Several types of alcohol are known, but ethanol is of special interest to anthropologists, having long been an influential component of many beverages among a large portion of the world's population. A relatively simple chemical compound (C2H5OH), it often occurs naturally without human intervention, although the hominid imagination has resulted in manifold elaborations and refinements of the basic processes of fermentation and distillation. In fermentation, it is microorganisms that convert carbohydrates to sugars, with ethanol as a by-product. Distillation results from the heating of a fermented liquid, whereby ethanol can be further concentrated because it has a boiling-point lower than that of water.
Although we routinely speak as if people drank alcohol, it is widely recognized that fermented beverages (beers, ales, wines, pulque, chicha, hard cider, and a variety of other brews) contain less that 20% ethanol (by volume), usually less that half that much. Distilled beverages (spirits or liquor) contain between 40% and 90%, usually in the lower part of that range. There is an enormous variety of beverages that contain alcohol based on a vast range of raw materials, additives, aging, and other considerations.
Ethanol readily diffuses into the blood and hence through the body. A psychoactive (or mind-altering) effect is commonplace with minute concentrations; such changes in thought and action are usually recognized and often actively sought and valued. There are marked differences in those effects depending on the dose, the drinker, and the setting. In terms of dose, the overall volume of a drink and the concentration of ethanol within it determine how much alcohol has been ingested. Being water-soluble, a given amount is more readily dispersed through a small body, or one with less fat. Because of adaptive changes that occur in the brain, previous repeated alcohol experience can enhance the body's tolerance to alcohol, lessening its behavioral impact. The presence of food delays absorption, and carbonation, exercise, or altitude accelerate it.
The psychoactive quality of alcohol relates to its effect on neurotransmitters in the brain. This can result from a minute concentration of ethanol in the blood. For most individuals, the effect is biphasic, stimulant for the first few drinks, and then depressant. Endogenous processes of metabolism can reduce ethanol within the body; various enzymes and the liver gradually convert it to carbon dioxide and water.
From an anthropological perspective, it is noteworthy that there are customary uses, attitudes, and behavior patterns associated with alcohol, even when it is ingested at levels that do not significantly affect the physiology. Drinks containing ethanol often serve as basic beverages, integral to the diet; others tend to have important symbolic or ritualistic uses and associations. Drinking may be an accompaniment to a meal or it may be an act valued and practiced in itself. Solitary drinking occurs, although drinking is usually a social act, often viewed as enhancing sociability and symbolizing camaraderie. It is the very diversity of drinking and its outcomes that have made it a subject of intense ethnographic study.
Although acute observers had long commented on alcohol, there was little systematic investigation of its uses, misuses, and outcomes until the mid-20th century. At that time, isolated chemical, biological, and physiological studies began to be published in a handful of journals, and within a decade a few introductory textbooks appeared. Such studies often were presumed to have universal relevance, although they were conducted on small samples of undergraduate students, homeless men in industrialized cities, institutionalized patients, prisoners, or other unrepresentative categories, usually with "White" males predominating. These marked the beginnings of what has grown to be a multidisciplinary field of alcohol studies (or, some would even say "alcohology").
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