Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking
One of the problems facing those concerned with the development of policies and legislation on alcohol issues is the sheer volume of research and publications on this subject. In addition, these works span a variety of disciplines, and are often couched in academic jargon which may be incomprehensible to non-specialists.
In this section, we therefore provide a brief, bullet-point summary of the key findings and significant generalisations that can be drawn from our survey of the literature on social and cultural aspects of alcohol. Subsequent sections provide more detailed examination of some of these findings, but the generalisations presented in this summary can be regarded as relatively uncontroversial ‘sociocultural facts’ about drinking, many of which have been consistent features of similar literature-reviews and summaries for over a decade (Douglas, 1987; Pittman and White, 1991; Heath, 1998).
- Alcohol has played a central role in almost all human cultures since Neolithic times (about 4000 BC). All societies, without exception, make use of intoxicating substances, alcohol being by far the most common.
- There is convincing evidence that the development of agriculture - regarded as the foundation of civilisation - was based on the cultivation of grain for beer, as much as for bread.
- The persistence of alcohol use, on a near-universal scale, throughout human evolution, suggests that drinking must have had some significant adaptive benefits, although this does not imply that the practice is invariably beneficial.
- From the earliest recorded use of alcohol, drinking has been a social activity, and both consumption and behaviour have been subject to self-imposed social controls.
- Attempts at prohibition have never been successful except when couched in terms of sacred rules in highly religious cultures.
- There is enormous cross-cultural variation in the way people behave when they drink. In some societies (such as the UK, Scandinavia, US and Australia), alcohol is associated with violent and anti-social behaviour, while in others (such as Mediterranean and some South American cultures) drinking behaviour is largely peaceful and harmonious.
- This variation cannot be attributed to different levels of consumption or genetic differences, but is clearly related to different cultural beliefs about alcohol, expectancies regarding the effects of alcohol and social norms regarding drunken comportment.
- The findings of both cross-cultural research and controlled experiments indicate that the effects of alcohol on behaviour are primarily determined by social and cultural factors, rather than the chemical actions of ethanol.
- In global statistical terms, physical, psychological and social problems associated with alcohol affect only a small minority of consumers, even in the more ‘problematic’ drinking-cultures.
- The prevalence of alcohol-related problems is not directly related to average per capita consumption: countries with low average consumption (such as Ireland and Iceland) often register relatively high rates of alcohol-related social and psychiatric problems, while countries with much higher levels of consumption (such as France and Italy) score low on most indices of problem drinking.
- Alcohol-related problems are associated with specific cultural factors, relating to beliefs, attitudes, norms and expectancies about drinking.
- Societies with generally positive beliefs and expectancies about alcohol (variously defined as ‘non-Temperance’, ‘wet’, ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘integrated’ drinking-cultures) experience significantly fewer alcohol-related problems; negative or inconsistent beliefs and expectancies (found mainly in ‘Temperance’, ‘dry’, ‘Nordic’ or ‘ambivalent’ drinking-cultures) are associated with higher levels of alcohol-related problems.
- The beliefs and expectancies of a given culture can change. In many countries, particularly in Europe, there are early signs of a shift towards more negative/ambivalent beliefs in previously positive/integrated drinking-cultures, which may result in an increase in alcohol-related problems (see ‘Symbolic functions’, below).
- Although some cultures experience more alcohol-related problems than others, moderate, unproblematic drinking is the norm in most cultures, while both excessive drinking and abstention are abnormal behaviours.
- Most of the problems commonly ‘linked’ with drinking - crime, violence, disorder, accidents, spousal abuse, disease, etc. - are correlated with excessive (abnormal) drinking rather than with moderate (normal) drinking.
Rules and regulation
- In all cultures, drinking is a rule-governed activity, hedged about with self-imposed norms and regulations concerning who may drink how much of what, when, how, in what contexts, with what effects, etc. - rules which are often the focus of strong emotions.
- Although variations in these rules and norms reflect the characteristic values, attitudes and beliefs of different cultures, there are significant cross-cultural similarities or ‘constants’ in the unwritten rules governing alcohol use.
- Analysis of cross-cultural research reveals four near-universal ‘constants’:
1. Proscription of solitary drinking
2.Prescription of sociability
3. Social control of consumption and behaviour
4. Restrictions on female and ‘underage’ drinking.
- Research findings indicate that these unofficial rules, and the self-imposed protocols of drinking rituals, have more influence on both levels of consumption and drinking behaviour than ‘external’ or legal controls.
- The literature to date offers no satisfactory explanation for the near-universality of restrictions on female drinking, as all researchers have attempted to explain this in purely cultural terms. We suggest that the prevalence of such restrictions may be due to non-cultural factors such as differences in male and female physiology resulting in more pronounced effects of alcohol on females.
- While all contemporary cultures impose some restrictions on ‘underage’ drinking, both the definitions of ‘underage’ and the nature of the restrictions vary widely (despite increasing uniformity in official, legal controls) with more rigid restrictions in ‘ambivalent’ drinking-cultures and more permissive approaches in ‘integrated’ drinking-cultures.
- In all societies, alcoholic beverages are used as powerful and versatile symbolic tools, to construct and manipulate the social world.
cross-cultural research reveals four main symbolic uses of alcoholic beverages:
1. As labels defining the nature of social situations or events
2. As indicators of social status
3. As statements of affiliation
4. As gender differentiators.
- There is convincing historical and contemporary evidence to show that the adoption of ‘foreign’ drinks often involves the adoption of the drinking patterns, attitudes and behaviours of the alien culture. This has nothing to do with any intrinsic properties of the beverages themselves - beer, for example, may be associated with disorderly behaviour in some cultures or sub-cultures and with benign sociability in others.
- In Europe, the influence of some ‘ambivalent’, northern, beer-drinking cultures on ‘integrated’, southern, wine-drinking cultures is increasing, and is associated with potentially detrimental changes in attitudes and behaviour (e.g. the adoption of British ‘lager-lout’ behaviour among young males in Spain, and see Transitional Rituals below).
- Historical evidence suggests that attempts to curb the anti-social excesses associated with an ‘alien’ beverage through Draconian restrictions on alcohol per se may result in the association of such behaviour with the formerly ‘benign’ native beverage, and an overall increase in alcohol-related problems.
- Some societies appear less susceptible to the cultural influence of alien beverages than others. Although the current ‘convergence’ of drinking patterns also involves increasing consumption of wine in formerly beer- or spirits-dominated cultures, this has so far not been accompanied by an adoption of the more harmonious behaviour and attitudes associated with wine-drinking cultures. (This may in part reflect the generally higher social status of those adopting wine-drinking.)
- Drinking is, in all cultures, essentially a social activity, and most societies have specific, designated environments for communal drinking.
- Cross-cultural differences in the physical nature of public drinking-places reflect different attitudes towards alcohol. Positive, integrated, non-Temperance cultures tend to favour more ‘open’ drinking environments, while negative, ambivalent, Temperance cultures are associated with ‘closed’, insular designs.
- Research also reveals significant cross-cultural similarities or ‘constants’:
1. In all cultures, the drinking-place is a special environment, a separate social world with its own customs and values
2. Drinking-places tend to be socially integrative, egalitarian environments
3. The primary function of drinking-places is the facilitation of social bonding.
- In all societies, alcohol plays a central role in transitional rituals - both major life-cycle events and minor, everyday transitions.
- In terms of everyday transitions, cultures (such as the US and UK) in which alcohol is only used to mark the transition from work to play - where drinking is associated with recreation and irresponsibility, and regarded as antithetical to working - tend to have higher levels of alcohol-related problems.
- Cultures in which drinking is an integral part of the normal working day, and alcohol may be used to mark the transition to work (e.g. France, Spain, Peru), tend to have lower levels of alcohol-related problems.
- Shifts away from traditional pre-work or lunchtime drinking in these cultures could be a cause for concern, as these changes can indicate a trend towards drinking patterns and attitudes associated with higher levels of alcohol-related problems.
- Alcohol is universally associated with celebration, and drinking is, in all cultures, an essential element of festivity.
- In societies with an ambivalent, morally charged relationship with alcohol (such as the UK, US, Scandinavia, Australia), ‘celebration’ is used as an excuse for drinking. In societies in which alcohol is a morally neutral element of normal life (such as Italy, Spain and France), alcohol is strongly associated with celebration, but celebration is not invoked as a justification for every drinking occasion.
- In cultures with a tradition of casual, everyday drinking in addition to celebratory drinking, any shifts towards the more episodic celebratory drinking of ‘ambivalent’ cultures should be viewed with concern, as these patterns are associated with higher levels of alcohol-related problems.
- Although European countries are among the world’s highest consumers of alcohol, the literature review showed that very little research has focused on social and cultural aspects of drinking in Europe.
- Most national and cross-cultural studies of drinking in Europe have been of a purely quantitative, epidemiological nature and provide little or no insight into the social contexts and cultural roles of drinking.
- The majority of such studies have also been explicitly ‘problem-oriented’ - sometimes to the extent that ‘non-problematic’ countries such as Italy have been deliberately excluded from the samples. This has led to an unbalanced perspective.
- Of the very few genuinely ‘sociocultural’ studies, most have involved small-scale ethnographic research in remote regions or unrepresentative sub-cultures, rather than mainstream cultural contexts.
- The only up-to-date, sociocultural work focusing on mainstream drinking-cultures in different European societies is Heath’s (1995) International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Although by far the most informative source currently available, this is a global survey with only 10-12 pages on each country.
- There is a clear and urgent need for large-scale systematic research on social and cultural aspects of drinking in Europe, and for continious monitoring of shifts and changes in mainstream European drinking-cultures, particularly in terms of the effects of cultural ‘convergence’.
- Although written for a mainly European audience, this SIRC report is based on a global literature-review and draws on evidence and examples from a wide range of drinking-cultures around the world. This broader perspective in part reflects the limited relevant research material available on European drinking-cultures, but is also a deliberate attempt to avoid the parochialism which often characterises research on alcohol.