The subject of gender and friendship links two fields of sociological scholarship. Gender was rarely a salient theme in pioneering studies of friendship, communities, and social networks that emerged in anthropology and sociology in the 1960s. By the 1980s, though, burgeoning gender scholarship in the social sciences ignited interest in gender and friendship. For the most part, the sociology of gender and friendship has explored how differences in the meanings, expectations, experiences, and identities that are culturally associated with biological sex create patterns of difference in the friendships of men and women. A second perspective, examining friendship patterns as a force in the constitution of gender difference and inequality, is less prominent in the literature, but it is promising.
Sociologists trace the modern forms of both gender and friendship to the emergence of a market economy, the separation of work and family life, and the cultural changes that cultivated modern individualism. In the nineteenth century public sphere that men entered as workers and citizens, men developed forms of individualism and masculine identity that emphasized autonomy, competitiveness, and the emotional toughness to suppress personal concerns that could contaminate their public roles. In the newly defined private sphere of family that became women’s proper domain, women elaborated new private themes of individualism, emphasizing emotional introspection and expressiveness, which supported the new maternal role of attentive and responsive nurturer and moral exemplar. From these gender polarities in culture and experience, men and women developed distinctive versions of the warmer, more individualized friendship patterns of modern society (Oliker 1989).
In the institutions of private life, middle class women forged new patterns of intimate friendship, while masculine intimacy developed more ambivalently – in conflict with public sphere expectations and ideals of masculinity, and in the less private sites of male camaraderie in the streets, clubs, and taverns. Contemporary patterns of gender and friendship originated in this era, where modern meanings of masculinity and femininity formed, and where institutions of work and family were reconstituted in sturdy forms that carried nineteenth century gender ideas into the present (Oliker 1989; Oliker in Adams and Allan 1998; Walker 1994; Wellman 1992).
Since the 1980s, studies have explored gender differences in communication between friends, friendship over the life course, and network size and composition. The most frequently identified gender difference is in intimacy, that is, the exchange of self-disclosure, private experience, and emotional expression. Women talk more about themselves and show their feelings more to friends than men do. Women often bond by intimate talk, men by shared activity over time. Scholars disagree about what gender differences in intimacy mean for understanding friendship and for understanding gender. A ‘‘different but equal’’ position holds that we have misleadingly ‘‘feminized’’ our concept of intimacy: narrowly associating intimacy with expressive, self-disclosive exchange and ignoring the bonds created in the familiarities of joint activity and the exchange of instrumental help distorts our understanding of male intimacy in friendship (Wright 1998).
Those who maintain that the concept of self-disclosive intimacy is meaningful argue that conceptualizing intimacy in introspective and emotional terms illuminates the personal and social meanings of close friendship. When asked, men and women define intimacy similarly, in terms of self-disclosure and emotional warmth, and both sexes assert that this kind of intimacy is the central characteristic of close relationships. Studies of the effects of disclosive intimacy suggest that both men and women feel better off and happier in relationships when this kind of intimacy is present (Reis 1998). Though shared activities may promote emotional intimacy, the settings and tasks of shared activity may discourage the attentiveness and candor required to achieve the bonds both men and women associate with close friendship.
Intimacy, affection, trust, and commitment to friends are not the same qualities, though the literature often elides them. Plausibly, each has different meanings for and influences on individuals, relationships, and even larger institutions, such as marriage and the family. For example, through self-disclosive intimacy with best friends, women appear to actively reinforce each other’s commitments to marriage and evolve strategies of marital bargaining and accommodation. Those who do not talk to close friends about problems in their marriages are unlikely to receive as much communal reinforcement of social norms of marital commitment, tailored to their particular perceptions, and do the kind of collective ‘‘marriage work’’ that stabilizes marriage. Gender differences in self-disclosive intimacy with friends may position men and women differently in the process of sustaining marriage commitments and stable families (Oliker 1989).
Sociologists have used depth psychology (primarily psychoanalysis), role theory, varieties of structural explanation (prominently, network concepts), and interactional approaches to explain how gender shapes friendship. With the exception of psycho dispositional frame works, all are deployable for an alternative approach to gender and friendship, which examines how friendship patterns shape gender. For example, studies of social networks and of foci of activity suggest how gendered divisions of labor result in men’s looser knit and more work focused networks that give men better access to information and contacts that advance their careers, while women’s denser networks (denser in kin and neighborhood ties) offer women more resources for childrearing but fewer resources for career advancement (Smith Lovin & McPherson 1993). In these studies, structures of friendship mediate the construction of gender inequality. Interactional frameworks that examine how gender behaviors and identities are produced in friends’ interactions can explain persistent gender patterns even among individuals who may not be primed by dispositions, prompted by roles, or prodded by structural constraints. Evidence that men in cross sex friendships are more disclosive than men in same sex friendship and that women in cross sex friendship are less disclosive suggests an analytical move in which gender identities and inequalities emerge in friendship dynamics (Reis 1998).
Enriching the study of gender and friendship will likely involve both analytical and methodological changes. The debate about gender differences in intimacy shows the advantages of greater conceptual precision. Such precision would also make contradictory research findings easier to sort out. Two decades of qualitative research, most often studying either men or women, posits distinctive gender differences, while quantitative research finds few gender differences and small ones. Though such contradictions are entrenched, to some extent, in contrasting methods, more comparative qualitative studies and more interpretive strategies in quantitative work are likely to produce less discordant knowledge. Conceptual precision might also inspire scholarship on gender and the social, cultural, and psychological capital gains from less intimate ‘‘weak ties’’ of sociability and friendly acquaintance and co participation. Finally, by shifting the analytical frame held up to gender and friendship, research exploring how friendship shapes gender could enrich the separate areas of friendship and gender, and the subject of relations between them.
- Adams, G. & Allan, G. A. (Eds.) (1998) Placing Friendship in Context. Cambridge University Press, New York.
- Oliker, S. J. (1989) Best Friends and Marriage: Exchange Among University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Reis, T. (1998) Gender Differences in Intimacy and Related Behaviors: Context and Process. In: Canary, D. J. & Dindia, K. (Eds.), Sex Differences in Communication. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, pp. 203-32.
- Smith-Lovin, L. & McPherson, M. (1993) You Are Who You Know: A Network Approach to Gender. In: England, P. (Ed.), Theory on Gender/ Feminism on Theory. Aldine de Gruyter, New York, pp. 311-42.
- Walker, (1994) Men, Women, and Friendship: What They Say and What They Do. Gender and Society 8(2): 246-65.
- Wellman, (1992) Men in Networks: Private Com- munities, Domestic Friendships. In: Nardi, P. (Ed.), Men’s Friendships. Sage, Newbury Park, CA, pp. 74-114.
- Wright, H. (1998) Toward an Expanded Orientation to the Study of Sex Differences in Friendship. In: Canary, D. J. & Dindia, K. (Eds.), Sex Differences in Communication. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, pp. 41-64.
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