Bella’s Introduction:

Thanks to the work of the eminent sociologist, Professor Claude S. Fischer, I’ve known for a while that the 2006 media panic – about how Americans are supposedly growing increasingly isolated – was overwrought. When I saw a fellow Psychology Today blogger refer to the findings of that original study as uncontested truth, I knew it was time to give some attention to lots of other research suggesting a quite different conclusion. In preparing my piece, I contacted Claude Fischer (someone I’ve never met) and got a very gracious reply. Yesterday I published the post, Are Americans Becoming More and More Isolated? at Psych Today. I’ve gotten some feedback since then, from the comments section and by email, and will publish a revised version at this blog sometime soon.

While researching the piece on the myth of social isolation, I came across Professor Fischer’s blog for his new book, Made in America: A Social History of American Character and Culture. I especially loved his post, “Inventing Friendship.” He kindly agreed to let me cross-post it here.

I’ll have more to say about Professor Fischer and his Made in America book at the end of this post. For now, on to the heart of the matter.

Inventing Friendship by Claude S. Fischer

Friendship seems as natural as two children meeting on the playground and then, at least sometimes, staying friends long enough to eventually share pictures of their own children. But social history suggests that the sort of relationship Americans call a “true” or “pure” friendship is a relatively modern invention.

The O.E.D.’s first definition of “friend” — “‘One joined to another in mutual benevolence and intimacy’. . .  Not ordinarily applied to lovers or relatives” – is good enough. Importantly, however, modern Americans usually consider a “real” friendship to be an intimate and benevolent bond that is separate from – or can be separated from – any other connection between the two people. That is historically new.

Making Friends

Friendships typically start between people who share a social setting – a classroom, neighborhood, workplace, military company, church, or other context. But the true friendship itself becomes independent of those other connections. That distinctiveness of that relationship becomes especially visible when people move on – they graduate, change jobs, move away, whatever – but still maintain their friendship, their “mutual benevolence and intimacy.” They are clearly now what I have elsewhere labeled “just friends.” And “just friendship” is pretty new.

Examples of such friendships, of course, go back a long ways. The biblical Jonathan, for instance, risked his life for his bosom friend, David – who later took the throne from Jonathan’s own father, King Saul. But “pure” friendship as a common experience for average people is, historians have shown, a modern development. (See readings below.)

People in classic pre-modern villages were heavily involved with one another in many ways. They knew each other intimately, yes, but as neighbors they might argue about whose livestock traipsed into whose garden; as townsfolk they often quarreled over who was paying how much of the taxes; and even as relatives they juggled the sort of complex issues blood kin and certainly in-laws usually have. Anthropologists have described twentieth-century versions of such villages as rife with tension and suspicion, and not much encouraging of what we consider real friendships. They may have had the intimacy, but not necessarily with the mutual benevolence.

The coming of modern society, the argument goes (an article by Allan Silver is a classic on the topic), made pure friendship possible. A market economy led to specialized, commercial relationships, which allowed people to separate business from friendship. If, for example, you sell your crop to a traveling buyer, a stranger, instead of to friends, then you can conduct your friendships without worrying about whose getting the short end of a business deal. (An American proverb supposedly goes: “Before borrowing money from a friend decide which you need most.”)

With increasing travel and population, people increasingly met and befriended others who were not entangled with them in collateral issues. Similarly, with improved communications, people could maintain contact with ex-classmates or ex-neighbors; they could sustain “just friendships.”

Another element in this story that social historians have identified is the emergence of sentimentality and its infusion into friendships.

Love Piping Hot

As relationships based only or focused on “intimacy and mutual benevolence” became more common among the upper and upper-middle classes, they were infused with the intense sentimentality of the 18th and especially 19th centuries. That sentimentality emerged in many aspects of bourgeois life, such as romantic literature, social movements to ease the suffering of children and animals, and idyllic nature-park cemeteries. It also showed up in the language of friendship.

In letters and diaries, educated Americans learned to describe their friendships with words of strong emotion, even passion. Strikingly, this was true not only of young women, but also of men. Young Daniel Webster addressed his closest friend as “dearest” and as “the only friend of my heart, the partner of my joys, griefs, and affections.”

A Virginia lawyer sent greetings from two of his friends to a third friend: “They send their love piping hot.” (We might consider such language today as homoerotic, but that projects our understandings of such language onto people who understood it differently.) In the 19th century affection became an increasingly important element of same-sex relationships, and a key element of what upper middle-class Americans considered true friendships.


In the twentieth century, the language cooled down – it was an era historian Peter Stearns as described as “American Cool” – but those sentimental “just friendships” became increasingly common for most Americans. These days, perhaps one-fifth of the average American’s immediate relationships, kin and nonkin included, are with “just friends” (see Made in America, p. 312n137).

We now take such friendships as a matter of course. But they are historically new. And we now worry about what is happening to Americans’ ties of “intimacy and mutual benevolence.” Are they waning? – That will be the subject of another post on another day.

Some Readings

K. Hansen, A Very Social Time: Crafting Community in Antebellum New England, 1994.
A. Jabour, “Male Friendship…” Journal of the Early Republic, 2000.
S. Oliker, “The Modernisation of Friendship.” In Adams and Allan, Placing Friendship in Context, 1998.
E. A. Rotundo, “Romantic Friendship: Male Intimacy…” Journal of Social History, 1989.
A. Silver, “Friendship in Commercial Society.” American Journal of Sociology, 1990.
C. Smith-Rosenberg. 1975. “The Female World of Love and Ritual.” Signs, 1975

From Bella again:

More about Professor Claude S. Fischer:

Claude Fischer is one of those scholars whose contributions will continue to be important for a long time to come. He has informed and enlightened us with his thinking on topics ranging from urban experience to inequality to the social history of the telephone. You can read more about him here. My favorite work of his is about our social networks – what they are really like, as opposed to all the hype and the hysteria. One of his early books on the topic was called To Dwell Among Friends. I also appreciate that he is an academic who makes professional work accessible to others.

About Made in America:

I haven’t read this book yet, but I am looking forward to doing so. I’ll probably blog about it in the future. In the meantime, here’s the starred review from Publishers Weekly:

The more America changes, the more it stays the same, according to this engrossing historical survey. Drawing on everything from economic data and mortality statistics to studies of colonial portraiture, University of California–Berkeley sociologist Fischer assesses broad trends across four centuries of American life. His measured but upbeat view of the evolving American experience will disappoint the hell-in-a-handbasket crowd: he finds that Americans have grown more religious and charitable over time, and markedly less violent and nomadic, while remaining roughly unchanged in their propensity toward greed and consumerism. Through it all, he discerns a benignly Tocquevillian trait that he calls “voluntarism,” an individualism softened by unforced solidarity that fulfills itself by freely building communities, be they frontier villages, dissenting churches, egalitarian families, or Internet chat groups. While vast gains in health, wealth, and political freedoms have transformed our lives, they have, he contends, made Americans more voluntaristic and thus “more characteristically ‘American’… insistently independent but still sociable, striving, and sentimental.” Fischer’s lively prose argues these propositions with a wealth of hard evidence and illustrates them with piquant vignettes of people of all eras muddling through. The result is a shrewd, generous, convincing interpretation of American life.