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This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I've worked behind bars on-and-off for much of my adult life, and while serving booze to different sections of society I've noticed that, generally, each has an unspoken drink of choice. At rock and metal gigs it'll be lager and craft ales; at Soca nights it's brandy with a single block of ice; for TV production company Christmas parties it's endless gin and tonics.
Trying to guess what customers are going to order is always a fun way to break through the monotony of pouring liquid into a glass for eight straight hours, and it makes you wonder how these drinking patterns emerge. Surely the same people don't head home after the club and eat the exact same food, smoke the same cigarettes and use the same toothpaste?
Dr Thomas Thurnell-Read, a lecturer in Cultural Sociology at the University of Loughborough, edited a book called Drinking Dilemmas: Space, Culture & Identity, which covers the drinking habits of various chunks of the population. I caught up with him for a chat.
VICE: Firstly, how much research has gone into group drinking habits?
Dr Thomas Thurnell-Read: There's a long history of interest in this in academia, and anthropologists have long been fascinated by how alcohol plays particular roles and functions in different parts of society. In the 1930s there was a study by [research organisation] Mass Observation where they sent out observers across a northern city they called "Work Town" – which we later found out was Bolton – to study the habitual nature of drinking and what it tells us about a community and how they live their lives. There was a deep interest in the minutiae of the drinking setting from a social perspective. In the last few years the world of sociology has been increasingly drawn to returning to these themes of collective drinking and social habits around alcohol.
How much of what we drink is linked to socioeconomic factors, beyond, say, only super rich people being able to afford expensive bottles of wine?
Academic interest, media interest and political debate is often focused on working class drinkers and how they drink, and middle class drinkers have long been invisible in these debates. You can trace a lot of this concern with working class drinkers back to the 19th and 20th century, with mass industrialisation and urbanisation. The ruling classes had concerns with how productive the labour force was – as in, if they're spending all their time in the pub drinking, is this going to be a threat to factory work and productivity? I think gender and social class have long been the most important divisions in our understanding of how we drink and the role alcohol plays. There is still a double standard where we widely accept that men drink heavily, or that drinking heavily is a particularly masculine thing to do, but women drinking heavily or drinking in public tends to challenge our binary notion of gender. Women who drink heavily, or in a particular way, may be subject to social taboo or social pressures.
Are we social chameleons when it comes to drinking?
I think it's true that we change our drinking habits depending on our context. Drinking is always socially contingent; there's a lot of conformity involved. If you go home to your old village and drink in the local pub with old school friends, you drink in a particular way that you might not with colleagues from your work. We are increasingly adept at being able to change our habits and tastes depending on context.
Is everyone pretending they like the same drinks for a sense of belonging, or do they genuinely like it, in a kind of mind-over-matter way?
Drinking alcohol, just like any other activity, is a learned, socialised process: we are taught how to drink at a certain age. I think we learn how to drink and, within that, our tastes and predispositions are shaped.
The book you edited touches on the extreme metal music scene in Leeds. Are music tastes indicative of alcohol tastes?
The author of that chapter, Gabby Riches, was doing a wider ethnographic study of that subculture and she noticed how set and patterned the drinking habits were. It had to be real ale, beer or cider at these metal gigs. In certain subcultures and youth subcultures, alcohol can be as important as clothing in linking people together, and can symbolise an attitude – a sense of belonging to that subculture. We want to use all aspects of consumption to give ourselves a sense of self or identity, whether that's food or clothes or alcohol. This is central to my approach to studying alcohol.
Yeah, that whole real ale and craft beer scene doesn't seem to be going away.
The interesting thing about real ale is when you look at the branding it draws on images of the industrial era; small breweries often focus on local heritage and incorporate famous landmarks or local figures that are associated with the town or city they're from. They're using that, in a way, to offer a sense of reassurance; they're depicting the "glory era" of industrial Britain. People are clearly drawn to those types of ales in our current time of uncertainty and dislocation because these ales can give us a way of consuming locality in an interesting way. There's a growing trend of people liking the idea of something being made locally, instead of big companies that might feel faceless and corporate. In many ways, it is exciting and new, but it's a return to how things were historically, where the vast majority of the British population would have once been drinking what was local to them.
Where does drunkenness and the amount that people drink come into it?
Drunkenness has become really politicised over time. If we look at the contemporary situation, drunkenness is seen as threatening to the stability of society. The media has a fascination with portraying young people – and particularly working class drinkers – as deviant and problematic. In tabloid newspapers they'll have two dozen photos of 18-year-old students drunk and falling over, which pushes the idea of drunkenness as chaotic, disorderly and destabilising. At the same time it perpetuates the idea that young people are irresponsible and naive. What is lacking from that is that some universities themselves encourage freshers week and frame it as alcohol-centric. Local pubs and bars will exploit that, too. The "studentification" of British towns and cities means that a lot of them are dependent on the student body to bring money into the town, usually spent in bars and clubs. It's a complex picture that is wider than simply blaming the individual for drinking too much, or too little, or in the wrong way.
What does this view of drunkenness say about our society?
Norbert Elias talked about a civilisation process, where European societies have tended to move towards greater self-regulation and self-control. Arguably, the concerns about binge drinking are concerns about how society thinks about controlling itself. They are different things, alcohol and drunkenness. Modern societies develop out of a sense of control, rationality and bureaucracy; they tend to be ordered; and there tends to be high degrees of social control. The appeal of drunkenness is that it offers you a way out of that, a momentary escape from the mundane, the everyday.
I think the lives we lead when we are not drinking have an intimate relationship with how we approach drinking and whether we get drunk at the end of the week. It could be that the jobs available are increasingly precarious and poorly paid – in that case, who wouldn't want a drink on a Friday night to get some sort of release from the working week? If we continue to hammer this drum of "there are problem drinkers and it's their fault, it's their problem" I feel it doesn't get us very far. There are obviously some people who don't drink and some people who drink heavily, and every shade in between, but we can't abstract that from the social context.
How much responsibility has the industry got for encouraging excessive drinking, or shaping drinking habits?
The industry is hugely important; the managers and owners of bars, and different alcoholic brands, they take conscious steps to keep people drinking. We talk about "high volume vertical" drinking, which is when a bar owner consciously takes out the tables and chairs from a bar or club because people will drink at a more rapid pace if they can't put their glass down and get lost in a conversation. Or the owners play music loud enough so that the drinkers can't have a conversation at all. The industry's branding of alcohol is selling it as something more than it really is. Carling as a brand has long positioned itself as a beer that is somehow a totem of male friendship. Their successful campaign of "You know who your mates are" was selling a moment with friends, homo-sociality, all males having a laugh and being part of a group. It should be quite clear that it is not the only strand and cause of changing drink practices, but it is significant and often forgotten about.
Big companies capitalising on these types of things isn't anything new, right?
You're right, but I think we can benefit from reinstating it sometimes. Also, in some ways the industry actually struggles to have an influence. Over the years, with the closure of pubs, people try to pinpoint different reasons for this. Statistics show that young people are drinking less and there are more abstainers from alcohol now in the cohort between 18 and 25 than there have been in generations. Young people will use social media to promote the fact that they've just been to yoga class and are drinking a smoothie, rather than showing themselves getting drunk in a pub. They also may be limited by their finances.
How linked is the sociology of people's drinking habits to their eating habits?
I think there is a link there. When I asked real ale and craft brewers where they think the trend came from, they thought it was linked to people's move towards a different kind of eating. With many showing an interest in local produce, provenance, quality, artisan food, caring about what you eat, the flavours... the brewers thought that approach had seeped into their drinking habits. A lot of high street venues where you just stand and drink, they're struggling. The profits and the interesting developments in that field are at venues where they successfully combine these two trends: what people are drinking and eating.
What do you think the next trend in drinking will be?
I think craft beers will continue. In terms of changing trends and practises, people aren't going out as much – they're drinking at home and binge-watching box sets on Netflix, in the same way that when televisions first came into the living rooms of British homes it had an impact on regular pub-going. If I was to be brave I would say that the drinks industry, having watched the trend in healthy eating and clean living, might not be able to resist coming up with some beer that's maybe fortified with Goji berries, or green tea extract. I can see "smart booze" or fortified beer coming out, which is actually a return to how beer was historically seen, as wholesome and almost like a foodstuff. We could be going back to a "Guinness For Strength" – alcohol as nourishing and sustaining.
However, I can't see it working. A lot of people drink because they want an escape from control – a blowout at the end of the week where they don't have to worry about counting calories or how many kilometres they've walked on their Fitbit. I think alcohol will retain that appeal. It offers a space of spontaneity and fun, and for many people that isn't on offer in other areas of their lives. There's a common discourse that we're not meant to talk about the pleasures of drinking. I want to state unequivocally that there are huge dangers and damages that can be caused by heavy drinking – it ruins lives. But for many people, if we put the friendships, fun and pleasures of drinking against their struggles to get by in the world, I think they're very difficult to untangle.