Friends are now our 'family of choice'

From a lecture given by Ray Pahl, the Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex, on the changing nature of friendship
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The Independent Online

Friends are becoming more like family and some family are becoming more like friends.

Friends are becoming more like family and some family are becoming more like friends.

A woman who says "I get on so well with my sister, she's more like my best friend," implies that she chooses to be close in a special way, probably sharing her secrets and deepest thoughts and feelings.

Unlike our family, we choose our friends. They help us to define the sort of people we are and they are "there for us" when we need them.

For mothers with young children - particularly perhaps lone parents - friends can provide crucial support when their families are some way off or have rejected them. Friends may pick up the pieces when relationships fail, in family-less old age, when illiberal families cannot cope with gay or lesbian children or the traumas associated with drugs and Aids, and even in coping with early and untimely death. Sometimes it is easier facing such crises with a friend who does not carry complex emotional baggage.

None of this may strike you as very surprising: of course friends are important and probably always have been. So what's new? Well for one thing we are socially and geographically more mobile than was the case in the 1950s. Then only 4 per cent of the age group went to university and most of those were men. Now, after a more than tenfold expansion of the student population, the proportions of men and women are much the same. One of the great experiences of college life for students is the making of friends and the discovering of what sort of people they are turning into by the kinds of friends they get on well with. Some of these friendships hold together for many years like a small tribal band.

When they go on to have partners, children, divorces, ailing parents and all the hazards of getting through the life-course, their friends could be there to support them. They have experienced difficult divorces, cantankerous parents or problem children, but their common past holds their friendships together. Earlier TV soaps focused on family relationships, father-son or mother-daughter difficulties being central: now it is family-friend or friend-friend relations that bother people.

You may be inclined to welcome such social changes as being a product of a more open, democratic consumer-oriented society where "families of choice" replace rigid, authoritarian and hierarchical structures. Maybe this is what "fraternity" means in practice.

However, we have to be careful. If friends are taking next-of-kin type roles, we should remember that there is no clear Friend Law to parallel Family Law. The Government has to be wary about encouraging friendship: one person's supportive friends may look like a potential bunch of self-serving cronies to another.

Again it is nothing new to say that friendship has a dark side, but it is as well to remember that the dark side of the family is far more cruel, damaging and dangerous.

I believe that the nature of our social glue is changing. We are increasingly socially and culturally determined by our friends. This was not the case 200 years ago when the family provided the central social co-ordinates. Later, in the mid 20th century, it was what the man in the household did to earn his living that placed his family in society. Now it is more the people we do things with that counts.

But this development of "consumer choice" is not without its anxieties. Rates of mental disorders and clinical depression continue to rise. Those without close friends may be truly socially excluded. Those with close and supportive friends are shown to be happier, healthier, recover more quickly from certain illnesses and so on. Friends are a central but neglected part of our social life.

Both Tony Blair and William Hague are concerned that they may be out of touch with the family. But maybe they are out of touch with a more complex social reality.