In most empirical studies on alcohol consumption and alcohol problems, associations between variables on alcohol use or problems and some basic sociodemographic variables, such as sex, age, socioeconomic status or marital status groups, are presented. But why is the study of these differences worthwhile, and what lies behind the associations observed? In the research field of gender and alcohol, these issues have been discussed. An excellent example of this is the book Gender and Alcohol-Individual and Social Perspectives, edited by Richard and Sharon Wilsnack (1997a). In the literature on socioeconomic factors and drinking, however, there is a wealth of research reporting associations, but the aims of studying the associations are explicitly stated only in part of this research, and there is a dearth of work that studies, or even discusses, the causes of the associations or their theoretical and practical implications.
The central sociodemographic variables that I have had in mind in this discussion are socioeconomic factors and gender, although most of the discussion below should pertain to other sociodemographic variables as well, such as age, marital status or region. The terms "socioeconomic factors," "socioeconomic group" and "socioeconomic status" are used here in a general sense, referring to different dimensions of a person's social and economic position in society, the most common measures of which are education, occupational class, and income. The term "alcohol problems" is correspondingly used as a general term referring to different indicators of problematic alcohol use and to the consequences and harm related to alcohol use.
In the first part of this paper I explore some uses and motivations for analyses of sociodemographic differences in alcohol problems, and I search for answers to questions such as What kind of relevant research questions can be illuminated by studying sociodemographic differences in drinking and drinking problems? What scientific or other discussions can the researcher then participate in? Only the imagination sets limits to productive uses for data on sociodemographic differences in drinking or drinking problems. Therefore this discussion does not aim to make an exhaustive list of different possibilities, but rather gives illuminating examples. In the second part I discuss different approaches that researchers can take when trying to understand the nature and origin of differences in drinking between sociodemographic groups and to explain why the differences exist.
In many cases, sociodemographic variables are needed only for technical reasons, such as standardization or obtaining more homogeneous subgroups. For example, men and women are almost always considered separately, even when the gender difference is not the focus of interest, simply because men and women differ so much in their drinking habits that the mean values are not a good description of either group. In this paper I concentrate on cases where the relationship between alcohol use and a sociodemographic variable is the focus of interest.
Uses and interpretations for data on sociodemographic differences in drinking
Public healthand social policy-oriented views Monitoring of drinking habits and identification of risk groups
In the alcohol research field, it is common to study the sociodemographic correlates of alcohol use and alcohol problems. This kind of descriptive data offers means to contribute to both public health- and social policy-oriented discussions. In the field of public health, measures of alcohol-related disabilities and mortality, or heavy or mean consumption as an indicator of these, are considered as measures of one dimension of health much like, for example, mortality from coronary heart disease. In social policy-oriented discussion, they are treated as indicators of social problems and ill-being, much like rates of unemployment and violence.
Descriptive data help policy makers know which population groups we ought to be most worried about and who should be the main targets of intervention. …