Anthropology of Friendship

Susan MacDougall
University of Cambridge

November 21, 2022

Friendship might be a necessary condition of anthropology. Ethnographic fieldwork relies substantially on friendship: participant observation unfolds through connections between people who share ideas and information, do favors for one another, form close bonds, and make use of one another’s presence. Ethnographic writing also relies on the trope of friendship in different ways: thick descriptions can include lyrical tributes to well-loved partners in ethnography, capture the energy of banter between peers, or record the embodied togetherness of doing nothing with other people. Anthropologists’ first-person perspectives on what they do often includes friendships, as background or foreground. In short, anthropological friendships and the anthropology of friendship are richly complex, fraught topics. It is no surprise, then, that there is quite a bit of relevant literature.  

In my own work, I find friendship rewarding to work with for two reasons. The first is that friendships are so often experimental: unlike marriages or kin relations defined by their enduring nature, they can (in many contexts) be constituted and dissolved at will, so they are spaces where people can inhabit subjectivities that are aspirational, temporary, or otherwise different. The ethnographic friendship is one compelling example of this. Through friendship, anthropologists learn about different places, languages, and ways of being. Equally, though, the experimental and educational nature of friendship is evident in relations between people of different ages, faiths, politics, professions …differences ranging from the profound to the ostensibly superficial. The genesis of a friendship, and perhaps its eventual rupture, all reveal the nuances of difference and how people live it in the context of relationships.

The second is the richness of negative affect that friendship can hold. While much friendship scholarship, especially outside of sociocultural anthropology, emphasizes its collaborative and helpful nature, friendship in popular culture is usually much more dynamic emotionally. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, for example, devote four volumes to examining the pain and betrayal of friendship. Contemporary ethnographies hint at the messiness of friendship as lived; the reading list offered here reflects a preference toward accounts that attend to this dimension of friendship.

Theoretical approaches to the concept of friendship are relatively few, especially given that the ethnographic literature is so broad. There is plenty of social theory about relations, including Marilyn Strathern’s Relations (2020) and Anthony Giddens The Transformation of Intimacy (1992), both of which are often cited in ethnographies of friendship. Kinship, closely related to but emphatically distinct from friendship, often serves as a means of defining friendship through contrast. One reason for this is that friendship has at times been treated as an extension of kinship, or at least explained using the logics of kinship. The term ‘fictive kinship,’ for instance, often describes relations equally well characterised as friendship. In one of the earlier discussions of friendship as a concept, ‘The Paradox of Friendship’ (2016), Julian Pitt-Rivers rejects this equivalence. Friendship is distinct from kinship, he argues, following logics of sharing and reciprocity better explained by the Maussian notion of the gift than kinship.

There are also theoretical treatments of friendship in contemporary anthropology, although they are not numerous. Ashley Lebner takes on the idea of friendship directly, arguing for friendship as ‘mystic’ in her article ‘The Work of Impossibility in Brazil: Friendship, Kinship, Secularity’ (2021) and the accompanying commentary. Lebner works through the ways that friends disappoint and betray trust with reference to one northern Brazilian family, meditating on the way big concepts like secularism, kinship, death, prayer, and Catholicism all play a role in shaping the ideal of friendship against which her interlocutors understand these disappointments and betrayals. While ethnographically grounded, Lebner’s thinking on friendship goes beyond the particular to make assertions about what friendship is.

An enduring perspective on friendship takes inspiration from Allan Silver’s article ‘Friendship in Commercial Society: Eighteenth-Century Social Theory and Modern Sociology’ (1990). He suggests that the notion of friendship as fundamentally based on sympathetic relations—that is, on people liking one another—emerges from capitalist societies. He draws on Scottish Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume to show how these scholars saw the relegation of feelings to the private sphere as a natural and essential corollary to the market, with its cold rationalism. A thriving society allowed sentiments to flourish in their dedicated space while self-interest helpfully thrived in a different dedicated space. The idea of friendship that modern people rely on, then, is implicitly a capitalist one. 

James Carrier takes this idea further in the essay ‘People Who Can Be Friends: Selves and Social Relationships’ in the anthology The Anthropology of Friendship (1990) by Sandra Bell and Simon Coleman. Carrier argues for a specific norm of ‘Western personhood,’ anchored on the idea of an autonomous self capable of genuine affection. He outlines a future for the anthropology of friendship as an ethnographic avenue for exploring the way particular notions of personhood enable and constrain different ways of being in relationship.

Carrier draws inspiration from the notion of private friendship/public self-interest while being careful to note that this is an ideal, and not a description of how everyone in ‘Western’ contexts actually carries out their friendships. In his words, “when political-economic conditions are right and the autonomous and sentimental self becomes the norm, even people to whom it applies only poorly are likely to see themselves and their fellows in these terms.” (Carrier 1999, p. 36). In short, disappointment, loneliness, and wondering about one’s own friendlessness go hand-in-hand with this ‘Western’ model of friendship. 

A more recent volume, The Ways of Friendship (2010), edited by Amit Desai and Evan Killick, rejects the anchoring of friendship within the idealized norms of capitalism in favor of a more grounded notion of friendship, that recognizes the diversity of ways that friendships are made and maintained. In many ways this volume writes against the dominance of this notion of a friendship that is specific to a market economy, which Silver and Carrier espouse and which so often provides a starting point for analyses of friendship. The editors take pains to distance themselves from any aspirations to totalizing analysis in studying friendship, and their point is well taken, that a moral ideal articulated in eighteenth-century Scotland may not be relevant to understanding contemporary friendship around the globe. 

Irrespective of the structural backgrounds to friendship, it is very often a tumultuous relationship. The tumult can arise from the relationship itself, as two people negotiate disclosure, suspicion, and rupture. It can also arise from external circumstance, serving as a support for people navigating economic precarity, personal tragedy, or anything else to be weathered in company. Works addressing these challenges are below; they are grouped into discussions of money and inequality in friendship and trust and betrayal in friendship.

Money and inequality

Buchberger, Sonja. 2014. ‘Can Social Unequals Be Friends? Western Tourists and Their Maghrebi Hosts Negotiate Moral Ambiguity’. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 39 (1): 37–52.

Leighton, Mary. 2020. ‘Myths of Meritocracy, Friendship, and Fun Work: Class and Gender in North American Academic Communities’. American Anthropologist 122 (3): 444–58.

Mains, Daniel. 2013. ‘Friends and Money: Balancing Affection and Reciprocity among Young Men in Urban Ethiopia’. American Ethnologist 40 (2): 335–46.

Betrayal and trust

Carey, Matthew. 2017. Mistrust: An Ethnographic Theory. University of Chicago Press.

Eramian, Laura, and Peter Mallory. 2020. ‘Unclear Endings: Difficult Friendships and the Limits of the Therapeutic Ethic’. Families, Relationships and Societies 10 (2): 359–73. 

Evaldsson, Ann-Carita. 2007. ‘Accounting for Friendship: Moral Ordering and Category Membership in Preadolescent Girls’ Relational Talk’. Research on Language and Social Interaction 40 (4): 377–404.

MacDougall, Susan. 2019. ‘Ugly Feelings of Greed: The Misuse of Friendship in Working-Class Amman’. Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 37 (2): 74-89.

Winkler-Reid, Sarah. 2015. ‘Friendship, Bitching, and the Making of Ethical Selves: What It Means to Be a Good Friend among Girls in a London School’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22: 166–82.

While negative affects are powerful at drawing our attention, bell hooks reminds us in her book All About Love: New Visions that ‘friendship is the place where a great majority of us have our first glimpse of redemptive love and caring community’ (hooks 2016, p. 166). Within the anthropology of friendship, there are also stories of friendship as a place for redemptive love and caring community, in their lived complexity. 


Love and community

Dyson, Jane. 2010. ‘Friendship in Practice: Girls’ Work in the Indian Himalayas’. American Ethnologist 37 (3): 482–98.

Gullestad, Marianne. 1984. Kitchen-Table Society: A Case Study of the Family Life and Friendships of Young Working-Class Mothers in Urban Norway. Oslo, Norway: Universitetsforlaget. 

Mattingly, Cheryl. 2014. ‘Love’s Imperfection: Moral Becoming, Friendship, and Family Life’. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 39 (1): 53–67.

In addition to ethnographic engagements with the thematic of love and community, there is also a small sub-genre of ethnographies that are a testament to particularly close, and fraught, relationships between ethnographers and interlocutors. Emilio Spadola’s evocatively titled article ‘Forgive Me Friend: Mohammed and Ibrahim’ (2011) and Vincent Crapanzano’s Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan (1980) wade into the complexities of friendship and obligation as they apply to participant observation. 

The anthropology of friendship, in short, is a capacious umbrella. It includes work theorising friendship as a cross cultural phenomenon, as well as ethnographic treatments that seek to understand a specific context through the lens of friendship. It also includes reflections on particular friendships as a means of engaging with something else of interest. Each of these approaches has their own life and genealogy in our discipline, often distinct from one another. It is my hunch that the relatively thin theoretical work on friendship allows us to classify it from a first-person perspective: if something looks or feels like friendship to the ethnographer, then they use this term. That may be sufficient for ethnographic work, especially since ethnographies of friendship are so clearly in agreement that this relationship can accommodate rupture, confusion, evolution, and disruption, as well as the negative and positive affects that come along with each of these phenomena. Methodologically, though, it allows ethnographers to avoid confronting questions about their own status as a friend. Conversations about ethics, for example, might look different if anthropologists were asked to reckon with the culturally specific notions of friendship that they brought into the field. To draw again on the Enlightenment notion of friendship, how does a concept of friendship built on mutual affection relieve one of obligations to help materially, for example? 

Explorations of friendship offer satisfying reading because they defy simple conclusions: they reflect the dynamism of friendship itself, with its ebbs, flows, and surprises. As Evan Killick and Amit Desai write in their edited collection, ‘friendship is interesting precisely because it evades definition’ (Desai and Killick 2010, p. 1). 

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Susan MacDougall is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Together with philosopher Lucy McDonald she is convenor of the Illuminating Friendship lecture series* at CRASSH at the University of Cambridge in the academic year 2022–23.

*Readers interested in friendship are welcome to join the lecture series either in-person in Cambridge or over zoom.