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Smashed! The Many Meanings of Drunkenness and Intoxications - contents

Conclusion: Smashed?

So what have we learned about the many meanings of intoxication and drunkenness from this review of media commentary and research findings from across a number of disciplines? What, if anything has been smashed? Or is the title of this book little more than a play on words that might be slightly amusing, or even a little forced? To answer the last question first: we would not want to claim that we have smashed anything in terms of understanding the complexities and ambiguities that circulate around, and actively construct, what we might mean when we talk about intoxication and drunkenness. The title then is largely a play on words (amusing and/or forced). Instead then, we might claim that our review of media commentary and research findings has at least provided a map (possibly a list) of the complexity and ambiguity associated with the many meanings of intoxication and drunkenness. In another sense it may not be that we have provided a map of this complexity, but, rather, a map that reveals complexity and ambiguity. Or, possibly, makes this complexity more apparent than it might be if our primary recourse to understanding intoxication and drunkenness was to be found in the media commentary. Or in the policy and political discussions that emerge on a frequent basis in response to twenty-first century public health, social (dis)order, crime or regulatory issues that are often connected to diverse understandings of intoxication and drunkenness.

This is not to say that we, in our discussion, and the ways that we have chosen to frame and present this discussion, would deny any relationship between intoxication and drunkenness and these issues. That would be both a misreading of what we have tried to do here, and a folly on our part in the face of the commentary, research data and evidence that we have reviewed and presented. But in returning to the first question, what have we learned about the many meanings of intoxication and drunkenness?

To begin with we introduced a claim that in the history of discussions about intoxication and drunkenness we can identify a number of themes that appear to recur – often in different, but related forms – at a number of points during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and which continue to echo through the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. These themes include the following: the ways in which understandings of intoxication and drunkenness become attached to, and articulated with, particular concerns about sinfulness, delinquency and/or vice; the shifting and unstable ideas about the responsible, autonomous self who may be more or less accountable for states of intoxication and drunkenness and a range of consequences that might flow from these states; the ways in which personal and social consequences of intoxication and drunkenness – often related to concerns about health, public order, the regulation and licensing of the production, distribution, sale and consumption of alcohol, and ideals associated with prohibition and temperance movements – have tended to be filtered through concerns about the supposed moral delinquency of certain groups, social classes, and ethnic populations. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Our account of the ways in which psychological, biological and medical expertise struggles over definitions of intoxication and drunkenness revealed attempts to develop more sophisticated ways to identify, define, measure and quantify states of intoxication and drunkenness. These attempts, we suggested, are characterised by an emphasis on what might be called objective, quantifiable, generalisable, ‘scientific’ measures, and the applications of these in various medical and psychological contexts in which the physical and mental health and safety dimensions of intoxication and drunkenness are of primary interest. What is apparent in any examination of these processes is that in spite of an emphasis on calculation, measurement and scientific objectivity, these psychological, biological and medical discussions of intoxication and drunkenness do not, indeed, remove ambiguity, uncertainty and imprecision from these debates and discussions. In these discourses there may be only minor disagreements about some of the physical and mental health and well-being and safety issues associated with states of intoxication and drunkenness. If there is a strong degree of agreement at the level of the range of physiological, bio-medical and psychological harms that are a consequence of intoxication and drunkenness, it tends to disappear when discussion turns to attempts to calculate and measure levels of intoxication and drunkenness, or who is most able to make these calculations, and what measures are most suited to this task.

We have argued that the social and symbolic dimensions of alcohol consumption are important for understanding drunkenness and intoxication. Our review suggests that 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 are considerable anxieties and ambivalence about cultures that value intoxication and drunkenness. Media commentary often relies on, and reproduces somewhat simplistic cultural stereotypes about bingeing British and Australians, easygoing southern Europeans and sensible Nordic cultures to criticise public behaviour and imagine alternative cultural arrangements in relation to the use of alcohol and the consequences of intoxication and drunkenness. These simplifications are sometimes even reproduced in the social science literature. However, recent research also questions these cultural differences, and processes of globalisation may result in the distinction between ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ cultures becoming less useful.

As we also demonstrated there are strong indications that 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, university colleges/fraternities and private parties. For example, 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 so-called alcotourism.

This discussion led us to examine the ways in which particular groups and populations – young people, Indigenous communities in Australia and women – tend to dominate concerns, in media commentary and in the research literature, about the nature of intoxication and drunkenness and their consequences. We explored the ways in which media commentary represents the problem of intoxication and drunkenness in relation to young people, Indigenous communities in Australia and men and women. These accounts are located alongside, and in contrast to the ways in which the psychological, scientific and sociological research literature understands intoxication and drunkenness in relation to these populations. Our discussion suggested that the population that attracts the greater focus in all of these accounts is young people. Media commentary tends to be sensationalised and to reinforce stereotypes. In this sense we encountered stories about Indigenous people, young people and women, and the problems that stem from ‘their’ drinking. The research literature also, often sees certain populations as posing particular problems in terms of intoxication and drunkenness. Our review of this research suggested, however, that there are a number of attempts to explore, discuss and understand these issues in ways that can account for the symbolic, social and cultural meanings that drinking, intoxication and drunkenness may have for individuals in these groups. This research points to the shifting, and often contested, meanings that individuals attach to drinking, intoxication and drunkenness.

In the preceding chapter we presented an examination of the ways in which the problems of intoxication are understood, interpreted and acted upon when they become issues or concerns to be managed, regulated or subjected to legal considerations and judgment. In that discussion we tried to account for some of the ways in which media commentary tends to focus on the anti-social, even criminal, consequences of intoxication and drunkenness. And how, for much of this media commentary, the ways in which governments respond to and attempt to manage these issues is always incomplete, problematic and ineffectual. From there we presented a review of the legal and criminological research and commentary on issues such as: the ways in which intoxication and drunkenness may mitigate personal responsibilities and accountabilities; the particular nature of choice, consent and responsibility in cases of sexual assault when intoxication is a factor; the dilemmas associated with various regulations related to the promotion and policing of the Responsible Serving of Alcohol (RSA) in various contexts; and the relationships between intoxication, violence and gender. The story here was much the same: the meanings and understandings that attach to and produce different accounts of intoxication and drunkenness are subject to much debate and are characterised by complexity and ambiguity.

If this, then, summarises some of the key points that have emerged from this review, which, indeed, might be seen as things that have been learned: What next? This is a question that a number of people in the organisations that provided initial funding for this review have asked us. The answer to that depends, in part, on what it is imagined that this sort of review is meant to, or is able to, achieve in the first place. For example, it would be a vain hope to suggest that the sort of mapping/listing that we have undertaken here can provide some sort of way out of the complexities and ambiguities that attach to, and produce, the multiple understandings of intoxication and drunkenness that are revealed in this book. Such an outcome is not possible, and is certainly beyond any purpose that could be reasonably imagined for our review. But that doesn’t mean that a review such as this cannot make some contribution to the debates and discussions about the health and well-being and safety and social order issues, risks and hazards (individual and community) that bear some relationship to intoxication and drunkenness and their consequences. Or, indeed, to discussions about the pleasures and the sense of sociability, belongingness, and shared (hi)stories that many individuals and groups talk about when they are asked about drinking alcohol – sometimes to levels that result in them or others getting smashed.

A number of prominent sociologists and social theorists have, over the last 20 or 30 years, grappled with the ways in which a range of issues in the increasingly globalised, interconnected and complex environments at the start of the twenty-first century – from global poverty and inequality, to the prospects of sustainable development in the under-developed world, to the facts of climate change and what to do about it – appear as intractable, unsolvable, not resolvable. So many competing interests, world views, rationalities, ideologies (call them what you will, they are just something else to debate) appear to make any chance of agreement or consensus about such issues beyond the capacities of a reasonable humanity. For Anthony Giddens (1994; see also 1990, and Ulrich Beck 1992; 1994), the ways in which the diverse issues facing humankind (in a global context, but also in more local settings), and the ways we understand these issues as being more complex, can be imagined in terms of what he calls manufactured uncertainty. This manufactured uncertainty is different to the uncertainty and unpredictability that has always been a characteristic of human existence. It is not so much that contemporary existence is less predictable, more uncertain that it might have been at other times in human history. Rather, it is the source of this uncertainty that is different. For Giddens and Beck the uncertainty that we face in terms of so many of the issues that we confront is created by our own knowledge. The more knowledge that we produce does not produce more certainty; paradoxically, it produces more uncertainty and doubt. Scientific disciplines and discourses, political rhetorics and posturing, media commentaries and public discussions clamour to be heard in any number of these and other debates. And a major challenge to emerge from this cacophony is: How is it that we might make judgment about anything that attracts and produces such noise, such complexity, such ambiguity?

And so it is with the always heated, always contentious, always political, always social and cultural arguments about intoxication and drunkenness and their meanings and consequences.

What next, then? Well, these debates and discussions will go on. What this review offers, in the end, is a list or map of many of the characteristics, the contours, the limits and possibilities of these debates. Those who have an interest in these debates, or who want to participate in them, may look to this list to provide ways of thinking about and contributing to the conversations that will continue to be had in a variety of settings and contexts, and with a variety of purposes. If that is the case then we would conclude by making clear that given our approach, and the things that we have discussed and revealed, understandings of intoxication and drunkenness need to be situated in particular historical, social, cultural and political contexts. Intoxication and drunkenness need to be understood and defined with due regard to these contexts and with an appreciation for the influences such things as social class, age, gender, ethnicity and race, and geography have on constructing these multiple meanings.

Cite this chapter as: Kelly, Peter; Advocat, Jenny; Harrison, Lyn; Hickey, Chris. 2011. ‘Conclusion: Smashed?’ in Smashed! The Many Meanings of Intoxication and Drunkenness. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 179–184.

Smashed! The Many Meanings of Drunkenness and Intoxications - contents

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