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Voluntariness And Contextual Factors In Friendship

Although most authorities agree that voluntariness is the sine qua non of friendship (Carrier 1999; Krappmann 1996), it is important to consider what they do and do not mean by this term. Voluntariness indicates only that friendships are nonobligatory, in other words, that they are formed by personal preference and not on the basis of external requirements or expectations. Furthermore, once formed, they are non-obligatory in the sense that friends are much freer to choose what to do or not do with another than partners in more structured relationships. Voluntariness does not mean that a person has either the freedom or possibility of becoming friends with virtually anyone they might choose. Indeed, as sociologists Rebecca G. Adams and Graham Allan (1998) emphasize, both friendship choice and the specific forms of interaction that take place in friendships are affected by contextual factors, in other words, personal, circumstantial, societal, and cultural influences that can be facilitative, limiting, or some of each.

Adams and Graham's point concerning context is illustrated by comparative data on children's friendships collected in East and West Berlin prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union (Little et al. 1999). Eight- to fourteen-year-old children in the two cities were similar in their perceptions of their friendships' quality and reciprocity. Even so, consistent with the restrictive social climate of the time, children in East Berlin reported more conflict, enjoyed fewer mutual visits and sleep-overs, and had less fun in their play. Canadian psychologists Anna Beth Doyle and Dorothy Markiewiscz (1996) documented contextual factors in a different way, reviewing studies showing that children's friendships with other children are enhanced in both number and quality if their parents have high quality relationships between themselves and with friends outside the family.

On a broader social level, given the voluntary and preferential nature of friendship, there are cultures in which such relationships cannot thrive. There are a few cultures, for example, where personal relationships are closely formulated in terms of status and kinship (DuBois 1974), or where speaking taboos are confining and rigidly enforced. In such cultures, friendships are rare or nonexistent. However, as Lothar Krappmann (1996) suggests, individuals in such restrictive cultures often find ways of maintaining ties akin to friendship. Sarah Uhl (1991), for example, found that some women in the Andalusian region of Spain bypassed explicit prohibitions against forming friendships. They established voluntary and personalized non-kin bonds under the guise of interaction required by their domestic chores.

In sum, friendship is a non-obligatory and personalized relationship that is embedded in a context composed of an individual's personal circumstances and social and cultural milieu. Such contextual factors influence the number and specific kinds of friendships an individual has the opportunity and personal resources to form and maintain. Due attention to contextual factors is, therefore, basic to a full understanding of the friendship relationship.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsFriendship - Definition And Characteristics, Benefits Of Friendship, Voluntariness And Contextual Factors In Friendship, Friendships Throughout Childhood