Voices from the Field: The Social Construction of Alcohol Problems in Inner-City Communities

By Herd, Denise | Contemporary Drug Problems, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Voices from the Field: The Social Construction of Alcohol Problems in Inner-City Communities


Herd, Denise, Contemporary Drug Problems


The social construction of problems has been recognized as a critical issue in social movement theory. Within the field of alcohol studies, the social constructionist perspective has been used to analyze the history of the temperance and prohibition movements (Levine, 1978); the rise of the alcoholism as a disease movement in the post-prohibition era (Room, 1983); and the crusade against drinking and driving in the 1980s in the United States (Reinarman, 1988). These studies analyzed the shifts in social meanings attributed to alcohol beverage use and to problems within the changing landscapes of social, economic, and political power relationships in American society.

The present study examined the social construction of alcohol problems within the social movement focused on changing alcohol policies in American inner-city neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s. This movement, peopled by ethnic minority residents and human service professionals working in social service agencies, law enforcement, and education, sought to change local and regional policies and legislation regarding alcohol sales and marketing in many cities across the United States. Since the 1970s, and most dramatically in the late 1980s and 1990s, these activists voiced open opposition to alcohol outlets, billboards, and alcohol advertising practices in their communities. They developed local ordinances to limit and regulate alcohol outlets, mobilized networks to eliminate alcohol billboard advertising, and launched campaigns to protest efforts by alcohol and tobacco companies to market products targeted at African Americans in the inner city, especially youth (Harney, 1992; Jernigan & Wright, 1994; Ronningen, 1993).

Collectively, these efforts can be considered a social movement, as defined by Snow, Soule, and Kriesi (2007): "collectivities acting with some degree of organization and continuity outside of institutional or organizational channels for the purpose of challenging or defending extant authority" (p. 11). Although falling within this definition, grassroots alcohol-related policy campaigns have been overlooked for the most part by the sizable body of literature focused primarily on such large-scale and well-known initiatives as the labor movement, civil rights movement, women's movement, and environmentalist movement, among others (Fantasia & Stepan-Norris, 2007; Ferree & Mueller, 2007; Rootes, 2007). One of the central questions for any social movement is how social problems are constructed. As noted by Klandermans (1992), social movement theory and the social constructionist perspective both acknowledge that objective social conditions do not necessarily give rise to perceived social problems or social movements.

The idea that social problems are not objective and identifiable conditions but the outcome of processes of collective definition of the situation is not new. For many years now, students of social problems have argued that social problems are situations that are labeled as problems. . . . Nevertheless, this line of thought never really caught on in social movement literature, presumably because, once resource mobilization captured the field, the idea that grievances could explain political protest became obsolete. . . . Yet we can learn much from scholars in the field of social problems, both in terms of grievance interpretation and in terms of the politicization of grievances, (p. 78)

The present study analyzed how activists interpreted the origins of mobilization around alcohol policy issues within their neighborhoods and communities. Based on the constructionist perspective mentioned above, we assumed the public recognition of alcohol problems that gave rise to these campaigns did not necessarily stem from health crises or problems specifically related to alcohol consumption. This perspective is particularly significant in light of the history of African Americans' extensive support of the 19th century American alcohol reform movements - support that did not appear to be in response to alcohol problems. …

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