Binge and tonic

Photo by Flickr user Loving Earth. Click for sourceThere’s more to alcohol than getting pissed but you’d never know it from the papers. In a period of public hand wringing over ‘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 the work of 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.

This is one of the occasional columns I write for The Psychologist and the editor, Jon Sutton, has kindly agreed for them to be posted on Mind Hacks as long as I include the following text:

The Psychologist is sent free to all members of the British Psychological Society (you can join here), or you can subscribe as a non-member by emailing sarsta[at]

He’s also said that he might print particularly good or insightful comments in the magazine, after which fame and fine living will surely follow. If he’s interested in publishing your comment, he’ll contact you first to get permission.

4 thoughts on “Binge and tonic”

  1. It’s so interesting how sociologists arrive at social meaning while psychologists look at other factors, and yet what I as a mother care about is that my children stay safe and sane–which means understanding the whole package so that package can be reframed (from my point of view) in a healthier way.

  2. Over a tower of beer one evening a friend and I hypothesized that the adventure of binge drinking had come to replace a coming of age ritual.
    The transition from adolescence to adulthood is marked by little more significant (for some) than trying to drink as much as possible. If you survive, and manage to do something amusing in the interim, than you are truly a man.
    My culturally impoverished, white, middle-class friend and I then followed up on our theory by playing on some train tracks.

  3. I am interested in the concept of “the negative effects, both personally toxic and anti-social, [being] reframed as a bonding experience.”
    I am a college student at Ohio University which has a reputation for being a party school and I see a lot of this kind of attitude towards particularly drunken experiences, especially among women.
    It seems to me that when friends look back nostalgically on a night they shared involving arguments, getting arrested, getting sick or embarrassing behavior, they are using the experience as a way to signal their loyalty.
    By deliberately putting themselves at their worst and going through a negative experience together, the friends are testing the commitment of the other to the relationship.
    It is akin to other kinds of rituals members of groups go through to signal commitment to a group such as religious rituals and trials and various forms of hazing.
    It would be interesting to see the relationship between binge drinking and other forms of honest signaling or lack there of in other cultures

  4. I’m reminded of this quote from the economist John Kay’s The Truth About Markets:
    “I once debated the relationship between the social sciences with some anthropologists. We adjourned to the pub, and someone bought a round of drinks: the discussion naturally turned to the reasons why. For the economists, the explanation was obvious: the practice of buying rounds minimized transaction costs, reducing the number of exchanges between the patrons and the bar staff. The anthropologists saw it as an example of ritual gift exchange and described the many tribes that had developed similar customs. I proposed a test between the competing hypotheses: did you feel cheated or victorious if you bought more rounds than had been bought for you? Unfortunately, the economists and the anthropologists gave different answers to that question.”
    My Dutch girlfriend, in her first few weeks of life in the UK, was witness to a reunion with some friends from university. Held in the local pub, she observed—and was somewhat involved in—a number of seemingly masochistic drinking games and the unhealthy consumption of a ridiculous amount of alcohol.
    The following day we discussed the previous night’s debauchery and she noted how well we all connected over, what would have seemed to an outsider, the mindless binge drinking that occurred. She now has a newfound understanding (not respect) for the UK’s drinking habits that are so often derided not only in the media, but by foreign cultures too.

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