Alcohol as a Window on Culture

In reviewing the vast and scattered anthropological literature on drinking, it becomes readily apparent that alcohol can serve as a convenient window through which to appreciate the many and varied aspects of cultures. A few brief examples illustrate such linkages; to diet, medicine, religion, children-rearing, gender differences, attitudes, economics, and age-stratification.

To be specific, alcohol is often an integral part of diet or shows close links thereto. Homebrews throughout Africa, Asia, and much of South and Central America are not only the predominant beverages for people of all ages but also provide vitamins and minerals that are otherwise lacking. Medical values were attributed to drinking long before they were amply documented in scientific terms. Alcohol was served to spirits of the ancestors in China 3,500 years ago, as it still is there and elsewhere. Although some groups insist that drinking is a prerogative of adults, Zulus in Africa (like many groups) favor beer for infants, supposedly to build strong bones and to clean the blood. Although men almost everywhere drink more than women do, there are specific contexts in which females are expected or even required to drink. Whereas Muslims are exhorted in the Koran not to drink, wine is a sacrament among some Christian groups. In czarist Russia, as in many jurisdictions today, a major portion of the government's budget derived from the production and sale of drink. In many societies, drinking should be done only in sequence of descending age when men are in a group; in others, drinking together (often with a toast) is important. There are innumerable instances in which paying attention to alcohol, its manufacture, distribution, consumption, and meaning articulate in significant ways with many other aspects of culture.

The inclination to put great weight on emic statements (what the "insiders" say), combined with a slant toward cultural relativism that characterized many social and cultural anthropologists in the 1960s, and a strongly functionalist perspective (attending to how the parts of a cultural system work together) resulted in interpretations of the roles of alcohol among various populations as being predominantly beneficent. A striking example is the Camba of Bolivia, among whom nearly all adult males routinely drink to the point of drunkenness for days at a time, using an extremely strong beverage. Nevertheless, they claim that doing so does no harm to them or to others.

As we look at the place that such drinks hold in various societies, a striking ambivalence can be noted. We have already seen that different populations have diverse—often diametrically opposed—views about alcohol. Apart from that, often, within the same society, it is enjoyed as an adjunct to celebration at some times and sought out as a consoling refuge at others. Even while convincing scientific evidence in recent years demonstrates that moderate use of alcohol is healthful for most people, it is equally recognized that long-term or immoderate use results in many accidents as well as grave damage to a number of organs through the body.

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