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Normative structures surrounding alcohol use vary greatly over history and geography. In many settings drinking only accompanies rituals of celebration and social solidarity. There is however a long history of solitary and group drunkenness with adverse consequences. Dangers of alcohol consumption are recognized in its prohibition throughout Islam. In general, however, history shows eons of socially integrated alcohol use. Concepts of societal-level alcohol-related problems first emerged some 500 years ago. These social problems grew with industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and population increase.
Medical definitions of alcohol problems are sociologically constructed, focused on failures in role performance and/or destructive behaviors. These behaviors can range from breaking small groups’ rules to committing murder in an intoxicated rage. Alcoholism has an additional sociological element in its definition, namely the loss of self-control wherein drinking is repeated despite substantial costs to the drinker.
Alcohol problems have emerged globally in concert with ”modernization” and social change. Cultures where alcohol has been consumed non-problematically for centuries have seen the emergence of alcohol problems. Patterns of consumption (time, place, amount) change, traditional forms of social control over intoxication fall away, and industrialization creates roles that are intolerant of routine drinking.
Men drink more than women in all societies. Industrialization, women’s employment, and gender equality for women are associated with drinking patterns similar to men’s. Because of alcohol’s potency, drinking among youth generates substantial social control efforts in industrialized societies, with these controls actually encouraging the dangerous behavior called ”binge drinking.” By contrast, in China mandating a minimum age for drinking has only recently been considered.
Many sociologists are skeptical about the disease model of alcoholism since personal will and social support are core to the achievement of abstinence. Applications of sociology are however central in achieving social control over alcohol problems since complete prohibition has proven to be ineffective.
- Gusfield, J. R. (1996) Contested Meanings: The Construction of Alcohol Problems. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.