Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking

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Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking

Rules and regulation

"Where alcohol is known, patterns for its use and for abstention are prescribed, usually in fine detail. There have been very few, if any, societies whose people knew the use of alcohol and yet paid little attention to it. Alcohol may be tabooed; it is not ignored."
David G.Mandelbaum, Alcohol and Culture, 1965

There is no such thing as random drinking. Drinking, in every culture, is a rule-governed activity, hedged about with prescriptions and norms concerning who may drink how much of what, when, where, with whom, in what manner and with what effects.

This is to be expected. One of the distinguishing characteristics of homo sapiens is our passion for regulation - our tendency to surround even the most basic, necessary activities such as eating and mating with elaborate rules and rituals, and to attach immense social significance to every aspect of the process. The nature of these rules may vary dramatically from one culture to another, but rule-making itself is in our nature.

Even more than with sex and food, however, the specific unwritten rules and norms governing the use of alcohol in individual cultures invariably reflect the characteristic values, beliefs and attitudes of those cultures. Heath (1991) points out that:

" … just as drinking and its effects are imbedded in other aspects of culture, so are many other aspects of culture imbedded in the act of drinking."

The fact that drinking is regulated in accordance with the fundamental themes of a given culture may account for the increasing popularity of ‘alcohology’ among anthropologists and other social scientists concerned with discovering and explaining these themes. Equally, ethnographic material on drinking practices and their relation to significant cultural themes is of value to those whose interest in alcohol is primarily commercial or political.


Cross-cultural variation in drinking practices ranges from the total prohibition of some Moslems, Mormons and other religious groups to what Mandelbaum (1965) describes as ‘avid immersion’ - exemplified by the Kofyar of Nigeria and the Bolivian Camba - and includes almost every possible degree and combination of abstinence and indulgence in between these two extremes (Ahlstrom-Laasko, 1976, 1984; Alder, 1991; Allamani et al, 1988; Alvarez, 1993; Badri, 1976; Cottino, 1995; Douglas, 1987; Dragadze, 1994; Eriksen, 1993; Gamela, 1995; Glassner, 1991; Hanna, 1976; Levin, 1990; Levine, 1992; MacAndrew and Edgerton, 1969; Nahoum-Grappe, 1995; Pittman and White, 1991; Rooney, 1991; Segal, 1990; Weiss and Moore, 1991b).

In complex modern societies, the rules and practices of different sub-groups, sub-cultures, classes and castes may also be at variance with the dominant drinking-culture. Nor are the drinking norms of any culture static and immutable: a variety of factors may result in significant changes in drinking practices, from the acculturation of a minority into the dominant culture to the (numerically) disproportionate influence of a minority - such as foreign tourists or colonial occupiers - on the mainstream culture (Cottino, 1995; Eriksen, 1993; Freund, 1985; Gefou-Madianou, 1992; Gamella, 1995; Kideckel, 1985; Marin et al, 1993; MacAndrew and Edgerton, 1969; McDonald, 1994; Pyorala, 1988b; Sulkunen, 1988).

Significant constants

Cultural differences, variations and changes in the norms governing drinking practices are described and discussed in some detail in the following sections on symbolism, drinking-places and rituals. In this section, we are therefore primarily concerned with the identification of significant cross-cultural similarities, which can provide greater insight into the role of alcohol in human society as a whole - and perhaps help to explain the persistence of drinking as a near-universal feature of human behaviour.

Proscription of solitary drinking

The most important of these cross-cultural constants in the social norms governing alcohol use is the near-universal taboo on solitary drinking. The fact that drinking is, in almost all cultures, essentially a social act, is recognised throughout the anthropological literature, and ethnographic data from a wide range of cultures indicate that solitary drinking is at the very least ‘negatively evaluated’, and often specifically proscribed.

This rule appears to be largely consistent across both ‘integrated drinking-cultures’ (societies in which alcohol is an accepted, morally neutral element of normal life) and ‘ambivalent drinking-cultures’ (societies with a more ambiguous, uneasy, morally charged and problematic relationship with alcohol). In Sweden, an extreme example of the latter type, Bjerén (1992) finds that:

"Drinking alone should not be done. To drink alone is to be anti-social (by not wanting to share); it is commonly thought to be an indication of alcoholism. And alcoholism is shameful: to be labelled an alcoholic is a condemnation beyond words…"

The Vlach Gypsies of Hungary, who enjoy a far more relaxed and untroubled relationship with alcohol, have a similar aversion to solitary drinking. Stewart (1992) reports:

"At home on the settlement neither men nor women normally drink alone. If they have alcohol at home one or two others will be invited to share … to drink alone when there are other Gypsies around would be a particularly poignant denial of commitment to links with significant others…away from the settlement [they] may drop into a bar for a solitary drink, but even there if they see a Gypsy they are more or less bound to try to treat their fellow Gypsy."

It is interesting to note that such solitary drinking as does occur among the Gypsies is done in bars. In both ‘integrated’ and ‘ambivalent’ drinking-cultures, apparently ‘solitary’ drinking in bars is regarded as significantly different from solitary drinking at home. The bar is by definition a social environment, and choosing to drink in this public setting, even if unaccompanied, conveys a tacit message of sociability.

In some cultures, however, the taboo on solitary drinking is rigidly enforced. In the Hmong villages of northern Laos, for example, a drinking-culture more strictly regulated than the Hungarian Gypsies’, but still harmonious, Westermeyer (1985) observes that:

"All alcohol consumption occurred in groups, and only at times approved by the community and by tradition. There was no individual use of alcohol as a medicinal, a food or a recreational intoxicant. Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence did not occur."

Among the Bolivian Camba, whose frequent and extreme drunkenness places them firmly at the ‘avid immersion’ end of Mandelbaum’s spectrum, drinking alone is equally inconceivable. The Camba drink only in social contexts, in the majority of which all participants drink in turn from the same glass. Despite their extensive inebriety, alcoholism and alcohol-related problems are unknown among the Camba (Heath, 1991).

Societies vary in terms of the degree to which solitary drinking is tolerated, and, as we have seen, there may be special circumstances in which drinking alone is acceptable or somehow does not really count as ‘solitary’. There may be greater tolerance of some solitary drinking, but not solitary drunkenness, in highly industrialised societies where increasing numbers of people live alone. There are no cultures, however, in which drinking alone is actively approved or encouraged.

The fact that solitary drinking is proscribed even in the most heavy-drinking and ‘integrated’ drinking-cultures indicates that this rule is not connected with moral ambivalence about alcohol. The proscription of solitary drinking is, rather, a corollary of the prescription of sociable drinking.

Prescription of sociability

Since the earliest use of alcohol, drinking has been a social act. Like the Camba, our ancestors not only drank together, but often drank from the same vessel: Ancient Egyptian pictures, for example, show a single pot with long straws for communal drinking. (It may be impossible to determine from the archaeological evidence whether the very earliest hunter-gatherer consumption of alcohol - probably of naturally fermented fruits - was conducted in a social context, yet as zoologist Desmond Morris points out, even elephants do not get drunk alone, but have been observed to gather in noisy, inebriated groups around over-ripe fruit trees.) In the contemporary world, alcohol remains a quintessentially social substance.

Mandelbaum’s (1965) brief inventory of cross-cultural similarities in drinking practices includes the significant generalisation: "Drinking together generally symbolizes durable social solidarity - or at least amity - among those who share a drink". Thirty years on, the accumulated ethnographic evidence gives us no cause to revise this statement. If any of the rules governing drinking can be said to be truly universal, in that it is found in some form in all cultures where alcohol is used, this would be the prescription of sociability. Virtually all of the known ritual practices and etiquettes associated with drinking are specifically designed to promote social interaction and social bonding.


At the simplest level, alcohol is a substance that is shared: almost all drinking rituals and etiquettes involve sharing. The Camba practice of drinking from the same glass, for example, is found throughout the world. In the Republic of Georgia, the custom of drinking from the same cup is called ‘megobarebi’, which is translated as ‘close friends’ (Mars and Altman, 1987). Even where separate cups are used, sharing is prescribed. Among the Lele of Zaire, for example, Ngokwey notes that drunkenness is socially disapproved of primarily because it shows an egoistic lack of sharing; it indicates that one has drunk alone and too much, without sharing.

In many cultures, alcohol is shared not only with fellow drinkers, but also with the Gods and with the dead. At Navajo house-parties, drinking begins when one of the older men produces a bottle of wine and pours the first drop as a libation to Mother Earth, before taking a drink and passing the bottle on, and is brought to a close when the last drop is again offered to Mother Earth (Topper, 1985). Hispanic youth-gangs in New York pour a drop from their bottles of ‘Thunderbird’ on the ground before drinking, as a libation to their dead ‘Brothers’, while Hungarian gypsies gather round family graves on All Souls’ Day to ‘share’ drinks with the departed (Stewart, 1992).

In most cultures, we find that the rules governing drinking stipulate not only that alcohol should be consumed in a social context and shared but that this sharing should be conducted in a friendly manner, with frequent expressions of goodwill and amity between participants. The practice of ‘toasting’, for example, has been observed in some form in almost every culture, from the simple, generic ‘Cheers!’ (Santé, Slainte, Salud, C’in C’in, Prost, Skol, Salute, L’chaim, etc.) to the elaborate and inventive toasts of Georgia and other societies in which all drinking is ‘done by toasting’ ( Mars and Altman, 1987; Thornton, 1987).


In most cultures, the sociability prescription dictates that alcohol must not only be shared, and shared in a friendly, integrative manner, but that it must be exchanged: drinking almost invariably involves some form of reciprocal giving. The concept of reciprocal exchange as the foundation of social relations has long been a central feature of anthropological enquiry. We often exchange - gifts, food, brides, hospitality, etc. - with those with whom we might otherwise fight: reciprocal giving creates and maintains vital social bonds.

Throughout the ethnographic literature on drinking, we find that the reciprocal giving of alcohol, both in specific drinking rituals and in the wider social context, serves to establish and maintain interpersonal and social bonds. In many societies, reciprocal giving of alcohol is at the heart of the process by which essential social, economic and political networks are constructed and maintained (Netting, 1964; Rehfisch, 1987; Hivon, 1994).

The principles and socially integrative functions of reciprocal exchange of alcohol in the wider social context are also inherent in the rules governing the act of drinking itself: almost all drinking rituals involve some form of reciprocal giving: the practices of ‘round-buying’, la tournée, kerasmata, etc. are found, in some form, in most societies. In their account of drinking in a Swiss Alpine village, Gibson and Weinberg (1980) provide an excellent illustration of the symbolic equivalence between wider exchanges of alcohol and specific drinking rituals:

"Household autonomy … depends on maintaining an equal, debt-free standing with other households in the village. Even in this small community where by their own admission, people are all related, any service rendered or favor granted must be compensated in order to restore any possible imbalance between households. One ‘pays’ for a favor, a minor service or an honor by ‘offering’ wine. For the same reason, each man carefully takes a turn at paying for a round of drinks in the cafe. And, as a higher-level expression of this constant search for balance, drinking parties move back and forth between the two village cafés as the evening progresses. Perhaps seeking divine approbation for their reciprocity system, villagers playfully refer to ‘the three chapels of Bruson’ - the chapel itself and the two cafés."

Social control

These near-universal rules - the proscription of solitary drinking, and the prescription of sociability, sharing and reciprocity - perform a further social function in providing the conceptual basis for the highly effective informal ‘regulation’ of drinking, in terms of both consumption and behaviour. These self-imposed protocols have a far greater effect on levels of consumption and drinking behaviour than any ‘external’ controls imposed by legislators and policy-makers. It is interesting to note that these informal etiquettes tend, even where they appear to encourage higher consumption, to reduce the potential for harmful consequences.

The Bolivian Camba, for example, regularly drink immense quantities of almost pure alcohol, invariably drink to the point of extreme drunkenness, and have no conception whatsoever of ‘moderate’ or ‘responsible’ drinking. Yet alcoholism and other drink-related problems such as anti-social or violent behaviour are completely unknown among the Camba. We have already noted that Camba drinking takes place only in social contexts, and that drinking events are highly ritualised, involving all of the key elements of sociable sharing and reciprocity detailed above, and as Heath (1991) observes:

"The Camba data supplement those from other primitive societies indicating that alcoholism is not a function of the alcohol concentration of beverages used or of the quantities imbibed … Furthermore, the Camba convincingly demonstrate that extensive inebriety does not necessarily result in manifest troubles."

Heath also makes the important observation that a Camba drinker will almost never leave the "permissive" context of the drinking group while intoxicated. This ‘containment’ of drunkenness, its restriction to the safety of specific, highly regulated social contexts is practised in many heavy-drinking societies. In Georgia, for example, alcohol is consumed mainly in the context of (admittedly frequent) ritual feasts, at even the most informal of which all drinking is regulated by a designated toastmaster (Dragadze, 1994).

Even the ‘compulsory’ drinking often associated with round-buying, la tournée, and other reciprocal sharing practices does not necessarily result in problematic drunkenness. In the Hmong villages of Laos, the etiquette governing drinking events dictates that guests must ‘match’ the host glass for glass, a form of drinking contest in which the host sets a moderate to heavy drinking rate. Drinkers attempting to pass up on a round are teased and laughed at. Yet as Westermeyer (1985) observes:

"Seemingly opposed to this cultural imperative for mandatory drinking was a norm against loss of control while drinking. Actors in the drinking event were expected to be able to walk without staggering, talk without slurring, and converse in a skilled, even intellectual fashion."

Similar behavioural restrictions have been observed in other heavy-drinking cultures, even those towards the ‘avid immersion’ end of Mandelbaum’s scale. In Cuba, Bryan Page et al (1985) note that traditional standards of behaviour also required an ability to drink without exhibiting the characteristic impairments:

"Slurred speech or speech more slurred than one’s drinking mates’ and loss of muscle motor control endangered a man’s ability to assert himself in the heated debates and fast-flowing conversations and interactions characteristic of Cuban settings for public drinking. The need for control of one’s physical and mental capacities did not prevent all Cuban men from drinking past the point of control, but it set behavioural limits within which most Cuban men remained when drinking."

Peace (1992) provides a similar example of drunken self-control, and its social benefits, among Irish fishermen:

"It is of real consequence to the self-esteem of the fishermen to be present in bars and to demonstrate their capacity to hold their liquor well in the company of their peers … As the fishermen imbibe heavily and become somewhat inebriated … they do not thereby lose control over their immediate circumstances or indeed abandon their sense of judgement."

In Nigeria, Oshodin (1995) observes that:

" … the more a man consumes alcohol and remains sober, the more respect he gains…among Nigerian students, being able to drink and remain sober makes one a hero."

Schioler (1995) notes that although Danish dinner parties involve considerable consumption of alcohol:

" … you are expected to take part in the conversation, but not too loudly and only when it is your turn. You are allowed to show a natural interest in your companion at the dinner table … However, the limits of propriety are not relaxed using alcohol as an excuse. You are likely to be remembered and frowned upon for stupid remarks or untoward behaviour…"

Thus, the unwritten, self-imposed rules governing drinking practices, and the specific rituals and protocols involved in the act of drinking itself, have the power to control consumption, degree of inebriation and even behaviour when intoxicated - with an effectiveness which must inspire respect among legislators and policy-makers who attempt to achieve these goals through ‘external’ controls.

Restrictions on female and ‘underage’ drinking

Most ethnographers and other writers on drinking have observed that in the majority of societies alcohol is considered more suitable for men than for women, and that at least some restrictions on female drinking are found in most cultures (Gefou-Medianou, 1992). Having been largely ignored for many years (Pittman and Snyder, 1991) these issues have recently become a popular field of enquiry, with many journal articles and at least two full-length edited volumes devoted specifically to ‘alcohol and gender’ in the early 1990s (Gefou-Madianou, 1992; McDonald, 1994).

In the introduction to one of these volumes, Gefou-Medianou asks:

"Why is it that in the majority of the societies studied men may in certain contexts drink alcohol even in large quantities with cultural impunity whereas women for the greater part either do not drink or drink less and very rarely in homosocial gatherings?"

The cross-cultural evidence suggests that in terms of gender roles, as elsewhere, the rules governing the use of alcohol in a given culture reflect the values, attitudes and norms of that culture. Drinking is ‘imbedded’ in culture, and most aspects of culture are ‘imbedded in the act of drinking’, therefore we should expect to find relations between males and females, and perceptions of masculinity and femininity mirrored and reinforced in drinking practices. Just as norms regarding male and female roles, and definitions of masculinity and femininity, may vary widely from one culture to another, so will the rules governing men’s and women’s use of alcohol.

It is therefore not surprising that in the rapidly increasing literature on this subject we find as many explanations of gender-differentiated drinking practices as there are cultures to be studied. Some focus on male insecurity, and the need to reinforce a "vulnerable dominance" over women by excluding them from drinking rituals (Driessen, 1983) or on the separation of drinking from the female-dominated domestic arena as a means of ‘constructing’ masculinity (Loizos and Papataxiarchis, 1991; Ngokwey, 1987) while others focus on female drinking within the domestic context as part of the construction of feminine social roles, or indeed on the unity between men and women that may be achieved through household or family-based drinking (Gefou-Madianou, 1992; Bjerén, 1992; Peace, 1992). Researchers have noted the role of women as guardians of morality and social propriety or models of self-control (McDonald, 1994; Cottino, 1995) and, by contrast, the use of drinking by women to challenge established norms (Papagaroufali, 1992; Fox, 1994). McDonald (1994) emphasises that the anthropological evidence does not support a simplistic equation of gender-differentiated drinking practices with the subordination or oppression of women.

While providing valuable insights into the construction of male and female roles in different cultures, and into the use of alcohol in defining, maintaining or subverting these norms, these studies have not yet, either individually or collectively, provided an explanation of the cross-cultural prevalence of restrictions on female drinking, as opposed to other possible forms of differentiation. Although in some societies female drinking could be described as ‘segregated’ - either by types of beverage or context of drinking - rather than ‘restricted’ in terms of quantity, the fact remains that in the majority of societies women either do not drink or drink less than men, and Gefou-Madianou’s question remains unanswered.

It may be that a purely cultural explanation of widespread restrictions on female drinking is not possible. We have already noted, in the introduction to this review, that the ‘cultural-reductionism’ of some anthropological approaches can limit their explanatory power - and pointed out that the purely pharmacological properties of alcohol may also be of importance in understanding the role that it plays in human cultures. In this context, McDonald’s comments about the "danger" of treating ethanol as a "culture-free substance", or her assertion that "sex differences do not exist external to cultural perceptions of them" may be unhelpful. It could be that the predominance of restrictions on female drinking, across such a wide range of very different cultures, requires an explanation along the lines of those proposed by Marvin Harris for other taboos and prohibitions, where he argues that even apparently outlandish or arbitrary proscriptions often have a sound, pragmatic, non-cultural basis.

It could be, quite simply, that women universally drink less than men because physiological differences between the sexes mean that the same amount of alcohol produces higher blood alcohol concentrations in women than in men, such that women need less alcohol to experience the same effects.   

To explain the higher proportion of female abstainers (as well as lighter drinkers) it might also be relevant to note that alcohol has known detrimental effects on the human foetus if consumed in large quantities. Throughout history, and currently in many societies, many women would be pregnant much of the time, and abstinence and restrictions on women’s drinking may have originated as a purely pragmatic means of protecting the health of offspring. It is interesting to note that the cultures in which female abstinence is significantly decreasing, and restrictions on female drinking are currently being challenged or eroded, are those in which women have the greatest control over their reproductive functions.

This second possible explanation may be more controversial than the first, as it could be argued that the damaging effects of alcohol on the foetus were not known or even suspected until very recently (Abel, 1997). The physiological effects of drinking, however, can be directly experienced without medical knowledge of BAC levels - and the fact that women choose to drink less than men, even in cultures where they are deliberately challenging traditional mores, suggests that BAC levels are more important in this context than actual amounts of alcohol consumed.  

In the debate on gender-differentiation in drinking practices, it seems that while the differences between cultures can largely be explained in ‘cultural’ terms, the significant cross-cultural constants require an alternative approach. Perhaps the next survey on drinking should measure or calculate the BACs of male and female customers in bars, rather than just finding out how many drinks they have had. The results might show that, in these terms, female drinking is not as restricted as it seems.

All contemporary cultures, however, impose some restrictions on what we may call ‘underage’ drinking, although both the definitions of ‘underage’ and the nature of the restrictions vary widely - from cultures in which it is socially acceptable to give small children diluted wine or sugar cubes dipped in liquor (Nahoum-Grappe, 1995; Cottino, 1995) to those in which even drinking in the presence of children is frowned upon (Asmundsson, 1995). Such dramatic variations in informal, social norms regarding ‘underage’ drinking occur despite increasing uniformity in external, legal definitions and controls - and generally reflect different cultural beliefs about alcohol (with more rigid restrictions in ‘ambivalent’ drinking-cultures and more permissive practices in ‘integrated’ drinking-cultures) rather than different approaches to child-rearing.