Anthropology and Alcohol Studies: Current Issues
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 16: 99-120 (Volume publication date October 1987)
Dwight B. Heath
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor…

My dearest Simone,

Dwight Heath writes that unlike many fields that only study alcohol use in the context of alcoholism, anthropologists tend to “deal with alcohol as it is used in the normal course of workaday affairs integral communities.” He also writes that “… alcohol use – like kinship, religion, or sexual division of labor – can provide a useful window on the linkages among many kinds of belief and behavior.”

I often feel left out of conversations as well as some sense of shared cultural experience because I’ve never been much of a drinker and I’ve never been drunk. Since leaving my little Mississippi hamlet, I haven’t found myself in the company of as many non-drinkers (who never drank). The fact that I’ve never built up much of a tolerance for alcohol and that I don’t have even one funny, drunken story to share has left me feeling on the outs many times. When I was studying law in England it seemed many of the larger firms had a pub on the premises and there was an expectation that employees would spend time there. Although Heath writes with high praise regarding Alcoholics Anonymous, the organization was not considered so positively in England. The idea that the answer to excessively drinking was to stop drinking altogether seemed heretical in that culture which meant that in a work situation, feigning alcoholism as an explanation of not joining in on a round of drinks was not going to work. I’ve never used that tactic, but sometimes in the States it seems that people would find it much easier swallow alcoholism as a reason for not drinking than they do that I just never took to it.

Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, there seemed to be an expectation that white teenagers would go through a period of drinking to excess with their friends (male and female). Heath writes that some field studies reveal that kin and others treat short-term excessive drinking as an integral part of the developmental cycle in the lives of young men. There wasn’t that same sense that excessive drinking was a rite of passage in the black community although some black teens did drink. Also, it may have been that excessive drinking as a rite of passage occurred at a later age in the black community in there. I encountered a lot more young, black drinkers in college than in high school.

I wonder whether I should just manufacture one wild, drinking story. I was designated driver enough times to be able to flesh out some realistic scenarios. Would people be able to tell there was something off about my story or my tone in telling it? I’ll have to pay closer attention when people talk about drinking.

With sweet affection,