Blogging the Drinking Age Debate

danah “zephoria” boyd is blogging about the conversation over drinking age in the United States.

apophenia: Dionysus and the Amethyst Initiative.

As boyd is relatively well-known, her blogging about this can have interesting effects in terms of generating “buzz.”

Her blogging the issue might help me as I follow my previous post up with some further comments. But that’ll have to wait. RERO!

What follows is my answer to boyd’s post, since trackbacks can be more powerful than blog comments.

You might enjoy IU researcher Ruth Engs‘s work on the topic.

A few concepts/expressions which could be useful in your future coverage…

  • “Moral entrepreneurs” (Howie Becker’s concept)
  • “Forbidden Fruit” (or cookie jar, but forbidden fruit works better for keyword searches, I think)
  • “Responsible Drinking” (a taboo expression in alcohol research in the United States but the concept which runs at the core of Amethyst)

9 thoughts on “Blogging the Drinking Age Debate”

  1. You’re so right, responsible drinking is taboo, and I guess that’s characteristic of the binary demonization that accompanies the installation of disciplinary regimes. But it’s statistically insane. Alcohol is not a multi-billion dollar industry on the strength of alcoholics and drunk drivers. They are outliers.

    I have a former student, Jenna Howard, who did some very interesting work on the social construction of alcoholism as a disease, analyzing the strategies AA uses to wiggle people with alcohol problems toward adopting this definition of the situation and permanent essential identities as ‘alcoholics’. Her larger project is what she calls the thirteenth step, or ‘recovery from recovery’.

    Tangentially, I thought you might enjoy In Harmonium’s post on workspaces using beer preferences in Canada as the case study.

  2. @Carl Interesting that you should bring up the AA. At UdeMtl, back in 1995, two anthro students from France were doing a project on the AA for a seminar on rituals. Their analysis was close to what you describe. More recently, a friend who had known AA groups was talking about the fact that replacing alcohol addiction with a social addiction is in fact their goal. In that light, I can relate to the logic involved. You replace a socially disfavoured (and socially harmful) addiction with a socially favoured and potentially beneficial one. At least temporarily. Eventually, you may grow out of it and be independent from the AA movement itself. Sounds like experienced AA members would say it’s part of the way the system works.

    But you address a larger problem: the attitude toward alcohol. Here again, Engs has very insightful things to say. Part of her analysis is historical or even archaeological. I can’t assess it’s validity but I gained a lot from it.
    Simply put, much of it has to do with dividing Europe in two (which is often done). The Southern part used wine as part of the common diet. Wine was available throughout the year and was a kind of social equalizer (workers were paid in wine). Being intoxicated wasn’t the normal effect of wine consumption. To this day, many parts associated with the Roman heritage are the site of a fairly positive attitude toward responsible alcohol drinking.
    Northern Europe, at the time, mainly consumed alcohol (beer and mead, mostly) at specific occasions during the year. This pattern of alcohol consumption often led to wild parties during which lots of “shameful” things would happen. Hence this negative attitude toward alcohol as socially destructive. And “shameful.”
    Now, I’m simplifying Engs’s description to the extreme. And I don’t necessarily agree with all implications of my own summary. But the notion that attitudes toward alcohol are connected with both cultural contexts and the prevalence of alcohol-related problems seems pretty insightful to me.

    Then there’s the whole field of research on addiction. Pretty tricky. Both complex and complicated.
    Is addiction a cause or a symptom? Are addictions associated with specific people or may they develop in any context? Are addictions ever cured or are they merely channelled? How likely are some substances to be involved in addiction?
    More importantly: can chocolate cause addictions?

    Thanks a lot for your comment!

  3. Hi Alexandre,

    Interesting debate, and I definitely agree about he moral entrepreneur status of many of the current anti-alcohol social movements. Back in 1996, I did some research for the Ministry of Justice on the Blackout Defense which led to reading all sorts of material, including some fascinating stuff on genetics (especially on the ALDH [aldehyde dehydrogenase] alleles). It appears as if many root cultures have a tendency towards a very high frequency distribution of one of the three ALDH alleles which, in turn, sets the “norms” for how people respond to alcohol consumption and the “rituals” used to control and contextualize it.

    One of the things that I have noticed about a lot of the moral entrepreneurs is that they don’t even consider basic, well established, biological facts in their debates; biology is over-ridden by political ideology. Thus, for example, the blood alcohol content is actually set with in reference to one particular allele and not the other two in North America (ALDH 1*2).

    “Responsible drinking”, then, becomes a matter of fiat rather than principle in line with individual variation. It certain sounds good and sells to the public, but I’m sure we all know students who can pound back 12 beers and still be operational (probably ALDH 2*2) and those who shoot back one and pass out (ALDH 1*1). I was raised in a family that was predominantly ALDH 2*2 (aka drank like fish but, also, refused to be “drunk”) and the definition of “responsible drinking” I was given was “know your limits and how you react”. For us, it was never a case of one size fits all. I just wish that more of the moral entrepreneurs would take a similar stance .

  4. @Marc Thanks for dropping by!
    As a culturalist, I don’t tend to address the genetic dimensions very directly, but these ones are quite interesting. The genetic bases for the effects of alcohol in different populations have been mentioned in some contexts (especially about autochtonous groups in the Americas or about some East Asian groups). So it’s useful to have a few more details.
    What you say about responsible drinking isn’t inaccurate but I think we could frame responsible drinking in such a way that it could take individual differences into account. I have no idea what alleles are common in my heritages (Swiss, Italian, Irish, Scottish…) but I was also given the “know your limits” definition of responsible drinking (not necessarily in words but certainly in actions). My guess is that even with ALDH 1*1 people, this definition could work if social measures are taken to “enforce inebriation limits.” Though we all know that people aren’t too good at assessing their degree of intoxication, there can be a sort of conensus opinion on how drunk people are. Perhaps more importantly, it may be easier to control the effect of drunkenness when a notion of responsible drinking is enforced than when intoxication is the unique issue to be addressed. In other words, I don’t mean “responsible drinking” as a dosage. I mean it as a contextually-aware, socially informed “know when not to abuse of a good thing.”
    Again, I don’t drive. And, even on those occasions when I drank enough alcohol to feel inebriated, my behaviour has never been so inappropriate as to constitute a source of lasting opprobrium.
    Apart from the fact that I rarely drink and that I have an extremely easy time at controling my alcohol consumption, my behaviour during even the most alcohol-intensive occasions is part of my own concept of “responsible drinking.” I always take responsibility for my actions.

  5. This is great stuff. Marc’s genetic info is new to me and helps make some sense of my observations of a variety of folks in various situations. I also hadn’t thought as clearly as I should about how cultures contextualize alcohol or any other drug, although I was aware that “being drunk,” or high, is in large part a social performance incidental to consumption.

    The thing about a particular drink being tied to everyday life may or may not contrast entirely with alcohol being a feature of special occasions. Wine is everyday in Italy, but something like grappa (brandy) may still be used to ritually distinguish a festival, charivari, or whatever. In that sense the reaction to alcohol per se is not the issue but the character of the occasion; a charivari is a time of collective effervescence when ordinary rules and boundaries are relaxed anyway, perhaps as rebellion, perhaps ultimately as reaffirmation. I’m thinking that the idea of responsible drinking fits everyday consumption but not, by definition, the exceptionality of carnival.

  6. @Carl
    It may be a futile attempt on my part but I’ll try to maintain the “festival” dimension in the context of responsible drinking as a broader attitude.
    While I was writing my blogpost and further comments, I was thinking about the fact that occasions for “excessive” drinking existed in those groups which allegedly framed alcohol in the responsible drinking paradigm of “wine as food.” More specifically, I kept thinking about Bacchus because Ancient Rome is precisely the target of Ruth Engs’s comments on European cultural distinctions.
    Now, I don’t know what Engs said about Bacchus. Maybe I should just look for those comments or ask her directly. But I think it’s an interesting lead, even though I haven’t seen empirical evidence for the claim I’m about to make.
    I get the impression that, in “responsible drinking cultures” (like Ancient Rome, Modern-Day Italy, or Southern France), those rituals in which heavy alcohol consumption is set are somehow more “framed” («encadrés») than the binge-drinking events of historical Northern Europe (including Anglo-Saxon North America). Again, I have no support for this hypothesis and I shouldn’t look for it. But I have a picture in my head which helps me salvage the responsible drinking argument in the context of those festivals.
    If I were to look for empirical validation, I’d probably use the public-private dichotomy in the context of the distinction between “the group as a whole” and an elite-like sub-group.
    Another path could be to look at symbolic “framing.” If festivals in “responsible drinking cultures” were framed as socially functional inversion rituals with alcohol serving as a way to temporarily lubricate the social gears themselves (Naven-like) and if those other groups framed alcohol consumption as inherently sinful and necessitating redemption, the argument could be wrapped up rather nicely.
    But I won’t look for it as it would be scientifically imprudent.

  7. I actually think you’re right about all of this. The symbolic framings and ritualizations create important distinctions. Now I’m thinking of the masculinity rituals of the mead-hall, in which personal strength and honor is tested through the ordeal of alcohol poisoning. This may also be a way of understanding certain kinds of inaccurately-described ‘binge drinking’ among young U.S.American males – a kind of deep play?

  8. @Carl
    The deep play interpretation has probably been applied (at least in courses where instructors didn’t go berzerk on the topic). At the same time, I wouldn’t say “binge drinking” is an inaccurate description. Technically, it’s binge behaviour. Socially-controlled binging, but binging nonetheless. The “excess” component is clearly there, it’s not considered “normal” consumption.
    The debate over responsible drinking as a way to curb binge drinking would make a nice case study for all sorts of social science and ethnography.
    There’s an event tonight. We’ll see.

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