Academics make sense about drinking

19 March, 2010

How much does the environment in which someone drinks affect their behaviour? That was the topic of a recent seminar into the binge-drinking phenomenon – and one of the most enlightened and constructive I’ve attended. Hosted by the Royal Geographical Society, it brought together policy-makers, social historians and human geographers to discuss how insights from their research can inform the wider debate.

It looked way beyond the crass headlines and politicians’ pontifications on the subject. In part, it acknowledged some truths that often get overlooked – some people drink too much because they like it and have no intention of not drinking – and how to address these social norms. It also asked whether we should accept that this level of dependence is commonplace to a generation already lost and move on instead to their children and their children’s children.

Academics presented less explored themes such as the marked variations in regional drinking patterns. We’re not talking about why half of Newcastle still drinks Woodpecker cider, but the need to understand that you could travel 30 miles and find several different types of drinking behaviour from the habits of rural communities to urban-dwellers.

ooking through the letterbox of people who prefer to drink at home rather than in pubs, such as the respondent who said “Sainsbury’s is my local”, was illuminating, too, although, like much of the research, needed to probe deeper.

Identifying that in-home drinking doesn’t just mean one thing should prove food for thought for some policy-makers. Instead, we need to consider the variations – such as people who only keep alcohol at home so as not to appear boring when friends come around, or to be branded “a dry house”.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who have a sense of what amount constitutes dangerous drinking, but don’t apply it to themselves because of the notion that they can do what they like behind closed doors. Or those for whom having a glass of wine each evening somehow makes them feel part of an “aspirational, Mediterranean” lifestyle – so it’s OK.

The ideology of the home as a place to relax is fundamental to this thinking and, unlike city-centre drinking, which is seen as disruptive to social norms, as one researcher explained, it is less easily influenced. One thing’s for sure, price alone won’t fix it.

Another area of contention explored was how consumers respond to greater availability. Citing data from the 19th century, when consumption increased as the number of outlets fell, it was acknowledged that there isn’t really a clear relationship between availability and consumption.

The conclusion reached by most of the academics was that more research is needed into some assumptions made about drinking. This is the only effective route to being able to talk to people with more certainty about their individual behaviour.

Common sense, you might think, but it was so refreshing to hear it said by independent, respected academics with some balanced views we so urgently need to hear.

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