Friendship and Kinship: On the difference and relevance of two systems of social relationships. The case of the Fulbe societies of northern Cameroon and northern Benin

This research is part of an interdisciplinary research project between the Bielefeld University (departments of history [PD. Schuster] and biology [Prof. Trillmich]), the University of Göttingen (department of history [Prof. Rexroth]), the University of Luzern (department of sociology [Prof. Stichweh]) and the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (department I, "Integration and Conflict" [Prof. Schlee]). It is funded by the Volkswagen Foundation (for an outline of the overall project entitled "Freundschaft und Verwandtschaft: Zur Unterscheidung und Relevanz zweier Beziehungssyteme", see also Schuster et al. 2003).

Outline of the social anthropological project:

The relationship between kinship and friendship has been unsatisfactorily discussed in anthropology until now. One reason for this is the traditional interest of the science for social institutions and for strongly formalised relationships. Particular interest has thus been given to kinship. Friendship on the other hand has been very much undervalued. Even today, it remains a social category that is neglected by research.

To date friendship has primarily been studied in ‘complex’ or western societies. These societies are considered particularly appropriate fields of study because it is assumed that they are marked by the shrinking importance of kinship as a community-structuring factor. The increasing interest in friendship in the last years does not really include a shift in regional focus: works on friendship in non-western and so-called ‘simple’ societies remain rare. In fact, many anthropologists are of the opinion that these societies leave little room for friendship as an autonomous form of relationship. This view is nourished, among other things, by the fact that the kinship idiom is often used by the actors for describing friendships with non-kin. But this practice does not coincide with a real elimination of the difference between kin and non-kin or friends respectively.

The assumption that non-western societies have a very limited space for friendship will be challenged critically here. It will be demonstrated that this form of sociability is also a central element of the social structure there. Evidence thereof can already be found in earlier works on friendship. These works will also be discussed in the context of this project that will seek further confirmation of this thesis from new empirical research to be conducted in the Fulbe societies of northern Cameroon and northern Benin.

Another focus of anthropological research will be on the interpenetration of friendship and kinship and on the verification of the hypothesis that many cases of assistance that have to date been understood as kinship-based, are in fact built on friendship; it will also be examined, based on cost-benefit calculations, under what conditions friends instead of relatives are recruited. Since, due to a ‘kinship-bias’, friendship among kin has seldom been mentioned in the literature, it will be necessary to verify the above formulated thesis not only through a systematic re-evaluation of the literature but also through empirical studies. As already mentioned, fieldwork will be carried out in northern Cameroon and northern Benin. These regions have been chosen because institutionalised and non-institutionalised forms of friendship can be found in both. The inhabitants of both regions are primarily farmers and cattle herders or agro-pastoralists. The latter belong to the Fulbe who are known, on the one hand, for their far-reaching friendship networks and their ‘stock friendships’. They are known, on the other hand, as a prime example for the institution of hospitality: many Fulbe could hardly stay in the villages if the farmers did not accommodate them.

Because friendship and kinship have generally been studied in isolation from each other, there is hardly any data on their overlapping. In order to fill this gap and to do more justice to the multiplicity of relationships between kin, it will be useful to initially collect precise information on assistance practices among relatives in general: only then will it be possible to develop a set of principles of the ‘emotional economy’ of mutual assistance and then to isolate the assistance provided based on personal sympathy and friendship established within the sphere of kinship. The relevance of this sphere in the selection of friends will also be studied in comparison with that of non-kin. The latter can be roughly divided into actors belonging to the same ethnic group and ethnic strangers. The meaning of friendships between members of each of these categories will be simultaneously explored and set in relation to one another. In a further step, the question will be discussed of who among the kin and non-kin are in practice ‘better’ friends. Although indicators exist that would allow one to say that distant or non-kin would come first, this has to date never been specifically studied. A typology of locally existing friendship categories will also be developed. Finally an analysis of the strategically motivated preference of friends over kin when assistance is required will be made.

During the field study (two periods of six months duration each), data collection will involve the following methods: apart from participant observation, informal conversations including above all guided and narrative interviews will be held. Selected cognitive anthropological methods will be used in registering friendship categories in an intra- and interethnic comparison. For the study of solidarity and cooperative behaviour, samples will be taken and individual sociograms as well as mobility diagrams will be made that will serve the recording of friendship networks. A gender and generation conscious perspective will be maintained for all these procedures. A processual approach will be of primary importance.


Schuster P., R. Stichweh, J. Schmidt, F. Trillmich, M. Guichard and G. Schlee. 2003. "Freundschaft und Verwandtschaft als Gegenstand interdisziplinärer Forschung. Einleitung zum Themenschwerpunkt". Sozialersinn. Zeitschrift für hermeneutische Forschung 1, pp. 3-20.

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