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Alcohol and Culture

  • Author(s): Mandelbaum, David G.
  • et al.

The extensive literature on drinking practices raises some interesting anthropological problems. This paper is not a review of that literature or of any major part of it, but it is rather intended to bring to notice certain problems which merit further attention. The use of alcohol is generally a matter of considerable cultural interest. It may be tabooed; it is not ignored. Even a brief account of the range of drinking practices shows that cultural expectations define the ways in which drinking, both normal and abnormal, is done in a society. This is well known to anthropologists but often glossed over in the medical and behavioral studies of the subject. Cultural variations in drinking have been more often noted by anthropologists than have the cross-cultural similarities. Where drinking is culturally approved, it is typically done more by men than by women. Drinking is more often a social affair than a solitary act, and the social group in which drinking is done is usually composed of age mates and social peers. Where alcohol is used at family meals, it tends to be defined as a food rather than as a stimulant. Changes in drinking customs may offer clues to fundamental social changes. This is the case in the history of Indian civilization. The use of alcohol in Sumerian, Egyptian, and Judeo-Christian civilizations could usefully be examined from this point of view. The distribution of drinking practices is another promising field for investigation. The kind of drinking done over large parts of Africa stands in contrast to the drinking patterns used over a large part of Central and South America. Among a good many South American peoples, drinking is done at frequent intervals in prolonged bouts of drunkenness. One of the most extreme cases in this pattern is that of the Camba of Bolivia. A tentative analysis of Camba drinking suggests that it is a way of controlling interaction with others under circumstances in which such interaction is feared or mistrusted. Drinking patterns can usefully be studied as manifestations of pervasive cultural themes. Some of the earlier studies in this vein can now be supplemented with more ample data. Cultural studies of the use of alcohol have important implications for the medical problems of alcoholism.

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