Amici, amigos (Mediterranean and Latin America)

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Amici, amigos
Location: Mediterranean and Latin America
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Author: Christian Giordano
Affiliation: University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

Original text by Christian Giordano

Amici and amigos are the Italian and Spanish words for friends, which, in the Mediterranean and Latin America context, may indicate a specifically instrumentally use of friendship ties. Friendship is a recurring theme in social sciences and in sociology in particular. Some of the classic sociology authors have often delved into this topic closely connected to the question of basic interpersonal relations and of cohesion and solidarity amongst human beings. With reference to interest for the sociological as well as anthropological issue of friendship, first and foremost we ought to mention authors such as Ferdinand Tönnies, Georg Simmel, Niklas Luhmann and not least Anthony Giddens, amongst others. All of these authors, who may be considered experts on this theme, share a decidedly occidental concept of friendship, i.e. that the emotional aspect is the primary characteristic of this relationship between two individuals. In his now classic text Runaway World (Giddens 1999: 61[1]), Giddens recently formulated the hypothesis that sexuality, love, relationships between parents and children as well as those between friends follow the same development models in the globalization process. In a possibly too optimistic or maximalist way, Giddens underscores that this evolution occurs “almost everywhere” (Bell and Coleman 1999: 1[2]). This would imply that the Occident’s emotional friendship would become a universal phenomenon. Empirical evidence, however, suggests a rather different scenario since in specific societies this type of evolution is not observable or remains rather marginal because instrumental friendship, as defined by American anthropologist Eric J. Wolf with reference to Latin America and Central America in particular (Wolf 1968: 1 ff. [3]), is predominant. In line with Eric J. Wolf, in this entry we will highlight how this type of informal dyadic relationship is very common also in Mediterranean societies, yet present also in specific African societies. Consequently, instrumental friendship cannot be regarded as a sociological exception or a mere ethnographic oddity.

Before concentrating on the characteristics of instrumental friendship, the ones of emotional friendship need to be considered. In fact, instrumental friendship can only be defined by contrast with the emotional one (Wolf 1968: 10[4]; Reina 1959: 44 ff. [5]). The latter occurs when two individuals exchange intangible reciprocal favours: spiritual, moral, romantic, abstract, sentimental, psychological. Sociologically speaking, emotional friendship arises when two individuals help each other in specific cases in which one of them needs intangible, thus emotional support in specific situations of tension, stress or pressure from their community (Wolf 1968: 10[6]). Thus, emotional friendship is a form of solidarity to avoid someone from feeling alone or neglected. In most cases, an emotional friendship is a private and intimate psychological relationship generally involving only two individuals. Instrumental friendship, instead, is a socially broader phenomenon since it has a more public quality (Wolf 1968: 12[7]).

Instrumental friendship in Mediterranean and Latin American societies is a symmetrical extra-kinship and extra-family relationship. Therefore, it is a dyadic relationship between two individuals with roughly the same social position and the same economic means. There can be no class or social strata difference between friends. Note that these relationships occur primarily amongst men. Age difference appears to be irrelevant (Magnarella 1975: 168). Far more important, instead, is that there must not be a disproportionate social gap, a great difference in prestige or a conspicuous class disparity between the two partners of the dyadic relationship.

Crucial to instrumental friendship is the symmetry and resulting transactional nature of the relationship. In fact, the important aspect of dyadic friendships, especially in Mediterranean societies, is not so much the mutual moral, spiritual or psychological support. This does not imply that these forms of mutual favours are missing, but rather that they are secondary. Far more important, in fact, is the symmetrical exchange of the more material opportunities that may arise from intermediations with important contacts and acquaintances in high places and in positions of power. In Mediterranean and Latin American societies, a person experiencing some problem with the administrative justice or state bureaucracy will try to influence the outcome of a legal action or to obtain a favourable ruling by mobilizing a close friend whom he presumes or is sure has the right friends for the task.

Yet, as previously mentioned, Mediterranean and Latin American instrumental friendships are always transactional because favours rendered must be honoured by corresponding counter-favours. For example, if a person wins a lawsuit or is granted a license to open a bar or a shop through the good offices of a friend, the latter will ask the former to return the favour, if the need arises, in order to obtain a sought-after public construction contract. Instrumental friendships are characterized precisely by this logic based on the transactional symmetry of favours. In Italy’s Mezzogiorno in particular, it is quite unremarkable and no one tries to conceal the fact that friends with “important acquaintances” are mobilized to better one’s own and one’s family economic position. Neighbours and others in general would be amazed or become suspicious if someone turned down a friend’s practical help on mere moral or sentimental grounds. This type of person might even jeopardize his reputation and consequently be regarded as a fool or, worse still, as someone blatantly honourless. He would be deemed unable to adequately protect his own family’s interests from the treacherous risks posed by his rivals and more in general by the public sphere, i.e. local administration, state bureaucracy and so on.

These observations point up that material and instrumental transactions between friends are in accordance with current social norms and conventions; therefore, society regards them as ‘normal’ and ‘rational’ interactions. To the single actors, friends who utterly reject any instrumental transaction seem ‘abnormal’ and ‘deviant’. In a sense, Western or Euro-American societies appear as a ‘topsy-turvy world’ to Mediterranean and Latin American actors, thus not a desirable ideal. Yet, we need to underscore that instrumental friendships have a multiplex character, i.e. they are not based on single, predetermined and unchangeable roles (Boissevain 1974: 30 ff. [8]). The exchange of favours and counter-favours touches many aspects of everyday life; thus, the informal structure of the single roles within a dyadic relationship between instrumental friends is highly differentiated. Ultimately, instrumental friendship must be regarded as an essential extension of a nuclear family and relatives, and those who do not conform to this type of relationship’s social norms will be censured by their community. The logical outcome in such cases is public ridicule or marginalization.

At this point, we need to underscore that the term friend, understood as a person to whom one can ask a favour that will then be reciprocated with a comparable favour, has an extremely positive connotation. Indicative of this state of affairs is the Mafioso rhetoric in Sicily in which the term friend of friends (amici degli amici) defines a relationship, not free from mutual instrumental favours, between members of the same Mafia group or even between a boss and his personal political connections. The alleged ritual kiss between Mafia boss Totò Riina and Italy’s former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti would have corroborated the prosecution’s thesis of their instrumental friendship.

With reference to instrumental friendship, we cannot focus solely on an analysis of this dyadic relationship. The societies we are examining are socially extremely complex and their members are integrated into highly diversified informal coalitions in which other types of interpersonal relationships are observable. These latter along with instrumental friendships broaden and enhance the highly personalized and essential network of a single individual or nuclear family. In this entry, we will focus on two basic types of relationships. The first of these relationships, aside from instrumental friendship, is godfatherhood (Italian comparaggio, Spanish compadrazgo, Greek koumbaria, Balkan kumstvo), i.e. the relationship between godparent and godchild that is particularly significant within the Christian world of Europe’s south and southeast and in all of Latin America. In the Islamic Mediterranean world, where godfatherhood does not exist, functionally similar relationships can be observed.

The second type of interpersonal and dyadic relationship that extends the ties of solidarity and protection beyond the limited context of instrumental friendship is the relationship between patron and client. These two roles may also overlap. The patron often institutionalizes his informal role by taking on the role of godfather as well. The comparaggio institution in Calabria has been cornered by powerful politicians linked to the electorally strongest parties and by high-ranking bureaucrats. Politicians try to acquire as many godchildren as possible in order to control the votes of entire families, thus securing those extra votes that can ensure their election (Piselli, 1981: 210 ff. [9]). The crucial feature of these two types of relationships, therefore, is their verticality. This means that both godfather and patron are acknowledged as individuals on the higher rungs of the social ladder, thus with more prestige and more opportunities than their godchildren and clients.

In brief, instrumental friends are primarily middlemen who ensure an increase of their partners’ informal social capital (Bourdieu, 1980: 2-3[10]). Clearly, the principle of reciprocity applies, i.e. whoever performs a favour will expect an analogous counter-favour, otherwise instrumental friendship can turn into rivalry, if not enmity.


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  2. Bell, Sandra, Coleman Simon. 1999. The Anthropology of Friendship. Oxford, New York: Berg.
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  5. Reina, Ruben. 1959. ‘Two Patterns of Friendship in a Guatemalan Community’, American Anthropologist, 61: 44-50.
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  8. Boissevain, Jeremy. 1974. Friends of Friends: Networks, Manipulators and Coalitions. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  9. Piselli, Fortunata. 1981. Parentela ed emigrazione. Mutamenti e continuità in una comunità calabrese. Torino: Einaudi.
  10. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1980. ‘Le capital social. Notes provisoires’, Actes de la recherché en sciences sociales, 31 : 2-3.