Academic journal article Ethnology

Alcohol, Community, and Modernity: The Social Organization of Toddy Drinking in a Polynesian Society

Academic journal article Ethnology

Alcohol, Community, and Modernity: The Social Organization of Toddy Drinking in a Polynesian Society

Article excerpt

Drunkenness, the poet (Housman 1940) suggests, creates a new and perhaps lovelier world, "the world as the world's not." For Housman, however, this world of intoxication is ephemeral and fleeting ("The mischief is that it will not last"), inevitably replaced by a colder, harsher world of sobriety. I will describe here patterns of drinking and intoxication on Sikaiana, a Polynesian outlier in the Solomon Islands. When drinking, the Sikaiana create a new and different world with its own conventions for behaving and interpreting behavior. But this world is not only one of giddy relaxation or escape; it also is ultimately related to other worlds in which the Sikaiana live. In their interpersonal relations within the community, drinking offers the opportunity to behave in ways that are not acceptable according to the more formal expectations for sober behavior and at the same time drinking also serves to re-evaluate and often reaffirm those relations. In the context of their involvement in modernizing processes, drinking is an opportunity to preserve intimate relations in a world system which increasingly causes differences among them in wages and specialized occupations. Drinking also creates a timeless stream of involvement that is opposed to the segmented and scheduled relations of modernity.(1)

This article is not only about alcohol consumption, it is also about broader issues in social relations and interaction. Drinking creates a social world by defining a context with distinct expectations and understandings about behavior. Goffman (1974) has described such contexts of meaning as interpretive frames (see also Gusfield 1987).(2) Drinking is similar to other framed activities which reinterpret behavior, for example: sarcasm, ridicule, legends, and dramatic performances. Like these activities, Sikaiana drinking reorganizes experience in ways that appear to be unreal, but at the same time are also very real. In this respect, its organization is also similar to special communal events, often ritualized, during which non-normal behavior underscores normal behavior. Such events include ritual rebellions and liminal states (Van Gennep 1960; Gluckman 1962; Turner 1969), role distance (Goffman 1961), drama (Peacock 1968), and socially determined deviant behavior (Erikson 1966). Sikaiana drinking not only distances participants from other social contexts but also allows them to reinterpret those contexts. It is a framed experience which--like satire, joking, drama, and some forms of deviance--exposes the underlying taken-for-granted assumptions in the other frames organizing everyday life.(3)

Anthropologists often describe intoxication as creating the world as it normally is not, especially an opportunity for a temporary "time out" from everyday activities (MacAndrew and Edgerton 1969; Marshall 1982:6-7; Gusfield 1987). Many argue that drinking and drunken behavior vary in different cultures and must be understood in cultural context (MacAndrew and Edgerton 1969; Marshall 1979b). Anthropologists also generally emphasize drinking's integrative functions in developing and maintaining social solidarity (Washburne 1961; Mandelbaum 1966; Heath 1987: 18-19; Marshall 1982; Douglas 1987) and as a mechanism for presenting a traditional ethnic identity in a changing and sometimes hostile global system (Lurie 1971; Marshall 1979a; Keaulana and Whitney 1990). Recently, however, there has been increased concern about drinking's destructive consequences, especially in societies undergoing rapid social change (Room 1984; Ogan 1986; Colson and Scudder 1988; Marshall and Marshall 1990). Inherent in Sikaiana drinking is a contradiction which explains both its constructive and destructive potential: drinking is an occasion when some degree of individual disorder is converted into communal order. As the Sikaiana community becomes more fragmented as the result of changes associated with modernization, this communal order becomes both more valued and also more tenuous. …

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