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Chapter Three Close Friendship as an Institution
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Networks of Close Friends and Kin

The titles "friend," "close friend," or "best friend" mark the only statuses in the institution of friendship. I wished to learn how women chose the status of close or best friend. Who were the people to whom they felt closest? I asked this question a few different ways. Very early in each interview, before mentioning friends or kin, I asked, Who are the people you would describe as most a part of your life? Every one of the twenty-one women an-


swered this ambiguous question by first listing husbands and children. Thirteen added kin, mostly parents and siblings. Thirteen also listed nonkin friends. Only two listed nuclear family members alone.

Every woman resubmitted all these names when I asked for information on those to whom she feels closest, whether nearby or far away. Women who had listed only nuclear family members for the former question now added close kin and close friends. Those who had listed these earlier usually named a few more of each. Members of both groups added far-away kin and friends, closer-by immediate kin whom they saw infrequently, and husbands of close friends or kin.[26]

The average size of these close networks, counting only adult, nonhousehold names, was seven (corresponding to Fischer's finding in his much larger data set).[27] The smallest close network belonged to Cass, who listed only a sister, and her own children, although she frequently visited her many local relatives. Kay claimed the largest close network, listing fourteen outside her nuclear family. Kay listed more couple-friends than most and fewer kin.

Kay's close network was one of seven—a third of my sample—in which friends outnumbered kin; in these networks women did not always list more friends but included fewer kin. Most of these women had fewer kin in the area than the eleven women whose kin dominated close networks. The last three close networks were evenly divided between friends and kin, even though all three women had many relatives nearby; thus these networks differ from a pattern in Fischer's data, which associated larger kin networks with smaller friendship networks.[28]

Just over half the members of most close networks were nearby friends and kin—local people or people living within an hour's drive. A majority of the women listed three or more local close friends and kin and at least some others who lived within an hour's drive. True to the stereotype of mobile Californians, these women frequently commuted the distance of an hours drive—or further—to visit kin and friends they listed as close.

Close networks numbered mostly women. Six networks were entirely female. Only Lee, who is single, listed a network where fewer than three-quarters of the members were women. Men named were almost always fathers, brothers, in-laws, or husbands


of close women friends. Only two women, Lee and Lynn (Lynn was newly married), listed men who were not relatives or couple-friends. Moreover, although most of the women I interviewed had jobs, only seven placed co-workers in their close network (usually one co-worker). And although a majority considered some neighbors friends, only five included neighbors among their closest friends (again, usually one neighbor).

With my third question about the people to whom women felt closest, I sought the name of one "closest" or "best" friend, to focus later questions. I asked, Is there one person you feel closest to? From the total of twenty-one women, six named friends; four named sisters; one named her mother; one her sweetheart. Of the seventeen married women, nine named their husbands or children in their answer. I am intrigued by the fact that only half of the married women named their husbands. Yet I hesitate to interpret it, given the possibility—suggested in another study—that many women forget to list their husbands.[29] (To avoid the dilemma, I began a later series of questions by reminding women that they might name husbands and then proceeded through my long list.)

Continuing to seek the name of a closest woman friend, I repeated the question when necessary, asking if there were one person other than husband, child, or parent to whom a woman felt closest. At the first repeated question, several women who had named either husband or children then listed either children or husband; three listed parents, including one woman who said her mother was her best friend. The question finally yielded these results: seventeen women listed nonkin friends, and four listed sisters (one woman who named a nonkin friend added, "also, my sister"; I perhaps arbitrarily counted her among the seventeen).

When I asked if the friend or sister they listed was a best friend, twelve of the seventeen who had named friends affirmed the label, as did all four who listed sisters. I accepted sisters as best friends because preliminary and later interviews all suggested that women who list sisters as best friends describe the relationships in terms similar to those others apply to best friends. And they distinguish relationships with these sisters from the generally close relationships with sisters they do not consider best friends. Of course sister-best friendships also differ from other best friendships: they have longer histories and are more often perceived as eternal.


They tend to feature the kind of senior-junior themes that only some nonsororal best friendships have.

Five women declined to describe as a "best friend" the one person outside the household they felt "closest to." Since all five had listed these friends earlier among people they felt closest to, I know they did not randomly offer the names to comply with what they perceived as my wish to hear about a best friend. Nevertheless, a few said they did not feel appreciably closer to "one person." In four of these five cases, the women later described the friendships as somewhat less intimate and attached than those other women willingly labeled "best"; even though they appear less close, I included them in the following discussions of closest friendships (occasionally referring to them as "best friends" along with the others).

Contrary to my expectations, the term best friend seemed to be used similarly across classes and subcultures. Those women who hesitated to give that title to a close friend often described only their husbands as "best friends." Yet their marriages were not more companionate than those of women who named women best friends. In fact, women with women best friends were also likely to call theft husbands best friends. Companionate marriage, defined by women's references to symmetry, amity, joint activity, and couple socializing, does not seem to impede women's close attachments to women friends. Characteristics of personality appeared to account for attachments, casting women who do not form best friendships into more dependent, but not more companionate, marital roles.

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Chapter Three Close Friendship as an Institution
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