Social and Cultural Roles of Alcohol

Given overwhelming evidence for the primacy of socio-cultural 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 socio-cultural 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, behavioral 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 digestif's 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 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 forGreeks 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 idealized or romanticized, 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 favor 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 Mac Andrew 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 color would show. Yet the drunken behavior 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 behaviors. 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 behavior, 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 behavioral 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 behavior 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 behavior 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 recognized 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.”

In my opinion the consumption of alcohol and the social settings of bars are a direct result of the often rigid social rules that comprise our nation. Though the bar scene does offer an escape from certain social conformities, it has an array of unwritten rules and social dictums of its own. Some may find refuge from social constraints in a weekly escape to the bar, while others find the attitudes and behaviors repulsive and damaging. It is all a basis of perspective. Observational study can be a useful tool, yet it has as many short comings, as the observer recording, and interpreting the data. We each have our social and cultural biases, which can and will be made apparent during any observational study. Nevertheless, there are several insights that can and must be assessed through societal observation.