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Smashed! The Many Meanings of Drunkenness and Intoxications - contents


This book emerges from particular times, spaces and places. In many of the advanced liberal democracies at the start of the twenty-first century there is a great deal of public, policy and academic interest in the problems that are seen to be connected to alcohol-related intoxication and drunkenness. As our opening anecdotes suggest, in the United Kingdom (UK) and Europe, in the United States of America (the US), in Australia and New Zealand – and in a number of other countries around the globe – a variety of public health issues, crime and justice concerns, debates about young people and violence or anti-social behaviours, and a range of similar and related problems are understood and responded to in ways that link them to intoxication and drunkenness.

As we will discuss throughout this book, the ways in which this diverse array of concerns, issues and problems are connected to the use of alcohol at levels that result in intoxication and drunkenness are problematic. Indeed, from the outset we will claim that definitions and understandings of intoxication and drunkenness; explanations and descriptions of the causes and consequences of intoxication and drunkenness; interpretations of the symbolic, cultural, moral, legal and political meanings that attach to, and shape, these understandings are things that are uncertain, ambiguous and subject to debates that appear to not be resolvable.

While we situate this book in particular configurations of time, space and place we also argue that much of what passes for, or appears as, contemporary debate about these issues also shares strong connections to a long history of concerns about alcohol, its uses by certain groups and populations, and the results and consequences of intoxication and drunkenness. In some respects there is much that is not new in these debates. At the same time new technologies of measurement, calculation, quantification and definition are deployed in a variety of settings to better, more accurately, identify both the extent of intoxication throughout broader populations and within more specific populations, and to determine levels of individual intoxication.

In this context we argue that any debate and discussion about intoxication and drunkenness needs to situate these competing claims, ideas, understandings, definitions and measurements 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 of various social processes and categories such as social class, gender, ethnicity and race, and geography. In other words, we make a strong claim for the need to acknowledge that intoxication and drunkenness will mean different things to different people, different organisations, and different groups of commentators, politicians, policy professionals, and different expert, scientific, communities.

Importantly, the problems and meanings that become associated with intoxication and drunkenness suggest different things if and when they are discussed as a health issue; a legal issue; a youth issue; an Aboriginal issue; an inner-city issue related to clubs/venues; a licensing issue; an issue for sporting clubs; an issue for rural communities; a welfare issue; and/or an issue for privileged, middle-aged business people.

In this book we present the results of an extensive, multi-disciplinary review of a variety of understandings and definitions of the terms intoxication and drunkenness from the perspective of the individual. These individual understandings and responses are located in and alongside a range of expert, policy, public health and media representations, definitions and understandings of intoxication and drunkenness. We develop an approach to examining the meanings and understandings of intoxication and drunkenness in different places and at different times which is grounded in culture and the knowledge that they are embedded in systems of meaning. As Becaaria (2003, 101) argues, research into ‘alcohol use, drugs and intoxication presents theoretical problems relating to the objective nature of intoxication, and cultural distinctions within the social sciences as well as the philosophy of subjective meaning and understanding’.

In our discussion and analysis we document how individuals in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Europe, the US and other contexts define intoxication and drunkenness. A key feature of this discussion is that we compare, contrast and locate individual, lay understandings of intoxication and drunkenness in relation to those held by experts in key fields and disciplines. We examine the definitions of intoxication and drunkenness used in Australian and international policy guidelines, and those held by experts in key fields including medicine and public health, politics and law, sociology and criminology, anthropology and cultural studies.

A key claim we make here is that these descriptions and definitions are contextual and contingent. As we have already suggested, individuals, experts, organisations, news media and governments define and describe intoxication and drunkenness in ways that are related to particular purposes, outcomes and ends. These may include responding to community concerns about violence and anti-social behaviour. It may be that the individual and public health outcomes of intoxication and drunkenness – for particular populations, or the population in general – are a primary concern. Whatever the focus of these concerns, we witness the development and deployment of an array of strategies, tactics, campaigns and laws in ways that are designed to support these purposes. It may be that tactics and campaigns, and purposes and ends in one context and framework of understanding may support those in other settings. However, they may often also contradict and act against each other.

Public health researchers, for example, call for increased awareness about the amount of alcohol it takes for an individual to become intoxicated – focusing on either the number of drinks consumed or the volume of alcohol ingested. Other disciplines, such as criminology and legal theory take as their starting point for understanding intoxication more philosophical notions of personal responsibility, choice and free will – particularly when trying to make judgments about the range of consequences that flow from states of intoxication and drunkenness. Located in between these differing, sometimes contradictory, interpretations are a variety of understandings and strategies that both experts working in an academic framework as well as individuals going about their daily lives utilise to make sense of the meanings, characteristics and consequences of intoxication and drunkenness.

In presenting the discussion in the chapters that follow we have a number of purposes, and make a number of claims. For instance, we suggest that given the nature of the debates and discussions that we have briefly introduced to this point there is some need to present, as we do in this book, an overview, review and critical discussion of the diversity of approaches to identifying, measuring, understanding and responding to intoxication and drunkenness. Indeed, we claim that one of the strengths of the discussion we present here is the work that it does in setting out a contemporary account that crosses over and traverses a number of disciplines. In addition to this multi-disciplinary overview – which because of its very nature must sacrifice some detail and depth in the pursuit of a broad review – we attempt to locate the ways in which non-expert, lay populations and individuals attach meaning and purpose to intoxication and drunkenness, the contexts and relations in which these occur, and the roles that they play in an array of social settings and occasions. So, for example, we find that intoxication is more readily defined by experts through calculable, measurable, biological and physiological criteria. Yet even among experts in a similar field, such as biomedical science, there are different ways of defining intoxication for different purposes. Importantly, we identify an imperative for biomedical and public health researchers to seek to more precisely define and calculate intoxication and drunkenness in ways that locate intoxication and drunkenness as the outcome of individual practices.

However, our discussion and review suggests that individuals tend to define their own intoxication and drunkenness with reference to feelings, observable behaviour and social actions. In addition, in most cases, for most individuals, drinking alcohol is an inherently social activity involving different practices, conventions and relationships for men and women, and different social groups. In this sense intoxication and drunkenness are firmly located in social spaces and attention to these spaces is essential if we are to better understand the diverse roles that alcohol and, specifically, intoxication and drunkenness play in individuals’ lives – in the social, cultural and symbolic spaces in which humans generate, and give meaning to their lives.

In framing our presentation of this account we have indicated a sense that the many meanings of intoxication and drunkenness need to be situated historically, socially and culturally. At this stage we also make a case for acknowledging and working with the complexities and ambiguities that accompany, even produce, these many meanings. We will return to what we might do with this complexity and ambiguity in our concluding chapter. At this point we want to make a number of points to guide the reader through this complexity and what it means for how we present our account. In some respects these are important methodological and theoretical elements for what follows. Annemarie Mol and John Law (2002, 1), in their Complexities: An introduction, suggest that over the past few decades, in many branches of the social sciences, there has been ‘a revolt against simplification. The argument has been that the world is complex and that it shouldn’t be tamed too much’. In reading what follows it should be apparent that we have some sympathy for this position. Mol and Law are themselves cautious about both complexity and simplification and what these mean for what we can know – about anything. If things are too complex can we make any sense of them? If we simplify things too much what do we leave out? To begin the task of dealing with the always present dilemmas of simplification and complexification, Mol and Law suggest a starting definition of complexity: ‘There is complexity if things relate but don’t add up, if events occur but not within the processes of linear time, and if phenomena share a space but cannot be mapped in terms of a single set of three-dimensional co-ordinates’. For our purposes this definition enables us to say that the many meanings of intoxication and drunkenness bear some relation to each other but in no way add up to a coherent, non-problematic, unified whole; that across different co-ordinates of time, space and place an array of events, ideas, forms of knowledge and other processes and practices attempt to make sense of intoxication and drunkenness. In doing so they produce not something that is simple and agreed upon, but things that are complex, ambiguous and ambivalent. And something that is subject to constant and ongoing debate about meanings, measurements, consequences, responsibilities, obligations and rights.

Mol and Law (2002, 7–13) outline some tactics for dealing with complexity in the work that social scientists do as they write about the things that they engage with or seek to explore and/or explain. A number of these tactics provide a model for how we present our discussion in this book. At one level they suggest that lists of things can be made without necessarily imposing an order on them: lists ‘assemble elements that do not necessarily fit together into some larger scheme’. In our discussion we tend to provide lists of an array of orientations, understandings and meanings associated with intoxication and drunkenness. We also write in ways that include multiplicities: Mol and Law suggest that when ‘investigators start to discover a variety of orders – modes of ordering, logics, frames, styles, repertoires, discourses – then the dichotomy between simple and complex starts to dissolve’. This certainly happens in what follows. Finally, for now, they make a distinction between mapping as a mode of ordering that makes – sometimes forces – connections and relations between things, maps that in some cases may assist us to make sense of a direction, but at a different scale may be less useful, and walking, which suggests a different relationship to the ways we encounter the world and its complexities – a way of encountering and making sense of the world in which a map may be more or less useful. So, in our discussion we do provide some directions, and some sense of purpose but we don’t provide a comprehensive map that, ultimately, would enable us to make sense of the complexities and ambiguities we encounter in this engagement with the many meanings of intoxication and drunkenness.

Structure of the book

With these general observations and preliminary statements in mind we have structured the remainder of this book in a way that develops the discussion and analysis of these observations in more detail.

In the following chapter we present a historical account of a range of issues related to the problems of intoxication and drunkenness that focuses on 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. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries we continue to experience and respond to echoes of these concerns. 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.

In the final sections of that chapter we present an account of the ways in which the news media produces, comments on and translates contemporary concerns and difficulties associated with the problems of intoxication and drunkenness. The discussion there will provide an outline of the analysis and commentary that will be developed in greater detail in the following chapters.

In Chapter 2 we present a discussion of the ways in which psychological, biological and medical expertise struggles over definitions of intoxication and drunkenness. In these struggles we see different forms of expertise attempting to develop more sophisticated ways to identify, define, measure and quantify states of intoxication and drunkenness. In these attempts we see 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. As the discussion in that chapter demonstrates, these attempts are not very successful in removing ambiguity, uncertainty and debate from definitions, measurements, and calculations.

Chapter 3 provides an account of the ways in which disciplines such as sociology, anthropology and human geography understand intoxication and drunkenness. Our aims in this account are to explore some of the cultural, social and symbolic dimensions that shape differing understandings of intoxication and drunkenness. In this chapter we suggest that drinking styles can vary according to cultural background. For example, it is often suggested that southern European drinking is typified by moderate drinking of wine with meals whereas British and northern European drinking is typified by ‘bingeing’ or drinking beer or spirits to achieve rapid intoxication. Anxieties and ambivalences about drinking cultures that value intoxication are often the subject of media commentary. In such commentary simplified cultural stereotypes are drawn – such as the bingeing British and Australians or the easygoing southern Europeans and sensible Nordic countries – to criticise public behaviour and imagine alternative cultural arrangements. However, the research literature raises questions about these stereotypes, and suggests that processes of globalisation may make the distinctions between ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ cultures less than useful.

In that chapter we also identify cross-cultural variation in both biomedical and lay definitions of intoxication and drunkenness. Lay understandings of intoxication and drunkenness are distinct from scientific biomedical and public health definitions. Lay definitions tend to focus on feelings, observable behaviour and short-term effects whereas scientific definitions most often focus on calculations of amounts of alcohol consumed and blood alcohol content. Intoxication and drunkenness are frequently social rather than individual practices and getting drunk with others is valued in some social groups and settings. Our discussion suggests that some drinking settings are strongly linked to drunkenness and intoxication – particularly the night-time economy in post-industrial cities which is a complex and contradictory space. Here, for example, we suggest that the new culture of intoxication identified in the UK literature involves large numbers of young people drinking rapidly to intoxication as a means to achieve pleasure, escape and loss of control.

In Chapter 4 we review media commentary and the research literature that focuses on different populations and the problem of intoxication and drunkenness. Included there is a discussion of young people as a population who present particular concerns in relation to intoxication and drunkenness. We also present a limited account of media commentary and research on the raft of issues that are associated with understandings of intoxication and drunkenness and Indigenous populations (in this case in Australia). These issues present a minefield for review and discussion. The political, cultural, social and economic dimensions of the history of colonialism, dispossession, and marginalisation of Indigenous populations in Australia are things that make an appearance in this commentary and research. We also present a discussion of the research literature on gender differences related to intoxication and drunkenness. The discussion there makes it clear that different rules and moral codes still apply to the ways in which men and women drink, often to levels of intoxication and drunkenness. For the most part intoxication and drunkenness appear to be expected of males and are seen as deviant in females. This is not to say that male intoxication and drunkenness is not seen as a problem and particular groups are the targets of legal interventions, particularly related to issues around public safety. There is evidence, however, that young women are adopting more traditionally male drinking styles and the reasons for this are not yet well known.

Finally, in Chapter 5 we present a discussion of the ways in which the problems of intoxication and drunkenness 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 chapter we provide an account of some of the ways in which media commentary tends to focus on the anti-social, even criminal, consequences of intoxication and drunkenness, and, for the media, the always incomplete, problematic and ineffectual ways that governments respond to and attempt to manage these issues. This background discussion leads to 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.

Research notes

There are two important additions at the end of this book that indicate the scope and nature of the literature that we reviewed, and a further reading list. In Appendix A we describe the research methodology that has guided our review, and we include descriptions of the ways we searched both the academic literature and news media commentary. Appendix B is a ‘further reading’ section, which includes two types of literature which are not included in the references list. First we include references that are cited within citations in this book. Secondly, we include articles that were located during our search but which, at the time, we considered of marginal relevance for inclusion. These may provide a useful resource for those with an interest in the discussions and debates we present here.

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

Smashed! The Many Meanings of Drunkenness and Intoxications - contents

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