surface repeatedly in analyzing adult friendships: communal friendships, premised on an ethic of care and characterized by emotionally supportive and personally involving communication; and agentic friendships, premised on and ethic of rights and typified by socially facilitative and activity-oriented communication. That the former style is modally linked with females and the latter with males in adulthood derives from early learning and repeated practice in the skills and outlooks associated with each style since childhood, coupled with the concrete social settings and configurations of relationships and roles within which adults live their lives. A given female friendship will not necessarily exhibit primarily communal attributes or a male friendship agentic ones. Depending on the social circumstances of their earlier lives and the networks or series of relationships they participate in as adults, women or men may develop friendships of either style as well as bonds combining their attributes. (183-4)

Across life the border between private and public relationships are frequently blurred for males and females, and specific friendships can thoroughly transcend modal practices, blending the attributes of communal and agentic friendships in various ways…Although prevailing cultural arrangements statistically link males and females with the patterns described here, I consider the continual social construction of genderized relationship practices in concrete circumstances to be the critical concern, not biological gender per se. (275)

These astute passages demonstrate the responsible and straightforward way that Rawlins handles sex differences throughout the book. He doesn’t dismiss the idea that significant sex differences might exist, but also isn’t dogmatic about why they exist or if they will necessarily persist over time.

This was especially enlightening for me because it confirmed something that I’ve long felt but struggled to define until now: my personal style of friendship is strongly communal. This explains why radical self-disclosure has always been my favored pathway for cultivating friendship, and also why I’ve had so many close female friends throughout my life. It also draws a clear connection between my friendship style and that of my mother, which recent years have revealed to be extremely similar. In contrast, my friendship style has very little in common with my father’s.

Given that my own life narrative has only taken me as far as early adulthood, I was eager to hear what Rawlins has to say about friendship in later life. And while friendships certainly face unique challenges at that stage, I was thrilled that Rawlins confirmed many of my imaginings about what can be accomplished if close friends stick together for many decades:

Many older adults report that their closest friendships developed when they were younger and now live considerable distance away. These “old” friends are often “best” friends from a prior era who have invested the time and effort to sustain their bond over the years. Their separation in space and time has likely prevented them from routinely burdening each other or jeopardizing their jointly held favorable images. Such friends easily “pick up right where they left off” across the years, heartily enjoying their occasions of spending time together…As the years pass, the continuity of specific friendships documents the persistence of selves and/or images of selves, as well as the concrete (or now imagined) social settings in which these persons were viable participants. These enduring friendships connect adults with still meaningful versions of their possibilities as human beings and rejected alternatives, transcending the finitude of “real time.” As reservoirs of common histories and shared experiences, old friends are narrators and curators of the long-term coherence and significance of each other’s lives. (217-8, emphasis his)

These findings comport strongly with my assertions that friendship is an ethical imperative and that friendships are a critical narrative resource. The ongoing cultivation and maintenance of these kinds of connections into old age is one of my top life-goals.

I’d also like to highlight an important point of disagreement between Rawlins and me. In the book’s exceptional conclusion, Rawlins characterizes friendship as an unlikely vehicle for social or political change:

The normative patterns of friendship across the life course reveal their undeniable contingency and finitude and their ties to enveloping social conditions and practices. Whereas ideals of friendship include free choice, personalized responsiveness to others’ intrinsic qualities, and equality, mutuality, and affection, actual patterns of friendship reflect social stratification and economic disparities. Empirical studies repeatedly report the pronounced likelihood of friends being similar in age, gender, race, educational attainment, marital and career status, and socioeconomic level. Consequently, friendships are statistically more likely to reinforce and reproduce macrolevel and palpable social differences than to challenge or transcend them. The prevailing friendship practices of the American middle class constitute marginal forces in presenting alternatives to the status quo or pursuing comprehensive social justice. (274)

I find this argument convincing, but it’s merely an empirical description of the state of friendship as Rawlins observed it at the time of writing (early 1990s). These observations should not be considered insuperable constraints on friendship’s potential as human cultures continue to evolve. I think, therefore, that we can still try to build a world in which friendship is the bedrock of social homeostasis and a possible crucible in which humanity’s global identity should be forged. But I fully admit that I could be wrong about these claims, and concede that Rawlins’s perspective is grounded whereas mine is aspirational.

Friendship Matters isn’t quite a perfect book for this moment in history. It’s dated in the way one expects from a text nearly three decades old; the Internet and social media have since profoundly transformed how we think about, talk about, and enact friendship. Although he mentions Aristotle a handful of times, Rawlins misses many golden opportunities to explicitly link his ideas with what is still probably the most important theory of friendship ever devised. Finally, all of Rawlins’s subjects are middle class Americans, which starkly limits his theories’ scope of application. To his credit, Rawlins is completely transparent about this problem.

Overall, Friendship Matters is a terrific tribute to one of our most important but oft-overlooked ways of relating to our fellow humans. I’ll leave you with one final passage, which I think perfectly describes how friends can become one another’s best resource for ethical problem-solving and decision-making at life’s toughest junctures:

Many of life’s most poignant quandaries concern questions of personal and social responsibility. One of the most vital activities of friendship is judging together, consulting with a trusted friend about questions of right and wrong, prudent and imprudent action. Where does my personal responsibility leave off and selfishness begin? Am I being fair to myself in this situation or am I asking for more than I deserve? Conversely, where does my social responsibility stop and selflessness start? Am I treating the other(s) fairly in making this decision or am I meekly accommodating? In situations where much is at stake and choices are not clearcut, people often turn to their friends for empathic counsel. Because of close friendship’s double-agency and compassionate objectivity, caring friends do not necessarily indulge or endorse personal whims in a kneejerk fashion, but neither do they invoke social pieties. Ideally, concerned friends respond in a manner sensitive to the particulars of an individual’s situation while mindful of its broader social consequences. (276)

Rating: 8/10