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Soc Sci Med. 2001 Jul;53(2):189-98.

Intoxication and bad behaviour: understanding cultural differences in the link.

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  • 1Centre for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs, Stockholm University, Sweden.


Research developments since the appearance of MacAndrew and Edgerton's landmark volume, Drunken Comportment (1969), are summarized. The challenge of moving beyond the book is to understand what lies behind cultural variations in drunken comportment. Four specific factors in variations in drunken comportment are discussed. (1) A common contrast is between "wet" societies, where drinking is banalized everyday, and "dry" societies, where alcohol is set apart as a special commodity. Problems with this contrast are discussed, and the need for cross-cultural studies comparing expectancies from intoxication. (2) There is a need to study variations in the definition of intoxication as a "time out" state. In some societies, intoxication is likened to possession by spirits; a rationalistic version of this can be found in Canadian court decisions viewing extreme intoxication as potentially "akin to automatism". (3) If bad behaviour is a foreseeable consequence of drinking, why do some societies nevertheless not hold the drinker responsible'? In Anglo-American and similar societies, drunkenness has some excuse value, but it is not a very good excuse. Compromises like this seem to be found also in other cultures. (4) Pseudointoxication is fairly widespread, and seems to mark social situations where alcohol has enhanced excuse value. It appears to be a stratagem of the weaker side across cultural boundaries, and of the young where age-grading favours older groups. Concerning the possibility of cultural changes in drunken comportment, it is argued that there are historical examples, but such a shift requires a substantial social change.

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