Friendship and the urban encounter:
towards a research agenda

by Laavanya Kathiravelu

Working Papers WP 13-10
July 2013
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

Full text: pdf

The study of diverse and multicultural cities has gained considerable interest, reflecting a growing concern with migrant populations and the implications of ‘strangers’ in crowded urban societies. In this literature, one of the key considerations centers around understanding how ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse peoples “rub along” and live together in tight and dense metropolises. One strand of this research is interested in the everyday encounter – ranging from the fleeting non-verbal to more sustained engagements over longer periods of time. Despite growing interest in the mundane and quotidian, friendship as a form of social relation and interaction has been largely unexamined.

While research on friendship as a significant social phenomenon has been limited, this paper’s intention is not to urge a general resurgence in the literature. Instead, it posits that friendship ties interrogated in conjunction with understandings of the diverse city, offer innovative ways to understand the urban politics of co-existence. Following Amin’s (2012) recent work, this paper sees friendship networks as social ties that make possible a functioning, yet convivial, society of strangers. Friendships, in this sense, are seen as tangible ways in which the larger “urban unconscious” can be felt, linking the intimate sphere of private lives and relationships with a public urban commons.

Secondly, the paper suggests that friendship can be viewed as a ritualised form of convivial cohabitation in its enactment. This ritual seems to structure the urban environment in ways that the environment itself then seems to be the source of the ritual and associated positive affects. The city is thus seen as a more convivial space because of the ritualised friendships that residents enact in it. In this way, friendship can function simultaneously as the site and enabler of a “plural communal” (Amin 2012: 79), where relations are relatively egalitarian and civil, but also pleasurable.

In doing this, the paper urges that the geographical literature around the politics and spatiality of quotidian encounter should be brought together with more sociological understandings of relationships, networks and ties built on trust, respect and reciprocity. It does so in order to initiate a research agenda around the social and spatial configurations of friendship, which are suggested to have implications for urban dwellers’ experiences of city life, and in opening up potentialities for new ways of living together with diversity. Finally, it is suggested that increased ethnographic attention be paid to already-existing strands of research that could merit from a greater focus on friendship. In doing so, this paper aims to make contributions to contemporary understandings of everyday encounters in the diverse city, as well as further debates on the potential convivialities of dense urban spaces.

Laavanya Kathiravelu is currently a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, working on the GlobalDivercities project, a multi-sited comparative interrogation of urban diversity. Her previous research explored labour migration and city-building processes in the Gulf emirate of Dubai.