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Chapter 3

The social, cultural and symbolic dimensions of intoxication and drunkenness

The same volume of alcohol will have quite different behavioural, emotional, and cognitive consequences depending on whether it is taken on a solitary and melancholic evening at home, at a celebratory fortieth birthday party, on the terrace of a football match, or in the controlled setting of a psychological experiment. As sociologists have long demonstrated, these “effects” are never simply given in the drug: they are embedded in complex situations and the affects they generate require all manner of social and contextual support. (Rose 2007, 100, The Politics of Life Itself; see AppendixB)

Introduction

While public health, medical and psychological researchers tend to emphasise the objective and individual aspects of alcohol consumption, the cultural and symbolic discourses which surround the terms intoxication and drunkenness play a major role in the way they are understood and enacted in everyday life. As Sande (2002, 279) explains: ‘Intoxication has a dualistic form both as a natural object and as symbolic intentions and functions in society’. Therefore any attempt to understand intoxication or drunkenness must approach these terms for both their ‘objective’, scientific meanings and their contextualised social and symbolic meanings.

A useful introduction to these dilemmas can be found in the ways in which media commentary approaches the roles that alcohol, drunkenness and debauchery play in artistic forms, practices and cultures, and in the lives of artists (see Mayes 2004; Welsh 2002). Discussions of artists’ reflections on drunkenness occupy a prominent place in the American news media in particular. The general attitude towards drunkenness and intoxication in the arts is that intoxication is neither unnatural, nor deviant, as a New York Times review of Richard Davenport-Hines’s book The Pursuit of Oblivion: The History of Narcotics makes clear (Kenneally 2002; see also Knightley 2001). In this respect, when we read of Dylan Thomas’s ‘20-year orgy of drunkenness and lechery’ (Salusinszky 2004), Richard Harris’s ‘30-year cavort with “Rabelaisian drunkenness and boudoir folly”’ (Macaulay 2000), or Peggy Guggenheim’s ‘drunkenness and promiscuity’, and the ‘angry wives and girlfriends’ she left in her wake (Maslin 2002), art practices and the artistic life serve as a metaphor for the personal and social complexities and contradictions associated with drunkenness more generally.

The dichotomy of drunkenness as a lure and an escape underpins Rhodes’s account of Patrick Hamilton’s ‘heroic drinking’ which spurred his best novels, but which also became his downfall (Rhodes 2004). Likewise, Hadley Freeman (2007) describes the novels of Edward St Aubyn as being absorbed with the ‘“varying states of being trapped, and the false lures along the way”, whether they are drugs, drink or false gods and beliefs’. Similar themes emerge in the films of Gillian Wearing and John Cassavetes. Wearing’s Drunk (1997–1999) is a study of the way drunkenness gives the drinker a mask behind which he or she can hide (Smith 2002), while for Cassavetes, the ‘breakdown and breakthrough’ of drunkenness ‘were sides of the same coin’. Cassavetes’s films, writes John Sutherland (2007), ‘connect with the problem that torments every problem drinker: is what emerges, in drunkenness, the real you? Or are you, as the phrase “the demon drink” implies, “not yourself” in your cups? Is the final “veritas” really located “in vino”? Or is drunkenness (too literally often) a dead end?’

The tensions between the transcendence and the depravity enabled by drunkenness are also reflected in the paintings of artists such as William Hogarth and Nicolas Poussin. On the one hand, Hogarth’s paintings represent the dark side of drunkenness – the side that condemns and which is self-destructive – while Poussin’s paintings celebrate the transcendence facilitated by alcohol. On Hogarth’s eighteenth century paintings, Adrian Searle (2007) writes that:

we recognise Hogarth’s social types and situations and take them as our own, seeing crack fiends where he saw gin-sodden drunks, aids where he saw syphilis… The endemic drunkenness and violence, the cheapness and carelessness of life that we see in Hogarth’s street scenes could be any town in the UK now on a Saturday night.

In contrast, Poussin’s classical friezes ‘come to wild and crazy life; they celebrate debauchery with a joyous panoply of sins: sexual congress of several varieties, dancing, drunkenness, wantonness, gluttony’ (Weisgall 2002). Media commentary on these tensions can also be found in relation to other art forms, including music (Tindall 2008), photography (Cotter 2000), sculpture (Sirmans 2001), theatre (Brantley 2001), and television (Delaney 2007; Hastings 2008).

What this commentary introduces in this chapter is our concern with exploring the cultural, social and symbolic dimensions of intoxication and drunkenness. To explore some of these aspects we turn to, in the first instance, cross-cultural differences in measuring and understanding intoxication and drunkenness. Following this discussion, which also reviews media commentary on the (apparently) national cultural characteristics of drinking cultures, we examine social science research on the dichotomy between ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ drinking cultures, terms long used by researchers to characterise different drinking patterns found within Europe. The discussion of these cultural, social and symbolic dimensions of intoxication and drunkenness suggests, in quite powerful ways, that: ‘Some basic words, such as “drinking” and “intoxication” are often heavily loaded culturally and are likely to be interpreted differently according to the culture and the individual’ (Raitasalo et al. 2005,360).

Measuring intoxication in different drinking cultures

It may come as a surprise to some readers that the ‘hard’ science evidence-base on intoxication outlined in the previous chapters varies according to cultural context. Intoxication, like the alcohol content of ‘standard’ drinks, is measured differently in different countries. For example, in a number of European contexts, ‘alcohol concentrations are reported as “pro mille”. Pro mille means parts per thousand and is abbreviated %. In the United States, Great Britain, and other countries, alcohol is expressed as parts per hundred (%)’ (Brick 2006, 1283). Breath alcohol tests (BrAC) are calibrated differently as well:

Outside the United States, breath-alcohol test results are usually reported in grams of alcohol per 210 L of air, whereas in most of the United States, breath testing instruments are calibrated to convert grams per volume of breath into milligrams of alcohol per 100 mL of blood (mg/dL) or grams per 100 mL (g%). (Brick 2006,1283)

Furthermore, the alcohol level at which a person is considered to be legally impaired varies by country. The list in Table2 provides an example of BAC (blood alcohol content) limits for the operation of a vehicle in different countries.

Table 2. Standard BAC limits by country

Country

Standard BAC
(in mg/ml)

Country

Standard BAC
(in mg/ml)

Albania

0.01

Lithuania

0.04

Argentina

0.05

Luxembourg

0.08

Armenia

0

Malta

0.08

Australia

0.05

Moldova

0.03

Austria

0.05

The Netherlands

0.05

Azerbaijan

0

New Zealand

0.08

Belarus

0.05

Norway

0.02

Belgium

0.05

Peru

0.05

Bosnia and Herzegovina

0.05

Poland

0.05

Bulgaria

0.05

Portugal

0.05

Canada

0.08

Romania

0

Croatia (Republic of)

0.05

Russia

‘drunkenness’

Czech Republic

0

Singapore

0.08

Denmark

0.05

Slovak Republic

0

Estonia

0

Slovenia

0.05

Finland

0.05

South Africa

0.05

France

0.05

South Korea

0.05

Georgia

0.03

Spain

0.05

Germany

0.05

Sweden

0.02

Greece

0.05

Switzerland

0.08

Hungary

0

Thailand

0.05

Iceland

0.05

Turkey

0.05

Ireland

0.08

Turkmenistan

0.03

Israel

0.05

United Kingdom

0.08

Italy

0.05

United States

0.08

Kyrgystan

0

Zimbabwe

0.08

Latvia

0.05

Source: (Standard BAC Limits by Country; ICAP 2002)

Signs of intoxication are considered to be both objective and subjective. That is, some can be measured and others are felt or known by the individual. Across these different settings some of the signs of drunkenness include ‘facial flushing, slurred speech, unsteady gait, euphoria, increased activity, volubility, disorderly conduct, slowed reactions, impaired judgement and motor incoordination, insensibility, or stupefaction’ (Farke and Anderson 2007, 334). These expressions of intoxication are largely physiological and considered to be more or less universal. However, the behavioural indicators of intoxication are thought to be ‘strongly influenced by cultural and personal expectations about the effects of alcohol’ (Farke and Anderson 2007, 334).

As we have indicated, intoxication and drunkenness can be, to an extent, objectively measured. Yet when social context is taken into account we find that the meanings that attach to the terms vary in time and place and between social groups (Abel and Plumridge 2004; Room 2001; Room and Makela 2000). In particular, research shows that there are different ways of understanding intoxication and drunkenness in different cultures. One study suggests that ‘the definition, acceptability and experience of intoxication vary’ even between similar countries, such as Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden (Mäkelä et al. 2001, 1575). Likewise, Link (2008, 362) argues that German drinkers drink low amounts of alcohol on a daily basis, and rarely become intoxicated. To take another example, the drinking culture in New Zealand has been said to be very similar to that in the UK, where there is a general tolerance of drunkenness, a lack of concern about physical and mental well-being in relation to alcohol, and a reluctance to limit alcohol (Measham 2006). World Health Organization (WHO) statistics show that the average rate of alcohol consumption per head of population varies considerably across countries and it is likely that levels of intoxication also vary (WHO 2004; see also Lyons and Willott 2008).

Subjective understandings of intoxication and drunkenness

In this section we examine the ways in which individuals themselves define intoxication and drunkenness. Many policy and governmental reports on the use of alcohol in the community frame drunkenness and intoxication in a negative light. Some researchers however, argue that we should address the notion of pleasure and consider how drunkenness is linked in many ways to positive experiences (Midanik 2003; Measham 2008). The use of alcohol as a social lubricant, a way to forget one’s problems and peer-related pressures which encourage people to drink for social acceptance all may act as positive influences on people’s drinking choices (Measham 2008, 212). Despite the dangers of hospitalisation or violence associated with intoxication, many people enjoy getting drunk.

In one US study, Midanik (2003) examined how drunkenness is defined both quantitatively and qualitatively by asking participants to describe what ‘feeling drunk’ meant to them. Participants’ definitions of drunkenness were categorised into six different themes: 1) Physiological Symptoms, 2) Mobility (Driving/Walking), 3) Positive Outcomes, 4) Control Issues, 5) Speech, and 6) Cognition (Midanik 2003, 1293). Physiological symptoms include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and light-headedness. Drunkenness is defined in relation to a loss of control and the lack of the ability to walk or drive. In other words some responded by defining drunkenness as ‘what activities they could not do in terms of movement’ (Midanik 2003, 1297). Control, which is linked to both cognitive and physical function, impacts on people’s perceptions of whether or not they considered themselves drunk. Speech problems, such as slurring or mumbling, are indicators of drunkenness. Another way speech can indicate drunkenness for respondents is in the way in which they describe the disinhibiting effect of alcohol consumption. When drunk they speak about things which they later say they would not otherwise have revealed. Drunkenness can also be defined as something that is pleasurable, providing positive outcomes such as stress-relief, relaxation, having fun, being social. Another indicator of drunkenness is the ‘inability to think like one normally does’ (Midanik 2003, 1297).

Some researchers have explored the ways in which individuals define such terms as alcoholic, heavy drinker, and drunkard, which are social identities related to intoxication (Abrahamson 2003). Indeed, the terms alcoholic, heavy drinker, and drunkard were distinguished in the Swedish study, in part, by the ‘quantity, frequency and degree of intoxicated behaviour’ (Abrahamson, 2003, 820). An alcoholic is described by one participant as someone who is ‘unable to control consumption, drinks until intoxicated even when alone’, or as another participant stated, an alcoholic is someone who is ‘constantly intoxicated, doesn’t have a job’ (Abrahamson 2003, 826). Despite the use of measurements based on the volume of alcohol consumed for constructing policy and public health recommendations, Abrahamson (2003) found that none of the participants in his study of young adults in Sweden described or defined drunkenness in terms of the quantity of alcohol consumed.

Kerr et al. (2006, 1429–1436) explain that individual definitions of drunkenness from their US-based research include behavioural and physical consequences of alcohol use that survey measures – involving number of drinks consumed – cannot capture. However, while they also suggest that individuals may define drunkenness based on ‘what they consider to be impairment of some type’, their study is focused more on ‘the meaning of drunkenness and the social, demographic and regulatory forces that appear to influence it’. The participants in this study also described drunkenness in terms that referred to impaired ability to walk or drive, physical symptoms, lack of control, and impaired cognition. Comparing research data between 1979 and 2000, Kerr et al. found that individuals reported needing fewer drinks to get drunk. The authors link this trend to ‘more moderate expectations regarding intoxication’. Though the number of drinks declined, the number of respondents reporting being ‘drunk in the past year’ increased ‘to include more moderate drinkers’. The authors argue that this is evidence of a ‘shifting definition of drunkenness’. Despite possible cultural shifts, the authors claim that there is a ‘wide variability of alcohol intake reported to be required to reach the subjective drunkenness threshold’. They discuss cultural understandings of alcohol trends and shifts in the definition of drunkenness over time, finding that as per capita alcohol consumption fell between 1979 and 1995, the ‘number of drinks needed to feel drunk’ fell ‘substantially’ over time. While the trend was for respondents to claim that it took fewer and fewer drinks to reach drunkenness, there was a rise in alcohol use between 1995 and 2000. Kerr et al. (2006) explain these trends as a ‘cultural lag’ in the social construction of ‘what it means to be drunk’. They conclude that this perception of drunkenness related to fewer alcoholic drinks is a positive one: ‘the clear reduction in the level of intoxication considered to imply drunkenness’ has positive public health implications.

As with expert understandings, some lay people define intoxication on a continuum. In a US study undertaken by Green et al. (2007, 269) the authors illustrate participants’ beliefs about moderate drinking in the following way:

Hmm… It is so subjective. [Pause] I guess I’d have to say a moderate drinker would be somebody who goes out occasionally on the weekends and gets intoxicated to the point where it does not interfere with their life for the rest of the weekend. So they don’t get intoxicated to the point Friday night that Saturday they’re completely hung over; so that they’re still productive Saturday.

While intoxication could be described here as being found along a continuum of alcohol consumption, Green et al. (2007) interpret this participant’s description of moderate drinking in another way. They argue that participants understood moderate drinking as the absence of the attributes of drunkenness, as defined in Midanik (2003). In this interpretation, definitions of drinking become black and white; that is, either it is harmful, and attributes of drunkenness, such as the physiological effects, cognitive, speech or other issues around control, are present, or, they are not and it is then interpreted as safe or non-risky drinking. According to some researchers, this black and white way of understanding moderate drinking encourages participants not to consider ‘the increased risk associated with higher consumption that does not result in short-term negative consequences or drunkenness’ (Hammersley and Ditton 2005, 498).

In their research Mäkelä et al. (2001, 1577–1583) posed the following question to get a subjective definition from participants across Denmark, Finland and Norway: ‘During the past 12 months, approximately how often did you drink so much beer, wine or spirits that you felt intoxicated?’ This measure seeks to quantify intoxication frequency but does not ask participants to define intoxication. Instead, this study measured ‘intoxication drinking’ by ‘recording the number of days in the week prior to the interview when the respondent had drunk six or more drinks during one day’. A drink, here, was defined as 1.5 cl of pure alcohol. The authors claim that this means the participants then ‘reported having drunk at least nine centiliters of pure alcohol in a day’ and they define this as ‘intoxication drinking’. In other words, this article defines what they call ‘subjective’ intoxication quantitatively. By comparing the answers to these two measures (frequency of drinking 6+ and the subjective measure of the frequency of intoxication) Mäkelä et al. (2001) suggest that they are gauging whether participants felt that six or fewer drinks were enough to feel intoxicated.

In this cross-cultural study, the authors found that ‘the Danes reported drinking 6+ more often than they reported intoxication, while Finns reported intoxication more often than they reported drinking 6+’ allowing them to conclude that ‘on average, in Finland clearly less than six drinks sufficed for the subjective feeling of intoxication, whereas in Denmark six drinks were not enough, and in Norway just slightly less than six drinks were required’ to induce a feeling of intoxication (Mäkelä et al. 2001, 1587). Two of the reasons given for this discrepancy between the measures were, that Danes drink more, and more frequently, giving them a higher tolerance. And second, some people in all these countries require more than six drinks to feel intoxicated. Mäkelä et al.’s (2001, 1587) argument that ‘the way people define the word intoxication or picture the concept in their minds has a great impact on the results’ is relevant here. It was also suggested that being intoxicated may be less socially-acceptable in some countries, such as Denmark, where respondents were less likely to label themselves as intoxicated. Interestingly, the authors say that ‘they have no data on attitudes toward drunkenness’ (our emphasis), and use the terms intoxication and drunkenness interchangeably: ‘In cases where intoxication is expected, people may act as if they are more drunk than they actually are. In other words, acceptability of drunkenness affects drunken comportment and reporting behaviour’.

In summary, both scientific measures and lay understandings of intoxication and drunkenness vary according to cultural context. Research primarily from the US and Nordic countries, has found that lay understandings of drunkenness tend to focus on observable behaviour and short-term consequences rather than fixed definitions, objective measures and long-term consequences.

Drinking cultures and the popular imagination

We want to introduce a more detailed discussion of the cultural, social and symbolic dimensions of intoxication and drunkenness by examining the ways in which the news media – as both mirror and shaper of the popular imagination – highlights social anxieties about local drinking cultures. In a review of some of this commentary we are presented with a heady mix of racial stereotypes, selected research findings and drinking anecdotes about which cultures are civilised drinkers and which are problematic. Anglo cultures, particularly the British, their former colonies and northern Europeans are presented as problematic bingers and drunkards. By way of contrast the French or ‘the Europeans’ are viewed as civilised drinkers who are sometimes presented as being corrupted by changing global patterns, and the Swedes and Nordic countries are viewed as sensible managers of alcohol. Cross-cultural comparisons are used to shine a light on the host culture by either justifying its drinking culture, criticising it or both.

Frequently the news media assumes that a country’s attitude towards alcohol reflects that country’s attitude to life in general. This, of course, makes it a lot easier for the media to distinguish between different countries since a discussion of the drinking cultures of each country stands in for the culture as a whole. This was certainly the view of Frank Kelly Rich, the author of The Modern Drunkard, whose advice on ‘How to Drink With Foreigners’ includes: ‘The Belgians, for example, like to pound wine at football games, while the English prefer to pound Belgians. In Wales, on the other hand, they refer to intoxication as being “flogged”, while in Iran they like to think of it as a good reason to “be flogged”’ (cited in Smith 2005).

By focusing on how drinking cultures differ between countries the foreigner serves two functions in much media commentary. On the one hand, she/he is the negative other – the Scot, the Australian, and the Russian – whose ‘uncivilised’ drinking allows a country to see that its own drinking habits are not so bad after all. Alternatively, she/he is the positive other – the ‘European’ – whose ‘civilised’ drinking puts a country’s own drinking habits to shame, and who offers an alternative perspective on how drinking and drunkenness can be managed differently.

The case of Ireland highlights how the drinking culture of a foreign country can serve these two functions simultaneously. On the one hand, Angelique Chrisafis details the level of intoxication amongst young Irish men, who ‘drink to excess on 60% of their nights out’, she writes, and are ‘three times more likely than the European average to get into a drunken fight’ (Chrisafis 2004; see also Quinn 2001). At the same time, Chrisafis argues that Ireland has tried to counter the 1950s ‘racist stereotype of the drunken emigrant drowning his sorrows in a north London pub’ (see also Hamilton 2003). In another context one account claims that the Irish should be commended for overcoming their penchant for ‘debt, drunkenness and despair’ (Waters 2004; see also Burns 2001) in being declared the best place in the world to live by The Economist (in a study in which the US ranked 13th and Britain 29th).

Often, then, media commentary references the drinking habits of the foreign culture in order to both condone and condemn their own country’s drinking culture. This is particularly true of the British press, which seems particularly sensitive to problems with the way Britons drink. Writing in The Times, Joan McAlpine (2008) argues that Britain must take lessons in how to drink from countries with ‘similar cultural roots’. The comparisons here are with the Americans, who consume eight litres of pure alcohol per head per year, compared to 10 in Britain and 14 in France. She argues that ‘the one French success’ Britain should try to emulate is ‘not their tradition of opening all hours or giving the 10-year-olds burgundy diluted with water. The lessons from both France and America are clear. Whether it is forced on us by the law or simply fear of illness, we have to say “no” more often. It’s really that simple’ (McAlpine 2008).

At different times, and in different spaces, the Scots, Australians and Russians embody the foreigner with uncivilised drinking habits. Nick Thorpe (2004) describes the attitude of Scottish drinkers as ‘prohibition in reverse’ when they refuse to allow him to not drink an extra pint, while one account in the New Zealand Herald (2003a) describes Edinburgh as ‘home to snivel-nosed urchins, ladies of bawdy repute and grave-robbers’. Further, that ‘it was the scene nightly of drunkenness, hefty opiate abuse and dead-eyed copulation, a murky netherworld devoted to hedonism and treachery’. More pragmatically, Angus Macleod (2005) argues that the Scottish ‘booze culture’ is having significant damaging impacts on the Scottish people, suggesting that more than 40,000 Scots were admitted to hospital with alcohol-related medical conditions in 2004–2005. This apparently represents a 21 per cent increase from 2000 (see also Hjul 2006; Mahoney 2001). The problem, writes Macleod (2005), is that Scotland has a drinking culture ‘similar to other parts of northern Europe… a culture of heavy drinking, pure and simple’, and while it is possible to increase people’s understanding of the damage that excessive drinking can do, there is little one can do ‘in terms of improving levels of personal responsibility’. In The Times Macaskill and McKendry (2007) report that:

A United Nations study claimed [Scotland] was the most violent country in the developed world with more than 2,000 people being attacked every week and three times more likely to be victims of violent assault than those in America. Another study, published by the University of California, claimed that Scotland had a higher violent death rate than America, Israel, Uzbekistan, Chile and Uruguay.

A story in the New Zealand Herald (2006b) describes Sydney in much the same terms, citing how ‘the faint stirrings of the nation’s social conscience’, emerged only ‘when floggings for “insubordination” and drunkenness were limited to 50 lashes in response to concerns about brutality in the new colony’. As part of its coverage of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, The Wall Street Journal described the city as ‘reveling in vice’, a ‘licentiousness’ that Tony Horwitz (2008) traced ‘to 1788, when the “First Fleet” arrived here with 736 convicts, mostly petty thieves’. Contemporary Melbourne ‘after dark’, moreover, is described as having ‘a distinct Gotham City feel about it’, marked by the Friday night ‘routine’ of ‘violence and intoxication’ (Anderson 2006).

Another account in The Washington Post considers the influence that vodka has played in Russian history, claiming that ‘to say that alcohol has played an important role in the history of Russia would be an understatement’ (Baker 2001b). On a number of occasions stories in The New York Times have depicted the Russian in terms of a moral vacuity in which he resorts to ‘criminality, drunkenness, indifference and inactivity’ (Figes 2002; see also Binyon 2002; Williams 2000; Finn 2005; Higgins 2000; Chazan et al. 2002), and Moscow is depicted as plagued by alcohol-fuelled racism (Mydans 2003). This representation draws on historical examples – the ‘Cossack world of brutality, drunkenness, syphilitic disfigurement, cunning, valor and unintentional comedy’ (Bernstein 2001) – as well as modern counterparts in Boris Yeltsin (Service 2000) and the mercenary soldier fighting in Chechnya:

The kontraktniki, as they are called, are not the professional career soldiers that typify Western armies. They are more like mercenaries. They are older than the conscripts and better trained when it comes to using weapons. In Chechnya, they are said to make up about a third of all Russian troops. They have also been linked to many of the cases of looting, drunkenness and attacks against civilians, which is not surprising since they are generally rowdy men, excited by violence and serving for relatively brief periods and only for pay. (Gordon 2000)

For Gordon (2000) British drinking habits - ‘the discussions, the games, the drunkenness, the foibles of the landlord, the conviviality, the unpredictable gathering of diverse people’ – appear positively harmless by way of comparison. However, the ‘dark’ side of British and Australian drinking frequently emerges in comparison to the ‘civilised’ drinking habits of other cultures. Here European drinking represents the possibility of a more ‘civilised’ drinking culture. Bachelard (2008) highlights the difference between Melbourne’s drinking culture, and the European civility to which it aspires in an article examining the causes of alcohol-related violence in Melbourne’s CBD during the years at the start of the twenty-first century:

In Melbourne the main concern seems to be about the very large bars, such as CQ in Queen Street, which has a licence for 6170 patrons. This is hardly the European ambience that Premier John Cain envisaged when he made Victoria’s licensing laws the most liberal in the country in the late 1980s.

The contrast here, writes Kate Legge (2008), is between ‘the Paris end of Collins Street, where the European ideal of restaurants and bars that Melbourne celebrates’ exists, and ‘the King Street scourge at the other end of town’. Of course, what the press considers to be a ‘civilised’ drinking culture is relative, for while Melbourne strives towards a ‘European ideal’ in its drinking, Sydneysiders strive for the more ‘thriving, adventurous scene in Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, London or Wellington’ (Farrelly2007).

New Zealand papers also often lament the drinking culture that they inherited from the British. One story in the New Zealand Herald (2003b) claims that the history of the country’s liquor laws ‘more than anything else represents a microcosm of New Zealand social history as a whole’. The temperance campaigner Rev. W. J. Williams said, ‘the white man and the whisky bottle came to New Zealand together’. These white men included European explorers, followed by whalers and sealers in the eighteenth century and then the ‘mostly working-class British, brought a binge-drinking pub culture’ that New Zealand is still living with today. From very early on in its drinking history, it was recognised that alcohol played an ambivalent role in New Zealand society. Since the first brewery was set up in 1835, New Zealanders have ‘tended towards an all-or-nothing approach – drink until you fall over or don’t drink at all’. For nineteenth century New Zealanders, alcohol was both a ‘faithful companion’ and ‘responsible for “nine-tenths of the evils of society”’ (New Zealand Herald 2003b). Thus, despite its ubiquity, Dr Mike MacAvoy argues that New Zealanders ‘have always had an uneasy, ambivalent relationship with alcohol’, a ‘love/hate relationship – “enjoyable for many, but ruining the lives of others”’ (New Zealand Herald 2003b).

Often European drinking cultures are admired but at other times the Australian news media displays ambivalence towards supposed ‘civilised’ drinking cultures, such as that of Spain. On the one hand, a story in The Australian (Bennett 2008) celebrates Spain as ‘the only country… where the doctors prescribe red wine to pregnant women (it’s good for the baby)’, where ‘public drunkenness is institutionalised’, and ‘where botellon, or “mass boozing in public places”, is central to the national culture’. On the other hand, celebrating such a drinking culture is hardly imaginable for the Australian Herald Sun, which is keen to highlight the dangers that drinking during pregnancy poses to the foetus (Burstin 2003). There are, it seems, both advantages and disadvantages to such ‘civilised’ drinking cultures.

The same contradictions are evident in the way the British media discusses drinking in France. On the one hand, the French are celebrated for their ‘sophisticated’ and ‘continental-style’ – that is, non-British – drinking. For instance, in a period in which it is claimed that the British have increased their per-capita drinking consumption by 50 per cent, the French reduced theirs by the same amount (The Guardian 2006; see also O’Reilly 2003). Polly Toynbee (2005) attributes the persistence of Britain’s problems with drunkenness to that ‘extreme end’ of British culture ‘that finds any reference to drink coyly funny, the wink-wink, nudge-nudge, don’t mind if I do, ooh but I shouldn’t attitude that imbues drink with the wearisome naughtiness of beer mat-collecting and poker-work booze jokes hung up behind the bar’. What is common to these examples is an attitude that glorifies drunkenness and intoxication, an attitude that condemns male and female drinkers alike by making drinking ‘macho… the symbol of bonding mateyness where bingeing becomes de rigueur’ (see also New Zealand Herald 2006a; Macintyre 2005). The alternative to glorifying binge drinking in this way, writes Toynbee (2005), is to be found ‘across the channel’, with the French and the Germans, who, while once drinking more than the British, are now drinking less. For the French and Germans, she writes, ‘drunkenness isn’t cool’.

But even these sorts of accounts exist in tension, even contradiction, which seem to suggest quite contrary views. In a story from 2008 The Guardian is particularly concerned by studies that show that French young people are becoming more like British young people, rather than the other way around:

So what has gone wrong? What has prompted France’s youth to turn from sensible tipplers to full-on booze abusers? Etienne Apaire, who heads up an inter-ministerial body aimed at combating both drug and alcohol addiction, has told French media that he believes the phenomenon is simply part of a ‘globalisation of behaviour’ evident in all 27 EU member states, in which teenagers increasingly seek ‘instant intoxication’ as an end in itself. (Henley 2008)

In another account The Guardian (2004b) cites Belgium as an example of a European drinking culture in order to highlight the problems with British drinking. In order to gauge how drunk Britons really are, the anonymous reporter visited both Nottingham (the ‘home of binge-drinking’) and her sister city, Ghent, in Belgium. Both cities are of similar size (approximately 250,000 people live in both) and both feature ‘historic centres with lots of bars’. But the incidence of violence is markedly lower in Ghent than in Nottingham:

In Ghent, the police told me, they dealt with a violent incident on average once every fortnight. In Nottingham, I couldn’t get close to the police to ask them: they were too busy breaking up fights and arresting people. In Ghent, some of the bars remained opened until 8am in the morning and you could buy beer in McDonald’s. In Nottingham, there were teams of bouncers on every bar and at chucking-out time (11pm or midnight for bars, 2am for clubs), gangs of intimidating young men roamed streets that were devoid of public transport and conveniences.

The difference between the British drunk and the Belgian, the reporter concludes, is that the Belgian is a ‘contented drunk – to be drunk is the goal, and he is not looking for anything more than that’. For the Nottingham drunk, in contrast, getting drunk is the means to ‘something more, be it another drink, a bus, a taxi, somewhere to relieve themselves or a fight’ (The Guardian 2004b; see also Morris 2001). And it is the sense that British drinkers are looking for something more than drinking that is the cause of much of the social disorder that media commentary claims is associated with drinking in Britain. In the same way, Andrew Martin (2004) argues that one of the reasons mass-produced lagers are so popular with American drinkers is because ‘they provide no distraction on the way to intoxication’, while The Australian sums up the logic of heavy drinking as: ‘If being drunk is a sign of a good time, then being very drunk must be a sign of a better time’ (Hutchinson 2003; see also Milburn 2002). According to the WHO, this attitude of ‘drinking to get drunk’ is now the norm for young people around the world (cited in Farouque 2007).

Giles Whittell (2004), writing for The Times, expresses considerable self-loathing in his description of the ‘exuberant reality of industrialised British drunkenness’:

We drink. We pee. We drink. We dance. We drink. We eat. We vomit. No one else does this for fun. It doesn’t seem to occur to people in Paris, Berlin, New York or Istanbul that it might be worth the effort, but it does to us, over and over again, often several times in a single 48-hour recreational cycle. We are as unrivalled for the energy we put into getting drunk as for the fun we get out of it, and of course we take the ritual with us when we go abroad. We take it to the Balearics, where they tolerate the smell of our sick because they like the colour of our money. We take it to Faliraki, where there was no police station until we started mooning the local virgins. And this month we have taken it to Portugal for the football.

Some media commentary suggests that such drinking cultures can be changed. Simon Jenkins (2007), writing in The Guardian argues, for instance, that the ‘so-called social habits’ of British teenagers – unruliness, drunkenness, drug-addiction, pregnancy and imprisonment – ‘can be influenced by government policy’. Jenkins argues that there is a clear correlation between the ease with which people can access drugs, and the personal and social disorder that results from their consumption. So, just as ‘consumption of cigarettes fell as higher duties were imposed’, so should we expect to see an increase in drink-related crime if proposals by the British government to introduce 24-hour drinking licenses go ahead. Indeed, as Neilan (2000) suggests in The New York Times, the problem with the current law in Britain that pubs must stop selling alcohol at 11 pm is that it encourages drinkers to drink as much as possible in as short a time as possible. As a result, closing time sees large numbers of highly intoxicated people spilling out onto the streets en masse. This can lead, argued the former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to ‘increased drunkenness, with people “hitting the streets – and sometimes each other – at the same time”’.

British drinking is also condemned in comparison to the example that is set in Sweden. In some media accounts Sweden represents not only the idyllic space that has escaped the scourges of drinking and drunkenness encountered elsewhere in Europe, it also represents possible solutions to those problems. Sweden has adopted the ‘Scandinavian’ approach to alcohol regulation, which involves strict State monopoly over the production, distribution and sale of alcohol, which experts claim are ‘effective in reducing drinking’ (Daley 2001). This approach has also ensured that Sweden has one of the lowest rates of drunkenness in the European Union (EU). Yet, rather than seeking to emulate the Swedish model, the EU is trying to force Sweden to change its anti-alcohol policies to bring them into line with EU rules of fair competition (Boyes 2004). This is, according to Daley (2001), an opportunity wasted by Britain, which could have learned from the example set by Sweden. Sweden is nevertheless hoping that ‘they can influence the rest of the European Union to see alcohol as a health problem’, especially in the southern countries, which are ‘seeing a rise in binge drinking among the youth’. Maria Renstrom, an expert on alcohol policy with the (Swedish) Ministry of Health and Social Affairs is quoted claiming that: ‘We are getting some of their drinking and they are getting some of ours… So maybe we will be able to find common ground’.

In the meantime, however, Swedish officials have fashioned a new anti-alcohol plan that focuses on education, including programs for pregnant women, tough drunk driving laws, tougher regulations governing serving drinks to minors and a ban on liquor advertising (Daley 2001). In many, if not all of these cases, media commentary tends to emphasise the social costs of drinking, drunkenness and, in the case of Sweden, anti-alcohol policies. The primary concerns with much of this commentary are the impact that drinking has on young people, on addicts, and on crime – and therefore on how governments should respond to these problems. What Daley (2001) has highlighted here is the way that the narrative the media constructs about drinking and drunkenness centres on two key themes: the consequences of drinking – the personal and social disorder caused by alcohol abuse – and the solutions to drinking.

Comparing ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ drinking cultures

Cross-cultural differences in drinking and intoxication have been given much consideration by social scientists, particularly in the European context. Researchers have developed a way of understanding drinking patterns using a geographical division between northern European drinking styles (Britain and North America are often put into this category) and southern European drinking. Some studies have shown that:

Societies in which alcohol is traditionally an accepted and morally neutral element of everyday life, such as southern European cultures of Italy, Spain, France and Greece, have lower rates of drunkenness among young people than societies with a more ambiguous, uneasy relationship with alcohol, such as Scandinavia, Britain and North America. (Elgar et al. 2005,249)

This divide between different types of drinking cultures has been characterised as ‘wet’ versus ‘dry’:

At the “dry” end would be the traditional pattern in the Nordic countries, where drinking is largely segregated from everyday life routines into specific drinking contexts and where intoxication is the central concern when drinking. This kind of cultural environment requires careful consideration for the distinction between the boundary of drinking and non-drinking contexts, as well as the boundary between intoxication and non-intoxication. At the “wet” end is the Mediterranean drinking culture, where alcoholic beverages have permeated into everyday life in a multitude of ways, and social survival requires command of a very variable cultural code of the proper use of appropriate drinks in appropriate contexts. (Raitasalo et al. 2005, 370)

By way of example, Raitasalo et al. (2005, 361) suggest that:

In Finland, people mostly drink at weekends and festive occasions and drinking often aims at intoxication, whereas in Italy, daily drinking is a widespread practice and people are rarely intoxicated. Germany and the Netherlands are situated in between these two extremes. In these countries there is more variation in respect to time and place of drinking compared with Finland and Italy, whilst in drinking to intoxication there is more variation in these countries compared with Italy, though less compared with Finland.

While these differences are often referred to, there are also researchers who find the wet/dry dichotomy increasingly problematic as drinking habits and cultures have changed over time. For instance, Room and Makela (2000, 478) argue: ‘consumption levels have been converging in Europe, with per capita consumption falling in wine cultures and rising in northern Europe. The labels “dry” and “wet” make less sense as the per capita levels converge’. Traditionally, this model has been used to describe alcohol drinking in European countries. However, as the ‘frame of reference expands beyond Europe, it also becomes clear that the label “dry” has been applied to rather divergent cultural framings of drinking’. The dilemmas associated with this method of framing different cultural contexts for drinking are further developed by Room and Makela (2000, 478), when they suggest that:

A society in which almost no one drinks within the national borders can be described as dry. But what about a society in which drinking is confined for many to a few fiestas each year and in which the public discourse around alcohol is negative and moralistic? Or a society in which consumption has risen in a few decades from very low levels to levels that rival the levels of the wine cultures, but which seems to have retained a tradition of sporadic extreme drunkenness? These descriptions approximate the positions of Saudi Arabia, Mexico and South Korea, respectively; although each has features that fit the dry archetype, it is questionable how useful it is to treat them all as a single type.

Nordlund (2008, 87) suggests that it is difficult to use the terms intoxication and non-intoxication across cultural settings as they will be defined very differently by different groups. However, ‘there might be a common understanding of the meaning of “strongly intoxicated” since there is an upper limit to how intoxicated a person can be without losing consciousness’. While still acknowledging that this limit can vary between people, ‘when someone is approaching this limit’, she argues, ‘we can certainly state that this is regarded as “strongly intoxicated” in all cultures’ (see for example; Cameron et al. 2000 who propose a methodology for comparing terms cross-culturally). Nordlund (2008, 87) goes further to claim that there are two ‘fixed endpoints’ to ‘the interval of intoxication’: sober and strongly intoxicated, which is defined as ‘on the limit of unconsciousness’. These points are understood to be ‘independent of culture (a pure biological fact)’.

Wolska et al. (2004, 67–69) illustrate cross-cultural and gendered differences to understanding and talking about intoxication in their small, qualitative study with Polish–Australian immigrants. Male participants, and some female, spoke of women who drank alcohol as ‘having “loose morals, being unfit mothers and bad wives…”’ In other words, ‘a drinking woman became stigmatized, a disgrace to the family, and a “black sheep” in the eyes of the community’. Interestingly, Polish women immigrants to Australia appeared to be shy talking about their own and other women’s behaviour when intoxicated, often describing themselves as light drinkers. However, women were observed drinking ‘heavily’ at parties (an ill-defined, ‘8 large drinks’) then acting ‘as if they had had nothing to drink but water throughout the whole night’. This finding is in contrast to how their male counterparts were perceived. These men ‘appeared intoxicated after a few drinks…’ Young girls spoke of their alcohol use in similar ways to their mothers. One said, ‘I have a couple of mixed drinks before we go out and later I might have five to six or more… no, I never get drunk’. Self-reported drunkenness is, then, a product of not only the amount of alcohol drunk but also the socio-cultural expectations around drunkenness and appropriate gendered behaviour.

Another study by Dean (2002, 755) discusses the way in which weekend evening drinking in a public bar in the isolated Western Isles (Hebridean islands) off the west coast of Scotland differs from the mainland. Initially, the scene resembles that of a comparable night on the mainland. However:

Intentions cause the outcome to be both more gregarious and more drunken than elsewhere. Islanders intend to participate in collective drunkenness, and through that to enter a shared disinhibited celebration of friendship and shared identity. The event resembles a private party, such as a Western wedding reception or a 21st birthday celebration, more than an evening in a bar. The relative isolation of the Western Isles may explain these drinking patterns. Most people have known each other for most, if not all, of their lives. Many are related in some way. Thus an atmosphere exists of great familiarity and relative security, which is seldom reproduced in less-closed communities. In consequence, the loss of inhibitions due to drinking occurs largely away from the gaze of strangers, and drinking is both rapid and extensive.

Only particular kinds of communities can promote this kind of relationship, which is one of collective drunkenness between patrons in a bar. This contrasts with the ways in which drunkenness and intoxication are defined through some of the issues related to the night-time economy of the UK and Australia.

There have been a number of large scale surveys in Europe to better understand how drinking habits differ between countries. These studies tend to report drinking patterns and levels of consumption. One example is the European Comparative Alcohol Study (ECAS) which involved national surveys carried out in six countries: Finland, Sweden, Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy. It is comprised of survey data collected in May 2000, in these six EU member states, with about 1000 respondents (aged 18–64) that were randomly selected in each country (Room and Bullock 2002, 627; see also Leifman 2002a; 2000b). While there were reported methodological issues with this survey – as is common to large scale surveys of this kind – what we are interested in concerns the different ways in which the ideas of intoxication and drunkenness may be defined and understood in different cultures. These ideas do not stand separate from levels of consumption but our main focus here is related to definitions and understandings of intoxication and drunkenness. Thus the ECAS study provides a useful insight into these.

Clear differences emerged in the frequency of drinking (found to be highest in France and Italy, lowest in Finland and Sweden, and increasing with age in France and Italy in particular, but also in Germany); and the quantity of alcohol consumed (the average consumed quantity per drinking occasion is highest in Finland, Sweden and the UK, and lowest in France and Italy, with the youngest in age showing the highest quantity per drinking occasion in most countries). While not explicitly defined, ‘intoxication-oriented drinking’ was found to be ‘most common in Finland, Sweden and the UK, and in all countries except Italy the youngest report the highest frequency of intoxication’ (Leifman 2002a, 501). This report uses intoxication and ‘heavy drinking occasions’ interchangeably and claims that younger drinkers are more likely to drink to intoxication. Leifman explains, ‘young French and Germans, as well as the youngest in Britain, Sweden and Finland, show a higher frequency of intoxication than their elders’ (Leifman 2002a, 545 –546). Anxiety about ‘intoxication oriented’ behaviour of young people in Finland has been heightened as the alcohol control system has been relaxed (Törrönen 2003,284).

To get a better idea about the implications of intoxication, about the ways in which individuals interpret the social role of intoxication, ‘five items about expectations about alcohol’s role in violence, and the potential excuse-value of intoxication’ were included in this survey. As Room and Bullock (2002, 619) report:

The results were not in the expected direction. Finnish respondents were more likely than others to value not showing any effects after drinking. Italian, French and British respondents were the most likely to believe that getting drunk leads to violence. Italian, German and British respondents were most likely to believe that friends should forgive and forget after drunken anger, and Italians and British were the most likely to excuse behavior because of drunkenness.

The ECAS data was analysed using the theoretical framework of wet and dry drinking cultures. The role of alcohol-related violence has been hypothesised to have different relationships in each: ‘A hypothesis that drinking plays a stronger causal role in violence in “dryer” cultures than in “wetter” cultures has long been latent in the literature’ (Room and Bullock 2002, 622). Room and Bullock (2002, 642–643) examined the link between wet and dry drinking cultures and violence and found that the wet/dry distinction is not clear cut. They asked: ‘Can alcohol expectancies and attributions explain western Europe’s north-south gradient in alcohol’s role in violence?’ In their discussion they find no easy answer to this broad question:

On none of the five items that we examined in this paper was there a clear north-south gradient. Agreement with the idea that “anyone might become violent after drinking too much” was quite strong in all six samples, but strongest in Italy and weakest in Finland – against the direction that would fit with the findings of a greater role of alcohol in violence in northern Europe. Italian respondents, again, were the most likely to agree that a drunken person is not as responsible for his actions as a sober one – with the greatest contrast here being provided by those from another “wine culture”, France. In agreement with this, the French respondents are also least likely to agree that behavior while drunk should not count between friends afterwards – this time joined by the Finnish respondents. While agreement was not high on the idea that “it doesn’t matter how much you drink as long as you don’t show the effects”, there was more agreement on this from Finland, Italy and the UK than elsewhere – again, not a north-south split.

It seems that drinking cultures are dynamic and in an era of globalisation not as fixed as previously imagined. For Room and Bullock (2002, 644–645) this dynamism means that:

We may need to start again to develop an understanding of how drinking norms and social control of drinking work in southern European cultures. From the present study and others, there are several challenges to the picture of southern European drinking that is often presented in English-language and Scandinavian sources, which, as Olsson (1990 [see Appendix B]) has pointed out, often has elements of a projected fantasy. It is often said that people in wine cultures learn to drink in a controlled way at an early age, at the family dinner table, and that because of this they don’t get drunk. But the results from the ESPAD surveys and from Leifman (2002a) cast doubt on this. Although southern Europeans drink more frequently in between the heavier drinking occasions than northern Europeans, there does not seem to be a systematic north-south split in terms of prevalences of fairly regular heavy drinking. Social control around drinking in wine cultures is also usually thought of as internalized, in terms of self-control. Yet in the present data sets it is the Finns and the Swedes (along with respondents from the UK) who are most likely to report regretting things they’ve said or done while drinking (Ramstedt, 2002 [see Appendix B]), and it is the Italians who are most likely to have tried to influence others to drink less (Hemstrom,2002 [see AppendixB]).

In light of these ambiguous, and shifting, understandings of intoxication and drunkenness Room and Bullock (2002, 645) caution against ready, self-evident conclusions about cultural similarities and differences among wet/dry lives:

Underlying many hypotheses about cultural differences in drinking is a half-hidden assumption that handling drinking and problematic drinking is more effortless and unself-conscious in some societies than in others – and particularly, in the wine cultures. The data set we have been analyzing calls this assumption into question. Heavy drinking occasions occur in southern Europe as well as in northern Europe, and minimizing the harm from them does not seem to be something that happens without attention or effort.

In the next section we turn to smaller scale studies to examine different understandings of drunkenness and intoxication in different social locations.

Local drinking cultures and the moral holiday

Smaller scale studies by anthropologists and sociologists and the relatively new field of tourism studies have also considered the different understandings and meanings of intoxication and drunkenness between cultural groups in different settings. This research has tended to focus on the ways in which different groups stage intoxication over the life course or at festival or holiday times. For example, in a study of Italian men aged 40 to 45 and 65 to 70 Scarscelli (2007, 314) used individual interviews to examine the drinking trajectories of these men. Scarscelli (2007, 314) identified three models of alcohol consumption patterns over one’s life. They were characterised as follows:

the use of alcohol gradually increases and remains a constant in the subject’s life until the adult phase is reached, when it decreases; alcohol consumption rises gradually until reaching a peak that characterizes a phase of elevated consumption, after which it decreases; alcohol consumption varies considerably over the years – a pattern which is characterized by different phases.

Further, Sarscelli (2007, 324–327) argues that: ‘The intoxicating use of alcohol, which was little integrated into daily life, was abandoned by the majority of the younger group members, as life changes eventually impacted their drinking patterns. Eventually, they would adopt more integrated drinking habits that were very similar to those of their parents’. Scarscelli analyses her data through a sociological framework, reading the intoxication patterns of older men with an eye to the importance of context:

Different systems of norms guiding the use and abuse of alcohol co-existed within our society. Consumption styles could be judged by referring to different criteria: the “intoxicating” use of alcoholic beverages (away from mealtimes and aimed at changing one’s conscious state) was more easily tolerated when occurring in particular circumstances by those adopting new consumption models. Instead, such use was stigmatized by those embracing traditional models; an “addicted” use of alcohol (that of an alcoholic or “drunkard”) was most probably stigmatized by both the groups. The stories of our panel of interviewees confirmed the existence of both controlled and uncontrolled excessive behavior. From a sociological point of view, only the second could be considered a problem, being a drinking behavior that did not conform to those social rituals controlling alcohol consumption in specific social and cultural contexts.

Shifting our focus a little we encounter research that focuses on the use of intoxication as an excuse for a ‘moral holiday’. In one study Sexton (2001) considers the role of intoxication through ethnographic research of the rural Cajun Courir du Mardi Gras (Mardi Gras run) in south Louisiana. While intoxication is considered the cause of the rowdy behaviour which characterises this event, Sexton (2001, 28) argues that alcohol consumption does not have a causative role, but instead works in conjunction with ‘the anonymity of masking’ associated with the event:

Intoxication, or the appearance of intoxication, which may involve minimal alcohol consumption, confers a degree of immunity for the foolish conduct that defines Mardi Gras. It also serves as a ready excuse for unacceptable behavior. Drunkenness in this context is thus better viewed as a culturally constructed form of ritualized inebriation although there is the potential for actual over-consumption to the point of physical impairment.

Using this type of framework to understand intoxication, it then becomes possible to imagine ways of understanding common outcomes of excessive drinking, such as violence, in alternative ways to typical medical and public health interpretations. For example, when Sexton (2001, 28) encounters violence and unruly behaviour it is interpreted in the broader context of Mardi Gras and the relationships of participants to each other, not simply individualistically, where number of drinks or blood alcohol content impact upon an individual’s behaviour: ‘When violence and play reach an unacceptable level they are more accurately attributable to longstanding personal conflicts, loss of temper, overzealous play on the part of participants, and spectators’ negative reactions to Mardi Gras antics’. The complexity of violent acts and behaviours, and their problematic association with levels of intoxication are evident in Sexton’s (2001, 31–32) definition of violence in the context of Mardi Gras:

A range of behaviors including vandalism and inadvertent property damage, serious arguments and threats, injuries, fighting, and minor scuffles. Violence includes acceptable or marginal Mardi Gras play such as roughhousing among Mardi Gras, wrestling between Mardi Gras and captains (which is responsible for many of the injuries that occur), teasing young children until they cry, roughing up adolescent boys who tease the Mardi Gras, and overzealous pursuit of chickens that results in damage to shrubbery, flower beds, and fences.

Sexton (2001, 28) locates and positions this ethnography in French Louisiana, where alcohol consumption ‘contrasts with adjacent areas where Anglo–Protestant ethics traditionally frowned on alcohol consumption. Alcohol in south Louisiana is available at drive-through Daiquiri shops, liquor stores, convenience stores, and gas stations. Beer is sold at Catholic Church fairs and community fundraisers’. While alcohol is an important part of social relations, excessive drunkenness and a lack of attention to responsibilities is, still, frowned upon. Sexton (2001, 29–30) uses the Mardi Gras as a context in which to explore this ‘duality in the Cajun cultural ethos’:

On Mardi Gras morning participants begin to gather at 7 a.m. at a farm in the heart of Tee Mamou operated by the captain’s extended family. They cluster in small groups consuming beer, wine, whiskey, and homemade concoctions such as cherries soaked in whiskey and oranges injected with Vodka. About 8 a.m. the captain calls the group to order and announces various rules regarding, for example, drinking in moderation, respecting people and property, not fighting with captains, and obeying the captain’s commands. The captain frequently goes to great lengths to articulate concerns about responsible drinking, for example, telling the group one year that “If you are here just to throw a big drunk then you might as well go home”.

Sexton (2001, 33) concludes, then, that despite raucous behaviour exhibited by Mardi Gras participants, the role of alcohol and intoxication is not found to be causative: ‘For those who do not understand the event, and even for many who possess some knowledge of Mardi Gras, such non-normative behaviour seems understandable only within a framework of intoxication’. However, many of these ‘acts are learned behaviour that is part of the Mardi Gras performance that requires one to play the beggar and clown rather than a direct consequence of drunkenness’. Without denying the impact that excessive alcohol consumption has on participants who do drink to intoxication, Sexton highlights the importance of role playing in this ritual event.

The recent emergence of a new field in cultural studies broadly labelled tourism studies also examines the connections between intoxication and cultural contexts. In this field researchers such as Bell (2008, 296) use the term ‘alcotourism’ to identify a field of research that ‘aims to take seriously the study of alcohol, drinking and drunkenness as situated cultural experiences and practices’. Bell explains that this sub-discipline finds impetus in ‘its desire to understand and participate in local drinking cultures, and its broader fascination with locally embedded meanings and uses of alcohol’. Bell (2008, 296) draws from Wilson (2005; see AppendixB) to note, for instance, ‘regular and repetitive drinking is not necessarily perceived as drunkenness or alcoholism, and such behaviours may not be a sign of a breakdown in culture, but rather may be evidence of a strong and supportive cultural framework’. Bell argues that this view provides ‘an important reminder to attend to the local in research on drinking places and practices, and a caution against universalizing taken-for-granted understandings about drink and its effects’.

In this milieu then, alcohol, and particularly intoxication can be interpreted as ‘a liminal experience, a time-limited escape from “normal life”, a chance to let go, to be someone else, do something new… including the “letting go” that comes with intoxication’ (Bell 2008, 293). While it is argued that travel is becoming increasingly ‘banal’ there are still, Bell argues (2008, 293), many accounts of travel where this letting go aspect of alcohol use looms large. Not only is this experienced by individuals on holiday, but, Bell argues, it is in fact packaged for easy consumption. ‘Various forms of “party tourism” package this letting go, providing an ambivalently sanctioned liminal zone, understood as necessarily restorative: the holiday is a needed break that helps the tourist “recharge” and therefore re-enter society relaxed and refreshed’. Essentially, Bell argues that intoxicated holidays are not a free for all, but rather that they follow their own logic and are governed by a unique set of rules. Regulation of intoxication and drunkenness is finely balanced in the alcotourism context. Drawing from the work of Nicholls (2006), Bell (2008, 293) suggests that:

Drinking remains a deeply problematic social practice in that, especially in the context of deregulation, it rests on a fine balance between rights (or freedoms) and responsibilities. This idea, enshrined in notions such as “sensible” or “responsible” drinking, is inherently troublesome, Nicholls rightly notes, since “intoxication is an antonym of control”.

The tension between marketing a party-atmosphere and regulating this context of liminal space is central to alcotourism. However, Bell (2008, 293) argues, ‘alcotourism practices should not be straightforwardly aligned with debates about alcohol regulation or deregulation, since the many meanings and uses of drinking on holiday require a more nuanced analytical framework’. This framework has yet to be developed, though in doing so, holiday intoxication and drunkenness are likely to be distinguished from everyday life at home.

A new culture of intoxication and the night-time economy

Human geography is not a discipline often associated with public debates about alcohol and its consequences (Jayne et al. 2008, 249) but geographers offer an important perspective on the social context of alcohol consumption, particularly in their work on the operation of the night-time economy in contemporary cities in the industrialised democracies. Sociologists and public health researchers have also contributed substantially to research on the social dynamics of the night-time economy.

The ‘night-time economy’ refers to the rapid development of inner cities, the creation of night-time entertainment precincts and substantial increase in the number of pubs, clubs and restaurants in many late twentieth, early twenty-first century post-industrial cities. The development of the night-time economy throws up contradictions for Western governments in their dual concerns of enhancing economic development and maintaining public health and safety (Hayward and Hobbs 2007). Local councils have encouraged the development of night-time entertainment precincts to enhance local business and employment opportunities. However, difficulties have arisen in managing problems of intoxication that go with these developments. The night-time economy is defined as a space of contradictions. On the one hand young people are encouraged to use inner city spaces to consume – thus enabling increased development and business opportunities. On the other hand increased surveillance, policing, and other forms of social control increase debate around the problematic nature of young people’s use of that space. Young consumers are blamed for ‘binge drinking’ instead of government policies (Measham and Brain 2005; Hayward and Hobbs 2007; Lindsay 2009). The use of city space for young people’s drinking and entertainment has been called a ‘subversion of space’. However, Hayward and Hobbs (2007, 438–439) argue against this interpretation. Instead, in their view, drunkenness and violence is ‘a pathologizing rendition of the transgressive dynamics of the night time economy that utilizes the spectacle of public drunkenness as a cautionary, yet seductive tale’ (see also Tonkiss 2004; Appendix B). Lindsay (2009) discusses the dynamics of the night-time economy in Australia and argues that young people ‘stage intoxication’ in these settings.

Jayne et al. (2006, 452) argue that understanding urban drinking rituals is an important way of theorising the city as well as drinking practices within the city. At the same time they argue that we need to contextualise this activity in a global network of corporate, individual and cultural practices:

This includes, for example, studies of how supranational, national, regional and local drinking practices (and related issues) are played out in specific urban spaces and places. A key element of such a project is to develop a more nuanced understanding of the social relations and cultural practices associated with the emergence of particular kinds of historic and contemporary urban drinking spaces.

The nuanced understanding that Jayne et al. (2006) call for involves understanding the city and its economies as interrelated, not deterministic.

According to Jayne et al. (2008, 249) ‘alcohol studies have been overwhelmingly dominated by a focus on medical issues and a pathologizing of alcohol as a social problem, or as a legislative, crime or policy issue’. However, as we have argued throughout this discussion, intoxication and drunkenness are inevitably social practices and they can be more usefully understood in their social context. Drawing from Mary Douglas (1987; see Appendix B), Jayne et al. (2008, 249) argue for more engagement with the ‘everyday social relations and cultural practices bound up with drinking’. They describe a study by Kneale (1987; see Appendix B), which examines data from the 1930s and 1940s in the UK and which discusses the central social and cultural role that drunkenness played in that time and space. The study by Kneale describes ‘how experiences of drunkenness were learnt through socialization’ and, highlighting the sociality of drunkenness, ‘Kneale argues that drinkers did not consider that they were involved in a transgressive practice, but rather that drinking was simultaneously about being part of the community and also about being a good customer’. Relationships and community developed in spaces such as this: ‘Pubs were considered by their patrons to be spaces for relatively intimate social relations, and encapsulated within this are associations of drunkenness with… trust and reciprocity that encouraged a relaxation of inhibitions’ (cited in Jayne et al. 2006,456).

Measham and Brain (2005, 268) argue that the current debates around binge drinking in the UK are not simply a ‘repackaging’ of older debates around alcohol use but they are in fact reflective of a new ‘culture of intoxication’. This new culture, so they claim, has been ushered in by recent social changes including such things as the following: the normalisation of illicit drug use; the transformation of the alcohol industry to respond and compete with psychoactive drugs; the recommodification of alcohol and sessional consumption, including the changing types of drinks and the way that they are marketed as lifestyle markers; the increase in the strength of alcohol-based drinks; and the changing styles of venues, such as from traditional pub culture to vertical drinking in bars and clubs. It is claimed that such developments have all influenced this new culture of intoxication.

Measham (2006, 258) argues that ‘moderation and restraint are culturally at odds with a contemporary emphasis on economic deregulation and excessive consumption’ and that ‘an emergent culture of intoxication has been facilitated by supply-side initiatives’. She claims that ‘a new culture of intoxication is emerging that features a determined drunkenness by young adults as part of a broader cultural context of risk-taking and hedonistic consumption-oriented lifestyles bounded by occasion and location’ (Measham 2006, 263). Lindsay (2006, 30) also argues that in Australia ‘there is evidence that the “decade of dance” is over’ and the use of party drugs, such as ecstasy, is ‘declining and young people are turning back to determined drunkenness as their preferred mode of intoxication’.

McCreanor et al. (2008, 945) suggest that there is a danger that the notion of determined drunkenness ‘can be cast as a property of young people themselves’ as opposed to a possible ‘critical reading of the concept to raise the question “determined by whom?”, to foreground the roles played by alcohol marketing in achieving these outcomes’. For these authors ‘marketing belongs among the “causes of causes”, a key social determinant powerfully shaping the discursive and material conditions that produce health promoting or health demoting behaviours at a population level’. Of course, the literature points not only to alcohol marketing but also licensing regulation. In this context Eldridge and Roberts (2008, 365) comment on the Licensing Act of 2003, effective in England and Wales, allowing licensed premises to operate for ‘up to 24 hours per day’. By their interpretation, the purposes of the new act, which updates the former act of 1964, more specifically provide:

Greater “freedom and choice” for the consumer and, in turn, generate a more civilised attitude towards alcohol consumption. In contrast to the former regime, where patrons would be forced to “drink up” before the standard 11 pm closure, the 2003 Act would allow for a more measured and “European” style of leisurely consumption.

However, others, such as Nicholls (2006, 146) have interpreted the 2003 Licensing Act as representing ‘the micro-management of harm reduction’. In other words, legislation such as this is seen to shift the responsibility for managing intoxication away from the government:

While upholding the right to trade and consume, it devolves responsibility for managing the effects of intoxication to the lowest level: local authorities can target specific retailers and can create “alcohol disorder zones”; retailers are responsible for managing the drinking on their premises and for promoting “sensible drinking”; consumers will be subject to both public health campaigns and ground-level measures such as on-the-spot fines.

The contradictory nature of the night-time economy can be understood as stemming from legislation such as this, in which:

The government insists that it is “encouraging individuals to exercise choice based on improved knowledge and awareness” (Home Office, 2005: 4 [see Appendix B]), but the great paradox of “drinking responsibly” is precisely that intoxication is an antonym of control… The “freedom” of intoxication, such as it is, is a freedom from regulation, discipline and order. The expectation that consumers will exercise their freedom to drink in a “competitive and vibrant marketplace” for alcohol (Home Office, 2005: 14), while both micro-managing their consumption and resisting intoxication, is a clear instance of disciplinary practice. (Nicholls 2006,147)

In this sort of argument contradictions are seen to arise when people are required to act as informed, rational consumers while participating in consumption in a competitive marketplace.

Eldridge and Roberts (2008, 366) ‘question the manner in which consumers are commonly represented as either civilised “social drinkers” or “binge-drinking urban savages”’. In their research they conducted focus groups with 160 people in five locations around England, each of which had or has established an emerging evening economy including bars, clubs, restaurants and other leisure zones. Three major themes emerged from the study: ‘the central role of alcohol in the evening economy, the need to look at drinking practices in context, and the desire for more “comfortable” venues at night’. In this research the contradictory nature of the night-time economy is made evident. That is, Eldridge and Roberts argue that while: ‘Concerns about health and city-centre violence, as raised by both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers, are, of course, important’ they also find that the mundane nature of ‘drunkenness and the everyday experiences of the city at night are often far more nebulous than such reports imply’. Their findings present a Britain in which the consumption of alcohol is central and therefore, they argue that ‘it is crucial to acknowledge the sometimes ambiguous behaviours and practices that inform alcohol consumption, and the ways in which cities are often experienced as a composite of complex and sometimes competing emotions, behaviours, motivations and experiences’.

In other words, the ways in which media commentary in Britain characterises intoxication and drunken behaviour, as we outlined earlier in the chapter, is often superficial, simplified and not responsive to the multiple ways in which individuals use alcohol in their lives. As Eldridge and Roberts (2008, 369) suggest:

A night out, for one participant, could just as easily entail heavy drinking in a loud, youth-orientated venue, as it could having a quiet drink with friends at her “local” or in a restaurant. Her desire, as she phrased it, to “be stupid” some nights did not preclude her desire to “be sensible” on others, which often entailed visiting the theatre or ballet with her mother. For another participant, though she was reluctant to venture out due to a fear of violence, she lamented the closure of a “£10 all-you-can-drink” venue. These venues have been singled out for irresponsible promotions, and yet, for her, they had been an enjoyable and comfortable place to socialise with friends.

These participants bring attention to a simplification often found in media commentary that characterises people as either intoxicated, urban savages and/or as social drinkers, ‘wrongly assuming’ that revellers cannot be both. The researchers explain that this dichotomy which ‘frames current conceptions of late-night Britain is not altogether inaccurate – there are problem drinkers, and town and city centres at night can be sites of alcohol-related violence’. However, the ‘figure of the “binge” versus “social” drinker as imagined by tabloid headlines assumes a consistency in drinking practice and a stable drinking identity that is not entirely accurate’ (Eldridge and Roberts 2008,369).

The context we have discussed in this section is the contemporary, often cosmopolitan city, which, as David Bell (2006; see AppendixB) notes, ‘generally includes the provision of “drinkatainment”, based around drinking attractions (and other contemporary landmarks, including theatres and restaurants) such as themed bars and pubs ranging from staged authenticity provided by Irish theme pubs to Soviet-styled vodka bars’ (cited in Jayne et al. 2006, 457). The night-time economy is a contradictory social space: ‘simultaneously conflictual and segregated, commodified and sanitized, saturated by both emotion (enhanced through alcohol, drugs, dance, sex, encounter) and rational elements (planning, surveillance and policing) – and that such tensions are not always easy to understand and reconcile’ (Jayne et al. 2006, 459). Jayne et al. (2006, 464) therefore argue for accounts and forms of understanding that can engage with the ambiguity of the night-time economy, and which enable a new way of understanding drunkenness linked to active citizenship. Such accounts, they suggest, could:

be considered in terms of the connectivities and belonging generated in public space, and as being grounded in pleasure, enjoyment and the “riskyness” of heterogeneous groups of people mixing in city spaces in ways that perhaps would not be acceptable, to them or city authorities, if the mediating factor of the consumption of alcohol in bars, pubs and other establishments did not enable drinkers to claim to be active citizens.

In summary the night-time economies developing in globalised cities around the world are an important new context for alcohol consumption and intoxication and drunkenness. In the next section we examine other key settings.

Settings for intoxication and drunkenness

In this section we extend on our discussion of the night-time economy to examine the different social, cultural and symbolic dimensions of intoxication and drunkenness in drinking settings such as neighbourhoods, bars, pubs and clubs and university accommodations (fraternity houses in the US), and with friends in public spaces and domestic settings.

Ahern et al.’s (2008, 1046) epidemiological study involving 4000 respondents in New York City illustrates the importance of neighbourhood context in relation to drinking habits. Without explicitly defining drunkenness their study explores the relationship between local norms related to drinking alcohol and drunkenness and finds them to be distinct. That is, ‘even when an individual believed that it was acceptable to get drunk regularly, if there were stronger norms against drunkenness in the neighborhood, that individual was less likely to binge drink’. These findings were independent of family, friend and individual norms, highlighting the important influence that immediate social context, such as one’s neighbourhood, can have on patterns of drunkenness.

Some studies show that the location of alcohol consumption relates to incidence of intoxication. Kypri et al. (2007, 2592) found that ‘pubs/bars/clubs were the locations with the highest odds of drinking to intoxication’. Lindsay (2006, 42) also found that drinking practices vary across locations. For example, she explains:

Niche venues tended to sell boutique alcohol products including imported beers and top-shelf spirits. Good quality wine and spirits were available from the bar and some of the niche venues did not have beer on tap but only sold bottled beer in individual serves. Patrons were drinking excessively at niche venues but drunkenness was rarely evident; perhaps it was not socially acceptable to appear intoxicated in these venues.

By contrast visible intoxication was more accepted in mainstream commercial venues such as large dance clubs that catered to younger patrons, students and non-professional workers (Lindsay 2006).

Some social science research touches on the issue of place in relation to intoxication. For example, the level of risk associated with young people’s alcohol use is seen to be related to the location or context of the drinking. In one study it was claimed that high risk drinking ‘occurred in a variety of public or “hidden” outdoor locations where it was more likely to result in intoxication’ (Newburn and Shiner 2001, 25). In this research it was also suggested that ‘supervised drinking, particularly drinking within the home, is relatively unlikely to lead to drunkenness’ (Newburn and Shiner 2001,73).

However, other research suggests, for example, that private parties in domestic settings are key contexts for intoxication. Abrahamson (2004, 8) argues that ‘drinking to the point of intoxication is generally a collective experience, especially among the young’. In their research Demant and Ostergaard (2007, 526–529) examined the ways in which intoxication is both an individual and collective event and has an influence on the ‘ambience’ of a house party. This focus group study asked not only about the individual’s level of drinking but also how the individual rated her quantity of drinking against the other drinkers to gauge the ‘relational drinking style’ of the participants. They concluded that having a ‘drinking style that is similar to the others’ is then interpreted as drinking collectively’. Examining the space in which drinking occurs, Demant and Ostergaard propose that ‘it is the collective feeling of intoxication, not just the function of drinking, which is decisive in transforming the room into a party space’. Their main conclusion, that ‘it is more difficult for adolescents to see themselves as drinking collectively if they do not consume rather large amounts of alcohol… suggests that the collective experience “of drinking like the others” is associated with getting intoxicated together’. Young people must monitor themselves and drink an amount determined solely by each other’s behaviour that is acceptable in the group. In this way, ‘the feeling of getting intoxicated becomes a collective and not an individual experience’. As one of the participants explains: ‘It’s not cool to be the first one to run around and say uh uh [acting silly]’. Demant and Ostergaard suggest that each group has its own drinking style and each individual must be aware of what that is. Unlike health and medical researchers, for young people (and arguably other individuals as well), ‘what matters is not the specific number of alcohol units consumed – as long as it is relatively high’.

For Demant and Ostergaard (2007, 533) defining a collective state of experience of intoxication appears essential for young people to carve out their space: ‘Getting intoxicated collectively is essential to these adolescents’ way of partying, but mainly because it is the way to zone the place into “our space” and reassures the proxemics of the network. Intoxication, then, is an effective way to mark that the space is now captured and controlled by the teenagers themselves’. They suggest that the space created by young people drinking alcohol is perceived very differently by young people than it is by adults. For example, they argue that:

From the outside it may look like serious drinking pressure. However, from the point of view of the adolescents it looks different. According to the adolescents, getting intoxicated together is a mutual way of reassuring attraction to one another. When they drink in similar manners and offer each other drinks, every single one of the participants shows that they are committed to the party and appreciate the company of friends. Thus, drinking alcohol is the central aesthetic communication that unites the partygoers at a specific party. Refusing to drink, especially if one is offered something, then becomes a rejection of the aesthetic that creates the sociality in the group.

Intoxication, it appears, can serve many purposes for young people. If this is so it is a context in which counting drinks to define intoxication would make very little sense.

Much media commentary, however, does not consider the social importance of intoxication when it discusses the impact of alcohol on education. One long-term consequence of heavy drinking represented in media accounts is a diminished capacity to attain academic achievement. A drinker is marginalised from opportunities in education due not only to the long-term damage done to a drinker’s brain (see Farouque 2007), but also because many elite American universities tolerate ‘aggressive drunkenness’ in their striving for sporting success, even if it comes at the expense of academic success. So, as Jane Brody (2008) argues:

of all the advice parents give to children heading off to college, warnings about alcohol – and especially about abusing alcohol – may be the most important. At most colleges, whether and how much students drink can make an enormous difference, not just in how well they do in school, but even whether they live or die.

The reality of college life, according to Goldenberg (2006), is a situation in which education is forced to the margins for the sake of sporting success (see also Wilson and Glater 2006a; Wilson and Glater 2006b; Brody 2008). For example, at Duke University in the US, success in sport and in education is largely incompatible and when the bad behaviour of students who will bring the university the former is tolerated – as it increasingly is – their opportunities for educational achievement necessarily suffer:

Some critics see a growing tension between Duke’s twin ambitions of achieving national prominence in academia and sport. Although a strong college football or basketball team puts a university on the national map – and can be extremely lucrative – some professors fear the effects of big-money sports on the academic side. In their drive to build a championship team, universities spend millions on top-flight coaches and players. And they will tolerate a lot to keep them: poor academic performance, prolonged absences, aggressive drunkenness and, it seems, criminal acts. Simply put, sports stars are gods on the campus, and get away with things that other students cannot. (Goldenberg2006)

The university or college as a space for drinking to levels that cause intoxication and drunkenness has been the object of much research. In one US-based ethnographic study with 21 participants drawn from college-based fraternity houses Workman (2001, 433–436) found that euphemisms for drunkenness – such as blitzed, trashed and loaded – were used to frame drinking stories. Adventure and risk-taking along with resisting authority were seen ‘as both positive and respectable, and danger is seen as an unquestioned virtue’ in this context. Workman’s analysis explored drunkenness as a performance, where the drunken actors performed for those who are limiting their alcohol intake, or staying sober. These activities lead to ‘stupid stories’ which serve ‘an important function for the culture in framing drunkenness as a form of recreational play’. Workman argued that ‘most stories revolved around a streaking activity that combined bravery (risk of embarrassment) with drunkenness (careless abandon)’. Here, then, drunkenness is itself defined as a state of ‘careless abandon’. Turning to the construction of sexuality within drunkenness, Workman (2001, 440–441) suggested that ‘many of the constructions of sexuality mirror other textual cues such as alcohol product advertising’. Taking a cue from many of the ‘product advertisements, sexuality is seen as a gendered activity that views women as a source of pleasure and alcohol as an aphrodisiac’. Importantly, Workman finds that drunkenness itself underpins the experience of being at university and in particular being in a fraternity. ‘The social practice [of drunkenness] also represents the college experience; drunkenness is seen as a key confirmation of having been at the university’.

The ways in which alcohol use changes over time was also highlighted by Workman (2001, 441): ‘There is a clear sense among members of the fraternities that the need for drunkenness changes over the course of an academic experience, moving from extreme to moderate as the newness and adventure begins to fade and as the student develops competence in consumption’. Essentially, Workman’s study illustrates the social and cultural discourses that influence drinking practices within fraternities and that those students found drunkenness important for many reasons. These context/setting specific reasons outweighed the negative consequences advertised by public health campaigns. In fact, most participants were unwilling to contemplate these messages:

Drinking spaces, commercial messages, and other cultural artifacts support the view that drunkenness has positive social functions. Particularly for men, the interpretation of alcohol consumption being connected to sexual conquest from advertising is almost cliché. Much like the habitus of the fraternity drinker, the commercial message avoids the tragic tale, opting instead to tell stories that show only positive consequences or to frame negative consequences as ultimately entertaining. The message from the public health institution, then, is truly in the minority to the many messages that equate consumption (and particularly overconsumption) as ultimately positive and functional. (Workman 2001,443)

Given that students tend not to be affected by negative campaigning found in many public health campaigns, Workman (2001, 443–444) suggests that ‘Our task may be to find other approaches than identifying the negative consequences of high-risk drinking, but to promote the positive consequences of low-risk or moderate consumption’. In conclusion, Workman explains the limits of public health discourse which focuses on the number of drinks consumed. The ‘ultimate goal’ of drinkers such as those studied by Workman, ‘is drunkenness, particularly ritual drunkenness’. Workman further argues that it is in addressing the ‘dysfunctional meanings of drunkenness’ which would provide benefit, not counting of drinks. He suggests targeting ‘areas of meaning construction’ such as ‘the connection of drunkenness to sexuality and sexual subjectivity (especially from the standpoint of participating women) to the detachment of negative consequences when relating stories in all mediums’.

Conclusion

The social and symbolic dimensions of alcohol consumption are important for understanding drunkenness and intoxication. There is ample evidence that definitions of intoxication and drunkenness vary according to cultural context, geographic location and drinking settings. In both the popular imagination and social science literature there is considerable anxiety and ambivalence about cultures that value intoxication and drunkenness. In much media commentary simplistic cultural stereotypes are drawn such as the bingeing British and Australians, the easygoing southern Europeans and sensible Nordic cultures to criticise public behaviour and imagine alternative cultural arrangements. These are partly supported by the social science literature – southern European drinking has been typified as moderate drinking of wine with meals whereas British and northern European drinking was typified as ‘binging’ or drinking beer or spirits to achieve rapid intoxication. However, recent research also questions these cultural differences and with the development of globalisation the distinction between ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ cultures is becoming less useful and more nuanced metaphors are necessary.

Intoxication and drunkenness are often social practices rather than simply individual practices and getting drunk with others is valued in some social groups and settings. Drinking settings strongly linked with drunkenness and intoxication include the night-time economy in post-industrial cities but also university fraternities and private parties. The new culture of intoxication identified in the UK literature describes the phenomenon of large numbers of young people drinking rapidly to intoxication as a means to pleasure, escape and loss of control. Pleasure and escape from everyday life are also key elements of contemporary ‘alcotourism’. In the following chapter we explore the ways in which intoxication is practiced by particular social groups and the way ‘problem’ groups and settings are defined and managed.

Cite this chapter as: Kelly, Peter; Advocat, Jenny; Harrison, Lyn; Hickey, Chris. 2011. ‘The social, cultural and symbolic dimensions of intoxication and drunkenness’, in Smashed! The Many Meanings of Intoxication and Drunkenness. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 56–92.

Smashed! The Many Meanings of Drunkenness and Intoxications - contents

   by Peter Kelly, Jenny Advocat, Lyn Harrison, Christopher Hickey