Becker Friedman Institute
for Research in Economics
The University of Chicago

Research. Insights. Impact. Advancing the Legacy of Chicago Economics.

Making Friends in Violent Neighborhoods: Strategies among Elementary School Children

April 2017
Anjanette M. Chan Tack, Mario Small

While many studies have examined friendship formation among children in conventional contexts, comparatively fewer have examined how the process is shaped by neighborhood violence. The literature on violence and gangs has identified coping strategies that likely affect friendships, but most children in violent neighborhoods are not gang members and not all friendship relations involve gangs. We examine the friendship formation process based on in-depth interviews with 72 students, parents, and teachers in two elementary schools in violent Chicago neighborhoods. All students were African American boys and girls ages 11 to 15. We find that while conventional studies depict friendship formation among children as largely affective in nature, the process among the students we observed was, instead, primarily strategic. The children’s strategies were not singular but heterogeneous and malleable in nature. We identify and document five distinct strategies: protection-seeking, avoidance, testing, cultivating questioners, and kin-reliance. Girls were as affected as boys were, while they also reported additional preoccupations associated with sexual violence. We discuss implications for theories of friendship formation, violence, and neighborhood effects.