Fringe drinking culture

Vaughan Bell, Beyond Boundaries column, The Psychologist, May 2009

There’s more to alcohol than getting pissed but you’d never know it from the papers. In a period of public hand wringing over Britain’s ‘binge drinking culture’, our understanding of the ‘culture bit’ usually merits no more than an admission that people do it in groups and this is often implicit in our work as psychologists. In a recent Psychological Bulletin review on the determinants of binge drinking, psychologists Kelly Courtney and John Polich devote only a few sparse paragraphs to the social issues in an otherwise impressive review, despite the fact that drinking alcohol is one of the most socially meaningful and richly symbolic activities in our culture.

In the UK at least, the social meaning of booze is often hidden behind the ordinariness of day-to-day consumption. If you can’t quite see past the barrier of banality, try buying one of your male colleagues a babycham in public view and the symbolism of alcohol will quickly be made apparent. But it is not just the meaning of drinks which determine the role alcohol plays in our lives, it is the meaning of drinking as well. Sociologists have been exploring this territory for years and we would do well to read their maps, because it shows us how culture influences not only our views on drunkenness, but the experience of being intoxicated itself.

In their classic 1969 book Drunken Comportment, MacAndrew and Edgerton compared alcohol use in cultures around the world, finding that what concerns us most today, drunken disorderliness, is not an inevitable result of getting pissed. A striking example was the Papago people of Mexico, who, during their traditional cactus-wine ceremonies, would imbibe so much as to become “falling-down drunk”. Despite the large scale community boozing, the events were exclusively peaceful, harmonious and good tempered. Later, the availability of whisky brought with it the cultural connotations of European-style drinking, meaning it ‘produced’ an aggressive, anti-social drunkenness, despite it being the same chemical in a different style.

Recent research on binge-drinking in Western youth has indicated that the negative effects, both personally toxic and anti-social, have been reframed as an adventure and bonding experience. While health campaigns are focusing on risk reduction, research by Sheehan and Ridge with teenage girls in Australia found that any harm encountered along the way tends to be “filtered through a ‘good story,’ brimming with tales of fun, adventure, bonding, sex, gender transgressions, and relationships”. Puking in the gutter has been turned into Sex and the City. Not the complete story, of course, but we neglect the culture of alcohol at the cost of failing to understand why binge drinking is in fashion.