The concept of friendship refers to a social phenomenon that is characterized by a diversity of ties and connections to a variety of degrees that are shaped by complex sociocultural codes. As a configuration of sociocultural practices, friendship remains an open concept used by researchers from different fields. Anthropologists, for example, experience their immersion in fieldwork through friendship. Personal relationships are central to the production of anthropologists’ ethnographic enterprises. This is illustrated by the figure of the “key informant” in anthropology, which constitutes a highly polysemic medium that translates the cultural codes being studied by the ethnographer into intelligible fragments of understandings, recorded in field notes and transcripts. The relationship between the informant and the ethnographer is also the main theater in which contradictory emotions and feelings related to “social and cultural encounters” are played out.
Friendship (and its antonym, enmity), although undertheorized by anthropologists, is at the core of the anthropological textual mediation for understanding of differences, power relations, hierarchies, and cultural practices. This is reflected in many ethnographic reports and essays on a wide array of contexts. These range from anthropologist-informant relationships to gender and sexuality (including erotic subjectivity in the field and the role of gender, family, and intimacy in structuring friendship during the practice of fieldwork) as well as role and allegiances of anthropologists in the community being studied. Other foci related to friendship include the importance of friendship networks in creating access for anthropologists, how circumstances of fieldwork shape political repositioning of anthropology as a discipline distinct or separate from its colonial heritage, in addition to providing an analytical space for understanding mechanisms of oppression and social suffering. As anthropological study mostly takes place in contexts in which power relations underlie structures of oppression, anthropologists witness in-depth diverse human experiences of vulnerability that, in turn, contribute to their sympathy for the vulnerable, which may drive their narratives to the mainstream of the discipline in less of an ethnocentric or colonial way.
The conceptualization of friendship as relevant subject matter to think about sociocultural life is a recent endeavor, but its impact in helping reevaluate classical anthropological descriptions and analysis of sociocultural situations in both non-Western and Western societies is far-reaching. For instance, categories such as kin-friend and “idiom of affinity” were introduced in order to stress, in the first case, the equal importance of both kinship and friendship in social life and, in the second case, an ideology that ultimately confirms and strengthens hierarchies between groups and individuals while reaffirming the affinity of their shared imaginary world. Effort to think about friendship as a relevant social phenomenon has led to its cross-cultural conceptualization in a way that can only enrich anthropological discourses. Comparative studies of friendship help revise its Western-centered content and recall many stereotypes that used to prevent researchers from thinking about differences along a continuum rather than merely in terms of the duality “us versus them.”
- Bell, S., & Coleman, S. (Eds.). (1999). The anthropology of friendship. New York: Berg.
- Handler, R. (Ed.). (2004). History of anthropology: Vol. 10. Significant others: Interpersonal and professional commitments in anthropology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Kulick, D., & Margaret, W. (Eds.). (1995). Taboo: Sex, identity and erotic subjectivity in anthropological fieldwork. New York: Routledge.