Urban Friendship Networks as “Communities of Convenience”
By Dr Laavanya Kathiravelu
Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity
Migration, diversity, and, despite reports of its demise, multiculturalism, still dominate much debate in the social sciences as well as amongst policy makers in a range of countries and contexts. These preoccupations point to an ongoing examination and keen reflexivity over understanding how diverse people live together in relative harmony, despite differences. Within this complex and varied research landscape, much attention has been paid to how heterogeneous individuals interact in urban areas, which have been marked out as the primary geography of everyday diversity. This research ranges from studies of fleeting encounters in public spaces, to more sustained interactions in schools, housing estates and workplaces. Within this spectrum of analysis, however, the study of friendship as a form of social interaction has been largely neglected. The circumstances, conditions and barriers under which friendships are formed, encouraged, sustained and dismantled have not been sufficiently studied . In the everyday enactments of friendships, the affective registers, ‘atmospheres’ and emotions that surround them have also not received adequate attention. In encouraging further research along these lines, I suggest, following the work of Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift (2005), that the examination of friendship networks between different as well as similar urban residents provides insights not just into the everyday functioning of cities, but also indicates an already-existing convivial urban commons. Friendship can then work dually – as a lens through which we can understand how diverse cities work, but also as an example of a site for plural and pleasurable interactions.
How then can we define this mode of friendship? Is friendship substantively different to other forms of social ties or social capital? Are we needlessly creating a new term where ones like “community”, “networks” and “affiliations” already serve the same ends? I posit here that friendship does have conceptual validity and use as a unique idea, and I suggest a working definition of friendship that is appropriate to our study of urban encounters.
There have been various definitions of friendship, ranging from the more normative and idealistic Aristotelian conceptions to ones that conceive of friendship relations as not necessarily egalitarian nor completely voluntary. The use of the term friend is also one that varies with context; some using it only to refer to intimates, while others characterise acquaintances and “mates” as friends. Within the context of understanding friendship’s relevance in urban encounter, I suggest that a broader and more inclusive definition of friendship may be more appropriate, starting from informants’ characterisations, although these are often complex and layered. A more embracive conception of friendship also allows for the intricacies of the term from non-Anglophone contexts to be explored. Here, we are interested in the performance, the doing of friendship – at the moment of enactment. And so I propose a notion of friendship that emerges from the encounter.
It is then suitable that we move away from more utopian and idealistic conceptions of friendship, instead towards conceptualising friendship as it actually exists – as not necessarily egalitarian or uncorrupted. Within the purposes of a discussion around interpersonal urban relations, friendship can then be seen as an expression of community, but also one that ebbs and flows depending on the context; a community of convenience. The understanding of friendship as “communities of convenience” is a practical one, where the utility of the relationship is a significant component of the friendship. This instrumental aspect of friendship is typically foregrounded in contexts of economic hardship and resource scarcity, for example in poor Black neighbourhoods in the United States , or in Soviet Russia, where well-placed friends were a means to get to items otherwise unavailable . In speaking about the utility of friendships though, I wish to avoid delving into discussions of bridging and bonding capital, for this is not the intention here. However, acknowledging an instrumental component in definitions of friendship allows the incorporation of more working class notions of friendship or “mateship”. Scholars such as Allan have pointed out how conceptions of friendship in particular regions and linguistic contexts are more sympathetic to middle class notions of sociality, which emphasize the significance of the relationship over the activities that friends may meet over. Similar working-class affiliations are activity-based with relationships not taken out of the sphere within which they were initially formed. This “foci” or sphere of friendship formation and enactment is important , especially in understandings the relationship within the context of urban encounters.
Friendship networks then do not have to imply strong ties, but loose and elastic ones, that come into play and stretch or tighten with changes in circumstances, mobility and geographical distance. Friendships range across levels of intimacy, from that of close dyadic relationships that involve parallel life experiences and shared geographies, to those that evolve within a short time-space, around a particular activity or area. This mode of friendship, despite the element of utilitarianism, is not the “tactical cosmopolitanism” employed by African migrants, nor the “everyday multiculturalism” of suburban Australians, as it involves interpersonal ties that are deeper than mere civility, but also importantly, pleasurable. It is the affective and emotional nature of the relation between friends that brings pleasure. This is cognizant with Thrift’s “light touch model” of urban intimacy where urban interactions such as friendship are situated around their pleasure-giving potential. Friendship, in this sense, is generally an enjoyable sociality, except in instances when it turns exploitative, for example in situations of co-ethnic exploitation by friends who act as brokers or agents for potential migrants . Here is where the bond of friendship is tested, and infused with mistrust, although not always broken because of these manipulations.
We can perhaps then see friendship not just an instrumental network, but where interaction is sought not just as a means, but also as an often convivial end in itself. Communities of convenience – as a way of thinking about existing friendship ties and networks within a city conveys both the pleasurable communitarian aspect, as well as the utilitarian uses to which urban ties lend themselves.
Urban friendships are explored in the upcoming workshop “Friendship and the Convivial City” jointly organised by the ARI Asian Urbanisms Cluster, the Cities Research Cluster at FASS and the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity.
Details can be found at: http://www.ari.nus.edu.sg/events_categorydetails.asp?categoryid=6&eventid=1394 and in a previous blog entry.
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