Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Binge drinking as a 21st-century phenomenon

This week I know I should probably be writing about the Select Committee report on Public Health England, but sadly I haven't got time to craft something new and insightful (or even to read the report in full - though the section on MUP is interesting, and chimes with my feelings about the relative roles of industry and public health).

Instead, given that I've been thinking about the history of alcohol policy a lot lately, I thought I'd post an academc piece I wrote on a quiet afternoon at work 3 years ago, and so far haven't found a home for.  It's a bit short to be a proper social policy academic article, but I haven't had the time or inclination to work it up into something more significant.  If anyone has any comments or thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

“They’re buggering off with the bloody port-wine!”  Binge drinking as a 21st-century phenomenon

The term ‘binge’ refers to a problematic form of drinking, rather than an attractive one, as Mass Observation noted in 1943 (p.342).  However, there is little clarity regarding what the term means in current discussions, beyond the general sense that it is new, and worrying.

The most striking discussions of binge drinking are in the media, both in newspapers and on TV.  Ladette to Lady and Booze Britain are prime examples on the TV, while headlines such as “Binge Britain’s Night of Shame” are common in newsprint.  In these discussions, ‘binge’ drinkers are generally understood to be young people who drink large quantities of alcohol in city centres before behaving in out of the ordinary ways considered unacceptable – perhaps anti-socially or even criminally.

The same picture emerges from an analysis of government approaches to alcohol policy.  ‘Binge’ drinking is a term that has been deliberately used by both the Labour and Coalition governments, and although quantity of alcohol consumed is often employed as a proxy, the key concern appears to be the altered state of norms that accompany such drinking, which is characterised by a particular approach: drinking to get drunk.

There has been a recently growing corpus of academic research on the topic of ‘binge’ drinking, which generally shares the focus on motivation in defining the phenomenon, stressing that this drinking to get drunk is a new development.  Quite what new features are of interest varies, but the contrast is drawn with a period – usually understood to have included the 20th century prior to the 1980s – when ‘traditional’ drinking, a masculine, working-class culture centred on local community pubs, was the dominant form of public drinking (Gofton 1990).  In this environment, it is argued, intoxication was incidental to drinkers’ motivations, and drinking interactions formed part of a larger congery of social practices, including work, family, locality and other forms of leisure.  In these nostalgic academic accounts, the focus of research tends to be current young people’s drinking practices and their wider lives.  The historical comparison, though central to the argument that something is new and distinctive about ‘binge’ drinking, is often discussed only in passing, however.

The conception that ‘binge’ drinking is a new phenomenon is questionable on two levels.  First, and most obviously, does it exist at all – and if so, what does it mean in practice?  The burgeoning body of academic research referred to above suggests that many young people – though certainly not all, even of those who drink in city centres at weekends – often understand themselves to be drinking to get drunk and many consider unusual behaviour to be a desirable feature of a night out – even something that should be actively sought out.  Although it remains the case, as it was in 1943, that drinkers tend not to describe their practices as a ‘binge’, this academic picture has notable similarities with that painted by government and the media – though also considerable complexities (Griffin et al. 2009; Haydock 2009; Hollands 2002).

The second problem with these academic accounts, however, is that they claim that such practices are new.  As I suggested, exactly what is considered new varies.  In Measham and Brain’s (2005) account, for example, ‘determined drunkenness’ (a deliberate, almost calculating attempt to get drunk) is the key feature of the ‘culture of intoxication’.  In Hall and Winlow’s (2006) account, it is the broader friendship groupings, which are now the necessary means to the end of going out, rather than the drinking being the means to the end of spending time with one’s friends and cementing these relationships as was apparently the case in ‘traditional’ drinking.

Much research – including these two prominent examples – notes the importance of the wider environment to the emergence of this ‘culture of intoxication’.  Most obviously, licensing laws have changed, but alongside this there have been changes in the design of venues, the drinks available (and their prices) and the marketing of these products.  The role of the 1980s/1990s ‘rave’ culture in prompting this approach from the alcohol industry is often noted.

That there have been changes in the regulatory and broader environment regarding alcohol in the UK is undeniable, and it is certainly plausible that certain of these factors will influence drinking behaviour.  The affordability of alcohol, the licensing laws and the design of venues may all be important factors in affecting drinking cultures – and indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, government might be well-advised to think more broadly about the policy options open to it.

Nevertheless, to address the broader point first, it is not at all clear that friendship groupings and their relationship to consumption of alcohol have changed fundamentally over the past 100 to 150 years.  To begin with, it is unclear when this apparent golden age of pub friendship should be placed.  By the 1930s there is no question that, in “Worktown” at least, many drinkers felt the age of community pubs had passed, and the number that had closed was certainly notable.

It has been suggested that the tax changes introduced with the First World War fundamentally altered the nature of pub drinking, changing the affordability of alcohol, along with the more restrictive licensing laws.  This suggests that, if anything, any heyday of the British pub and ‘traditional’ drinking would be prior to this period.  On the other hand, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at the time when the Victorian and Edwardian pubs described by Hayward and Hobbs (2007) were springing up, there was concern that the influx of labour into cities had destroyed traditional rural forms of community, and there was considerable movement of people in search of work within an economy constantly in flux.  The stable communities, dominated by and centred around a single large employer, of Nottingham with its Raleigh factory* and “Ashton” as described in Coal is Our Life (Dennis et al. 1969), were always the exception.  It is hard to believe in the face of the evidence that the majority of lives – particularly for those without security of income or residence, the working class – were at any point stable and predictable in the way that the vision of the ‘traditional’ pub seems to convey.

In terms of how these relationships compare to today’s, if all that is meant by the idea of community is the ‘congeries of interests’ and ‘social experiences’ described by EP Thompson (1968: 939), then it is hard to argue that these have disappeared.  As I have argued elsewhere (Haydock 2010), class distinctions and communities, cemented by cultural practices, are alive and well within the night-time economy (see also Hollands 2002), and indeed the work of Hall and Winlow themselves is filled with acknowledgements of the importance of class in determining people’s social options and the prevalence of cultural distinctions within the night-time economy.

However, the argument of change is deeper than this; it is about the instrumental nature of friendship within today’s economy.  Hall and Winlow argue that today’s young people know less about each other than their predecessors did, and interact primarily through signifiers of consumption rather than production, with long-term relationships through work no longer being commonplace.  Although, as I have suggested, there is an element of nostalgia to these claims – friendships in the past were deeper and today’s social interactions are a “theatrical simulation of traditional forms of communality” (Winlow and Hall 2006: 186) – my aim here is not claim whether one form of social interaction or friendship is better, or to be longed for; I simply wish to consider whether or not two such different forms can realistically be posited.  Fellow drinkers in the pub, whether in the 1930s or the 1880s, did not necessarily work for the same company or in the same trade.  The community that existed and can be understood in terms of class was cemented through shared situations and practices, rather than strictly shared occupations or workplaces themselves, and such shared backgrounds are common amongst groups of drinkers today.  Moreover, although debates abound regarding the changing nature of work and leisure time in industrial and advanced deindustrialised economies, a holistic view of relationships, friendships and class as expounded by EP Thompson or Pierre Bourdieu (1984), for example, acknowledges the importance of practices that can broadly be considered consumption throughout, at the very least, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Of course, it could be argued that the nature of communities and the centrality of production relations meant that leisure in the pub was not so separated from work as it is today, in a ‘binge’ drinking culture where the aim is understood to be getting ‘annihilated’ (Griffin et al. 2009) – away from everyday relations and relationships, especially those related to work and family.  As Winlow and Hall (2009), following the pop song and the advertisement for the lager Carling, put it, drinkers are ‘living for the weekend’.  The paying of wages might be cited as one prime example of the way in which pub life was tied to work.  It cannot be denied that this practice at the very least has died out, more or less, but the apparently new opposition between drinking and work relates to the second, broader point of what is new regarding ‘binge’ drinking: drinkers’ motivations.  Do current ‘binge’ drinkers approach alcohol in a fundamentally different way to those from the past?

The historical work on drinking cultures in Britain is perhaps surprisingly thin, when considering the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Brian Harrison’s (1971) landmark study, despite its broad title – Drink and the Victorians – analysed the Temperance movement specifically, while more recently John Greenaway (2003) has analysed political discussions of alcohol since 1830, and James Nicholls (2009) has looked at broader public discourses surrounding alcohol and drunkenness.  There is much less material considering how those who were actually engaged in the apparently problematic drinking thought of alcohol and themselves.  There are excellent historical sources, of a variety of types, that refer to alcohol consumption, but these have not been synthesised, and there is no identifiable single source.  As with issues of the carnival and carnivalesque more broadly, it is difficult to access accounts from drinkers themselves rather than observers (see Easton et al. 1988; Stallybrass and White 1986).

However, this material from observers is valuable.  Although government states that one of the key features of ‘binge’ drinking is that those involved drink to get drunk, such drinking is also defined by its consequences; not only health damage, but more notably behaviour.  This behaviour is understood to be out-of-control, violent, irrational and dangerous to both the drinker and others.  This sort of behaviour, and the idea that alcohol offers ‘time out’ from normal everyday requirements, is not confined to twenty-first century Britain (see, for example, MacAndrew and Edgerton 1970).  A cursory read of The Pub and the People will reveal that such ‘breakdown’, festival or carnivalesque behaviour was certainly not unknown to “Worktowners”.  If the concerns with ‘binge’ drinking are sex, violence, irrationality, public disorder and incapability due to alcohol, Christmas Eve in the late 1930s before World War II can illustrate these as well as any Saturday night in a city centre in 2011.

Therefore, I strongly challenge the assumption that ‘binge’ drinking is a new phenomenon.  While the economy may be organised along different lines from the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth centuries, and the design of pubs, licensing laws and alcohol advertising may all have changed, it is highly questionable that young people’s approach to alcohol is fundamentally altered, or that their formation of friendships is conducted on a different basis.  Further, more detailed research would be required to assess nineteenth- and twentieth-century drinking cultures in more detail, but at first sight at least it seems that the appreciation of ‘fuddled joy’ (Smith 1983) of drinking alcohol and the temporary ‘breakdown’ (Mass Observation 1943) offered by weekend nights out in the pub, accompanied by music and hot fast food, with the possibility of sex, are not new.

*I'm referring here to Alan Sillitoe's brilliant novel Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, from which Rob Hollands' Friday Night, Saturday Night takes its name (I assume!).

Here are some fun sections from The Pub and the People - I assume I'm not in breach of copyright by posting them, but let me know if so.  Do go and buy the book - it's not expensive and it's entertaining and informative:


"In a litter of broken glass and bottles, a woman sits by herself, being noisily sick" made me think of these two famous photos (though neither of them features a women actually being sick)


Bourdieu, P., 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Nice, R., Trans. London: Routledge.
Dennis, N., Henriques, F., and Slaughter, C., 1969. Coal is our Life: An analysis of a Yorkshire mining community. London: Tavistock.
Easton, S., Howkins, A., Laing, S., Merricks, L., and Walker, H., 1988. Disorder and Discipline: Popular Culture from 1550 to the Present. Aldershot: Temple Smith.
Gofton, L., 1990. On the Town; Drink and the 'New Lawlessness'. Youth and Policy, 29, 33-39.
Greenaway, J., 2003. Drink and British Politics since 1830: AStudy in Policy-Making. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Griffin, C., Bengry-Howell, A., Hackley, C., Mistral, W., and Szmigin, I., 2009. 'Every Time I Do It I Annihilate Myself': Loss of (Self-)Consciousness and Loss of Memory in Young People's Drinking Narratives. Sociology, 43 (3), 457-476.
Harrison, B., 1971. Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England, 1815-1872. London: Faber and Faber.
Haydock, W., 2009. Gender, Class and 'Binge' Drinking: An ethnography of drinkers in Bournemouth's night-time economy.  Thesis (PhD). Bournemouth University, Poole.
Haydock, W., 2010. "Everything is different": Drinking and Distinction in Bournemouth. In: Wellard, I., and Weed, M. eds. Wellbeing, Health and Leisure. Eastbourne: Leisure Studies Association, 67-84.
Hayward, K., and Hobbs, D., 2007. Beyond the binge in "booze Britain": market-led liminalization and the spectacle of binge drinking. The British Journal of Sociology, 58 (3), 437-456.
Hollands, R., 2002. Divisions in the Dark: Youth Cultures, Transitions and Segemented Consumption Spaces in the Night-Time Economy. Journal of Youth Studies, 5 (2), 153-171.
MacAndrew, C., and Edgerton, R. B., 1970. Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons.
Mass Observation. 1943. The Pub and the People: A Worktown Study. London: Faber and Faber.
Measham, F., and Brain, K., 2005. "Binge" drinking, British alcohol policy and the new culture of intoxication. Crime, Media, Culture, 1 (3), 262-283.
Nicholls, J., 2009. The Politics of Alcohol: a History of the Drink Question in England. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Smith, M. A., 1983. Social usages of the public drinking house: changing aspects of class and leisure. The British Journal of Sociology, XXXIV (3), 367-385.
Stallybrass, P., and White, A., 1986. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Thompson, E. P., 1968. The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Winlow, S., and Hall, S., 2006. Violent Night: Urban Leisure and Contemporary Culture. Oxford: Berg.
Winlow, S., and Hall, S., 2009. Living for the weekend: Youth identities in northeast England. Ethnography, 10 (1), 91-113. 

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