Journal of Studies on Alcohol 61:475-483, 2000




Robin Room, Ph.D.1 and Klaus Mäkelä, Ph.D.2




1National Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research

Dannevigsveien 10

0463 Oslo, Norway


2Finnish Foundation for Alcohol Studies

POB 220

0531 Helsinki, Finland




Objective: Typologies of the cultural position of drinking from the social science literature are reviewed. Method: The paper reviews significant studies and literature on the topic.  Results:  Starting the 1940s, two research traditions considered variations in the cultural position of drinking as explanations of rates of drinking problems.  A “holocultural” tradition coded and analyzed ethnographic data on tribal and village societies, starting in the 1940s, with each study identifying a different social dimension as crucial.  A sociological tradition distinguished abstinent cultures and prescriptive cultures, where drinking was integrated with daily life and expected, but drunkenness prohibited.  These types were implicitly contrasted with American drinking, which was variously characterized.  Other dimensional and typological approaches in the literature are considered, including a little-known Jellinek typology.  Problems with the widely-used distinction between "wetter" and "dryer" or "temperance" cultures are discussed.  Conclusions: Four ideal-types of the cultural position of drinking can be readily distinguished: abstinent societies, constrained ritual drinking, banalized drinking, and fiesta drunkenness.  But there remains a large residual category, and a dimensional approach to typology-building may be more fruitful.  Two basic dimensions are proposed,  regularity of drinking and extent of drunkenness, and further dimensions are described which may be added to fit the requirements of the particular study.



Robin Room and Klaus Mäkelä



            It has long been recognized that societies differ in drinking practices and in the cultural position of drinking.  Often the differences were noted in the course of deploring the barbarous customs of others.  Whereas the ancient Greeks drank their wine mixed with water, Plato noted that

"the Scythians and Thracians, both men and women, take their wine neat and let it pour down over their clothes, and regard this practice of theirs as a noble and splendid practice; and the Persians indulge greatly in these and other luxurious habits." (Nencini, 1997)

Alternatively, the customs of others would be held out as a positive example for one's own society.  Writing a couple of millenia after Plato, Martin Luther complained of the "the abuse of eating and drinking which gives us Germans a bad reputation in foreign lands", observing that "the Italians call us gluttonous, drunken Germans and pigs because they live decently and do not drink until they are drunk.  Like the Spaniards, they have escaped this vice" (Room, 1988).

            Efforts to systematize such observations into typologies of the cultural position of drinking have a shorter history, stretching back about half a century.  This paper reviews and discusses these efforts.  By the “cultural position of drinking” we are referring both to norms about the use of alcohol in the culture, and to the relation of drinking to other aspects of the culture.  Not far from the surface in most modern discussions of the cultural position of drinking is also a concern about the occurrence of problems related to drinking in the culture.  The discussion of the cultural position of drinking may be linked to assertions or findings about the rate of drinking problems in general (usually “alcoholism” in the earlier discussions), or about the characteristic types or profile of problems related to alcohol in the culture.



            Two main traditions have aimed at analyzing the cultural position of drinking. The holocultural tradition has used a dimensional approach and analyzes Human Relations Area Files data on preindustrial societies. In the so-called sociocultural tradition, the approach has been more typological and mainly based on industrialized societies. The basic goal of both traditions is, however, to explain the occurrence or rates of pathological drinking.

            Holocultural theories explicitly purport to explain intercultural variations in the use of alcohol in terms of generalized functions of drinking on the individual level. The first holocultural study of the determinants of drinking was carried out by Donald Horton (1943). Horton's basic hypothesis was that the primary function of alcohol in all societies is the reduction of anxiety. A sample of preliterate societies was given ratings on the degree of insobriety among men. The level of anxiety was measured by two indicators of subsistence insecurity and one of acculturation. By a correlational analysis, Horton found insobriety to be positively related to anxiety. Later on, Horton's results received support and were challenged in a number of studies using more sophisticated sampling techniques and alternative measures of the key concepts.

            The most important rival psychological explanations of intercultural variations in drinking were presented by Margaret K. Bacon, Herbert Barry and Irvin L. Child (1965) and David McClelland and his collaborators (1972). Bacon et al. take the position that drunkenness should be seen as a means of alleviating dependency conflict. In the view of McClelland et al., men drink in order to attain a feeling of personal power. The relationship between the three theoretical generalizations is anything but clear. Each school of thought seems to regard the rival explanations as being included in its own theory as special cases.

            Holocultural statistical studies explicitly seek general psychological theories to explain the genesis of alcoholism. From the viewpoint of intellectual history, the rival theories are all attempts to explain American alcoholism. Although the hypotheses relating to alcohol have been formulated in terms of highly abstract concepts, each of them is anchored to alternative ideas about the psychodynamics of personality.

            When anthropological data are used, the occurrence of psychological states postulated by different theories must be determined indirectly. These indicators, which are intended to measure individual states, in fact primarily reflect structural features of a culture or society, and could as well be subjected to alternative psychological interpretations. The theories are thus at one and the same time too generalized and too specific in relation to the evidence provided by preliterate societies. The matter is not helped, of course, by the fact that all the holocultural studies are committed to a view of preliterate cultures as internally homogeneous, so that intragroup variation in drinking is not taken into consideration (Stull, 1975).

            In many studies the observation has been made that the complexity of the political and social organization of society correlates negatively with drunkenness. In Horton's study, subsistence insecurity was measured by the nature of the economy (hunting, herding, agriculture) of each society. As pointed out by Peter B. Field (1962), Horton's measure represents a continuum of social organization as well as one of subsistence insecurity.

            Richard E. Boyatzis on the other hand, presents an interpretation of social stratification in terms of power concerns experienced by individuals. "If indicators of structural differentiation are low within a social group, it can be expected that the individual will experience a persistent pressure to demonstrate his prowess and his right to claim a position of importance in the community" (Boyatzis, 1976, 275-276).

            It is thus easy to invent many different psychological interpretations of the same results. It should be noted that a simpler interpretation is also available, one based directly on variations in social control. The higher the degree of social stratification, the higher the probability that disruptive drinking among the lower strata is under tight social control.

            But the multiple psychological interpretations of the measures used are not, as such, the source of the most serious trouble in holocultural research. The greatest difficulties are due to the fact that variables on altogether different levels, from the standpoint of describing the structure of society, are given equivalent psychological interpretations. Thus, the methods of educating children, the nature of the economy or the contents of folk tales might be used as alternative measures of the same psychological concepts. Nor is it seen as a problem that societies which have evolved economically and socially on very different levels are included in the same correlation matrix.

            By applying psychological interpretations to social features on quite different levels, one also obscures the possibility that the microprocesses of social interaction may influence drinking similarly in different types of societies. It is quite reasonable to suppose that systems of consanguinity and child rearing influence drinking needs and drinking customs regardless of whether the livelihood of the community is based on hunting, stock raising or growing crops. The mode of gaining a livelihood and the social and political organization of the community are bound up together to such an extent, however, that it would be advisable in studying the connections between child rearing and the use of alcohol, for example, to hold constant those qualitative stages of social evolution.

            A comparative reading of holocultural studies reinforces the view that the psychological effects of alcohol are so multifarious as to make it difficult to fit them into any specific psychological theory of need. The answer generally given to the question "What needs does drinking satisfy?" tends to remain too abstract in relation to historical variation, even though at the same time it is liable to be too specifically identified with a given theory of personality.

            Holocultural studies are nevertheless useful in two ways when explanations are sought for fluctuations in the level of alcohol consumption. For one thing, they show that even in preliterate societies social control and social and political power relationships are important factors to consider in the study of drinking customs and the level of alcohol consumption (see especially Field, 1962, and Bacon, 1976).

            Secondly, such studies make it clear that the drinking customs in every society are bound up with its overall cultural dynamics. The psychological generalizations available are, to be sure, too abstract to be able to delineate these connections, but this does not make the connections less real. Cultural norms and the ongoing interaction of daily life possess their own dynamics, which are likely to generate pressures toward heavy drinking. These special features of culture and interaction probably have an autonomous impact on drinking patterns which cannot be explained by the material structure of the society.



            The second main tradition of classifying cultural drinking patterns is associated with what became known as the "sociocultural approach".  The first substantial effort in this line was by Robert Bales.  In a publication based on his dissertation, Bales (1946) distinguished four "types of attitudes which are represented in various cultural groups and which seem to have different effects on the rates of alcoholism".  The first, "complete abstinence", is primarily discussed in terms of Moslem societies; the second, a "ritual attitude", is exemplified with a detailed discussion of the place of wine in Orthodox Jewish rituals.  Bales uses Irish and Irish-American drinking as his exemplification of the "utilitarian attitude" to drinking, which includes "medicinal drinking and other types calculated to further self-interest or purely personal satisfaction".  His fourth type is "convivial drinking", which he presents as a "mixed type, tending toward the ritual in the symbolism of solidarity, and toward the utilitarian in the ‘good feeling’ expected.  Wherever it is found highly developed it seems to be in danger of breaking down toward purely utilitarian drinking".  Again, Irish material is used to illustrate the type.

            Though couched at a cultural level, Bales' typology incorporates functions or utilities at the individual level, particularly in the distinction between the third and fourth types.  Furthermore, the article does not offer any example of a culture which has either convivial or utilitarian drinking but lacks the other.  Essentially, then, Bales' analysis singled out two types of cultural positioning of alcohol in which alcohol problems seem to be minimized: an abstinence orientation (although here he tended to emphasize the violations of the "taboo"), and a cultural positioning which requires ritual drinking but with strong norms against drunkenness as "a profanity, an abomination, a perversion of the sacred use of wine".

            Bales' analysis was the first in a tradition of analysis which became known as the "sociocultural approach" in U.S. alcohol studies.  Among the various formulations of the distinctions, one systematic effort was Mizruchi and Perrucci's (1970; earlier version published 1962) distinction between "proscriptive", "prescriptive", and "permissive" cultural norms on drinking. Mizruchi and Perrucci used Mormons and Methodists in the United States as examples of "proscriptive" cultural groups, and Jews and Italians as examples of cultures with "prescriptive" norms, that is, cultures where drinking was expected but drunkenness prohibited. The third type, "permissive" norms, seemed to "be characteristic of periods of normative transformation", an anomic period in which norms were not specified. Although evidence on third type is said to be "scanty", Mizruchi and Perrucci give examples from the general North American and Finnish cultures.

            An influential analysis in the same tradition was Ullman's (1958) distinction between "integrated" and "unintegrated drinking customs".  Orthodox Jews and Italians appear again as exemplars of "integrated drinking customs", this time along with the Chinese; for examples of "unintegrated drinking customs", Ullman cited Irish-Americans and the impressionistic description by Selden Bacon of drinking among Protestant middle-class northeastern Americans of British ancestry.  Ascribing "unintegrated drinking customs" to an "ambivalence" over drinking, Ullman put forward a much-reproduced hypothesis:

"in any group or society in which the drinking customs, values and sanctions -- together with the attitudes of all segments of the group or society -- are well established, known to and agreed upon by all, and are consistent with the rest of the culture, the rate of alcoholism will be low."

            A further elaboration in this typological tradition was offered by Pittman's (1967) description of four types of drinking cultures:

Abstinent culture: "the cultural attitude is negative and prohibitive toward any type of ingestion of alcoholic beverage". The Islamic, Hindu, and ascetic Protestant traditions are mentioned here.

            Ambivalent culture: "the cultural attitude toward beverage alcohol usage is one of conflict between co-existing value structures". While the main discussion here is of U.S. and Irish drinking, there is also mention of some village and tribal societies and of the Netherlands.

Permissive culture: "the cultural attitude toward ingesting beverage alcohol is permissive, but negative toward drunkenness and other drinking pathologies". Spain, Portugal, Italy, Japan, and Jewish and Chinese New Yorkers are mentioned as examples here.

Over-permissive culture: "the cultural attitude is permissive toward drinking, to behaviours which occur when intoxicated, and to drinking pathologies". Japan is mentioned again here, along with the Bolivian Camba and France. Pittman comments that "in one sense, this type ... does not occur completely in societies, but only approximations in certain nonliterate societies, in those cultures undergoing considerable social change, and those in which there are strong economic vested interests in the production and distribution of alcoholic beverages".

            In the early 1970s, the Ullman hypothesis became influential in US government policy, forming the intellectual underpinning for the "responsible drinking" campaigns of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism under its first director, Morris Chafetz (Chafetz, 1970; Room, 1976).

            This tradition of thinking has been critiqued from a number of different directions (Mäkelä, 1975; Room, 1976, Orcutt, 1991).  The critiques to some extent focused on the conceptual framing: for instance, that an absence of norms was sociologically unlikely, and that societal differences in regulatory controls were left out of the discussions.

            Critiques also pointed out that most analyses in this tradition relied on a very narrow empirical base. The same few cultures reappear again and again as exemplars; despite the already burgeoning anthropological literature on drinking in tribal and village societies, Pittman's analysis is unusual among these discussions in even mentioning where such societies might be placed on a typology.

            Lastly, it was noted that the typologies were primarily organized around half-expressed contrasts with a presumed American drinking culture.  In this regard, the crucial contrast was between a category of cultures, however named, in which drinking was seen as "integrated" into daily life and nonproblematic, and the presumptively "ambivalent" U.S. drinking culture, in which norms were seen as unclear or contested and in which drinking took on a problematic character (Room, 1976).

            Reflecting a new emphasis in the 1970s on the importance of levels of drinking in a society's rate of alcohol problems, Frankel and Whitehead (1981), in an analysis based on the Human Relations Area Files data in the holocultural studies tradition, turned Ullman's hypothesis on its head:

"In any group or society in which the over-all level of consumption is high and (to a lesser extent) where proscriptions against excessive drinking are few or absent, the rate of alcohol-related damage will be high.  Where drinking practices are integrated into the cultural structure and where prescriptions for moderate drinking are prevalent, the over-all level of consumption will be high." (Frankel and Whitehead, 1981:58)

Though this analysis has some of the problems noted above with other studies in the holocultural tradition, it does not seem to have drawn any critical comment. In fact, while the vision of integrated drinking remains an ideal in popular discussions in both North America and Scandinavia (Room, 1992), there has been little recent empirical work in the sociocultural tradition.


UNIDIMENSIONAL APPROACHES                                                          

            To some extent, the sociocultural tradition has been succeeded by a tradition of discussion in terms of the "wetness" or "dryness" of a culture.  Where the dimension to be explained of variation between drinking cultures in the sociocultural tradition was between low and high rates of alcoholism or alcohol problems, the discussion of wetness/dryness has emphasized the  different mixture of alcohol problems characteristic of the "wet" and "dry" ends of the spectrum.  Primarily focusing on European and English-speaking societies, the tradition defines not only drinking patterns and problems but also the system of social controls on drinking as part of the overall cultural positioning of drinking.

            An early example of this tradition was Christie's comparative analysis of "the Scandinavian experience".  Though Christie (1965) did not use the terms "wet" and "dry", he described empirically a spectrum of variation with Denmark at one end -- with the highest per-capita consumption, the least restrictive control structure, but the lowest arrest rate for public drunkenness -- and Finland at the other.  Christie offered a brief sketch of a model for how the variables interact:

“A strict system of legal and organizational control of accessibility of alcohol seems to be related to low alcohol consumption, but also to a high degree of public nuisance.  The causal chain probably goes like this: A drinking culture with a large degree of highly visible, non-beneficial effects of alcohol consumption leads to a strict system of control which somewhat reduces total consumption, which again influences and most often reduces the visible problems.  But also, the system of control influences visible problems -- sometimes probably in the direction of increasing them....  In determining the amount of consumption and the problems created by consumption, I do not perceive the system of control as the independent variable.  I view the system of control to be interrelated with the amount of consumption and especially with visible problems.” (Christie, 1965)

In a series of analyses, analogous patternings of social and health statistics were found in comparisons among states and regions within the U.S. (Room, 1974), among districts within California (Bunce, 1976), and in cross-national comparisons (Noble, 1979, pp. 20-25).  In schematic form, the contrast between the ideal types of "wet" and "dry" patterns was laid out as in Table 1 (Room and Mitchell, 1972).

            In the same vein, using general-population survey data, Cahalan and Room (1974) showed that more tangible consequences of drinking were reported for a given pattern of drinking in "dryer" than in "wetter" regions and neighbourhoods of the U.S.  A comparison of drinking habits in European cultures (Ahlström-Laakso, 1976) emphasized differentiations between "dryer" and "wetter" cultures on two dimensions: on the integration of drinking with meals in southern Europe but not in northern; and on the stronger traditions in "dryer" cultures of ostensive drunkenness and its control by formal criminal law.

            As Table 1 illustrates, studies in this tradition have consistently recognized that the "dryer" pattern, as it is described in the context of European and English-speaking cultures, is associated with a history of a strong temperance movement in the culture.  In an analysis by Harry Levine (1992), this is taken as the defining characteristic in a dichotomization of societies into "temperance cultures" and others.  What the temperance cultures have in common, in Levine's view, is a dominant tradition of Protestant religion.  Levine draws on the classic sociological analyses of Weber and Durkheim to argue that Protestantism carries with it a cultural emphasis on self-regulation and self-control, and discerns this at the heart of continuing high levels of societal concern about drinking and drunkenness.

            But not all Protestantism seems to result in high concerns with temperance, Levine concedes, taking into account Eriksen's comparative analysis (1989) of Denmark and Sweden in this regard.  And, from the other side, Zielinski (1994) has put forward a spirited argument that, though Catholic, Poland should be counted as having a strong temperance tradition and a continuing high level of "alcohol-related moral annoyance".

            Furthermore, there are other relevant differences between "dryer" and "wetter" societies in Europe which could lie behind the differences in alcohol's cultural position (Room, 1989).  The industrial revolution, with its increased requirements for labour discipline, came earlier and made a stronger cultural impact where temperance movements became strongest.  In the last century, moves towards women's emancipation have been most developed where temperance has been strong.  While these factors, too, can be seen as influenced by Protestantism, as historical phenomena they had their own direct influence on the cultural position of drinking.

            Most obviously, southern Europe is the ancestral home of the world's "wine cultures"; in most parts of southern Europe, wine has been the dominant alcoholic beverage since antiquity.  This factor links the wet/dry discussions with another tradition of typological classification, into “beer”, “wine” and “spirits” cultures, according to the traditionally dominant beverage-type (Sulkunen, 1976, 1983).  For while this is obviously a three-way classification, the distinctions drawn in this tradition have been primarily on a single dimension between “wine cultures”, at one end, and “spirits cultures”, at the other, with “beer cultures” in between.

            As the "Mediterranean pattern" is often described, wine is consumed almost entirely with meals, and always in moderate amounts.  In the stereotypical description, alcohol is not only integrated but also domesticated.  And, indeed, drinking in the wine-drinking cultures is clearly associated with less officially recognized social disruption than elsewhere.   Wine-drinking cultures also proved more resistant to the "spirits epidemic" of the 17th and 18th centuries, whereas cheap industrial spirits seemed to bring a new level of alcohol problems to northern European societies.  But there is room for some scepticism about the idyllic descriptions of drinking in wine cultures, which are often written from a distance.  For instance, close ethnographic description reveals that much of the everyday drinking in rural Greece goes on in the male world of the taverna, rather than with meals at home (Gefou-Madianou, 1992a).  While ostensive drunkenness seems to be less common in wine cultures (e.g., Morgan, 1982), there can be a considerable prevalence of unremarked drunkenness that is simply accepted as part of the everyday scene:

"in societies where alcohol is highly valued and praised, even considered sacred, and constitutes an inseparable part of everyday social life drunkenness is not necessarily considered a social or personal problem." (Gefou-Madianou, 1992b)

            There seems to be increasing recognition that the "wet/dry" dichotomy is somewhat problematic.  In part, this reflects ongoing changes in drinking cultures (Simpura, 1998): consumption levels have been converging in Europe, as wine cultures have reduced their per-capita consumption and many traditionally dryer societies have been increasing theirs.  The label "dry" or "wet" makes less sense as the per-capita levels converge.

            As the frame of reference expands beyond Europe, it also becomes increasingly clear that the label "dry" has been applied to rather divergent cultural framings of drinking.  A society in which almost no one drinks within the national borders can obviously be described as "dry".  But how about a society in which drinking is confined for many to a few fiestas each year, and in which the public discourse around alcohol is negative and moralistic?  Or how about a society in which consumption has risen in a few decades from very low levels to rival the levels of the European wine cultures, but which seems to have retained a tradition of sporadic extreme drunkenness?   These descriptions approximate the position in Saudi Arabia, Mexico and South Korea respectively; it is questionable how useful it is to call them all "dry" societies, though each has features which fit the "dry" end of the dichotomy.

            One problem with the "wet/dry" dichotomy, in fact, is that it overlaps with another dichotomy or dimension: the degree of association of drunkenness with violence.   The most influential discussion in this area has been MacAndrew and Edgerton's interpretation (1969) of the ethnographic record, which argues that cultures differ greatly in the extent to which drunkenness results in "drunken changes-for-the-worse" -- violent and other deviant behaviour.  Implicit in MacAndrew and Edgerton's discussion is a continuum, with societies in which drunken behaviour does not differ at all from sober behaviour at one end and societies in which serious violence is expected at the other end.  As a constraint on this end of the continuum, MacAndrew and Edgerton note a "within limits" clause: that drunken comportment is still governed by norms in such societies, but that they are different norms from norms for sobriety.

            In his study of Sociability and Intoxication, which focuses in particular on drinking in Africa, Partanen (1991) concludes by offering a contrast which might be seen as an interpretation of MacAndrew and Edgerton's continuum: a contrast between ideal types of "heroic drinking" and "modern drinking".  Partanen draws on MacIntyre's (1984) typification of "heroic societies" as described in Homer or the Icelandic sagas, where strength and courage are valued as the virtues which allow men to carry out the prescribed social roles, in which each individual has a defined role and status and a prescribed set of duties and privileges.  Heroic drinking, as Partanen formulates it,

"is the kind of drinking from which all instrumentality and critical self-reflection are absent, and it is a phenomenon that is essentially constituted by the stories and myths spun around it.  In the rituals of heroic drinking these stories and myths are re-enacted and brought to life; the shared experience of the participants coalesces with the mythical content of heroic drinking and gets its significance from it." (p. 238)

In contrast to this, Partanen argues that "alcohol and drinking in modern societies are in a far more marginal position than in premodern Europe and North America, or in the traditional African beer cultures" (p. 248).

"It is true that alcohol is quite freely available and it use is extensive. The difference is that we are not highly engaged with it[,] apart from young people's passage rites and the alcoholics' way of life....  The dysfunctions of drunkenness put strict limits on the occasions in which it is possible to indulge in serious drinking.  Alcohol does not belong to offices and factories, and its role in traffic arouses growing concern.  Social drinking is most often permeated by considerations external to it; the functional uses of alcohol have gained at the cost of "drinking for drinking's sake". (p. 249)



            All the approaches discussed so far have been essentially unidimensional in their classification of drinking societies, at least when abstaining societies have been set aside.  There have also been a few discussions in the literature where the cultural position of drinking has been described not in terms of an implied single dimension (other than abstention), but in terms of a multidimensional typology.

            One of the most interesting of these is a little-noticed cultural-level typology put forward by Jellinek.  Behind Jellinek’s well-known Greek-letter typology of the five “species” of alcoholism (Jellinek, 1960a, 1960b), which is couched in terms of a characterization of individual drinkers, lay some years of thinking about the elements of cultural differentiation in "the problems of alcohol", only part of which was published in accessible form (Jellinek, 1962).  His most systematic effort on this, a background paper for a 1954 W.H.O. Expert Committee meeting (Jellinek, 1954), sets out three basic kinds of problem drinking.  One is the "steady symptomatic excessive drinker (with or without addictive features)" which he identifies as "so much in the foreground" in the American and British alcoholism literature.  (Apparently the gamma and alpha categories in his later typology are derived from this category).

            A second type is what he terms the "inveterate drinker" (corresponding to the delta type in the later typology): someone who drinks steadily through the day, often without ever becoming drunk, but who ends up with chronic alcohol-related health problems. This type, described particularly in the literature from France, is identified by Jellinek as also more common than the "symptomatic drinker" in Spain, and equally prevalent with the "symptomatic drinker" in Switzerland, Chile and Brazil.

            The third type is the "occasional excessive drinker", embracing "the heavy weekend drinker, the ‘celebrator’, and the occasional excessive ‘relief drinker’ (the distinction between the three types is not clear-cut)." (In the later typology, this corresponds to the beta and epsilon types.)  According to Jellinek, "the damage caused by these drinkers is mainly absenteeism, accidents, violence and property damage, and occasional interference with the family budget.... Serious damage to society by occasional excessive drinkers occurs in many countries."  The type is identified by Jellinek as probably more common than the other two taken together in Belgium, Finland, Norway, Chile and South Africa, and equal to the other two together in Spain, Brazil, Uruguay, Ireland, Scotland and Denmark.

            Jellinek emphasizes that "all types of ‘alcoholism’ and all types of damage through occasional excessive drinking exist in all countries where alcoholic beverages are consumed" (p. 27).  But one type or another may be predominant, and may thus form the culture's governing image of the alcoholic.  In this vein, he notes that "one may suspect that the preponderance of the steady excessive symptomatic drinker in the United States of America may lead students of alcoholism there to underestimate and ignore the damage arising from occasional excess" (p. 5).  Similarly, he mentions that the emphasis in French discussions on the inveterate drinker "does not mean that Frenchmen never get drunk" (p. 9).

            Jellinek's typological approach starts backward from what became obvious to him in WHO Expert Committee meetings of the early 1950s: the fact that professionals from different cultures clearly described the characteristic forms of drinking problems in very different terms.  In Jellinek's analysis, each society is assumed to have problems from drinking, but with specific characteristic forms; the task he attempts is to describe differences in features of the cultural position of drinking which account for the different forms of drinking problems. 

            Despite the substantial anthropological literature on drinking, explicitly comparative studies of drinking in tribal and village societies have been rare, and typological contrasts even rarer.  An exemplar here is Lemert's (1964) comparison of "forms and pathology of drinking in three Polynesian societies".  In Tahiti, Lemert finds a pattern of "festive drinking" on periodic festivals and on weekends, where singing and dancing is accompanied by a "long slow drunk" without peaks of intoxication.  On Atiu, he found a pattern of "ritual-disciplined drinking" in "bush beer schools", presided over by a sober master of ceremonies, featuring hymns, conversation and recitations.  Samoan drinking, occurring away from the public scene in small circles of drinkers, Lemert characterized as "secular drinking".  Drinking in Tahiti seemed to him "relatively integrated", while men on Atiu were definitely more hostile and aggressive when intoxicated.  But it was in Samoa that drinking was most commonly associated with disorder, free-floating aggression, rape and spousal abuse.  Lemert noted that alcoholism in a North American sense was unknown in any of the three cultures.

            Even more explicitly than Jellinek, Lemert links the characteristic "pathologies" of drinking to the place of drinking in the culture.  The cultures are contrasted in terms of the relation of the drinking group to the larger society, and in terms of forms and degree of social control of the drinking situation exerted by the drinking group and by the culture as a whole.  Lemert's analysis also opens a window into complexities which lie beyond the reach of Jellinek's typology.  Despite the contrasts outlined by Lemert, the three societies would all probably fall into a single Jellinek category, where the modal form of problematic drinking is "occasional excessive drinking".

            There are relatively few typologies of the cultural position of drinking which focus on properties of drinking or its occasion or setting in its own right, with little regard to the rate or type of alcohol problems associated with it.  One such is Csikszentmihalyi’s (1968) discussion of  types of drinking-places in European cultures.  Csikszentmihalyi mentions the decline in Europe of the group drinking fiestas of the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: “instead of engaging in intensive group drinking on especially designated holidays, modern man has developed a pattern of moderate but repetitive group drinking in a specialized location”.  Csikszentmihalyi contrasts particularly three drinking environments: the open and airy wine shop in Mediterranean cultures, with drinkers sitting in small groups around tables; the huge, darkened beer halls of Germany and Austria, with long parallel tables flanked by benches; and the stand-up bar of the English pub, with drinkers standing in a line.  The American saloon or cocktail lounge is mentioned in contrast to these, with negative comments both about it and about the Nazi associations of German beer-halls.  The structural arrangements and activities in the environments are contrasted, and it is proposed that a number of things

"co-vary with changes in the structural arrangement of the environment: (i) the strength and direction of a customer's group identification; (ii) the amount of individual participation in group interaction; (iii) the relationship between the small group and the total group; (iv) the form of individual participation, i.e., the leader-follower structure of the group; (v) the type of task the small group can optimally deal with; and (vi) the individual independence of the customer."

            While Csikszentmihalyi's focus is on differences in specialized drinking environments in modern European cultures, perhaps the most interesting aspect of his analysis is his contrast between what modern European drinking cultures have in common -- "moderate but repetitive group drinking in a specialized location" -- and the group drinking fiestas of earlier times.  For the ethnographic literature, and increasingly also epidemiological studies, make clear that such "fiesta drinking" remains a dominant pattern in many places in the world.  In this wider context, the variations in European drinking patterns, on which the typological literature has focused, are only a portion of the range in drinking's cultural positioning worldwide.   

            A paper by Mäkelä (1983) approaches the issue of the cultural position and regulation of drinking from another angle: the use-values of alcohol.  Alcohol is unique among psychoactive substances, he points out, in the variety of its objective properties for which humans have found uses.  Setting aside its use as a fuel and as a solvent, alcoholic beverages are consumed as a medicine, as a nutrient, as a sacral substance, and as an intoxicant.  Cultures attach meanings and beliefs to each of these material properties of alcohol.  But while the cultural meaning of a particular act of consumption may be defined in terms of one property, each of the other material properties is always simultaneously present.

            Mäkelä uses this framework to critique Pittman's classification, noting that "the qualitatively distinct uses of alcohol cannot be arranged on a continuum and that the cultural dynamics of the control of excessive drinking vary according to the historically dominant uses of alcohol".  In the cultures discussed by Pittman (1967), Mäkelä discerns two basic types of cultural configuration: cultures like Italy in which "nutritional use of alcohol is historically dominant", and cultures where the definition of alcohol as an intoxicant is dominant.

"Among the Jews, the Scandinavians and the Camba alike, alcohol is an intoxicant, but these three cultures have developed alternative normative solutions to the regulation of the use of this intoxicant.  The orthodox Jews have succeeded in isolating alcohol into a sacral corner, the Camba use it up to extreme drunkenness but only on clearly demarcated occasions, and the Scandinavians vacillate between Dionysian acceptance and ascetic condemnation of drunkenness."

Mäkelä notes that the nutritional use can be further subdivided into alcohol as a source of nutrition and alcohol as a beverage and thus a thirst-quencher.  We may add that a further subdivision might also be made in Mäkelä's category of alcohol's use as an intoxicant.  Some one who drinks "to relax" is seeking a somewhat different use of alcohol as a psychopharmaceutical than someone who drinks "to forget everything".  We will return to these issues below.

            As Mäkelä notes, each of the properties of alcohol are always present, even when consumption is culturally defined only in terms of one property.  While this is true, it should also be noted that uses in terms of one property may diminish alcohol's performance with respect to another.  In particular, using alcohol as a significant source of nutrition potentially diminishes its effectiveness as an intoxicant, through the mechanisms described as "tolerance".  The regularity of use which tends to be implied by the use of alcohol as a nutrient or even as a thirst-quencher thus has a built-in tendency to banalize drinking, to make its effects as an intoxicant less notable.

            Finally, in an empirical reanalysis of data from the Human Relations Area Files, Partanen (1991:211-214) offers a two-dimensional typology of the cultural position of drinking, describing each dimension in terms of the cultural position of drinking, but then relating the types to indicators of general drinking-related problems in the culture, and of the expression of hostility in relation to drinking.   One dimension of the typology he names Engagement with Alcohol, incorporating such measures as extent and frequency of drinking and approval of drinking.  The other he names Serious Drinking, incorporating quantity consumed on an occasion, duration of the drinking episode, and frequency and approval of drunkenness.  These dimensions are somewhat reminiscent of the two dimensions noted above in Ahlström-Laakso’s (1976) differentiation of drinking cultures in Europe.

            In Partanen’s analysis, high reported rates of problems with drinking are related to Seriousness of Drinking, whether or not Engagement with Alcohol is present.  On the other hand, the intensity and extremeness of the hostility expressed while drinking is strongly related to Seriousness of Drinking only in the absence of Engagement with Alcohol.  Partanen notes that

"this suggests that those social aspects of behavior that often go together with a high level of engagement with alcohol -- the ritualization of drinking, its ceremonial uses, do, in fact, exert a dampening effect on more extreme forms of drunken comportment." (p. 213)

As we have noted above, the greater tolerance which would accompany Engagement with Alcohol may also play a role.



            Three main approaches have been taken to constructing typologies of the cultural position of drinking.  The most common, to range societies on a single dimension, with ideal types at each end of the dimension, has proved problematic. The diversity of different dimensions which have been used is evidence in itself that no single dimension is likely to be able to capture the diversity of factors involved in the cultural position of drinking.

             The second approach has been to construct a limited number of ideal-types, with each type characterized in terms of a cluster of aspects of different dimensions.  In such an approach, two categories are relatively easily denominated.  One is the "abstinent society", where drinking is religiously and often legally forbidden and the ban is more or less observed.  In the modern world, a few Islamic societies fit this type.  Even in these societies, the mobility which comes with modernity and affluence allows at least some members to live by very different rules outside the society than when they are home.

            A second category, probably quite rare, is the constrained ritual drinking described in the literature for Orthodox Jewish communities.  Such a pattern should not be confused with wine-drinking cultures of southern Europe; the amount drunk on a typical occasion in the constrained ritual pattern is quite small.

            A third category of drinking might be described as banalized drinking, where drinking is woven into the fabric of daily life, at least for males.  Here the southern European wine-cultures have been taken as the archetypes.  As such drinking cultures are conventionally described, they might be said to have performed the miracle of turning wine into water: the dominant alcoholic beverage is defined as a foodstuff or a thirst-quencher, but not as an intoxicant, and drunken comportment is expected to more or less match sober comportment.

            As we have noted, there is room for some scepticism about and for much further research testing the somewhat idyllic picture presented in the literature on banalized drinking.  It is clear that the banalized drinker does not escape traffic casualties and is at elevated risk of liver damage.  To what extent nothing is left in such cultures of the link between alcohol and violence would bear further scrutiny; in particular, it would interesting to have the testimony of women about the effects of men's drinking in these cultures on family life and tranquillity.

            In a more global perspective, it is worth considering whether analogous patterns can be found in developing societies.  Does the "palm-wine drinkard" of West Africa or the non-explosive festive drinker of Tahiti, for instance, bear any resemblance in terms of drinking-related behaviour and consequences to the Italian or Spanish wine-drinker, or are the patterns described in the literature very specific to a small number of cultures on one shore of the Mediterranean?

            A fourth category is suggested by the analyses of Csikszentmihalyi and Partanen: communal fiesta drunkenness.  Csikszentmihalyi identifies this pattern with the European past, and Partanen contrasts it with "modern" drinking.  But Partanen also envisages the possibility of atavistic or nostalgic occasions in modern societies, where the participants attempt to recapture the heroic spirit of the past or at least of their youth.  Communal celebratory festivals are in fact quite common in the modern urban world, and ostensive drinking is central to them in some cultures (e.g., O'Donnell, 1982) but apparently not in others (Morgan, 1982).

            The difference perhaps between fiesta drunkenness now and in the past is that then fiestas may have been the only occasions of drinking, at least for poorer members of the community.  Now the fiesta drunkenness may commonly come on top of other, more regular patterns of drinking.  And whatever may be true in traditional tribal and village life, fiesta drunkenness often comes with problems in modern urban environments.  There are hundreds of casualties and many deaths each year in the course of the annual celebration of carnaval in Rio de Janeiro (“Rio de Janeiro”, 1982).

            For most societies with a pattern of fiesta drunkenness, the pattern is thus not a summative characterization of the position of drinking in the culture, but simply one among a number of cultural patterns of drinking.  As with the other three types, the number of cultures where the cultural position of drinking is adequately described in terms of fiesta is small.

            When we have separated off these four ideal types, and the relatively limited number of societies which can be characterized adequately by any one of them, we are still left with a broad spread of patterns and range of societies, and with the problem of how to typologize them.  The literature suggests no easy solution in terms of ideal types.

            A third approach to typologization is in terms of multiple dimensions of variation.  The range of potential dimensions to be considered is quite large.

            One obvious dimension for consideration is the degree of regularity of drinking.  This dimension holds implications for such matters as tolerance, and probably also for the dimension of how much the drinking occasion is set apart from ordinary life, with the focus on the behaviours around drinking -- a dimension Partanen alerts us to.

            But regularity by itself is not enough.  If there is one thing that survey studies of drinking have taught us, it is that many drinkers in industrial societies combine "regular" and "sporadic" patterns: with affluence and opportunity, a common pattern, well suited to the industrialized workweek, is a couple of drinks every evening, just enough to feel some effects, and a drunken "blast" or binge on the weekend.  Along with regularity of drinking, there is a need for a differentiation on how widespread at least occasional intoxication -- Partanen’s Serious Drinking -- is in the culture.

            Along with the frequency and ubiquity of intoxication, an issue to consider here is “how drunk is drunk”.   It is clear that there are cultural differences in this, and that these relate to how intoxication fits with core cultural values.  We may hypothesize that where there is a tradition of vision quests, or where trances and altered-consciousness experiences are valued, drinking to extreme intoxication, with radical changes from sober behaviour, will often be a goal for the drinker rather than an accidental misjudgement.  Where drinking is more contained within the frame of everyday sociability, intoxication may be quite frequent, but it will be less extreme, and marked by less change in behaviour.

            The two general dimensions of regularity of drinking and extent of intoxication, akin to those used by Ahlström-Laakso (1976) and Partanen (1991), can provide a serviceable framework for a relatively crude classification of societies in terms of the cultural position of drinking.  Some version of each of these two general dimensions is likely also to feature in any more extended set of dimensions for classification.

            Beyond these dimensions, however, lie a number of dimensions of variation potentially important in characterizing the cultural position of drinking (Room, 1998).  Some of these dimensions, like regularity of drinking and extent of intoxication, describe qualities associated with drinking as a behaviour.  These include aspects related to the use-values of drinking, discussed above, and in particular the extent some form of alcohol is defined as an important element of nutrition.  An important set of dimensions relate to expectations about behaviour while drinking or intoxicated.  These include the degree of association of drinking with belligerence and violence, the main concern of MacAndrew and Edgerton’s (1969) analysis.  Also included here would be the degree to which drinking and drunkenness is cultural associated with sexuality, whether more or less normative or transgressive, dimensions which have remained unexplored in the typological literature.

            A further set of dimensions deals with the cultural position of the drinker, the drinking group, and the drinking occasion.   A general dimension here is the degree to which drinking is enclaved from or integrated with other aspects of social life.  Cultures vary in the extent to which there are differentiations by gender, age, social status, etc. in whether drinking is allowed at all, and whether and how much intoxication is permitted.  Drinking groups may be central to the society, and membership in them may be a prerogative or expression of power in the culture, or they may be peripheral and membership may be an indicator of marginality.  Drinking occasions may be integrated in daily life, as for instance where the archetypal drinking occasion is the family mealtime, or they may be separated, in terms of time, space and/or cultural definition.

            Lastly, a typological approach to the cultural position of drinking may decide to take into account cultural modes of social control of drinking and cultural definitions concerning the nature of drinking-related problems and the means of their handling.  Cultures vary in the stringency with which expectations about drinking behaviour are expressed and enforced, and in  the extent to which the family, the drinking group, other informal groups, or formal social agencies such as licensing agencies and police are involved in controlling access to drinking and behaviour while drinking.  They also differ in whether and when an event or condition is defined as a problem and as drinking-related, in how the problem is defined, and in who should respond and what the response should be.

            There is no obvious general answer concerning which dimensions, from this large array, should be included in a dimensional approach; the answer will depend on the purpose and design of a particular study.  Our suggestion to future investigators wishing to measure variation in the cultural position of drinking would thus be to include coverage of both the regularity of drinking and the extent of intoxication, and then to consider what further dimension or dimensions, from the check-list we have offered, are potentially most important to the particular study’s purpose and design.   




Revised from a paper presented by the first author at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, August 9-13, 1997, Toronto, Canada, and prepared while at the Addiction Research Foundation of Ontario.  Revised material from a 1979 paper by the second author, “Note on holocultural generalizations and historical fluctuations in aggregate drinking”, is also included.  This paper has benefitted from discussions with Laura Schmidt and with our colleagues in the WHO project on Alcohol Policies in Developing Societies, and from the comments of anonymous reviewers.



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Table 1. Contrasting the patterns of “wet” and “dry” drinking cultures:

a characterization from 1972 



                                                                        Type I ("wet")               Type II ("dry")

                                                                        characterized by:                 characterized by:


temperance tradition:                                         weak                                  strong


proportion of abstainers:                                   low                                     high


dominant pattern of drinking:                 frequent fairly heavy                  infrequent very heavy



deaths from alcohol poisoning (overdose):         lower                                  higher


deaths from cirrhosis                                         higher                                 lower


violence and social disruption associated

    with heavy drinking:                          lower                                        higher


moonshining                                                      absent                                present



            source: Room and Mitchell, 1972