Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking

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Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking

Social and cultural roles of alcohol

Given overwhelming evidence for the primacy of sociocultural factors in determining both drinking patterns and their consequences, it is clear that ethnographic research findings on the social and cultural roles of alcohol may have important implications for policy-makers - particularly in areas such as Europe where economic and political ‘convergence’ could have significant impact on drinking-cultures and their associated lifestyles.

In this context, it is essential for those concerned with policy and legislation on alcohol to have a clear understanding of the sociocultural functions and meanings of drinking. This section outlines the principal conclusions that can be drawn from the available cross-cultural material regarding the symbolic uses of alcoholic beverages, the social functions of drinking-places and the roles of alcohol in transitional and celebratory rituals.

Symbolic roles

From the ethnographic material available, it is clear that in all cultures where more than one type of alcoholic beverage is available, drinks are classified in terms of their social meaning, and the classification of drinks is used to define the social world. Few, if any, alcoholic beverages are ‘socially neutral’: every drink is loaded with symbolic meaning, every drink conveys a message. Alcohol is a symbolic vehicle for identifying, describing, constructing and manipulating cultural systems, values, interpersonal relationships, behavioural norms and expectations. Choice of beverage is rarely a matter of personal taste.

Situation definer

At the simplest level, drinks are used to define the nature of the occasion. In many Western cultures, for example, champagne is synonymous with celebration, such that if champagne is ordered or served at an otherwise ‘ordinary’ occasion, someone will invariably ask "What are we celebrating?".

In the Weiner Becken in Austria, sekt is drunk on formal occasions, while schnapps is reserved for more intimate, convivial gatherings - the type of drink served defining both the nature of the event and the social relationship between the drinkers. The choice of drink also dictates behaviour, to the extent that the appearance of a bottle of schnapps can prompt a switch from the ‘polite’ form of address, sie, to the highly intimate du (Thornton, 1987).

Even in societies less bound by long-standing traditions and customs, where one might expect to find a more individualistic, subjective approach to the choice of drinks, the social meanings of different beverages are clearly defined and clearly understood. A US survey (Klein, 1991) examined perceptions of the situational appropriateness of various types of alcoholic drink, finding that wine, but not spirits or beer, is considered an appropriate accompaniment to a meal; wine and spirits, but not beer, are appropriate drinks for celebratory events, while beer is the most appropriate drink for informal, relaxation-oriented occasions.

In cultures with a more established heritage of traditional practices, perceptions of situational appropriateness may, however, involve more complex and subtle distinctions, and rules governing the uses of certain classes of drink are likely to be more rigidly observed. In France, for example, the aperitif is drunk before the meal, white wine is served before red, brandy and digestifs are served only at the end of the meal and so on (Clarisse, 1986; Nahoum-Grappe, 1995). In traditional circles, any alteration to this ‘liquid punctuation’ of a meal is akin to a serious grammatical error, and greeted with similar horror or contempt. Among Hungarian Gypsies, equally strict rules apply to brandy: brandy may only be consumed first thing in the morning, during the middle of the night at a wake, or by women prior to a rubbish-scavenging trip. It would be regarded as highly inappropriate to serve or drink brandy outside these specific situational contexts (Stewart, 1992).

Status indicator

Choice of beverage is also a significant indicator of social status. In general terms, imported or ‘foreign’ drinks have a higher status than ‘local’ beverages. Thus in Poland, for example, wine is regarded as a high-status, middle-class drink, while native beers and vodkas are ‘ordinary’ or working-class. In a comparative study, Polish university students were found to drink eight times as much wine as their American counterparts, reinforcing their status and specialness as the ‘nation’s elite’ through their beverage preference (Engs et al, 1991). In France, by contrast, where wine-drinking is commonplace and confers no special status, the young elite are turning to (often imported) beers (McDonald, 1994; Nahoum-Grappe, 1995).

Preference for high-status beverages may be an expression of aspirations, rather than a reflection of actual position in the social hierarchy. Drinking practices, as Douglas (1987) reminds us, are often used to "construct an ideal world" or, in Myerhoff’s terms, as ‘definitional ceremonies’ through which people enact not only "what they think they are" but also "what they should have been or may yet be" (Papagaroufali, 1992).

There may also be a high degree of social differentiation within a single category of beverage. Purcell (1994) notes that in Ancient Rome, wine was not simply the drink of the elite: its variety and calibrability allowed its use as a differentiator "even within exclusive, high-ranking circles". Wine was, and is today in many cultures, "a focus of eloquent choices".

Statement of affiliation

Choice of beverage may also be a statement of affiliation, a declaration of membership in a particular group, generation, class, ‘tribe’, sub-culture or nation and its associated values, attitudes and beliefs.

Certain drinks, for example, have become symbols of national identity: Guinness for the Irish, tequila for Mexicans, whisky for Scots, ouzo for Greeks etc.; and to choose, serve - or indeed refuse - one’s national beverage can be a powerful expression of one’s loyalties and cultural identity. The ‘national drink’ is often the symbolic locus for positive, sometimes idealised or romanticised, images of the national character, culture and way of life. For Scottish Highlanders, for example, whisky represents traditional values of egalitarianism, generosity and virility, and to refuse a ‘dram’ may be seen as a rejection of these values (Macdonald, 1994).

The consumption or rejection of a national, local or traditional beverage is often an emotive issue, particularly in areas undergoing significant cultural change or upheaval, where ‘new’ drinks are associated with ‘modern’ lifestyles and values. Some surveys indicate that the general pattern across Europe is for people of higher educational level to consume the ‘new’ beverage type for their region (usually wine in the North, beer in the South) more often than the less-educated, who tend to favour traditional beverages (Hupkens et al, 1993).

These factors can also overlap with the symbolic use of alcohol as a ‘generation differentiator’. In contemporary Brittany, for example,  Maryon McDonald (1994) observes that:

" … in the domain of drinks, there is generally an increasing sophistication when one moves from cider to wine to beer, correlating with decreasing age and with a move from agriculture to occupations outside it. In other words, the older peasant drinks cider; the younger person outside agriculture opts for beer."

In Spain, the adoption of non-traditional drinks and drinking styles by the younger generation has been more problematic (Alvira-Martin, 1986; Pyörälä, 1986, 1991; Rooney, 1991, Gamella, 1995). Many young Spaniards appear to have adopted, along with beer-drinking, patterns of binge drinking previously unheard-of in Spain and more commonly associated with British ‘lager-louts’. It is, however, too soon to tell whether their current habits will persist into maturity (Gamella, 1995). There are currently very early signs of a similar adoption of ‘alien’ drinking patterns along with foreign beverages among Italian youth, although so far this has been limited mainly to the context of consumption, with the traditional beverage (wine) being consumed in the traditional context of meals with the family, while the new beverages are drunk in other social contexts, with peers, outside the family (Cottino,1995).

These current trends and changes deserve more detailed investigation, not only because the symbolic functions of drinks are of interest in their own right, but because, as Mandelbaum pointed out in his highly influential 1965 paper ‘Alcohol and Culture’, "changes in drinking customs may offer clues to fundamental social changes". In Europe, current changes in drinking customs may offer a new perspective on cultural ‘convergence’.

A classic illustration of ‘fundamental social changes’ associated with the adoption of imported beverages - and one which may prove something of a cautionary tale for legislators - is provided by MacAndrew and Edgerton (1969): During their traditional cactus-wine ceremonies, the Papago of Mexico frequently became "falling-down drunk"- indeed, it was common practice among the more dandyish young men of the tribe to paint the soles of their feet with red dye, so that when they fell down drunk the attractive colour would show. Yet the drunken behaviour of the Papago on these occasions was invariably peaceful, harmonious and good-tempered. With the ‘white man’, however, came whiskey, which became associated with an entirely different type of drunken comportment involving aggression, fighting and other anti-social behaviours. These "two types of drinking" co-existed until the white man, in his wisdom, attempted to curb the ill-effects of alcohol on the Papago by banning all drinking, including the still-peaceful wine ceremonies. Prohibition failed, and the wine ceremonies eventually became indistinguishable, in terms of behaviour, from the secular whiskey-drinking.

Gender differentiator

While differences in age, class, status, aspirations and affiliations are frequently expressed through beverage choice, the most consistent and widespread use of alcohol as a social ‘differentiator’ is in the gender-based classification of drinks. Almost all societies make some distinction between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ beverages: even where no other differentiation is found, this primary division is likely to be evident, and, often, to be rigidly observed.

Even in societies where only one alcoholic beverage is available, such as palm wine among the Lele of Zaire, a weaker, sweeter version, Mana ma piya, is considered suitable for women, while Mana ma kobo, described as ‘strong’ and ‘fierce’, is a man’s drink (Ngokwey, 1987). This literal association of the qualities of men’s and women’s beverages with ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ attributes is also a near-universal phenomenon. ‘Feminine’ drinks are often weaker, sweeter, softer or less ‘pure’ than their ‘masculine’ counterparts (Freund, 1986;Gefou-Madianou’s, 1992; Papagaroufali,1992; Purcell, 1994; Macdonald, 1994; Nahoum-Grappe, 1995).

Where female drinking is particularly deplored but nonetheless occurs, alcoholic beverages consumed by women are often conveniently granted a sort of honorary ‘non-alcoholic’ status, such that their consumption does not count as ‘drinking’ (McDonald, 1994; Purcell, 1994). Among Scottish Highlanders, the classification of ‘ladies’ drinks’ as ‘not really alcohol’ may occasionally be taken too literally: Macdonald (1994) recalls an incident in which a drunken man who drove his car off the road one night, miraculously escaping serious injury, "insisted that he had not been ‘drinking’ – he had only had Bacardi and Coke!"

Even in societies where there is less disapprobation attached to female drinking per se, we find that certain drinks are considered unfeminine, while others are regarded as too feminine for male consumption (Engs et al, 1991). The symbolic potency of alcohol is such that the appropriation of ‘male’ drinks by women may act as a more effective feminist statement than conventional political approaches such as demonstrations or pamphlets (Papagaroufali,1992; Fox, 1994).

Need for further research

As with many other areas covered in this review, information on the symbolic meanings of different types of alcoholic drink is scattered, disjointed and incomplete, usually buried in research focused on other issues. Again, there has been no significant cross-cultural study of this phenomenon, beyond the occasional two-country comparison. The anthropological bias towards ‘traditional’ societies or small communities is also evident, with very little material on the complex symbolic meanings and functions of alcoholic drinks in modern, mainstream Western cultures - a fascinating field of enquiry, with wide-ranging implications for policy and education, which deserves further exploration.

In particular, more attention should be directed to the changes currently occurring in some European cultures. In some cases, it appears that the adoption of foreign drinks also involves the adoption of the drinking patterns, attitudes and behaviour associated with the alien culture, while other societies imbibe foreign drinks without ‘taking in’ any of the associated cultural approaches.

When the British, for example, an ambivalent, episodic, beer-drinking culture, go to France, an integrated, wine-drinking culture, they exhibit a tendency to drink wine in beer quantities and display all of the behavioural excesses associated with their native drinking patterns, with the result that young British tourists "are now renowned in France and elsewhere in Europe for their drinking and drunkenness" (McDonald, 1994). In Spain, by contrast, the young males appear more sensitive to alien cultural influences, and have adopted, along with beer-drinking, the anti-social behaviour patterns of their beer-drinking guests.

This is not to suggest that a Papago-like disastrous transformation (see above) is imminent in contemporary Spain, but we would be foolish to ignore such real-life cautionary tales - in particular the fact that, in the Papago case, attempts to curb the anti-social excesses associated with an alien beverage by imposing ‘blanket’ restrictions on all alcohol resulted in the association of such behaviour with the formerly ‘benign’ native beverage, and an overall increase in drunkenness and alcohol-related disorder.

The need for further and more precise research on the symbolic functions of alcoholic beverages has been recognised even outside the culturally-minded field of anthropology. The historian Thomas Brennan argues that:

" … the emphasis on quantifying consumption suffers from mistaken assumptions and leads to an inadequate understanding of the social role of alcohol. The problems with quantification illustrate the need for a greater awareness and investigation into the cultural aspects of alcohol."

Roles of drinking-places

Drinking, as we have already noted, is essentially a social act, subject to a variety of rules and norms regarding who may drink what, when, where, with whom and so on. Drinking does not, in any society, take place ‘just anywhere’, and most cultures have specific, designated environments for communal drinking.

From the glitz and chrome of an American cocktail lounge, or the scruffy charm of a French provincial bar-tabac, to the mapalu in Zaire - merely a small clearing in the forest, dedicated to the consumption of palm wine - the ‘drinking-place’ appears to be an essential feature of almost all alcohol-using cultures. The nature and role of the public drinking-place may be seen as an extension, or even a physical expression or embodiment, of the role of drinking itself.

There has been no systematic cross-cultural research on public drinking contexts, and the available material is scattered and incomplete. Anthropologists’ concern with studying drinking in ‘natural settings’ (Prus, 1983) has, however, prompted an increase in recent years in the number of ‘ethnographies’ of public drinking-places, although these studies tend to be restricted to a single country, town or community - or even a single drinking establishment. These small-scale studies of public drinking-places in various societies indicate that, in terms of insight into the social and cultural roles of alcohol, this is one of the most fertile and rewarding fields of enquiry and that more extensive cross-cultural comparison would significantly improve our understanding of these roles.

Despite the inevitable lack of coherence in the available literature, some significant general conclusions can be drawn from the existing research in this area. First, as noted above, it is clear that where there is alcohol, there is almost always a dedicated environment in which to drink it, and that every culture creates its own, highly distinctive, public drinking-places. Second, the drinking-place is usually a special environment: it represents a separate sphere of existence, a discrete social world with its own laws, customs and values. Third, drinking-places tend to be socially integrative, classless environments, or at least environments in which status distinctions are based on different criteria from those operating in the outside world. Finally, the primary function of drinking-places, in almost all cultures, appears to be the facilitation of social interaction and social bonding.

Drinking-places and drinking cultures

The surface contrasts between different societies’ drinking-places are striking, and although the research indicates that these contrasts mask fundamental functional similarities, the differences are nonetheless important, as they often reflect different cultural perceptions of the role of alcohol.

Societies in which alcohol is traditionally an accepted, unremarkable and morally neutral element of everyday life - such as the Southern European cultures of Italy, Spain, France and Greece - tend to favour ‘uninhibited’, highly visible drinking-places, with large windows and open spaces, such that customers and facilities are clearly displayed. Even where the climate does not allow permanent outdoor tables, a glassed-in pavement section is common. The drinking-place extends physically into the environment, overlaps and merges with the everyday world, just as "the consumption of alcohol is [as] integrated into common behaviours as sleeping or eating" (Martinez & Martin, 1987).

In societies with a more ambiguous and uneasy relationship with alcohol, where drinking is a moral ‘issue’ - such as Scandinavia, Australia, Britain and North America - drinking-places are more likely to be enclosed, insular, even secretive environments, with solid walls and doors, frosted windows and substantial screens or partitions, ensuring that the activities of customers are concealed and contained (Page et al, 1985). These physical features reflect the equivocal status of drinking-places in societies with what Campbell (1991) calls "an ambivalent drinking culture, characterised by conflict between or among coexisting value structures."

The characteristics outlined above are, of course, broad generalisations, and in any modern, complex culture there will be a wide variety of drinking-places. Indeed, cataloguing, classifying and comparing the different types of drinking-place in a given society, their decor, clientele and other distinguishing features, has become a favourite pastime among social scientists (Campbell, 1991; Fox, 1993, 1996; Gilbert, 1985; Pujol, 1989). This variety will inevitably include some exceptions to the generic type - the introduction of the ‘café-bar concept’ by British pub-operators, for example, or imitations of cosy, insular ‘Irish pubs’ in France and Italy, or the Latin-style drinking-places established by Cubans and other Hispanics in Florida - but the majority of drinking-places still tend to exhibit at least some of the basic features dictated by cultural perceptions of alcohol.

Social functions of drinking-places

Despite this variation, anthropological research also reveals some significant cross-cultural similarities or ‘constants’ in the social functions of drinking-places.

A separate world

The function of the drinking-place as a separate sphere, a self-contained world set apart from everyday existence, is, as might be expected, more immediately obvious in ‘ambivalent’ drinking cultures than in those in which drinking is integrated into common behaviours.

In Norway, for example, the bar or café has been described by social scientists as a "third place" - a ‘liminal’ (i.e. borderline, marginal, in-between, ambiguous, threshold) stage somewhere between the public and private spheres of life (Oldenburg, 1989). In this separate world, Træen and Rossow (1994) found that "people who experienced lack of structure in their everyday lives because of their positional roles use the situational role of being a café guest to provide this structure" and that visits to cafés "offer the guests a possibility of reversing inferior everyday roles". In other words, the ‘liminal’ status of the café allows patrons to ‘construct an ideal world’, an alternative reality in which they can assume a socially significant identity.

Public bars in New Zealand have been found to perform similar ‘time-out’, ‘transitional’ or ‘alternative reality’ functions (Graves et al, 1981; Park, 1995), and Campbell (1992) notes the marginal status of the tavern in North America, its representation as an "unserious behavior setting" whereby it "provides an accessible space for taking time out from the pressures of everyday work and home life."

The liminality of the drinking-place is of social significance even in non-ambivalent, integrated drinking cultures. In Mediterranean societies, although the bar, café, birreria or taverna is firmly integrated into mainstream culture, it provides a setting which is qualitatively different from that of the home or the workplace (Wylie, 1974; Rooney, 1991; Gamella, 1995; Cottino, 1995) - and indeed often acts as a halfway house, a transitional, ‘time-out’ stage, easing the passage between these two environments. It is common, in many Mediterranean societies, for men to stop off at the bar or café for a drink both on the way to work in the morning, and on the way home in the evening. The drinking-place provides a symbolic punctuation-mark differentiating one social context from another (Mandelbaum, 1965). In Rooney’s (1991) account of  Spanish drinking behaviour, he notes that "in the hospitable orbit of the tavern, one can set aside one’s usual personality and construct another one to share with associates."

These primary functions of the drinking-place - the provision of a ‘liminal sphere’, ‘time-out’, alternative constructions of reality, symbolic punctuation marks, etc. - are among those frequently attributed to drinking itself (Gusfield, 1987; Mandelbaum, 1965; Douglas, 1987). The drinking-place is the physical manifestation of the cultural meanings and roles of alcohol.

Social integration

Alcohol has long been regarded as a social leveller, and the act of communal drinking as a means of communication between those of different ranks and status in society. If, as we propose above, the drinking-place embodies the symbolic social functions of alcohol, we would therefore expect to find, in most cultures, that drinking-places tend to perform a socially integrative, equalising function. We would expect drinking-places to be, if not strictly egalitarian, at least environments in which the prevailing social order may be challenged.

This, throughout history and across cultures, is precisely what we do find. In his study of plebeian culture in Shakespearean drama, Leinwand (1989) notes that in the 15th century, alehouses, taverns and inns were:

" … sites … where people of disparate status mixed…[which] brought men, high born and low, into relation, fostering a propinquity that might secure, adjust or threaten hierarchies."

During the Prohibition years in America, the illicit ‘nightclub culture’ involved a double defiance of prevailing social norms in the mingling of "blacks and whites from all strata of society…in Harlem, Chicago and San Francisco" (Herd, 1985). In contemporary Norway, Træen and Rossow (1994) find that:

"In cafés, people come together for common purposes such as enjoyment, irrespective of social rank . and are expected to behave in accordance with the accepted social and contextual norms of the establishment. For this reason, people may perceive themselves as being more equal in cafés than they do elsewhere."

In an observation study of Maori, Pacific Islander and European drinkers in New Zealand bars, 40% of drinkers had drinking companions in their group from other ethnic groups, which, as the authors comment, "suggests a rather high degree of social integration among drinkers" (Graves et al, 1982). In urban San Jose and Los Angeles, Chicanos, Mexican-Americans and Anglos mix freely in bars, cocktail lounges and clubs, and suburban night-clubs, where "dance partners are chosen across ethnic and racial lines" and "the mixing of young people from a wide range of class and ethnic backgrounds also results in…normative homogenisation"(Gilbert, 1985).

In Spain, drinking-places provide " … an atmosphere of openness and social access [in which] any adult male is free to participate in barroom activity. Everyone in the tavern is free to speak to anyone else." (Rooney, 1991). Similarly, Gusfield (1987) comments that: "in the drinking arena first names are required and organisational placements tabooed."

Social bonding

These integrative qualities, along with its role as a special, liminal environment, contribute to the key function of the drinking-place as a facilitator of social bonding. This function is so clearly evident that even in ambivalent drinking cultures, where research tends to be problem-centred and overwhelmingly concerned with quantitative aspects of consumption, those conducting research on public drinking-places have been obliged to "focus on sociability, rather than the serving of beverage alcohol, as the main social fact to be examined" (Campbell, 1991).

The facilitation of social interaction and social bonding is, as noted elsewhere in this review, one of the main functions of drinking itself - the perception of the "value of alcohol for promoting relaxation and sociability" being one of the most significant generalisations to emerge from the cross-cultural study of drinking (Heath, 1987, 1995). It is not surprising therefore, that the drinking-place should be, in many cultures, an institution dedicated to sociability and convivial interaction.

The special features of a dedicated drinking-place - the layout, the decor, the music, the games, the etiquette and ritual practices, and, of course, the drinking - are all designed to promote positive social interaction, reciprocity and sharing (Gusfield, 1987; Rooney, 1991; Gamella, 1995; Park, 1995; Fox, 1996, etc.). In Austrian lokals, for example, Thornton (1987) observes that:

" … intimate social groups…come into being there, even if only to last the night. Benches surround the tables, forcing physical intimacy between customers. Small groups of twos or threes who find themselves at the same or adjoining tables often make friends with their neighbours and share wine, schnapps, jokes and game-playing the rest of the evening."

In almost all drinking-places, in almost all cultures, the unwritten laws and customs involve some form of reciprocal drink-buying or sharing of drinks. This practice has been documented in drinking-places from modern, urban Japan and America and rural Spain and France to remote traditional societies in Africa and South America. (Doughty, 1971; Graves et al, 1982; Gilbert, 1982; Gordon, 1985; Westermeyer, 1985; Gusfield, 1987; Thornton, 1987; Ngokwey, 1987; Rooney, 1991; Hendry, 1994, etc.) The central role of exchange and reciprocal giving in the establishment and reaffirmation of social bonds has long been recognised by anthropologists, sociologists and even zoologists, so fundamental is this practice to the survival of any social species.

The combination of these factors, the special alchemy of design, ritual and alcohol that characterises the drinking-place and sets it apart from other public institutions and social environments, ensures that, in many cultures, the drinking-place is at the centre of community life. In Poland, for example, the Karczma is where contracts are sealed, village disputes settled, celebrations held and marriages arranged (Freund, 1985), while for Guatemalans in the US, the bar is a meeting-place where "one may seek out others, develop friendships, and if needed, find temporary assistance in a loan or lodging or obtain information about jobs." (Gordon, 1985). In New Zealand, Graves et al (1982) observe that:

" … the pub is probably the most important working-man’s club. Men from all ethnic groups come there to be with their friends; their alcohol consumption is a by-product of this socialising. This does not mean that the consumption of alcohol is an unimportant part of pub activity. Otherwise a man might as well meet his friends in an ice-cream parlour or coffee shop. One of the major functions of moderate alcohol use is to promote social conviviality. But it is the conviviality, not the alcohol, which is of central importance."

The striking degree of functional similarity between drinking-places, across such a wide variety of very different cultures, cannot be disregarded. Despite significant differences - and indeed diametric oppositions - in cultural perceptions of alcohol, the ethnographic evidence suggests that the drinking-place meets some deep-seated, universal human needs.

Ritual roles

As a species, we are addicted to ritual. Almost every event of any significance in our lives is marked with some sort of ceremony or celebration - and almost all of these rituals, in most cultures, involve alcohol. In this section, we provide an overview of the cross-cultural literature on the roles of alcohol in both transitional and festive rituals, and the conclusions that may be drawn from this evidence.

Transitional rituals

Major life-cycle events such as birth, coming-of-age, marriage and death; important life-changes such as graduation or retirement - and even far less momentous shifts such as the daily transition from work to play - all require ritual endorsement. The concept of ‘rites de passage’ - the rituals marking transition from one status or stage in the life-cycle to another - has long been a staple of the anthropological diet. Rites of passage serve to construct, facilitate and enhance the difficult passage from one social, physical or economic state to the next. Alcohol, in most cultures, is a central element of such rituals.

As significant transitions are ritualised, in some form, in every society, and almost all of these rites of passage involve alcohol, an exhaustive catalogue of rituals and beverages would be repetitive and unenlightening: a few representative examples convey the range of transitions which are ceremonially marked, and illustrate the role of alcohol in this ritualisation.

Life-cycle transitions

Alcohol punctuates our lives from the cradle to the grave. A few drinks to ‘wet the baby’s head’ is a common practice in many cultures. In Poland, Christenings are celebrated in the local tavern, with the child’s godparent covering the cost of the liquor (Freund, 1985). Among Mexican-Americans in California, the padrino (godfather) is also obliged to supply liquor for the post-ceremonial party or dinner marking the new arrival’s entrance into the religious life, "thus cementing the compadrazgo (fictive kin) relationship between the padrino and the parents of the newborn."

In his study of the Peruvian Mestizo community of Virú, Holmberg (1971) observes that the drinking of chicha (maize-beer) is an integral part of the ritual celebration of all major life-cycle events, which include: baptism, first hair-cutting ceremony (boys), ear-piercing ceremony (girls), confirmation, birthdays, marriage and funerals. He notes that:

"These ceremonial events, with their accompanying drinking patterns, undoubtedly provide relief from the daily boredoms and frustrations of peasant agricultural life. They also provide a base for conviviality and the easing of social tensions in a society where human relations are not easy. Alcohol seems to do much, for example, to break down barriers between the sexes and social classes on ceremonial occasions."

In most cultures, a marriage is a major transformation, conducted in stages, each of which requires a drinking-event. In France, for example, the engagement party is often a more protracted and boisterous event than the wedding itself, and the same may apply to the ‘stag’ and ‘hen’ parties that precede a wedding in many Western cultures. In Poland, Freund (1985) notes that "each stage of the wedding, including the betrothal, the wedding ceremony and the reception is marked by alcohol." The rites of passage associated with death, like those of birth and marriage, often involve several stages, each marked by drinking, and sometimes differentiated by different patterns of drinking (Stewart, 1992).

Lifestyle transitions

In many cultures, the ritualisation of transition is not restricted to the major life-cycle transitions of birth, coming-of-age, marriage and death, but extends to less portentous life-changing events such as graduation, job promotion, house-warming and retirement. The need to invest ‘lifestyle’ transitions with wider social and symbolic meaning - and particularly to do so by drinking - seems a near-universal feature of human cultures.

In the Republic of Georgia, for example, even the most minimal transitions such as the arrival or departure of a guest provide a legitimate excuse for a feast, always involving large amounts of both alcohol and ritual. Drinking is regulated by toasting, and in Mars and Altman’s (1987) account of Georgian feasting, a more important ‘lifestyle’ transition such as a young girl’s graduation necessitated a ‘feast of twenty toasts’.

The purchase or building of a first house, and subsequent house-moves, are, in many cultures, transitions of significance in terms of social and economic status, as well as potentially stressful events for those concerned - a combination which seems to demand ritual recognition. In some cultures, the rites of passage associated with house-transitions may involve only family and close friends; in others, the entire community may participate in the ritual, in which alcohol will usually play a central role. In Peru house-building "is often a festive occasion made merrier by the consumption of large quantities of chicha, cane alcohol or pisco" (Doughty, 1971). In Japan, as in many modern Western cultures, a ‘new’ house is not required: even renovations to one’s existing property can provide a rationale for a drinking-event (Hendry 1994).

Habitual transitions

Drinking-rituals are also used to define, facilitate and enhance far less momentous passages, such as the daily or weekly transitions from home to work and from work to leisure, or even the beginning and completion of a specific task. Mandelbaum (1965) observes that:

" … the act of drinking can serve as a symbolic punctuation mark differentiating one social context from the next. The cocktail prepared by the suburban housewife for her commuting husband when he returns in the evening helps separate the city and its work from the home and its relaxation."

Gusfield (1987) also describes the ways in which alcohol ‘cues’ the transition from worktime to playtime in American culture. In this society, alcohol is a suitable symbolic vehicle for the ritual transition from work to play because "it is already segregated and separated from work, it is an index to the appearance of a night-time attitude". Alcohol is associated with ‘time-out’, with recreation, festivity, fun, spontaneity and the dissolution of hierarchy: it "possesses a meaning in contrast to organized work." Thus the stop off at a bar on the way home from work, institutionalised (and commercialised) as the ‘cocktail hour’ or ‘happy hour’, or the drink taken immediately on crossing the threshold of the home, "embodies the symbolism of a time period between work and leisure . the drinking situation enables us to provide liminal time; a way of passing from the ordered regulation of one form of social organization to the less-ordered, deregulated form of another."

As we have seen, however, the symbolic meanings attributed to alcohol vary across different cultures, and the suitability of alcohol as a symbol of transition to playtime, the perception of drinking as antithetical to working, is by no means universal. In many cultures, the stop off at the drinking-place on the way to work, or to ‘re-fuel’ at lunchtime, is just as common as the after-work drinking session, and alcohol is used to generate ‘energy’ and enthusiasm for work, as well as to relax after work or to celebrate the completion of a task. The stop at the bar or café for a glass of wine (or, in Normandy, calvados ) on the way to work is a long-standing tradition in France, also widely practised in Spain (Rooney, 1991). Driessen (1992) notes that in Andalucia "When a man gets up in the morning he immediately leaves his house to have a coffee, anisette or cognac". The symbolic meaning of these pre-work and ‘re-fuel’ drinking-rituals, as opposed to the after-work drinking which is also common in these cultures, may be quite explicit: the Danes have a fryaaftensbajer (‘knock-off-time’ beer) which they distinguish from the frokostbajer (lunch-time beer).

In Peru, alcohol is consumed before any work requiring strength or energy, such as roofing, sowing, the faena (communal work party) and other tasks which are seen to require particular collaboration and/or supernatural intervention and thus involve drinking to ‘liven up’ (Harvey, 1994). The belief that alcohol endows the user with the power and will to perform his duties is further exemplified in rituals designed to enhance the strength and fertility of domestic animals such as cattle and horses, in which libations are poured over models of these animals.

Similarly, in Brittany, McDonald finds that:

"At the time of any collective work - weeding, harvesting or silage-making, for example - bottles of red wine litter the edges of the fields. Wine must be served regularly to each worker…without this drink, labour would be hard to get"

Mandelbaum (1965) contrasts his ‘transition to play’ example of the suburban-American cocktail (cited at the beginning of this chapter) with an example of a quite opposite use of alcohol, in which drinking marks the transition from ‘special’ time to ‘ordinary’ time:

"In a more formal ritual, but with similar distinguishing intent, an orthodox Jew recites the Havdola blessing over wine and drinks the wine at the end of the Sabbath to mark the division between the sacred day and the rest of the week."

To compare abstemious orthodox Jews with heavy-drinking Bretons and Peruvians may seem odd, but in this context they share a perception of alcohol that is in contrast to the mainstream contemporary American symbolism described by Gusfield. For the Jew, the Peruvian and the Breton, alcohol is not a purely ‘recreational’ substance; it has other meanings which allow its use in the ritualisation of a wider range of significant transitions.

Why alcohol?

Although Gusfield’s analysis applies - and is intended to apply - only to a particular culture, he poses perhaps the most important general question on the use of alcohol in transitional rituals: he asks "Why alcohol?". Gusfield’s concern is specifically to discover "What is the content of the message conveyed by drinking that makes it a fit object to symbolize and ritualize the transition from work to play?", but one could equally expand his question to cover any of the transitions marked by rites of passage. Why is alcohol an essential element of these rituals in so many very different cultures?

The answer seems to lie in the natural affinity between alcohol and ritual: alcohol is an integral element of rites of passage because drinking ‘performs’ the symbolic, psychological and social functions of these rituals:

Symbolic functions.

Drinking, like ritual, is a medium for ‘constructing the world’. Drinks define significant transitions in our lives through their function as "brightly coloured material labels of events" (Douglas, 1987). As we have noted elsewhere, the type of drink served defines the nature of the event, and, in a more active sense, ‘constructs’ the social relationship between the drinkers, dictating the type of interaction appropriate to the occasion. In Douglas’s terms, drinks "give the actual structure of social life as surely as if their names were labels affixed upon expected forms of behaviour."

Transitional rituals serve to delineate the boundaries between different stages of life, to mark the end of one phase and the beginning of the next. It is also clear that drinking itself acts as a ‘symbolic punctuation mark’ differentiating one social context from another (Mandelbaum, 1965; Gusfield, 1987). The natural affinity, the symbolic equivalence between alcohol and ritual is nowhere more evident than in the context of rites of passage.

Psychological functions.

The qualitative consonance between drinking and transitional rites is not limited to the purely cultural, symbolic attributes of alcohol, but extends to its intrinsic pharmacological properties. The fact that alcohol is an intoxicating substance, capable of inducing ‘altered states of consciousness’ (Rudgley, 1994) is the foundation of its association with ‘liminal’ states, settings and events. The segregation of one phase of life from another makes the passage between them a liminal period - an in-between, ambiguous, indeterminate state (Van Gennep, 1960; Turner, 1977; Gusfield, 1987; Stewart, 1992). That alcohol should be an integral element of the ritualisation of such liminal transitions is psychologically appropriate: the experience of intoxication mirrors the experience of rites of passage.

Liminality is also associated with tension and danger. The life-cycle events marked by rites of passage often involve major transformations, which may be a source of considerable anxiety and fear. Even events regarded as positive transitions, occasions for celebration - such as christenings, coming-of-age or graduation ceremonies, engagement-parties and weddings - can be highly stressful in many cultures. In this context, alcohol performs another of the key functions of ritual: the construction of an ideal world. In Mary Douglas’s words:

"[Drinks] make an intelligible, bearable world which is much more how an ideal world should be than the painful chaos threatening all the time."

The chemical and symbolic properties of alcohol allow us to construct an alternative reality in which the potentially disturbing or frightening aspects of the transition are minimised, and the positive, celebratory aspects enhanced.

Social functions.

Rites of passage are not conducted in solitary splendour. They are, by definition, rituals in which personal transitions are imbued with wider social significance. The ritualisation of life-cycle transitions is a medium by which interpersonal links - and links between families, households and communities - are established, maintained and publicly affirmed. The importance of alcohol in this context is easily understood. In all cultures, drinking is an essentially social act, and one of the primary functions of alcohol is the facilitation of social bonding.

This perception of alcohol as a quintessentially ‘social’ substance is reinforced by the practices associated with its consumption at rites of passage - the rituals of pouring, sharing, toasting, round-buying etc. - which serve to define and regulate social relationships, to promote conviviality and to build and strengthen interpersonal bonds.

Festive rituals

From the Roman Saturnalia and the Bacchanalia of Ancient Greece to Mardigras in New Orleans, from Rio to Notting Hill, and every carnival, festival, jubilee or feast in between - in almost all cultures, and throughout history, alcohol has been associated with celebration. The connection between drinking and festivity is so strong that we find it hard to imagine one without the other. Their meanings are intertwined, and, in many cultures, interchangeable: to drink is to be festive, to be festive is to drink.

Although the interdependence of alcohol and festivity is evident in all societies where alcohol is used, the connection appears to be stronger in ‘ambivalent’ drinking cultures, where one needs a reason for drinking, than in ‘integrated’ drinking cultures, where drinking is a morally neutral element of normal life and requires no justification. McDonald (1994) provides an amusing illustration of the different perceptions of the drinking/festivity connection in different European cultures, and the misunderstandings that can result:

"Many modern visitors from Britain on a first visit to France have had experience of this for themselves. Drinks may be offered at ten o’clock in the morning, for example. This is obviously going to be one of those days. What are we celebrating? During the midday meal, wine is served. What fun! What are we celebrating? The bars are open all afternoon, and people seem to be drinking. What a riot! What are we celebrating? Pastis is served at six o’clock. Whoopee! These people certainly know how to celebrate. More wine is served with dinner. And so on. Wine has different meanings, different realities, in the two contexts, and a festive and episodic drinking culture meets a daily drinking culture, generating a tendency to celebrate all day. This has often happened to groups of young British tourists, now renowned in France and elsewhere in Europe for their drinking and drunkenness."

The significant feature of the ‘integrated’ drinking cultures of Europe (e.g. France, Spain and Italy) in this context is that there is little or no disapprobation of drinking, and therefore no need to find excuses for drinking. Festivity is strongly associated with alcohol in these cultures, but is not invoked as a justification for every drinking occasion: a celebration most certainly requires alcohol, but every drink does not require a celebration.

Why alcohol?

Despite cross-cultural variations, the central fact remains that in all cultures where alcohol is used, drinking is an essential element of celebration. This requires explanation: why should alcohol, rather than any other substance, be the universal symbol of festivity? The answer requires an understanding of the underlying social functions of celebration, and their relation to the symbolic and pharmacological properties of alcohol.

Symbolic convenience?

One might argue that there is no deeper significance in the choice of alcohol to symbolise festivity than that alcohol is the most flexible and convenient of symbolic vehicles. Indeed, the chameleon-like versatility of alcohol as a symbolic medium cannot be ignored in this context. Drinks, as we have found (see ‘Symbolic roles’) can be used to convey an infinite variety of different, and even contradictory messages. The same bottle of wine may, in different societies or situations, serve as a symbolic representation of tradition or novelty, masculinity or femininity, the working class or the elite, stability or transition, the sacred or the secular, integration or differentiation, age or youth, work-time or play-time, etc. - and in each case, its meaning will be readily understood. One might suggest, not unreasonably, that the use of such a powerful, ‘absorbent’ and adaptable symbolic tool to represent yet another aspect of life requires no further explanation.

Were it not for the near-universality of the association between alcohol and festivity, the attractions of this simple answer might be irresistible. The multiplicity of culturally or situationally variable symbolic uses of alcohol cannot, however, be offered in explanation of its equation with festivity, which appears to transcend all cultural variation. The ‘helpfulness’ of alcohol as a symbolic medium cannot fully account for its global association with one particular human activity. We must ask more specifically what it is about alcohol that makes it an appropriate pan-cultural symbol, and essential element, of festivity, despite significant inter-cultural differences in symbolic uses of alcohol, and in attitudes and beliefs about drinking.

Cultural chemistry

This requires an awareness of the social meanings and functions - the ‘cultural chemistry’ - of festivity. Carnivals and festivals are more than just a bit of fun: in most cultures, these events involve a degree of ‘cultural remission’ - a conventionalised relaxation of social controls over behaviour (MacAndrew and Edgerton, 1969; Gusfield, 1987). Behaviour which would normally be frowned upon or even explicitly forbidden may, for the duration of the festivities, be actively encouraged.

The tesguina-drinking fiestas of the normally extremely puritanical Tarahumara, for example, involve "licensed promiscuity or wife-exchange" (MacAndrew and Edgerton, 1969), and the contrast between the wild excesses of the Bacchanalia and Saturnalia and the more regulated character of normal Ancient Greek and Roman life is well documented. Among the Hide of Northern Cameroun, the wa ckadak (men’s area) is strictly forbidden to women: this prohibition is lifted only during the frenzied dancing and beer drinking of the annual Bovine Festival, which Eguchi (1975) describes as "an occasion for mate-selection en masse". For the inhabitants of the Peruvian village of Virú, the traditional four-day festivals - at which large quantities of chicha (maize-beer) are consumed - also involve a breaking down of normal barriers between the sexes and between social classes.

Other carnival traditions include role-reversals, in which men dress in women’s clothes and prance about in an exaggerated caricature of femininity; or in which those normally at the top of the social hierarchy, commanding automatic deference and obedience, may become, for the duration of the event, the legitimate targets of insults, offensive behaviour and practical jokes – all conveniently forgotten the next day, when due courtesy and respect will again be expected (Barlett, 1980). Costume and disguise, the concealment of one’s normal identity and the temporary adoption of a different persona, are a feature of many festive traditions. For the Inuit of Northern Labrador, ‘janneying’ (disguising) is at the heart of the ‘symbolic inversion’ of the conventional during the ritual festivities of Christmas and Easter, and is equated with the chemical effects of drinking (Szala-Meneok, 1994).

The cultural remission and symbolic inversion that characterises many festivals and celebrations makes these events ‘liminal’ periods - equivocal, marginal, borderline intervals, segregated from everyday existence. We have already noted the natural affinity between alcohol and liminality, whereby the experience of intoxication - the ‘altered states of consciousness’ (Rudgley, 1994) induced by the action of ethanol - echo the experience of ritually induced liminality. The chemical effects of alcohol mirror the cultural chemistry of the festival. In this context, there is a clear psychological appropriateness to the universal conjunction of alcohol and festivity.

Alternative reality

The cultural chemistry of ritual time, the remissions and inversions inherent to some degree in most festive rituals, involves the (temporary) construction of an alternative reality. Normal rules and social constructions are relaxed, suspended, or even reversed, allowing a brief exploration of alternative ways of being.

Douglas (1987) identifies one of the key functions of ritual, and of drinking, as "the construction of an ideal world." The alternative worlds of festive remission and inversion are, however, rarely unequivocally ‘ideal’ - and indeed may often be in opposition to highly valued norms and categories. The contingent, twilight realm of the carnival, in which familiar, trusted boundaries become blurred, barriers dissolve and cherished values are challenged can seem a dangerous and frightening place. Yet this state of fearful excitement, and even embarrassment, is often actively sought and encouraged, and seems to be intimately connected with the consumption of alcohol (Honigmann, 1963; Gusfield, 1987).

What Rudgley (1994) calls "the universal need for liberation from the restrictions of mundane existence" can only be satisfied by experiencing ‘altered states of consciousness’. He convincingly demonstrates that we have a natural predisposition to these altered states, and the characteristics of carnivals and festivals support his argument that we actively pursue this experience. Gusfield (1987) refers to the morning-after "I was not myself" plea of drinkers in ‘ambivalent’ cultures, and it could be said that during festive remissions and inversions, we experience a entire culture that, for the duration of the event, is ‘not itself’.

Balancing role

Yet the fact that we restrict our collective pursuit of altered states and alternative realities to specific, limited contexts suggests that our desire for this liberation is by no means unequivocal - that it is balanced by an equally powerful need for the stability and security of mundane existence. We may be enthralled by the liminal experience of the carnival, but we are also afraid of it: we like to visit alternative worlds, but we wouldn’t want to live there.

It seems, then, that drinking plays a double or ‘balancing’ role in the context of festive rituals: the altered states of consciousness induced by alcohol allow us to explore desired but potentially dangerous alternative realities, while the social meanings of drinking - the rules of convivial sociability invariably associated with the consumption of alcohol - provide a reassuring counterbalance. By ‘drinking with the Devil’, we experience his power, but through the familiar sociable rituals of pouring and sharing, we are also able to tame and control this power.

Peckham (1967) argued that ritual inversions are a "rehearsal for those real-life situations in which it is vital for our survival to endure cognitive disorientation." Alcohol is an essential element of festive inversion rituals because the combination of its chemical and symbolic properties allows us not only to ‘rehearse’ the disruptive and disorienting aspects of life, but also to domesticate them.

Need for further research

More extensive, systematic and detailed cross-cultural examination of the use of alcohol in transitional and festive rituals would provide valuable insight into perceptions of drinking and beliefs about the powers and properties of alcohol in different societies. Such research would also shed light on any shifts or changes in these beliefs - changes which could have significant effects on levels and types of alcohol-related problems.

A move away from ‘transition-to-work’ drinking, for example, in a culture where this practice was commonplace, could be a cause for concern, as cultures with a purely recreational, festive representation of alcohol, where drinking is perceived as antithetical to working, tend to have a more difficult relationship with alcohol, associated with higher levels of alcohol-related harm. There are currently early signs of just such a shift in Italy and in Spain (Cottino, 1995; Gamella, 1995).

A more thorough understanding of the ritual roles of alcohol, and systematic monitoring of changes in these roles, will be essential to any attempt to manage problematic aspects of drinking - or indeed to promote normal, non-problematic enjoyment of alcohol.