Thursday, October 28, 2010

On My Shelf: Friendship: Development, Ecology and Evolution of a Relationship (Review)


When you are friends you can fart together.
It might be smelly, but it's the truth. Friends can laugh at such informalities. Daniel Hruschka plumbs the depths of friendship across cultures and finds that while there are particularities to the word itself, the intent seems common enough. At its core, the sentiment expressed above is important to friendship: it embodies closeness, trust, and love. When you have friends, you have access to a powerful network of allies that can surpass family in some cases. Indeed, friendship is integral to the social fabric of our lives.

Because the bonds of friendship are often marked by supportive reciprocal actions, friendship itself has been discussed in terms of the economy of a relationship. Hruschka outlines three existing theories that are guided by the notion that friendly relationships are inclined towards balance: "a norm of reciprocity, an urge to balance favors, and a concern about the shadow of the future" (21). However, he finds that these theories fail to account for increased degrees of sharing and helping between friends—which appear to be intrinsically motivated. While there is a certain degree of reciprocity in friendship, the ethnographic record reveals that friendship is not motivated by the stringent promise of reciprocal returns. Friends do not give with the expectation that they will be compensated immediately nor do they hold onto old hurts and keep score. Friends are helped because they are an extension of ourselves—our bodies recognize this with the release of a chemical called oxytocin, which is known for its role in maternal bonding and activity but also may have a part to play in partner recognition and minimizing fear of contact:
Many of the effects observed in humans and other mammals are likely related to the way that oxytocin modulates neural circuitry underlying fear and affiliation in humans, essentially reducing activity in the amygdala and decoupling the amygdala from other brain regions so as to modulate fear responses. Moreover, its activity in reward centers indicates that oxytocin (and its chemical cousin vasopressin) also plays a role in the motivation to approach particular partners. Its action as a moderator of both social inhibition and approach may make oxytocin a particularly important chemical messenger in the cultivation and maintenance of social relationships (37).
This chemical recognition itself as trust, giving us the last of the three components of friendship implied by the quotation at the top of the page. An increase of oxytocin in the bloodstream increases an individual's willingness to take social risks with and for that partner. There is an honesty to friendship that cannot be faked. It is at once empowering and makes one vulnerable.

That is not to say that aid and support can be expected to continue uninterrupted without some return. Mutual aid and sharing is a defining feature of friendship that even children seem to recognize. It is also one of the eleven recognizable aspects of friendship in the US that Hruschka identifies and leverages to demonstrate how the concept of friendship can vary across cultures. The elements, including mutual aid, are as follows:
  • Mutual aid: The most frequently identified aspect of friendship in the ethnographic record, mutual aid suggests that individuals have each other's interests at heart and will make sacrifices as needed. Though evidence of what constitutes aid varies (ranging from a loan of money to goods and services), the common thread that connects mutual aid is how it is given—willingly and freely.
  • Gift giving: Gift giving reaffirms social ties and bonds. They represent the giver's goodwill, and are the primary means of identifying exploitative relationships.
  • Self-disclosure: Self disclosure is important in American relationships because it imparts a sense of vulnerability, and binds individuals together. However, in some places sharing secrets is not required for friendship, and may be avoided because it can be leveraged during interfamily disputes.
  • informality: Nicknames, teasing, and mocking (and farting) are all things that you can do in the company of friends without fear of reprisal. However, some cultures have "classes" of friends where varying degrees of informality are acceptable, and others permit only limited instances of informality.
  • Frequent socializing: Socializing is a common aspect of American relationships but is not a "hard" requirement in every culture. In some instances due to geographical and environmental factors, infrequent meetings are the norm, as is the case in Turkana: Cattle herders intentionally foster relationships with distant friends who can provide links to far off trade routes.
    © Charles Schultz
  • Positive affect: Favorable feelings towards friends is another strong common thread in all cultures. In the US, we differentiate between like and love, but in many other places, the words are used interchangeably to refer to friends.
  • Jealousy: Jealousy refers to a fear that others may usurp an individual's place in a relationship. It appears to be a common aspect in close relationships throughout the world, however, and may serve a part in regulating connections.
  • Need: Similar to mutual aid, need refers to aid offered as necessary, without a balancing mechanism. That is, friends do not offer aid in a "tit-for-tat exchange."
  • Equality: Western relationships tend to emphasize equality, minimizing "the personal attributes and styles of interaction that make them appear unequal"—overlooking a friend who tends to pick up the bill, for example (66). But there are many instances where social and economic equality are overlooked in favor of "lop sided" relationships (66).
  • Voluntariness: In the US, the ability to enter into a relationship by choice is heavily stressed, but in many cultures friends are chosen by parents. Sociologists suggest that the western notion of choice may actually be limited in many ways—by the activities chosen and event locations, for example.
  • Privateness: While in the US individuals are responsible for maintaining their relationship, in other countries relationships can be a public affair, inviting commentary from other members of the community.
Using these elements, Hruschka crafts a definition of friendship that can applied to the cross-cultural record of friendship:
A friendship-like relationship is a social relationship in which partners provide support according to their abilities in times of need, and in which this behavior is motivated in part by positive affect between partners. A common way of signaling this positive affect is to give gifts on a regular basis (68).
In addition to this definition, Hruschka discusses the ways in which we are hardwired to seek companionship. Toddlers tend to gravitate toward those who appear more willing to participate in alliances by positive countenances. But around the age of five, a transition occurs. Children are able to more competently communicate needs and are able to identify and align themselves with others who are best able to meet those needs (124). It appears that this is the point at which the elements identified above begin to manifest.

One of the points in the book that particularly interested me was Hruschka's discussion on how computer-mediated communication (CMC) is impacting relationships. He explores both sides of the argument—that CMC increases social isolation as it diminishes face-to-face contact, and that CMC and digital technologies have allowed for the expansion of networks, with a leaning toward the latter. But it is his discussion on the way the meaning of the word "friend" is changing as a result of the emergence of digital technologies that piqued my interest. As we increasingly "friend" people on Facebook and Twitter and expand out networks to include acquaintances and other tiers of relationships, are we diminishing the potency of the word friend?

Hruschka demonstrates that there is a science to friendship—that there is a chemical basis to the bonds we form, but there are also behaviors and beliefs that tie us together. His book lays bare a relationship that is probably the most common throughout the world, and yet the one that is most often taken for granted. Without friends, as Hruschka shows, we are certainly bereft.

1 comment:

  1. That certainly sounds like an interesting book! I'll try to take a look at it, shoudl I have the chance.

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