Drinking and Public Disorder

Drinking & Public Disorder - download the book in pdf format Dr Peter Marsh & Kate Fox 1992

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Drinking and Public Disorder
A report of research conducted for The Portman Group by MCM Research


This report contains summaries and analyses of research conducted between October 1989 and April 1991. The research was primarily concerned with the so called ‘lager lout’ phenomenon and the alleged links between drinking and disorder.

The main aims were as follows:


Research was conducted using, primarily, qualitative fieldwork methods in five locations in England: Banbury, Coventry, Oxford, Preston and Wakefield. These sites were carefully chosen in order to give a balanced geographic spread. They were also sites where the occurrence of drink-related disorder had been reported and where essential contacts with the police and other agencies were also available. Additional observation work and interviews, focusing on the special problems in seaside resorts, was conducted in Brighton and Blackpool.

Previous research, including the ‘Tuck’ report, had included demographic analyses of offenders convicted of drink-related crimes and Public Order Offences. Such measures, however, had largely failed to discriminate between offenders and their non-offending counterparts found in the same drinking contexts. Beyond the fact that offenders, like the majority of people to be found in city centres on Friday and Saturday evenings, were between the ages of 18 and 26 and came from C1, C2 and D social class backgrounds, there was little in the way of clear definition of the ‘lager lout’. There was, therefore, a clear need to gain an ‘insider’s’ view of public disorder - one which might usefully be contrasted with the perspectives from other standpoints, including those of the police, the media and other agencies.

Researching the insider’s standpoint (equivalent to the ‘emic’ perspective in anthropology) is, inevitably, a time-consuming activity. Substantial problems related to sampling and the identification of typical (or prototypical) cases arise. To whom should one talk? How can one check the authenticity of the information which informants provide? To what extent can generalizations be made from such ‘micro’ studies?

The approach taken in our research has been essentially ‘intensive’, as opposed to ‘extensive’ in the social science sense. In other words, it has focused on detailed case studies, rather than large-scale, but arguably shallow, research methodologies. The aim has been to illuminate the motivational characteristics of those most centrally involved in drink-related disorder and explore the social worlds in which their activities occur.

This central focus has been balanced by the collection of data from various sources regarding the frequency of disorderly behaviour as defined by, for example, police arrest statistics. While such data are often contaminated by a variety of factors (see Appendix A), they can still provide a useful, additional perspective on the frequency of drink-related acts of disorder in some of our principal research sites. Further ‘balancing’ perspectives were obtained from ‘expert witnesses’ – individuals such as experienced police officers, taxi drivers, licensed premises and fast-food outlet operators etc – with extensive experience of drink-related problems over a number of years.

The theoretical basis of our approach stems, primarily, from ethogenic social psychology and certain trends in sociology which are usually referred to as symbolic interactionism. A full elaboration of these approaches would be inappropriate in this report since they are well summarised elsewhere. (See Harré 1972 etc.) Here, however, it is important to note that such theoretical perspectives place great emphasis on the meanings attached to actions as seen from the participants’ standpoint, especially those which are generally defined as deviant. They also focus on the social function of such acts and the manner in which social identities may be established through participation in them. Further consideration is given to the tacit social rules which may guide and direct behaviour in specific social contexts. Certain patterns of ‘disorderly’ behaviour can often be shown to be distinctly orderly in the sense that the actions conform to shared behavioural prescriptions and interpretations. (See Marsh,P. 1978-1988 etc)

The employment of such an orientation, however, has not detracted from the essentially pragmatic nature of the research. As shown in the list of aims above, the intention has been not only to explain more clearly why drink-related disorder occurs, but also to explore both long- and short-term approaches to the reduction of such ‘problems’. For such practical approaches to be effective, however, it is essential to discover what the problems really are, as opposed to what many people might assume them to be. Given the extent of media coverage devoted to ‘lager louts’ and ‘drunken thugs’, additional, and more objective, perspectives on the phenomena are essential.

The principal fieldwork was carried out by John Middleton and Joe McCann, aided by a number of very competent assistants. They conducted over 200 observation sessions and elicited accounts from nearly 3000 individuals. Some of the account collection sessions, especially those with expert witnesses, involved the use of formal and semi-formal interviews with prepared protocols. The bulk of the information, however, derived from less structured sessions and even casual discussions with people in pubs and bars. These were participants in late-night activity in town and city centres at weekends and we refer to them in this report, for want of a more satisfactory description, as ‘punters’. In many cases, such casual contacts were followed by arrangements to meet and discuss the issues in a more structured setting. These discussions, typically, took place in local pubs on mid-week evenings and were often tape-recorded. These sessions provided much of the material which is presented in the main UK research section.

Report style

The summarising of voluminous qualitative material presents a number of problems. The transcripts of tape recorded interviews would, on their own, run to several hundred pages. The extensive observation and research notes would increase this bulk to an unmanageable level. On the other hand, we are keen to convey some of the ‘flavour’ of typical events in town centres and the things which our various contacts had to say. We have, therefore, tried to establish balance bewteen first-hand accounts and summary interpretations and analysis. The summaries of our research in various locations draw on excerpts from transcripts of discussions with participants and expert witnesses, such as police, taxi drivers, fast-food vendors, pub and club operators etc.

Naturally, we have been selective in the material which we have chosen to present. Our criteria for inclusion, however, have been quite systematically employed. The aim has been to provide a selection which reflects the balance present in all of our research material. We have also included material which illustrates the specific viewpoints and perspectives of the various contacts which were established in the research.

There is, of course, no clear, empirical way of establishing the degree to which the material is truly representative in conventional sampling terms. We have endeavoured to cast a wide net in geographical terms and we have included empirical data, despite their inherent flaws, obtained from all of the sources available to us. With all research reports, however, one has to assume that the authors are honest and that they have not deliberately manipulated the evidence to accord with pre-conceived notions or expectations of third parties. This is as true of research which uses, for example, questionnaire data as it is of studies such as ours which rely mainly on the collection of qualitative material.

In our case we have been guided, as was Tom Harrisson and The Mass Observation Unit over 50 years ago, by the evidence of our own eyes and by taking seriously what a wide variety of people with first-hand experience of the phenomenon of drink-related disorder had to say about it. While we recognise the inherent difficulties of such an approach, and we deal with a very specific problem concerning the interpretation of accounts in Section 3, we see no real substitute for it. To this extent we have followed T.S.Eliot’s dictum: "Let us not ask what is it, Let us go and pay a visit".