Between Culture and Nature: Intoxication in Cultural Studies of Alcohol and Drug Use

By Sulkunen, Pekka | Contemporary Drug Problems, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Between Culture and Nature: Intoxication in Cultural Studies of Alcohol and Drug Use


Sulkunen, Pekka, Contemporary Drug Problems


Theoretical attempts to formulate cultural theories of drinking and drug use have traditionally stemmed from norm theory or functionalism. These tend to reduce drinking and drug practices to intoxication alone or to neglect intoxication altogether. The semiotic turn in the 1980s brought "meaning" to the focus of cultural studies. This article proposes, following Bruno Latour, that cultural practices and discourses should be seen as translations of each other. Intoxication is a proto-semiotic fact between culture and nature, not being completely meaningful but not possible without meanings either. This is the reason why images of intoxication are powerful translations of social relationships and the relationships between humans and nature. It is especially powerful language to articulate status distinctions that are shaky or confused, such as between youths and adults.

KEY WORDS: Intoxication, meaning, culture, alcohol, drugs.

Introduction: too much intoxication or too little?

Problem-oriented studies on alcohol and drug use tend to focus on causal explanations of risk-prone behavior and its consequences. The semiotic turn that reached general sociology and gradually also alcohol research in the 1980s placed emphasis on cultural explanations or interpretations of drinking patterns and the images people have of them. There have been cultural approaches to drug and alcohol use before, but their background has been either norm theory or functionalism. The semiotic approach restored interest in cultural explanations formulated in terms of meaning and understandability. This interest had, of course, been central in classical sociology, especially in Weber's, Simmel's and Durkheim's work, but it was swept aside by later developments in sociological theory.

Cultural explanations of drinking or drug-use patterns tend to drift toward one of two extremes. They may either reduce the practices to intoxication or neglect the role of intoxication altogether. These interpretations are particularly frequent in policy discourse. For much of the 20th century, alcohol policy has been directed to "civilize the drinking culture," perhaps especially in the Nordic monopoly countries and North America. The Nordic monopolies have introduced new beverages, recommended wine instead of vodka, etc. (Sulkunen et al. 2000). The alternatives have been presented as mild alcohol; in other words, a means of intoxication-only of a less potent kind, advised to be used maybe more often but in small doses rather than in larger doses but less frequently.

The second interpretation appears in anti-paternalistic policy discourse. Drinking is looked at from the point of view of cultural competence and distinction, similar to any other consumer behavior and good taste, without any reference to intoxication at all.

The real challenge in cultural studies of drug and alcohol use is to theorize intoxication itself. Radical constructivists tend to associate intoxication with culture and socialization: conventions, labels and rituals determine how substances are used and how their effects are experienced. On the other hand, intoxicants obviously work on the human body and have "natural effects" on the mind independently of cultural factors. Bruno Latour (1993) has argued about discourses on technologies that a usual intellectual strategy to deal with the problem is a "balanced use of the trope `both-and.' " Technical and other natural objects are both part of the "nature out there" and have symbolic, functional and normative attributes ascribed to them by culture.

The same applies to alcohol and drugs. In order to replace such a "disgusting brew," as Latour calls such dualistic arguments, with a more coherent view, I first take a look at norms and functions and then go on to two issues-the reflexivity problem and the instability of meanings-in semiotic theories of culture. I then discuss their implications for the cultural study of intoxication. …

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