No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Friendships and Groups



Stefan Kühl and Janosch Schobin discuss the need to unite two separate research strands: group sociology and friendship sociology. Group sociology lacks a precise definition of the term group and focuses on personal expectations and interpersonal communication among group members, while friendship sociology often views friendships as residual categories, mainly focused on dyadic relationships. Kühl and Schobin want to bring these research strands closer together, because they both examine the same social phenomena from different perspectives. Both fields are converging around the concept of personal expectation formation as a central mechanism for stabilizing cooperative social interactions. This approach aims to distinguish groups and friendships from other social systems.

Both fields largely study the same topic. Being a member of a group implies having more or less pronounced friendly relationships with its members, and forming a friendship essentially results in the creation of a group consisting of two, three, or more members.

Four themes exemplify the fruitfulness of this integrative approach in group and friendship sociology: (1) The stabilization of friend groups, (2) The quantitative limits of such groups, (3) The relationship between friend groups and social networks, and (4) The historical differentiation of the social function of friend groups.


The stabilization of friend groups

Regular interactions among known individuals lead to the development of groups of friends. The interactions should involve personal communication and go beyond mere repetition to support the self-reproduction of groups and friendships. Distinguishing between social interactions among strangers and those among friends is crucial in friendship sociology. Personal expectation formation and trust-building are essential components of friend groups, often facilitated through the exchange of secrets.

Defining a friend group can be challenging due to their dynamic and diffuse nature, with unclear markers for transitioning from candidate relationships to full-fledged friendships. Friend groups can gradually form without members initially realizing their contributions to the group. Similarly, the dissolution of friend groups is a dynamic process, often initiated by factors like relocations, family obligations, or conflicts.

The integration of group sociology and friendship sociology can help redefine and describe the processes of formation, stabilization, and dissolution of friend groups. This approach offers insights into how life-phase-specific identity constructions are stabilized in modern societies and why friend groups often end during life transitions. Both fields emphasize the role of structured social elements, such as proximity, shared organizational memberships, common activity focus, and collective norm generation, in the ability to reproduce friend groups.


The quantitative limits of friend groups

In sociology, there has been a focus on how the functioning of social entities can vary based on the number of their members. This concept can be traced back to Georg Simmel's ideas about quantifying groups. Group sociology and friendship sociology have both examined the boundaries of friend groups in terms of the minimum and maximum number of members. Regarding the lower limit, group sociology initially debated whether groups required at least three members to distinguish them from dyadic relationships like exclusive partnerships or intimate friendships. The perspective evolved over time to include dyads as the smallest form of a group. Most definitions of groups now consider them to consist of two or more individuals. In contrast, friendship sociology historically concentrated on dyads but gradually became more open to the idea of friendship systems involving more than two individuals, considering friendship as a non-exclusive collective relationship. The question of upper limits was also discussed. Group sociology shifted from a broad definition of groups to focusing on small groups with typically no more than two dozen members. In friendship sociology, the discussion focused on how many friends an individual could have, emphasizing individual capacities and limitations.

By integrating friendship sociology with group sociology, researchers can gain a better understanding of how friend groups grow and shrink. This approach acknowledges that transitions between different group sizes often involve subtle variations in the group's nature rather than distinct transformations. For example, adding a third person might introduce imbalances, while further growth could lead to division tendencies, and expanding the group may emphasize shared activities. These changes don't necessarily imply a complete shift in the essence of the group.


The relationship between friend groups and social networks


While network theory appears to cover similar phenomena studied by these sociologies, the relationships between friendship sociology and group sociology are complex. In group sociology, network theory is often seen as a rival concept. Some network theorists argue that groups are just one type of social formation within personal relationship networks characterized by high relationship density and shared social attitudes compared to the network's environment. They suggest that a dedicated theory of groups is unnecessary, and focusing on groups serves as an auxiliary theory to understand network interpretations from an individual perspective.

In friendship sociology, network theory can oversimplify the cultural and historical flexibility of friendships. Actor-centered network theories concentrate on idealized forms of free sociality where individuals offer, reciprocate, and terminate relationships freely, with some constraints, often not considering the historical and cultural aspects of friendships.

The tension between network theory and group/friendship sociology arises from the actor-centered approach dominant in network theory, which aims to eliminate collective entities from the equation. Structuralist-oriented network theories offer an alternative perspective, suggesting that individual choices in relationships are partially influenced by the normative requirements and relational logic of friend groups, rather than solely individual preferences.

The incompatibility between network theory and group/friendship sociology can potentially be resolved by adopting a Durkheimian perspective, which views friend groups, including the smallest dyads, as the starting point for network theories of groups. This approach can lead to new possibilities for studying the dissolution, growth, division, or fusion of friend groups using network theory's observation and modeling techniques. It also provides network theory with an opportunity to explore the relational logic of friend groups through historically variable generative rules, potentially rewriting the social history of groups across different historical periods and forms of society.


The historical differentiation of the social function of friend groups

The historical differentiation of friend groups is a crucial consideration in understanding their evolution. When viewing groups primarily based on size and individual-focused mutual perception, there's a risk of perceiving groups as a universal historical phenomenon. Early group sociology tended to conceptualize groups as a widespread and constant presence in various societies. Friendship sociology had a more nuanced view. It considered friend groups as a phenomenon existing under specific conditions. While friendship sociology examined the development of friendships in tribal societies, ancient Greece, and the early modern period, its primary focus was on understanding the dominant form of friendship's transition into modernity.

Friend groups in modern society, in contrast to their pre-modern counterparts, are characterized by high relational autonomy and content diffuseness. Individuals have the freedom to choose friends, dictate the intensity and content of friendships, and decide to continue or terminate these relationships according to their preferences. In pre-modern forms, friend groups were characterized by low relational autonomy and high content specificity. Kinship bonds or tribal structures determined who could be considered a friend, and friendships had predetermined terms and contents that were challenging to change.

Both group sociology, using a strict definition of groups, and historically aware friendship sociology acknowledge a gradual shift in friendship practices as part of societal modernization processes. For instance, during the transition to modern society, the pool of potential friends expanded significantly, making it acceptable to form friendships beyond the confines of kinship. The attribution of personal relationships also became increasingly independent of third-party approval.

By merging a historically informed friendship sociology with a group sociology focused on system formation through personal communication, one can discern these historical shifts. Ritualized and collective forms of person-oriented relationships were substituted by relationships targeting the personal uniqueness of the other individual as the basis for friendship. This shift in friend groups was accompanied by changing norms within the groups. Previously rigid duties of friendship, such as providing material support and protection from violence, were replaced by softer duties, like emotional support and social companionship. The observation that norms within friend groups are becoming more flexible suggests that their boundaries are also becoming less clear. From a group sociology perspective, this is seen as a sign of increasing multiple group affiliations. The emergence of differentiated friendships, as proposed by Simmel, reflects a changed organizational principle of friend groups, where social functions within friendships become more diversified, and overlaps of friend groups sharing some of the same individuals become common in modern societies.

This perspective raises questions about the role played by organized social contexts that rapidly differentiate in modernity in stabilizing friend groups. Factors like geographical proximity, shared living spaces, organizations, and common activity focuses provide opportunities for the formation and stabilization of friend groups.


Consequences of an integration of group and friendship sociology

The proposed integrative approach, centered around the concept of friend groups, brings together two parallel discussions in sociology, specifically group sociology and friendship sociology. Due to significant conceptual adjustments in both of these areas, there is an expectation of opposition to this proposal.

Critics advocating for an expansive approach in group sociology may argue that an integrative approach oversimplifies the diversity of studied entities. They might assert that it overlooks essential social phenomena such as workgroups in organizations, sports teams, or purposeful living communities. In contrast, the integrative approach argues that by defining groups as entities that reproduce through personal communication, it's possible to distinguish these entities and analyze the extent to which they engage in system formation through personal communication, thereby differentiating phenomena that were previously blurred due to imprecise group definitions.

Critics with a separatist stance may argue that the fusion of friendship and group within the concept of "friend groups" doesn't systematically account for the significance of group sizes. This criticism could come from friendship sociologists who want to focus on dyadic relationships, as well as group sociologists who define groups as having three or more members. The integrative approach addresses this by considering dyads as groups, allowing for the analysis to incorporate the critical dyadic relationships within friendships. It doesn't ignore the differences in group sizes but, instead, directs attention to possibilities of expansion, growth thresholds, and processes of contraction.

Critics advocating a holistic perspective might argue that even nuclear families and romantic relationships can be considered groups. This integrative approach suggests treating friend groups, nuclear families, and romantic relationships as distinct types of personal relationships. It is capable of observing transitions between these relationship types, recognizing them as functional equivalents serving the need to be addressed as a whole person within a functionally differentiated society.

Bringing together these perspectives from group sociology and friendship sociology provides new angles for addressing established debates. It allows for the examination of the roles of friend groups within organizations and movements, emphasizing the significant differences when dealing with teams and groups that focus heavily on person-oriented communication. Additionally, this integrative approach enables the observation of shifts in system characteristics. It provides insight into how, in cases of sports groups, terrorist organizations, or biker clubs, organizational processes can develop that ultimately lead to a transformation from a group to an organization, where, in turn, personally enriched relationships may emerge.



Kühl, S., Schobin, J. (2023), Freundschaften und Gruppen -  Plädoyer für eine Zusammenführung zweier Forschungsstränge, in: Mittelweg 36 - Zeitschrift des Hamburger Instituts für Sozialforschung, Vol. 32, No. 5.