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Drinking Culture

A surprisingly large amount of academic work has been devoted to the concept of drinking culture. The term refers to patterns of social behaviour around alcohol – the ‘framing’ within which drinking takes place. Although the term ‘drinking culture’ is often framed as a distinctive feature of national cultural systems, there is much evidence that it is a global phenomenon. The emergence of new drinking patterns is an important part of the wider process of globalisation, with the movement of people, products and ideas across national boundaries.

There are many different ways that cultures can be characterised, and many different dimensions upon which to study them. Those interested in the position of alcohol within culture usually focus on two particular dimensions: the degree to which drinking is a centralised activity, and the degree to which it is a personalised activity. Drinking patterns are considered to be manifestations of broader cultural themes, including a preference for certain types of drinks, an acceptance of the idea that drunkenness is ‘natural’ and acceptable, disapproval of ‘wowsers’ (those who cause excessive embarrassment), and belief in equality.

Earlier discussions of drinking culture often emphasised the role of values in determining drinking behaviour. An exchange between Lemert and Mandelbaum exemplified this. In more recent times, a trend has emerged to move away from emphasising the role of values and towards analysing the way that individuals construct and regulate their drinking in relation to others. This is reflected in the emergence of a number of typologies that define cultures in terms of their characteristic means of controlling drinking behaviour.

For example, the ‘ambivalent’ drinking-cultures of the Caribbean and Latin America tend to have more restrictive controls on female and underage drinking than the ‘integrated’, temperance cultures of northern Europe. However, the overall pattern is for a wide range of cultures to have some form of restrictions on drinking and the underlying norms that regulate it.

As a result, there is growing interest in the role of norms as the essential building blocks lying behind consumption patterns and the problems that occur when they are violated. For instance, research suggests that a high level of self-imposed rules and regulations (or ‘norms’) concerning who may drink what, when, where, with whom, and how much is a more reliable predictor of alcohol-related behaviour than are any externally imposed laws or prohibitions.

In the workplace, this shift in thinking has been reflected in changes in attitudes to alcohol at work. While open 24/7 beer fridges and Friday booze trolleys are still commonplace, there is growing awareness that they don’t sit well with everyone and that it’s possible to have a social life at work without drinking. Conversations are increasingly taking place about how to manage or even stop alcohol at work, and a growing number of people are trying to go sober for good, with national campaigns like Dry January picking up more adherents each year.