Volume 52, No. 32
Cole traces the anthropology of friendship
by Cathy Byrd
If you never thought of friendship as a heavily nuanced field of anthropological study, you might reconsider after an introduction to Anthropology 386G.
Taught by Johnnetta Cole, Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, African American Studies and Women's Studies, "The Anthropology of Friendship" focuses on friendships in the United States, contrasting those relationships among individuals who share a racial identity or a gender, for example, with those that cut across these lines of "separation." In the process of analyzing why, how and among whom friendships are formed in America, students examine racism, sexism and other systems of inequality in the United States.
The course began with a brief introduction to the field of cultural anthropology and a review of some cross-cultural data on friendship. To understand how anthropologists and social scientists look at friendship, students were referred to The Anthropology of Friendship, edited by Sandra Bell and Simon Coleman.
Cole introduces anthropology as a multifaceted lens, a way for students to see the world and themselves from varied perspectives. The focus on friendship allows students to look closely at the anatomy of bigotry and discrimination, as well as how individual attitudes and behaviors shape changes in the organization of society.
"The most important thing that I can say to my students about bigotry is that it is not genetic--it is learned," said Cole. "While there is no society that is totally free of all forms of discrimination, we have examples of societies that have seriously attacked systems of inequality. Certainly, our own has dealt with racial issues in terms of ending an era of formal segregation. South Africa's attack on apartheid would be another stunning example."
Literature is considered an important approach to the topic. Students read Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, Toni Morrison's Sula and other selected articles. Tuesdays illuminates a very special relationship that cuts across age and involves a teacher instructing his former student about life through the experience of his approaching death.
"My students debate whether the term 'friendship' accurately describes the relationship between Professor Morrie Schwartz and Mitch Albom," Cole explained. "Sula raises issues that are often ignored, like the question of class differences among African Americans. The principle characters, Nel and Sula, share age, race and gender, but not class-the most significant challenge to their friendship."
Students benefit from their professor's extensive research on the topic. Cole wrote one of the first readings, "Cross-Difference Friendships: A Mirror on American Culture," an article from The Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that examines the social, political and economic challenges to cross-difference relationships.
According to Cole, the way American society is structured, as well as prevalent cultural attitudes about differences among people, serve as barriers to cross-difference friendships.
"Look at residential patterns and at schools, which we said we would desegregate a long time ago," she said. "Look at the fact that 93 percent of top executive jobs are held by white men. Then there are stereotypical attitudes: 'Gays are queer. Black people are dumb. Asians are inscrutable.' These are all obstacles. And yet, some people do develop and sustain friendships that cross race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation and physical ability and disability."
Class participants have turned the lens on themselves, studying their own cross-difference friendships. One student from Jamaica who identifies herself as a Christian looked at her friendship with a young Jamaican man who is a Rastafarian. A heterosexual female student analyzed her relationship with a young gay man. A student of Norwegian and Hispanic origin examined her friendship with an African American woman.
"What struck me so much with these projects," Cole said, "was how introspective students became, in a deep intellectual sense. Their friendships grew out of respect for differences, but the central point of their discovery was what their cultures have in common."