Socially Obligatory Drinking: A Sociological Analysis of Norms Governing Minimum Drinking Levels

By Paton-Simpson, Grant | Contemporary Drug Problems, April 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Socially Obligatory Drinking: A Sociological Analysis of Norms Governing Minimum Drinking Levels


Paton-Simpson, Grant, Contemporary Drug Problems


Daniel uncaps bottles of beer, more to his taste when there is real drinking to be done, and more filling besides; he needs no glass, swigging straight from the bottle, and then pushing it in David's direction. "Wrap your laughing gear around that, " he urges. "Wine's a woman's drink. Take it from me." Further along the table, convivial Herman insists that Richard should drink more; no man, he argues, should inhabit the first hours of the new century sober and sour. He also draws Richard's attention to the Biblical injunction on the value of wine as an aid to the digestive process, advice to be neglected at peril.

Maurice Shadbolt, The Lovelock Version, p. 477

Being sociable often seems to require social drinking. Depending on the circumstances, an unwillingness to consume alcohol in functions where alcohol is present may raise questions. Often personal tact ensures that such queries are subtle-nothing more might be involved than a brief pause or a slight raising of the eyebrows. In other contexts, where tact is perhaps more scarce, a failure to drink to expected levels may attract direct scrutiny. Reasons for abstinence or lighter drinking might be required, and there may be verbal pressure to conform. More specifically, doubts may be raised about a person's sociability, maturity, and, for males, masculinity. In such circumstances, it might understandably be concluded that drinking is socially obligatory. This obligation may take the form of a requirement that at least some alcohol be consumed-perhaps a sip for a toast will be sufficient. Or the requirement may be for a certain degree of intoxication.

These expectations are the topic of this paper. As a starting point, there is a discussion of the literature on drinking norms and drinking culture. A definition of minimum drinking norms is then provided, and it is argued that abstinence and lighter drinking can be analyzed as deviance in many contexts. This is a consequence of the normative theory of deviance adopted, which defines deviance as the violation of norms. "Underconsumption" is the term used in this paper to refer to the violation of minimum drinking norms. The first section concludes with an elaboration of the socially relative, contingent, and potentially ambivalent nature of minimum drinking norms and the variable strength of such norms.

Attention next focuses on social reactions to abstinence and lighter drinking-in particular, reactions occurring in smaller social settings. These are provided as evidence for the presence of minimum drinking norms. Various arguments about these reactions and the distribution of minimum drinking norms is supported with reference to both the empirical literature on drinking and my own doctoral research. The latter consisted of face-to-face interviews, phone interviews, and postal surveys with a total of 113 New Zealand men-mostly non-drinkers or lighter drinkers2(Paton-Simpson, 1995, pp. 18-25).

A review of the literature on drinking norms and drinking culture

There has been little focused or sustained analysis of minimum drinking norms in the broader literature on drinking norms and drinking culture-especially when contrasted with the study of norms governing upper levels of consumption (Paton-Simpson, 1995, Appendix 4). Having said this, there is a considerable amount of material dispersed throughout the literature of relevance to such an analysis, and many writers have touched on different aspects of the phenomenon.

The existence of norms requiring intoxication, for example, has been noted by a number of writers, including Room (1975), Partanen (1983), and Sargent (1979a). Sargent incorporates an analysis of positive social and economic pressures to drink heavily into a power relations theory of drinking. McMath specifically comments on pressures arising from norms of politeness (McMath, 1990, pp. 74-75).

Several writers have drawn attention to specific situations in which pressure to drink may be most pronounced-including rounds drinking (Room, 1975; Barbara et al. …

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