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Chapter Six Conclusion: Friendship and Community
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Close Friendship as Community

Do women's close friendships form community? If so, what kind of community? To answer these questions, I must begin with a conception of community rather than a knowledge of friendships. Above all, I do not wish to define community by simply summing up the positive dimensions of women's friendships. Doing so would cast this study in the tradition of evolutionary family theory that poses contemporary forms as the end of social evolution. Mine would be yet another cheerful network study that counters assertions of decline of community by asserting that modern sociability equals community. I would rather form a concept that preserves the deeper meanings present in traditional notions of community, a concept abstract enough to encompass as yet unforeseeable social changes that enlarge community. Defining community is difficult, however, even after centuries of exposition on the subject. I can do no more here than identify issues in conceptualizing community and suggest how my findings apply to them.

Most notions of community invoke premodern social organization—pastoral images of village, clan, parish, and neighborhood. Using these images, models of community inevitably emphasize corporateness, locality, permanence, and traditional authority. Claude Fischer condenses these notions into a sociological proposition about the affective and moral bases of community: "The more restricted their choice of associates, the more often and longer individuals must interact with, exchange with, and rely on a small number of people. Thus duration, interaction frequency, and material interdependence lead to communal ties."[5]

In this kind of communal perspective, dimensions like corporateness and locality have meaning because they limit the choices of community members and assure commitment through dependence. Fischer uses survey data from the 1950s and the 1970s to argue that these assumptions do not apply to modern community.


He concludes that in modem life, constraints that lead to localized, long-term, frequent, and multiplex relationships do not make these relationships intimate. On the contrary, with fewer structural restrictions on association people can choose relationships; their choices promote communal ties.[6]

Thomas Bender, among others, advances this argument along historical lines, citing an impressive array of historical scholarship that refutes the idealized image of community contained in much social theory. Traditional communities were not as stable, harmonious, intimate, or bountiful as the pastoral image suggests. Bender evokes Tönnies's emphasis on the persistence of community in modem society—of gemeinschaft in gesellschaft.[7] Theorists like Bender, Fischer, and Barry Wellman develop frameworks for modem forms of community and attempt to disengage a concept of community from traditional relations of corporate authority and constraint. Yet, in loosing the concept of community from these traditional restraints, the authors seem to drop the issue of communal constraint altogether. I think we should rework the component of moral constraint into our revised ideal-type of community.

Moral constraint is an important basis of commitment and the sustained experience of "we-feeling" that all writers identify in community. Shared moral values enable people to identify with and invest themselves in others and thus to build commitment; they deepen and extend relationships beyond self-interest. Moral bonds cognitively anchor emotional ones, steadying otherwise volatile attachments. They socialize relationships between self and social world and encourage people to act collectively. Moral constraint can lead to and strengthen communal resistance to larger authority, a communal attribute that contemporary writing on community must not ignore.

Robert Nisbet is a traditional theorist of community who insists on the importance of moral constraint. He both emphasizes moral authority and ties it to the social structures in which communities are embedded. Differentiating in theory two forms of constraint—social control and the constraint of shared values—he shows how they are tied in practice. Social control (in which a group functions to organize the individual's life and confer status) produces and maintains moral constraint. This is the communal dynamic of the preindustrial family, which determines the social roles its members


will occupy and provides the skills to do so.[8] Nisbet's logic is undeniable. His premodern examples are too powerful, however, to allow him to imagine how less coercive communal functions might produce moral bonds. Nisbet calls for new forms of community rather than vain attempts to restore traditional forms, but he seems unable to imagine forms of dependence upon morally authoritative community that are not primordial, abject, or involuntary. My research suggests that women's close friendships show how moral constraint is generated in dependence expressed as voluntary mutual reliance on a relation that provides distinctive values. Women friends depend on the empathy and support they uniquely provide each other; they reciprocate and reinforce the moral constraint through their exchange on topics like motherhood and family obligations. The friendship creates a deep sense of meaning and belonging.

Nisbet similarly identifies the important communal attribute of mediating between the self and the society; but he focuses only on how communities mediate between individuals and public institutions. He insists—using the example of preindustrial family—that to be vital, communal structures must function directly in economic or political life.[9] But I propose that vital communities may also mediate between individuals and the institutions of private life, in the way that friendships mediate between women and their families. These communal functions are manifest to participants and generate moral authority, but their importance is in the realm of private life. Although such communal functions may not satisfy a full-blown ideal of community, they prefigure a more evolved community. Women's friendships hint at how more developed modern communities might evolve.

In spite of my disagreements with Nisbet's interpretation of the dynamics of community, I think his definition of communal relations remains useful:

[They] are characterized by a high degree of personal intimacy, emotional depth, moral commitment, social cohesion, and continuity in time. . .. Community . . . draws its psychological strength from levels of motivation deeper than those of mere volition or interest, and it achieves its fulfillment in a submergence of individual will that is not possible in unions of mere convenience or rational assent.[10]


How do women's close friendships satisfy this definition? The quality of intimacy and emotional exchange in close friendships easily meets this standard. The ties in each woman's small network of close relations outside the nuclear family are deeply affectionate, psychologically intimate, and emotionally secure. Women's best friendships develop mutual attentiveness and knowledge to an extent probably unparalleled in women's other close relations or in any of men's close ties. In this area of intimacy and attachment, women's best friendships may be exceptionally communal.

Commitment—an investment of self in a relationship—also characterizes close friendship. Women claim a subjective sense of commitment in close friendships, and they often report their beliefs have been confirmed by friends' sacrifices. Moreover, these commitments project continuity in time, and friendships endure separation. Friendships do, however, subordinate their obligations to those of family, which affects their commitments in significant ways. Commitments between women friends include mutable and even terminable bonds. Friends may not be able to sustain commitments if, for example, they have prior commitments to moving with husbands to new jobs. Committed friends understand that each other's ability to share resources of time, shelter, and money may be limited by superseding obligations to family. In traditional community, commitments to church, family, and village were permanent or long-term and fit together in a smoother, ideologically ordered pattern. Contemporary life refutes such permanence and order. And women may be restrained by their economic dependence on marriage from forming commitments that men can form with impunity.

Theories that define community in terms of permanence and locality imply that modern commitments must build over considerable time. But not all communal relations form the same way. My research suggests that the time required to form commitment in women's close friendship is different from that needed to form other commitments. The women I interviewed seemed to be quick to identify potential intimates, willing to disclose themselves to these attractive others, and thus able to attach and commit quickly. Of course it takes time to seal trust; but intimate self-disclosure, one of women's shared standards of commitment, binds friendships


much faster than commitment that builds through long sociable association or the exchange of services (the pattern that studies of men's friendships suggest).

This capacity to form close friendship quickly has several implications. It probably assures women of close communities when they meet potential friends. In my interviews, women never expressed dismay at the prospect of having to find new friends, as they did when considering how they would meet men if they were no longer married. If women generally form close friendships more quickly than men, they can more quickly rebuild their close communities after moves, divorces, and deaths of friends or partners. Women's communal activity is resilient.

Because the intimate exchange of women's friendship satisfies deeply felt needs, including the desire for empathetic understanding—and because women recognize their dependence on friends and on the values of friendship—they experience in friendship a sense of belonging that may be distinctive to women's culture. Their profound reciprocal understanding and their recognition of a need for close relations create moral commitment. The sense of belonging must surely be much more tenuous if friends are loathe to admit such need and dependence. If men friends are both less intimate and less likely to acknowledge dependence, they are probably less likely to sustain the experience of belonging, particularly if time and trouble have not tried their commitment.

Women's close friendships are invested with moral obligations, both to respect individual liberty and to attend to each other's welfare and their children's. Friends' valuation of individual liberty (and also an aversion to conflict, which has other sources) appears to keep the scope of moral authority (if not discourse) narrow in most friendships. Some areas of conduct are subject to moral constraint and some are not. Nonetheless, that constraint applies to areas friends consider most important and that are grounds of common experience.

The area that women friends have significantly opened to moral exchange is childrearing. All of the mothers I interviewed discussed children and childrearing with friends in a way that communicated moral values and influence. This dialogue among women friends who are mothers seems to me to represent an unheralded example of vital community. It is unheralded because


conventional studies focus on the nuclear family as the community of childrearing. Moreover, an intelligent but limited analysis of the penetration of expert authority into family life fails to perceive any process of communal authority able to mediate that influence.[11]

Writings on the family and social authority do not discuss the networks of exchange on childrearing that this study has discovered. The exchange among friends who are mothers not only solidifies trust and commitment in friendship, it also creates communities of resistance to social authority. Women friends discuss problems, values, and practices of childrearing, recognizing in each other the authoritative knowledge gained from experience that is undervalued and unattended in the larger social organization of honor and prestige. They recognize that childrearing is difficult and complex skill-developing work. They respect the knowledge and integrity of those who sacrifice to do it. And, in this process, they confer authority upon their network community of mother-friends, authority that they draw upon for sustenance and dignity. This exchange is far from impervious to outside influence; and it can, I am sure, serve as a conduit of expert influence.[*] Even so, outside authority is mediated by a discussion among mothers who recognize the authority of other mothers. They do not constitute a well-defended and unchanging community but one capable of change through dialogue and mutual adjustment.

We can also see evidence of communally generated resistance to authority in the relation between women's friendships and their marriages. Even in friendships in which the values of marriage translate into accommodative marriage work, the dialogue of friendship augments individual capacities for resistance to male authority. Because women friends analyze their relationships and strategize together, they collect knowledge on the dynamics of women's domestic subordination. When they subsequently accommodate, they are likely to do so instrumentally rather than passively—a tactical withdrawal rather than a rout. This process preserves a capacity for resistance that can be drawn on when resistance might succeed. The women's stories of marriage work


illustrate many collectively plotted small resistances, often in the form of power plays for small advantages.

It is easy to imagine friends developing grander strategies to increase domestic power and authority when changing circumstances favor their success or decrease the costs of failure. When marriage represents most women's only opportunity to provide decently for their children, when women's opportunities to establish new heterosexual relationships decrease dramatically with age, when married women friends are powerless to share their material means of survival, the costs of resistance can be high. But when close friends provide support for struggle or provide emotional sustenance that enables emotional withdrawal from marriage, and when friends keep a vision of mutualistic companionate love alive (in ideals and by example), they undermine male domestic authority—even when they cannot radically erode men's power.

I do not wish to overstate the capacity for resistance to larger authority implicit in women's personal communities. Personal communities are not social movements. Women's friendships concentrate in private life and have their greatest communal impact there. Women have been excluded politically and economically from public life, and their ability to participate in public associations is limited by their domestic responsibilities. So, although friendships provide chains of recruitment into public life,[*] we would have to see a lifting of constraints on participation (in the form of child care, greater sharing of domestic responsibility) before a strong civil orientation occupies the dialogue of women friends. Men, who are freer to participate in public life, may be more oriented to public issues in their friendships.

What kind of community inheres in women's close friendships? Women's friendships create personal community—elective, essentially dyadic, intimate, oriented to mutual self-development and individual needs, and concentrating on the activities of personal life. Yet the benefits of women friends' community extend beyond


pairs of friends. Women's friendships influence their family lives, absorbing and transmuting tensions that originate in marriage and parenthood, recreating commitment, helping to effect change. They function very much like the "intermediate institutions" that theorists of community see mediating between the individual (or family) and larger social authority.

A woman's friendships mediate between the individual and her family, serving both her personal integration and the integration of her commitments to friends, kin, and family. Just as Nisbet's pre-industrial family manifestly served individuals in the larger society and in doing so created legitimacy for its authority, women's friendships manifestly serve women in the family. And in their evident importance, women's friendships also generate authority. The distinctive communal content of women's close friendships lies in their contribution to individual identity and needs and to women's family responsibilities. Through these valued exchanges, moral commitment and constraint evolve.

Most writers on modem community—both pro and con—agree that traditional community is gone and cannot be restored amid individualism, centralized authority, geographic mobility, and family privatization. Women's friendships contain elements of community not captured either by antimodernist sociological images of traditional community or by modernists' narrower images of community as intimacy or sociability. Beyond providing the bonds of psychological intimacy, women's close friendships forge, exchange, and preserve moral values that contradict rationalized, impersonal, instrumental, and individualistic values in the dominant culture. The structures of authority inherent in personal communities of women are difficult to delineate because they are informal and fluid. Personal communities of friends are generally loose networks of pairs and are therefore less cohesive and more subject to the idiosyncrasies of "dyadic withdrawal."[12] Nonetheless, women's personal communities generate authority that inheres in the unique and important contributions friends make—to satisfy needs generated by social structures that friendships both accommodate and resist.

The moral framework of modem women's friendships is radically different from that of traditional community. Friendships value voluntarism, mutability, and fluidity, which render their influence


less absolute, more assailable, less punitively constraining, more (fallibly) porous and negotiable, and less directly and serviceably political than those of traditional community. In contrast, modern women's personal communities bind individuals without submerging individuality; sustain and reconstruct loyalty by a substantive rationality of befriended decision-making; and remain resilient and evolutionary by adapting to conditions of necessity while preserving transformative ideals and relations. They synthesize old values and new.

I do not intend to suggest that contemporary women's friendships offer a sufficient model of elective community. They are very loose networks of pairs and they contain many distorted reflections of women's powerlessness. Still, the quest for a vision of community whose benefits are ample and justly distributed requires a move beyond both premodern and extreme individualist conceptions. Contemporary women's friendships may suggest the makings of such a modern communal ideal.

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