Drinking Alcohol: Social Problem or Normal Cultural Practice?  

(BPRO 22800; BIOS 02280; ANTH 25310)

co-taught with William Green, Biological Sciences


Alcohol has been classified as, alternatively, a food, a medicine, a drug, or a poison. It is the most widely used psychoactive agent in the world: the World Health Organization estimates that over 2 billion people currently consume alcoholic beverages. Moreover, as archaeologists have recently demonstrated, alcohol has a very long history dating back at least 9,000 years, and probably much earlier. At the time of European colonial expansion, only parts of North America and the Pacific seem to have been without indigenous forms of alcohol, and peoples of those regions quickly adopted the practice of drinking. Alcohol sales constitute an important part of the modern world economy, and taxation of alcohol production and consumption has long been a significant revenue source for governments. Drinking has been a central part of social life around the world for a very long time, but it has also been a subject of controversy, religious proscription, and legislative restriction.


Not surprisingly, alcohol has attracted a great deal of attention in academic research and publication within a variety of disciplines, including psychology, biology/medicine, sociology, anthropology, history, and public health. This work has revealed some major differences and conflicts in disciplinary perspectives that center precisely on the "big problem" question: is drinking alcohol a social problem or a normal cultural practice? Much of the literature in the biological and medical domain has focused on understanding drinking as an individual pathology or a disruptive social problem. This has been the case essentially since the emergence of the Temperance Movement in the early 19th century and the corresponding creation of alcohol as a collective category and dangerous substance, and the discursive construction of drinking as a problem and then “alcoholism” as a disease. Anthropologists, on the other hand, have tended to focus on the socially integrative role of alcohol, patterns of "normal drinking," and alcohol as an important social artifact and culturally valued good. This dichotomy has recently been complicated by the emergence of research on the health benefits of alcohol in medical research and attempts by anthropologists to define and understand culturally and historically specific forms of abnormal problem drinking within particular normal drinking patterns. Meanwhile, historians and archaeologists have continued to add temporal depth to these arguments by exploring transformations in drinking practices and beliefs about alcohol in the near and distant past.


This course explores the issue of alcohol and drinking from a trans-disciplinary perspective. It is co-taught by an anthropologist/archaeologist with experience in alcohol research and a neurobiologist who has experience with addiction research. Students will be confronted with literature on alcohol research from anthropology, sociology, history, biology, medicine, psychology, and public health and asked to think through the conflicts and contradictions. Selected case studies will be used to focus the discussion of broader theoretical concepts and competing perspectives introduced in the first part of the course.