Anthropology and Alcohol Studies

The ethnographic or cross-cultural perspective was important early in establishing the simple fact that differences in attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes exist and are important among different populations. Interested observers had long been writing some insightful descriptions but they tended to be fragmentary and scattered in recondite sources. The rapidly expanding cadres of social and cultural anthropologists in the 1950s and 1960s brought a sharper focus to what they called drinking patterns, not defining that term precisely but implicitly referring to who drank, what they drank, when, where, how, in the company of whom, while doing what else, and with what apparent consequences. In addition to providing ethnographic descriptions and analyses of drinking patterns, they have spelled out the sociocultural model (emphasizing the importance of meanings and values as well as consumption), offered some constructive comments about typologies and diagnostic criteria, studied populations that are difficult to survey, developed survey instruments that are appropriate to specific subcultures, evaluated various policies and their effectiveness, and worked on expanding and improving various modalities of prevention and treatment.

Another way in which anthropology had a major impact on alcohol studies in those early years was in providing some broad theories about the roles of drinking in various cultures. A number of studies were conducted that were hologeistic in nature, in which scholars used a sample of societies from throughout the world to test general theoretical hypotheses at the societal level. The data most often came from ethnographies in which drinking behavior was described, along with other aspects of the culture. Among the associations found through the hologeistic method were that drinking and or drunkenness appears to have served to relieve anxiety, to cope with feelings of dependency related to child rearing practices, or to feel powerful. Communal sobriety was found to be associated with corporate kin groups, residence near the husband's family, bride price, and a concentrated form of settlement. Such cross-cultural studies and their associated models were especially appreciated at a time when there were few alternative conceptualizations available.

The vast and varied experience in the cross-cultural record raised serious questions about findings that treated drinking as if it were uniform and alcohol as if it were a universally invariant variable. Notably, the voice of anthropologists has been influential in countering or at least tempering several kinds of determinism that prevailed at various times in relation to drinking and a few such deserve to be mentioned. It was long believed that alcohol had a rapid pharmacological impact, supposedly deadening "higher levels" of the brain that were said to be the centers of control over inhibitions. A brief but convincing review of ethnographic and historical sources, Mac Andrew and Edgerton's' Drunken Comportment, appears to have successfully helped convince scientists that some environmental factors (beyond chemistry, physiology, and personality) are important in understanding how people behave during or after drinking. Another success for anthropologists in the field of alcohol studies was the increasing recognition that uniform modalities of diagnosis, prevention, and treatment, whether for alcoholism or for a variety of alcohol-related problems, were neither efficient nor effective, especially when populations with different cultures or subcultures were concerned.

Within the broad field of alcohol studies, many different kinds of work progressed at different rates. Early efforts at definition and classification often preceded compilation of data, and considerable effort was devoted to practical applications from the outset. Because long-term heavy drinking harms many organ systems and because extreme intoxication is both highly visible and often harmful to the drinker as well as to others, that aspect of use attracted attention out of all proportion to its actual occurrence. Alcoholics, alcoholism, and types of each continue for some to be more interesting than other aspects of alcohol, and funding for research is overwhelmingly focused on attempts to counter negative outcomes.

From a psychological perspective, there were efforts to identify the causal roots of heavy drinking, and to characterize an "alcoholic personality" type. Studies of twins were of special interest in the hope that investigators could differentiate between hereditary and environmental factors, isolating nature from nurture; the findings from these studies in fact implicate both. Tracing the association of psychological factors such as motives, and expectances with alcohol and drinking continues to attract attention. Social psychologists also study the effects of media and advertising of alcohol.

Sociological studies of drinking behavior have specialized in the following ways: using questionnaires and surveys, they attempt to assess quantity and frequency of drinking among populations as large as entire nations; categories are differentiated and compared on the basis of age, gender, socioeconomic class, and other variables; and linkages are made between such data and reports of alcohol-related problems.

Biological studies of alcohol have become increasingly specialized as knowledge has increased and techniques have been refined. From early questioning about whether alcoholism was a disease, we have progressed to the point of knowing which allele triggers facial flushing in some when exposed to ethanol. Much work is done at the neurological level, and the long-term effects of different beverages are often attributed to trace elements.

A number of issues of definition have occupied the field of alcohol studies in its short history, and an anthropologist should be aware of them because some of the implications still reverberate (if only implicitly) in views that are expressed by others who address similar situations from various disciplinary perspectives. There was considerable controversy over whether alcoholism was a disease and then over whether it was unitary or of various types. The concept of addiction was largely supplanted by dependence, and much attention has been paid to progressive delineation of special observable criteria for the diagnosis of different kinds of disorders.

Now the international community of scholars, many of whom are also outstanding in more traditional academic disciplines, are able in recent decades to take part in international conferences and to publish in books and journals in the fields of alcohol or addiction studies.

There is often overlap with studies of illegal drugs, partly because poly-drug use is increasing among individuals, partly because drinking often tends to be treated socially in terms that are similar to drug-taking, and because the effects of alcohol and drugs on brain neurobiology are similar.

When a few interested social scientists organized an Alcohol and Drug Study Group (ADSG), they did so within the American Anthropological Association, and when that underwent major reorganization requiring that each of the many interest groups become affiliated with an intermediate sub-disciplinary society, ADSG was accommodated within the Society for Medical Anthropology.

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  • therese
    How can alcoholism be identified in terms of medical anthrology?
    6 months ago

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