Can Alcohol Expectancies and Attributions Explain Western Europe's North-South Gradient in Alcohol's Role in Violence?

By Room, Robin; Bullock, Sandra | Contemporary Drug Problems, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Can Alcohol Expectancies and Attributions Explain Western Europe's North-South Gradient in Alcohol's Role in Violence?


Room, Robin, Bullock, Sandra, Contemporary Drug Problems


Recent time-series analyses provide further support to the idea of a north-south gradient in Western Europe in alcohol's role in homicide. Differences in drunken comportment have long been hypothesized as part of the explanation. Five items about expectations about alcohol's role in violence, and the potential excuse-value of intoxication, were asked of 1,000 adults in an RDD survey in each of six countries: Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy. The results were not in the expected direction. Finnish respondents were more likely than others to value not showing any effects after drinking. Italian, French and British respondents were the most likely to believe that getting drunk leads to violence. Italian, German and British respondents were most likely to believe that friends should forgive and forget after drunken anger, and Italians and British were the most likely to excuse behavior because of drunkenness. The results are discussed, and the interplay of the items, and within-population variations in responses to them, are explored comparatively in the six national samples.

KEY WORDS: Alcohol expectancy, intoxication as excuse, crossnational survey, violence and alcohol.

Alcohol's position in the culture differs from one society to another (Room & Makela, 2000). One dimension of this variation is between what have been described as "wet" and "dry" societies (Room, 1989). Although the distinction can be made more generally, it has often been stereotypically described in terms of the difference between Northern European "spirits" or "beer cultures" and Southern European "wine cultures." At the "dry" end of this contrast, alcohol is held apart from everyday life as a special commodity for special contexts; drinking has traditionally been sporadic, often at festivals or weekends, with a high proportion of drinking occasions involving intoxication. At the "wet" end of the contrast, drinking is a part of everyday life (at least for men) and frequently accompanies meals. Overtly intoxicated behavior is reported to be rare, presumably reflecting both the tolerance built up by a regular consumer and a cultural banalization of the psychopharmacological properties of an everyday item of consumption.

The contrast is often also characterized in terms of differing histories of social responses to drinking (Levine, 1992). Although there were temperance organizations in both Italy (Cottino and Morgan, 1985) and France (Prestwich, 1988) around 1900, for example, they were relatively small in scale, with a constituency confined to the elite. Germany's temperance movement, though it reached further into working-class circles, also had limited scope (Roberts, 1984). In Britain (Harrison, 1971) and other English-speaking countries, and north of the Baltic (Johansson, 2000), temperance became an important social movement, substantially reducing the rates of social and health problems from drinking in the 80 years or so before 1930.

Contrasting "wet" and "dry" cultures is not without problems, particularly if the frame of reference is expanded to a global perspective (Room et al., 1996; Room and Makela, 2000). Even within Western Europe the dichotomy is somewhat problematic. Is it primarily a reflection of the distinction between "temperance cultures" (Levine, 1992)-societies where the temperance movement was very strong-and others? In that case, the "dry" side of the dichotomy would presumably include Finland, Sweden, Norway, the U.K. and Ireland. Alternatively, the "dry" side could be defined as societies in which spirits drinking predominated, which would limit it to Finland, Sweden and Norway until recent decades, and to no country in Western Europe nowadays (Leifman, 2001). Or is the crucial differentiation whether wine is drunk every day with meals? In that case, the "dry" side might include all Western European countries except Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France.

A further complication is that in recent years there has been considerable convergence in levels of drinking in Europe; alcohol consumption levels have fallen sharply in the wine countries of the south and have risen in most countries to their north (Leifman, 2001).

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