Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking

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Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking


The aim of this report is to provide an overview of the research on social and cultural aspects of alcohol, and the significant conclusions that can be drawn from this literature, in a form that will be helpful to decision-makers.

The findings and conclusions presented here are based mainly on extensive bibliographic research conducted by the Social Issues Research Centre for the Amsterdam Group. This work involved a literature search of over 5000 books, journal articles, conference proceedings, abstracts and research papers (a Selected Bibliography of over 2000 references is provided with this report). The research was aided by on-line computer links to university and government libraries and databases around the world, as well as some direct contact with key researchers. We have also drawn to some extent on our own cross-cultural field research on specific social aspects of drinking.

Although no review of this nature can ever be exhaustive or definitive, we are confident that the material on which this summary is based provides the foundation for an accurate and balanced overview of the social roles of alcohol in human societies. In the interests of such balance and accuracy, we have adopted the largely ‘phenomenological’ approach advocated by social scientists concerned with the objective study of drinking behaviour per se, rather the problem-oriented approach of those concerned primarily with the prevention and treatment of deviant or dysfunctional drinking. Heath (1987) includes among the "significant generalisations that derive from cross-cultural study of the subject" the fact that:

"The association of drinking with any kind of specifically associated problems - physical, economic, psychological, social relational or other - is rare among cultures throughout both history and the contemporary world."

This statement is now uncontroversial and commonplace among anthropologists engaged in cross-cultural research on alcohol, who recognise that non-problematic drinking is ‘normal’ in both statistical and sociological terms. We are aware, however,  that such factual statements about the use of alcohol are often confused with moral judgements about its merits. In this context, we must emphasise that recognition of the scientifically ‘abnormal’ status of alcohol-related problems in no way denies or belittles the suffering of those who are affected by such problems.

It is now widely acknowledged, however, that the dominance of problem-oriented perspectives has led to a serious imbalance in the study of alcohol, whereby problems affecting only a small minority of drinkers have received disproportionate attention, while the study of ‘normal’ drinking has been neglected. Our own profession must accept much of the blame for this imbalance, as Selden Bacon (1943) noted over half a century ago, when he complained that dysfunctional drinking:

" … has attracted all of the attention, just as the comet or shooting star elicits more comment than do the millions of ‘ordinary’ stars. In the average citizen this imbalance is not blameworthy; in the scientifically trained student, however, it is blameworthy …The entire field of social science may be freely criticised in this way; in many instances it may still be found gazing in starry-eyed wonder at the occasional volcanoes, emeralds and icebergs …when it has a gigantic earth crust as its field of enquiry."

His warning was clearly not heeded, as some thirty years later, M.K. Bacon (1973) indicated that not much had changed, and suggested some reasons for the continuing imbalance in alcohol studies:

"In spite of their prevalence, through time and across societies, drinking customs per se have received relatively little attention from research workers. Instead, research in this field has been dominated by a social problem orientation and has focused mainly on deviant aspects of drinking…This differential emphasis…undoubtedly reflects multiple origins: the negative image of drinking bequeathed by the Temperance Movement, the disease concept of alcoholism associated with the medical profession, and the realistic and urgent need to control drug-induced incompetence in an increasingly mechanised world."

It is also perhaps no coincidence that nations with a strong Temperance tradition and ambivalent attitudes towards alcohol have entirely dominated the field of alcohol studies, while cultures in which drinking is not perceived as a problem have seen little need to conduct extensive research on the subject. Mäkelä (1975) observed, with a degree of wry humour, that "alcohol research as a behavioural science is particularly active in ambivalent societies."

As we approach the end of the century, the imbalance still persists, leading Paul Roman (1991) to register yet another plea for more objective research:

"Alcohol studies must be liberated from justifying our existence in the political arena. Accepting the primacy of the social-problem significance of a phenomenon directs research primarily toward the political-problem issues rather than toward good quality science."

By this time, however, the increasing involvement of anthropologists in the study of alcohol had already introduced a more phenomenological approach, although their perspective was still at odds with ‘mainstream’ alcohol research, as noted by Heath (1987):

" … whereas most anthropologists who study alcohol tend to focus on belief and behaviour, paying at least as much attention to ‘normal’ as to ‘deviant’ patterns, most others who study alcohol tend to focus on ‘alcoholism’, variously defined, by implying that habitual drinking is invariably associated with some kind of problem or kinds of problems."

Although their focus on non-problematic drinking led Room (1983) to accuse some ethnographers of ‘problem deflation’, it is clear that the phenomenological approach in itself does not by any means deny or minimise the fact that alcohol can be a social problem in certain cultures. On the contrary, the study of drinking as a complex sociocultural phenomenon has led to a better understanding of the specific cultural factors associated with problematic, anti-social drinking patterns, as well as identifying the characteristic features of drinking-cultures which do not exhibit these tendencies. Perhaps the most valuable contribution of this approach has been, as Heath (1987) points out:

" … the fundamental realisation that many of the outcomes of [alcohol] use are mediated by cultural factors rather than chemical, biological or other pharmaco-physiological factors."

Having stressed the importance of the anthropological approach in understanding the influence of cultural factors on drinking ‘outcomes’, we also recognise that this perspective has in some cases been taken to extremes, leading to a ‘cultural reductionism’ which is no more helpful than the ‘biochemical reductionism’ of purely medical models. The cultural-reductionist tendency which leads otherwise intelligent anthropologists to make ludicrous statements such as "sex differences do not exist external to cultural perceptions of them" (McDonald, 1994) can also cloud their judgement on alcohol issues. Just as there are certain features of male and female anatomy which clearly exist independently of cultural perceptions, there are equally obvious biochemical effects of ethanol (on psycho-motor functions, for example, and on the liver) which are independent of social and cultural factors.

Both comparative studies and controlled experiments have demonstrated, however, that while ethanol produces well-understood neurochemical changes, the wide variations in social and behavioural outcomes of drinking can only be explained with reference to cultural factors, and to culturally determined beliefs about the effects of drinking (MacAndrew and Edgerton, 1969; Marshall, 1979; Marlatt and Rohsenow, 1980; Holyfield et al, 1995; Peele, 1997). Yet despite the obvious centrality of cultural factors in, for example, the association (or lack of it) between alcohol and violence, where drinking produces quite opposite behavioural effects in different cultures, otherwise intelligent scientists still attempt to explain the ‘link’ purely in terms of ethanol-induced decreases of 5-hydroxy tryptamine in the brain, without any reference whatsoever to well-documented cross-cultural variation (e.g. D.G. Grahame-Smith, 1993).

Somewhere between these extremes must lie a sensible balance, in which the mind-numbing effects of theoretical or political biases are minimised, and both biochemical and cultural evidence can be assessed in a rational manner. Levin’s (1990) characterisation of alcohol use as a complex ‘biopsychosocial’ phenomenon may provide a useful conceptual meeting-point for the various competing approaches, and the work of Dwight Heath provides an excellent model of even-handedness and clear thinking in this field.

Such qualities are not only desirable, but essential, in a field where academic findings can have significant implications for policy and legislation - and may be used as ammunition in battles between moral crusaders, lobbyists and others with ideological, political or commercial vested interests. Our own purpose in this summary is not to add fuel to already overheated debates about the virtues or evils of drink. We intend neither to praise alcohol nor to ‘bury’ it, but to provide a calm and balanced overview of the available information on the role of alcohol in human cultures, the conclusions that may reasonably be drawn from the existing literature and the important questions that still remain.