The Compass of Friendship: Narratives, Identities, and Dialogues


William Rawlins

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  • Dedication

    For my Dad and Mom, Jack and June Rawlins, during their 65th year of marriage. “I hope I've learned some things they've been teaching.”


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    What does it mean to speak and act as friends? How does friendship serve our well-being and identities as individuals and as members of various communities? To me these are fundamental questions. They call to mind the ethical spirit, practical flexibility, everyday enjoyment, and political significance of friendship. Accordingly, this book explores enduring ideals, concrete practices, and contextual demands of communicating as friends. It examines the potential contributions of friendship to the well-lived life across private and public contexts.

    We can pursue friendship as a freestanding bond or as a dimension of other relationships. It intrigues me as a communication scholar that our friendships primarily continue to the extent that we meet the negotiated expectations of our relationships. Institutional, religious, and legal sanctions or familial bonds typically do not preserve friendships (Paine, 1969). Even if external forces compel interaction between persons, friendship cannot be coerced. Within the constraints of our social situations, our friendships are voluntary relations, which either party can unilaterally terminate. Sustaining friendships requires us to communicate in mutually worthwhile ways.

    Despite their voluntary basis, material circumstances and cultural discourses condition our possibilities for friendships. This book argues that friendship offers edifying practices for addressing significant contingencies of social life. I begin with the dynamic tensions of similarity and difference composing our identities as selves and others. I further probe quandaries arising from our simultaneous needs for individual affirmation and belonging to groups. Throughout the book I emphasize the capacities of communicating in a spirit of friendship for making choices with others. I describe in depth how friends interweave dialogue and narrative in their communication. The book then demonstrates these conceptual advances across chapters devoted to actual conversation between friends, student discussions of cross-sex friendships, narratives of cross-race friendships, and the ethical and political potentials of friendships.

    Using an array of stories and examples, I encourage readers to connect the issues at stake with their own lives. I hope readers will see their own identities and friendships as negotiated through storytelling and dialogues accomplished with others though subject to assorted constraints. I want to show how friendship presents us with moments of significant choice in shaping our selves, other persons, relationships, and communities. Thus, the book investigates the degree to which people have a say in shaping the events and quality of their lives with others.

    The topic of friendship has steadily attracted greater interest both inside and outside of the academy over the past few decades. Even so, I know of no other book presently that addresses the configuration of issues examined here. The primary audience for this volume is persons seeking to understand resources and challenges of communicating as personal and political friends. I want the book to speak to a concerned, broadly educated, general reading public. I also believe professional scholars, teachers, and undergraduate and graduate students across a variety of fields such as communication, sociology, psychology, women's studies, human development, organizational studies, and education will find much of interest here. The book will be especially useful for scholars focusing on interpersonal and relational communication, social and personal relationships, friendship communication, dialogue studies, community building, and the social construction of identities. I write for a broad audience that spans disciplines with specific interests in friendships emphasizing face-to-face interactions. I acknowledge the widespread and proliferating use of communication technologies by persons who can afford and choose to employ them to supplement co-present interaction with friends and to develop virtual friendships. However, those practices for enacting friendships I leave to other scholars to study.

    I would like to thank several people for their contributions to this work. First, I am always grateful for the opportunity to learn with undergraduate and graduate students. Undergraduates embody hope for me. Among other blessings, engaging with their candid insights over the last 15 years enlivens the treatment of cross-sex friendship in Chapter 5. Discussing questions and contentions with graduate students in my seminars on communication and friendship, dialogue and experience, and communication and narrative at Purdue University and at Ohio University has helped test and vivify ideas presented here. I appreciate Kenny Sibal's assistance with the references. I thank Karen and Chris for taping and sharing their conversation with me discussed in Chapter 4. I thank my friend, the late Cindy Marshall, for arranging their participation. I miss her thoughtful support, hearty laugh, and love of learning.

    I thank Tom Berndt for his keen conversations and, as head of the Department of Psychological Sciences at Purdue, for providing me with office space to begin work on this book during my spring 2002 sabbatical. I thank Siv Fischbein and Cissi Olsson for inviting me to explore my ideas on friendship and learning at the Stockholm Institute of Education during October of 2006. I am grateful to Claudia Hale, Director of the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University, for providing time during the winter quarter of 2008 to complete the work.

    I celebrate Margaret Seawell's encouragement early on to follow my lights in writing this book, Todd Armstrong's perceptive advice throughout the process, and Aja Baker's and Sarah Quesenberry's able assistance. I heartily thank the reviewers of this manuscript for their careful work and helpful comments: Austin S. Babrow (Ohio University), Arthur P. Bochner (University of South Florida), Jim DiSanza (Idaho State University), Elaine Bass Jenks (West Chester University), Christopher N. Poulos (University of North Carolina at Greensboro), Debra-L Sequeira (Seattle Pacific University), and Kathy Werking (University of Louisville).

    I value the timely sentiments and beneficial insights of persons too numerous to mention who have talked with and supported me throughout the writing of this book. I am grateful to Dana Cloud for her generous and perceptive commentary on Chapter 5. I thank J. W. Smith for his valuable input on Chapter 6. I came to Athens to write this book, and I have much enjoyed the welcoming and collaborative environment I experience with my colleagues at Ohio University's School of Communication Studies. My friendship, teaching together, and zestful conversations with Greg Shepherd, Raymie McKerrow, Lynn Harter, and Scott Titsworth have continually provided spirited, scholarly interaction and, with Mary Shepherd, Gayle McKerrow, and Sandy Rawlins, many good times.

    I especially thank Ed Shockley, my brothers Rocky, Ron, and Terry, and their families, J. R. and Laura Rawlins, Nancy Pollitt, and the memory of Jack Pollitt. I deeply appreciate the editorial skill, teaching acumen, and dedication to communication theory that Lainey Jenks contributed in carefully perusing this entire manuscript. It is a better book for her efforts.

    I've written this book in the first home office I've ever had. This is because for many years I wanted to enjoy fully my time at home with Sandy, and our two children, Brian and Shelley, when they were younger and still lived with us. Now that they're out making their way in the world, I've appreciated Brian's encouragement and phone calls about “the new book.” I've also enjoyed Shelley's support and her sharing readings with me. My wife, Sandy, outdid herself once more as my writing teacher. With consummate care she transformed my words from dense to danceable. She's a great bench coach who knows when to “take it to the house” and when to call time out and go for a walk. She shared grace, wisdom, and love with me during the times this book was written out on the ridge. It's time now to enjoy together some of the songs begun while writing this book.

    BillRawlinsShade, Ohio
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    About the Author

    William K. Rawlins (PhD, Temple University) is Stocker Professor in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University. His book, Friendship Matters: Communication, Dialectics, and the Life Course, was selected as an Outstanding Academic Book for 1993 by the editors of Choice, and received the Gerald R. Miller Book Award in 1994 from the Interpersonal and Small Group Interaction Division of the National Communication Association. In 2002 he received The Theory That Has Left a Legacy Award: “The Dialectical Perspective” from the Communication Theory Interest Group of the Central States Communication Association. Over the past 25 years, Professor Rawlins has published extensively about the unique challenges and dialectical tensions of communicating in friendships.

    Bill teaches courses in communication in friendships across the life course, interpersonal and relational communication, communication theory, dialogue and experience, interpretive and ethnographic inquiry, communication and narrative, and Gregory Bateson and communication theory. While at Purdue University, he received the W. Charles Redding Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Department of Communication five times, the School of Liberal Arts Departmental Educational Excellence Award for 2000–2001, and the School of Liberal Arts Educational Excellence Award for 2002–2003.

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