Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking

Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking - download full report in pdf format Click on the accompanying image to download and read the full document using Adobe's Acrobat Reader.


Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking

Europe: future directions

As the main conclusions to be drawn from existing research have already been summarised under ‘Key findings’, and in many cases examined in detail in subsequent sections, we will focus in this concluding section on the significant questions and problems that still remain, particularly those of direct relevance to EC administrators.

We have mentioned in several contexts the need for further cross-cultural research on specific sociocultural aspects of drinking - and in particular for more systematic monitoring of shifts and changes in drinking-cultures. We have also noted, and lamented, the lack of significant anthropological research on drinking in mainstream, modern, Western societies. We have expressed concern about the continuing problem-oriented focus of ‘mainstream’ research on alcohol, and the resulting imbalances in perceptions of drinking. We have also complained about the lack of large-scale, systematic, cross-cultural comparison of drinking-cultures.

These gaps and imbalances in the literature are particularly evident in Europe, where there is an urgent need to clarify cultural differences and to identify and monitor current changes and cross-cultural influences. These cannot be regarded as matters of purely academic interest. It is clear that the current trends and shifts in drinking practices and associated beliefs about alcohol in Europe may have important implications for public policy and education, and that outdated distribution-of-consumption models can neither account for the existing cross-cultural variation nor provide any guidance on the new challenges posed by ‘convergence’.

Specifically, the evidence reviewed in this chapter indicates that, in terms of drinking-culture, some European societies and groups are more ‘susceptible’ to cross-cultural influence than others. The current trend providing cause for concern seems to be the adoption of ‘ambivalent’, problematic drinking practices and beliefs in formerly ‘integrated’, non-problematic drinking-cultures. The most striking example of this trend is in Spain (Rooney, 1991; Gamella, 1995), but early signs have also been observed in France (Nahoum-Grappe, 1995) and Italy (Cottino, 1995).

These shifts are occurring mainly among the young, and the problems may prove to be ‘age-specific’, as they are in the UK, where the vast majority of young binge-drinkers adopt more moderate habits in later life. There is, however, a danger that attempts to tackle these problems through the blanket restrictions and anti-alcohol messages typical of ‘ambivalent’ cultures will reinforce the negative beliefs associated with problem drinking, and that these behaviour patterns will become entrenched. There is also a danger that some of the shifts towards ‘ambivalent’ drinking patterns among older sections of the population, such as the decline of traditional pre-work and lunchtime drinking, will not be seen as problematic, and may even be welcomed or encouraged by Temperance-minded authorities.  

In addition to the challenges posed by adoption of problematic drinking patterns in formerly ‘integrated’ cultures, this review has also indicated that ‘ambivalent’ or ‘Temperance’ cultures such as the UK seem to exhibit a higher degree of immunity to cross-cultural influence than their ‘integrated’, ‘non-Temperance’ Mediterranean neighbours. Despite the increasing popularity of wine in formerly beer- and spirits-dominated ‘Temperance’ cultures, these societies have not adopted the more harmonious relationship with alcohol that is characteristic of wine-drinking cultures. While this may, in part, reflect the fact that the adoption of wine-drinking in ‘Temperance’ cultures has not extended to those most prone to troublesome drink-related behaviour, we must also note that morally ambivalent attitudes and beliefs about alcohol persist among those who have adopted wine-drinking.

Further research will be required to explain this apparent immunity to positive cross-cultural influence, and to determine the most appropriate means of promoting change in the more problematic drinking-cultures. Such research should, however, involve pan-European monitoring of drinking-cultures, including those in which there is some evidence of  shifts towards more ‘integrated’ patterns, such as the Netherlands (Garretsen and van de Goor, 1995).

The Netherlands is classified as a ‘non-Temperance’ culture (Levine, 1992; Peele, 1997), but differs from its ‘non-Temperance’ Mediterranean neighbours in that it has experienced strong Temperance movements (although these movements were neither as sustained nor as influential as those in ‘Temperance’ cultures such as Britain or Sweden.) The legacy of these movements is still felt to some degree, reflected in a higher degree of ambivalence towards alcohol than is found in ‘integrated’ Mediterranean drinking-cultures.

In recent times, however, Garretsen and van de Goor (1995) observe that, along with increasing consumption levels, the Netherlands has seen "progressively stronger integration of alcohol use into everyday life" and other positive changes such as the "introduction of teenagers to alcohol within the nuclear family" rather than illicit drinking in groups of peers. While we would not wish to jump to optimistic conclusions on the basis of one report, any signs of positive shifts deserve careful verification and monitoring. If one culture is able to overcome, however gradually, the problems of a Temperance history, close study of this process could yield valuable lessons for those still experiencing ‘Temperance-related’ disorders.

These are just two examples of the many changes, some rapid and dramatic, others gradual and barely perceptible, that are currently occurring in European drinking-cultures. Increasing economic and political ‘convergence’ among EC member states will almost certainly result in further changes - the main danger, according to current indicators, being a shift towards the negative beliefs and expectations associated with problematic drinking.

In addition to a clear requirement for more systematic sociocultural research and monitoring, this review of the available evidence indicates an urgent need to revise current ‘received wisdoms’ guiding alcohol policy. The assertion by a former director general of the WHO that "any reduction in per capita consumption will be attended by a significant decrease in alcohol related problems" (WHO, 1978) has, according to Heath (1995), "been treated like an invariant scientific law linked with a moral imperative" in the face of overwhelming evidence showing that "problems do not occur in proportion to consumption" or indeed that "often, in fact, the results are diametrically opposite to those that would be predicted by the distribution-of-consumption model" (Heath, 1998).

The findings outlined in this review indicate that a new approach is required, based on the recognition that different European cultures have different levels and kinds of alcohol-related problems, that these problems are directly related to specific patterns of beliefs and expectations and that measures designed to preserve and promote more positive beliefs are most likely to be effective.