Anthropology Of Drinking Research Paper

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Since at least the 1940s, alcohol has been the focus of a growing interdisciplinary cadre of researchers. Some have proposed ‘alcohology’ as an academic discipline of its own (Heath 1987, p. 100). Anthropological data and viewpoints have played a part from the start. Their influence has perhaps been greater than expected, considering the limited number of professional anthropologists involved. The first appeal for anthropological studies of drug dependence came from Edward Glover (1932), a leading British psychoanalyst who needed data for psychoanalytic theory. Ruth Bunzel (1940) offered an early response.

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The scrutiny of social and cultural aspects of alcohol consumption can be seen as anthropological in the sense that it benefits from comparison between societies. The most ambitious endeavor is still that of Donald Horton; in his own words, ‘an experiment in scientific method’ (Horton 1943, p. 202). He examined anthropological statements on drinking from 77 ‘primitive’ societies and concluded that the primary function of alcohol is to reduce human anxiety and fear, a view that has been questioned by later scientists. Horton’s aim was to study the ‘functions’ of alcohol as a starting point for a psychocultural theory. The available data were, however, of varied character and quality. The lack of systematic descriptions of ordinary drinking prevented useful conclusions.

It has been an anthropological aim to focus on relatively small and homogeneous groups and there to indicate the social and cultural structures encompassing and supporting the patterns of drinking. Ethnographic analyses show rich variation in the use of alcohol in the multitude of cultural contexts. Neither the use of alcohol nor its effects and consequences are universal, or in any way anchored in inherent properties of alcohol, or in ‘human nature,’ or in ‘male nature’—for a long time women were not made particularly visible in the literature on drinking, although times are now changing (see, for example, Gefou-Madianou 1992).

A complex, diverse and often paradoxical pattern of belief and behavior has come to surround a simple chemical product. Alcohol is simultaneously considered a stimulant and a sedative, both food and poison. It has a close connection to religious practice, though drinking is often characterized as ‘diabolic.’ A great many phenomena, from the most positive to the most negative, have been attributed to the use of alcohol, although most people are well acquainted with its allegedly negative effects on human behavior.

1. Fusing The Symbol

It is not strange that alcohol holds a special position in human life. Its influence on motor activity and its gradual effect on human consciousness are sufficiently dramatic as a ‘sign’ that alcohol is something out of the ordinary. Reports from other cultures often repeat that the purpose of drinking is to achieve drunkenness, sometimes to the extent of unconsciousness.

Bunzel (1940, p. 384) notes that the Chamula ‘drink for pleasure—direct somatic pleasure of warmth, relaxation and deep untroubled sleep,’ a sequence comparable to what Rado (1957) calls ‘alimentary orgasm’ She declares that alcohol has replaced all other forms of aesthetic expression: ‘People are too engrossed in drinking to develop the arts of life. Commitment to one form of gratification has blotted out every other possibility’ (Bunzel 1940, p. 385). Bunzel’s use of ‘commitment’ brings up the human ability to fuse, under certain circumstances, with a symbol, a phenomenon that could cause everything else to seem of little importance.

The unique position of alcohol—despite a simple and natural origin—easily identifies it as symbol. As symbol, alcohol has the quality of allowing or even calling upon fusion with its human imbibers. The description of a symbol is certainly poor and empty if severed from the human experience for which the symbol is crucial.

The basis of the argument is the possible relationship of commitment between man and symbol. Intoxication through alcohol may be seen as a relation of symbolic commitment. This also implies that the inebriated use this possibility for some purpose, for instance to get an outlet for thoughts and feelings otherwise not permitted, or perhaps just hard to express. Commitment to a symbol does not imply cultural consensus. All those committed, even if enjoying social consensus, need not agree on the meaning of drinking. Drunkenness, like religious experience, is abstract in relation to its content.

2. Alcohol As Ornament

In a relatively early interpretation, Harold Fallding (1964) places drinking in a wide civilizational context. Civilization, he suggests, may be understood as ‘the dignifying of human existence through adornment.’ Human beings—at any cultural level—always use a ‘surplus to devise need-gratifications not strictly related to survival’ (Fallding 1964, p. 714). Alcohol is such a surplus, such an ornament. Men might be enslaved by excessive devotedness to their ornaments, a main predicament and principle of fetishism. Men, growing dependent on things they have unnecessarily produced themselves, are degraded by their own invented rubbish.

Fallding deprives alcohol of its demonical and divine disguise and exposes it as a dead thing, unnecessary for human existence. In the same breath alcohol is rehabilitated to only one legitimate function in society: as symbol for a necessary community. Community is indispensable for the trust which humankind cannot do without for its common survival, its common production.

Fostering of community keeps the ‘fount of trust open in the midst of the garden of civilization’ (Fallding 1964, p. 714). Trust must be maintained despite society’s acceleration in numbers and specialization. Production will develop only if reciprocal trust is there. To the extent that drinking symbolizes an existing community it represents ‘the most precious support men can experience’ (Fallding 1964, p. 717).

The occurrence of intoxication may offer a specific experience of community. To share a drunken moment could produce a feeling of trust and a touch of being a participant in something potentially dangerous. The individual feeling unsafe, or with a position to defend, may disallow himself from becoming intoxicated, even if drinking.

The ‘ornamental, community-symbolic drinking’ suggests an already existing community. If this drinking appears to be rare in modern society, it might indicate a decline of community. Community and trust must in that case be restored first, since ‘nothing could be less sufficient for the genesis of community than to supply the materials by which it could be symbolized, if present’ (Fallding 1964, p. 719).

3. Drinking As A Problem

Mutual drinking can contribute to the maintenance of social structure. Harriet Kupferer observes that studies asserting that ‘drinking together enhances social solidarity and increases sociability’ (Kupferer 1979, p. 198) obviously take their starting point in Durkheim and Radcliffe-Brown. Mary Douglas (1987), however, warns that the literature might overemphasize the idea of community as an answer to alcohol problems. Authority, ritual, and solidarity—on a foundation of community and trust—certainly seem to bring the drinking under control. But sometimes the community is aggressively competitive. The drinker following norms in such company risks his health.

It is however necessary, not least in the anthropological context, to distinguish between addiction and the ‘nonpathological heavy indulgence in drinking’ (Jellinek 1941, p. 777) of which the Bolivian Camba is a good example (Heath 1962). Horton reminds us that ‘primitive peoples’ are unaware of alcohol ‘problems’ (Horton 1943, p. 200). They just know that some of their beverages produce certain characteristic sensations and behaviors. Bales (1946) also emphasizes the need to avoid the confusion between the extent to which alcohol is used in a given culture and the extent to which alcohol causes problems in that culture.

Comparing Jewish and Irish Americans, Bales presents an illustration to the fact that differences in cultural context influence the incidence of alcohol problems. He suggests that despite the fact that practically all Jews drink some kind of alcoholic drink every week, the number of alcoholic Jews is small (Bales 1946, p. 480). Snyder observes that Orthodox Judaism, as a normative and cultural system, seems to have restrictive influences on its members. ‘But this effect may depend in the long run upon the continuing participation of Jews in the ceremonial and ritual activities of the traditional religious community’ (Bales 1946, p. 112).

Alcohol abuse among Jews in New York is thought not to depend on their assimilation into American norms of consumption, but rather on their distance from traditional Orthodoxy and from ceremonial participation renewing solidarity and moral authority. Catholicism and Protestantism offer no similar ritual control of personal behavior. The priests advocate soberness or moderation but are as a rule isolated from popular drinking. Church ceremonies do not incorporate drinking other than the Communion.

Kunitz et al. discuss notable differences between Navaho and Hopi in the incidence of cirrhosis (Kunitz et al. 1971). Drinking is customary among both groups, but patterns differ. The authors suggest that drinking in Navaho society is a ‘normal pursuit of young men and tends to be outgrown’ (Kunitz et al. 1971, p. 715). The individual who drinks is not expelled from the community except in rare cases. Higher prevalence of cirrhosis near the border towns might be a consequence of a freer access to alcohol, and some might develop cirrhosis before they outgrow their drinking. ‘Many of those currently abstaining had been very heavy drinkers previously and some no doubt would have been diagnosed as alcoholics. Nevertheless, they stopped drinking with relative ease and without the problems commonly reported by Anglo alcoholics’ (Kunitz et al. 1971, p. 716).

The fact that the Navaho drinkers are not sent away from the community, and are not isolated, seems to allow them a kind of shelter. The Navaho possibly retain a traditional pattern for drinking immoderately when there is alcohol. They appear not to see self-control as a social value in the same way as the Hopi do. The Hopi situation is thus different. The Hopi way has emphasized harmony and peace and avoided ‘acting out.’ The traditional method of social control has included gossip, witchcraft allegations, and final expulsion from the community. As a result the drinker may become isolated and released from restraint.

Differing fatality rates as a result of cirrhosis could depend on the Navaho pattern of heavy drinking at an early age, which is abandoned so early in life that cirrhosis, if it occurs, is reversible. The Hopi pattern, on the other hand, might lead the individual ejected from the community to become isolated, and to continue drinking until illness becomes fatal.

4. Alcohol And Health

Some of the value of anthropological study on alcohol lies in the way it contrasts with the segmentation that is otherwise characteristic of alcohol research: there are inquiries into alcohol and violence, alcohol and traffic, alcohol and health, and so forth. Anthropology instead cherishes the idea of studying alcohol in its full social and cultural setting, and anthropologists therefore have a perspective on drinking activities grounded in fieldwork. They do not necessarily treat alcohol as a problem, and seem to find that medicine and sociology may be inclined to some exaggeration in this regard. ‘Even in the United States where there is so much concern about alcohol abuse, the most pessimistic estimate is that alcohol-related troubles afflict fewer than 10 percent of those who drink’ (Douglas 1987, p. 3).

The anthropological approach challenges the assertion that drinking leads to anomie. It is rather anomie that leads to alcoholism, and the anthropologists are of course ready, adds Douglas, to confront the theoretical problems of the anomie concept. Nor do they find any clear relation between drinking and disposition to aggressiveness and law-breaking, and they question the idea of drunken misbehavior as an example of alcohol’s capacity to slacken cultural restrictions.

An anthropologist focusing on alcohol abuse probably will conclude that the most efficient way to control misuse is through socialization. But there is no way to stipulate ‘a cultural level of tolerance for alcohol’ against which questions implied in a cultural approach could be asked: ‘Do cultural constraints dictating a restricted framework for drinking enable more individuals to absorb more alcohol with less apparent physical effect? Does cultural training which enables individuals to hold their drink more easily protect their livers from damage? Most likely not. Does the individual breaking out of a set of cultural constraints drink more deeply and more dangerously than one whose heavy drinking is culturally expected and approved? What difference does the surrounding culture’s attitude to drunkenness make to the prospects of an addict’s cure?’ (Douglas 1987, p. 5).

Gender differences in alcohol use may imply a greater freedom for men, and contribute to men’s collective construction of ‘real masculine identities’ (Gefou-Madianou 1992, p. 11); a prerogative possibly counterbalanced by women’s avoidance of an obvious health risk and conspicuous capacity for ‘getting drunk’ on conviviality (Gefou-Madianou 1992, p. 15). A pessimistic prediction, not without empirical evidence, is that females will catch up with males primarily in what Fallding characterizes as drinking in ‘protest of distrust against the community’ (Fallding 1964, p. 721).

Anthropology has no immediate solution to alcoholic health hazard. It is possible but not proven (or even properly studied) that heavy alcohol consumption is less hazardous to health if symbolizing com- munity than if in protest against exclusion. Most people drink alcohol without suffering in any observable way. That reservation is important. The causal connection supposedly established between drinking and illness is not easily confirmed or refuted in the anthropological field, although anthropology, back from field, may profitably ‘meet’ other branches of learning (Demers et al. 1996).

A fundamental contribution from the anthropological quarter could be the statement that studies from the biomedical or the cultural sphere, as well as true interdisciplinary attempts (Lucia 1963) and con- sensual policy efforts (Edwards 1994)—though welcome for furthering a deeper understanding of alcohol use—may not provide a solution to the drinking problem. The solution will not come about by way of any research program, but rather, if at all, as the result of a major cultural achievement.


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