Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Southern Drinkways: Cultural Models of Drinking and Drinking Behavior at a Southern University Campus

This post is a draft of a presentation delivered this past weekend at the annual meeting of the Southern Anthropological Society.

This represents the first presentation of data from an ongoing research project conducted by myself and my colleague in the Department of Health Education at the University of West Florida, Dr. Debra Vinci. In this project we are interested in students’ cultural models of drinking and related activities, contexts, and concepts, and we are interested in this as a topic of interest in and of itself and as an applied anthropological subject, where we hope that our research will contribute to a safer campus for students and contribute to efforts to reduce risks of dangerous drinking patterns among students.

I should first address two issues before proceeding to what we have found so far: First, what do I mean by cultural models? And Second, what do I mean by drinking and related activities, contexts, and concepts?

By cultural model I mean something akin to what Sherry Ortner discusses as cultural schemas. In her discussion, she argues that culturally significant schemas are built up out of important cultural symbols, and certainly anthropologists have long focused on symbols as something that makes humans unique and as the basic building block of culture, though this alone doesn’t explain how culturally important symbols are related to one another nor to practice. C.S. Peirce’s discussion of the argument as one particularly complex type of symbol built up out of more basic symbols is useful here. The argument, as Peirce defines it, “is a sign whose interpretant represents its object as being an ulterior sign through a law, namely, the law that the passage from all such premises to such conclusions tends to the truth.” Or, as he puts it elsewhere, the argument is a sign of reason, building upon propositions to enact overarching logical systems (which is to say that argument involves theorization broadly understood) and is always composed of simpler symbols (specifically rhematic and dicent symbols). Culture, I would argue, is not just the learned and shared lifeways of minimalist definitions of culture, but also an all encompassing mesh of symbols, premises, and arguments. The argument, for human culture, is akin to what Ortner calls key scenarios or cultural schemas. She defines these “as preorganized schemes of action, symbolic programs for the staging and playing out of standard interactions in a particular culture. In her own analysis of Sherpa Buddhism in Nepal, she identifies such a cultural schema (Rivalry, Acquisition of a Protector, Defeat of the Enemy, Departure of the Loser) which recurs in Sherpa myth and ritual and which provides a prototype for culturally typical interaction situations – which is to say that (using Clifford Geertz’s terminology) cultural schemas or arguments provide both “models of” and “models for” cultural action, and further that culturally significant arguments or cultural models are grounded in practice and simultaneously function to ground practice.

What do I mean by cultural models of drinking and related activities, contexts, and concepts? Essentially, we are interested in ascertaining the basic assumptions and premises of students’ conceptualization of drinking, places associated with drinking, behaviors typically associated with drinking, and notions of responsibility or irresponsibility with relation to drinking. Further, we are interested in how such basic premises are related and combined to form larger arguments or cultural models. We are also interested in how the models represented in our data collected from a particular setting (A Southern setting, a student sample, a medium size university setting [with large proportions of commuter and “non-traditional” students], a small to medium size city [and a military and tourist town – and not so much a college town]) relate to other, potentially overlapping contexts.

The first stage of this project (and the one which I will report on here) involved the collection of free lists from 101 students from three classes at the University of West Florida, two sections of Introduction to Anthropology (46 and 33 students – chosen for convenience, but also because of the representation of many different student major interests in the classes) and one section of an upper level nutrition and health course (22 students – chosen again for convenience, but also for contrast – this was a course with mainly upper division students with an interest in nutrition and health, and who had already been asked in a variety of ways to think critically about health and nutrition, including alcohol related issues, in class). Students were asked to generate five free lists: 1.Types of alcoholic drinks or beverages; 2. Types of places or settings in which people drink; 3. Activities people engage in when drinking; 4. The characteristics of someone with a drinking problem; and 5. The characteristics of someone who drinks responsibly.

Basic Description of Results of Initial Research

For the first free list, students were asked to list “types of alcoholic drinks or beverages.” With this and other lists, I used class discussion with my applied anthropology course as a focus group like setting to help determine wording of the request. In this case, I felt, and my students concurred, that asking only for “beverages” might tend to focus the students’ listing on packaged alcohol, such as beer, wine, liquor, etc., while “drink” might focus attention more on mixed drinks. Since we were interested in both, we used the “drinks or beverages” formulation.

The results of the freelisting when taken in aggregate are perhaps not surprising (they didn’t surprise me). Most students’ lists consisted primarily of general categories or types of alcohol. For example, the items listed by at least 20 different students were: beer (90), wine (67), vodka (59), rum (41), whiskey (35), liquor (34), mixed drink (26), tequila (26), gin (21), margarita (21). Of these, two are even more general or overarching types than the others (liquor and mixed drink), and only one is a specific mixed drink.

Specific brand names and mixed drinks were listed by students, though in most cases not frequently. Of those that were mentioned by at least five students, specific brand names included Jack Daniels (12), Smirnoff (11), Crown Royal (8), Jaegermeister (8), Bailey’s Irish Cream (6), Bacardi (5), Captain Morgan’s (5), and Corona (5). Specific mixed drinks included Margarita (21), Martini (14), Daiquiri (12 – an additional 4 mentioned Strawberry Daiquiri), Long Island Iced Tea (12), Sex on the Beach (11), PiƱa Colada (8), Rum and Coke (8), Bloody Mary (6), White Russian (6), and Mojito (5). In each case, these are widely distributed brand and drinks, and almost all have a long history (certainly older than the students doing the listing) in North American culture generally (I’m pretty sure I would have been familiar with all or most of these names when 10 years old).

To be sure, many more unusual, esoteric, more recently introduced, or idiosyncractic drink categories were named as well, such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade (4), Mead (2), Chocolate Chip Cookie (1), Crab Trap (1), girlie drinks (1), Irish Car Bomb (1), Robitussin (1), Pink Panties (1), or Sex with an alligator (1). In aggregate, a very high number of items were listed – far more than for any other list – with a total of 211 items listed, but the vast majority (147) listed by only one or two different students.

As more of an aside, one result I was somewhat surprised by, and for which I currently have no explanation, was the very low frequency of beer brand names listed. Only Corona was mentioned by at least five students, followed by Bud Light (4), Budweiser (3), and Heineken (3).

When asked to list types of places or settings in which people drink, the total variety of contexts listed was quite a bit smaller than the first list (not surprising), with just a handful of contexts being listed by large numbers of students: at a bar (90), at home or at the house (63), at a club (46), at a party (42), and at a restaurant (25). Two other settings were listed at least 10 times: at the beach (19), and at diner (11).

When asked to list activities people engage in while drinking, total variety of items listed was considerably more extensive than for the previous list, though less so than for the first. As with other lists, a handful of items were mentioned by large numbers of students: Dancing (45), Sex (38), Fights or Fighting (25), and Socializing (21). In addition, mentioned by at least 10 students were: Talking (18), Beer Pong (16), Drinking Games (16), Games (15), and Eating (14). (In items related to these, dinner was also mentioned by 3 students, and a variety of other games or game-like activities were listed: card games [7], karaoke [6], video games [6], flip cup [4], etc.)

For the fourth and fifth lists which asked for characteristics of irresponsible and responsible drinkers, a level of initial analysis was necessary in order to tabulate the lists. Most students gave lists of phrases, rather than single words, in response to these two list requests, and so it was necessary to delineate basic categories in order to classify similar, but not completely identical responses. I did this by again using my applied anthropology students as a sort of focus group to delineate the basic categories of responses. (My idea was that while those students taking an upper level applied anthropology course are not necessarily typical students, they are at least part of the population being studied – students in general – and so their predilections would be more likely to reflect “emic” categories.)

As characteristics of irresponsible drinkers, the following were listed frequently: always drinking / drinks too often (28), drinks everyday (23), drinks too much (23), drinking affects other aspects of life (22), needs to drink to function (21). Responses with at least 10 mentions included: drinks alone (17), rarely sober or often drunk (15), angry (14), denial of problem (13), obsessed with drinking (13), depression or sadness (11), can’t stop drinking (10), and drinks to escape problems (10).

Knows their limit or knows when to quit (42), doesn’t drink and drive (36), drinks in moderation (27), and chooses a designated driver beforehand (24) topped the aggregate list of traits of those who drink responsibly. This was followed by drinks occasionally (19), only drinks socially (16), rarely drunk or doesn’t get drunk (15), and drinking doesn’t affect relationships (13).

Interesting Trends and Reactions

Drinking Discourse and Drinking Behavior

Overall, the results of the first list are consistent with the findings of two other surveys that have been conducted on the University of West Florida campus that indicate that the vast majority of UWF students either do not drink or drink infrequently and in low quantities. To be more accurate, the surveys find that students claim to not drink or not drink in high frequency or quantity. The relationship between students’ discourse about their drinking and their drinking behavior (or lack thereof) is clearly something difficult to ascertain, though this freelisting exercise offers at least a slightly different window on the situation. A small handful of students provided us with frighteningly comprehensive lists of drink types (so, in fact much of the variety of items listed came from just a few students), but the rest provided much shorter lists (generally 10 – 15 items at most) with mostly general categories of drink that many non-drinking children would probably be familiar with from simply having grown up in the culture. This, of course, is still another example of drinking discourse and doesn’t prove that most UWF students in fact do not drink or do not drink much (i.e. the lists don’t indicate clear lack of familiarity with drinking, but they also don’t indicate clear familiarity with drinking), but it also is consistent with those other findings and doesn’t give any contradiction to students when they respond to surveys indicating low frequency and quantity of drinking.

Drinking and Food

This and the following examples address the relationship between public health discourse and students’ discourse in the ways in which students’ conceptions and expressions of thought on drinking correspond (or do not) to institutional messages.

In some ways, many students clearly associated drinking with eating. Fourteen students mention eating as an activity associated with drinking (with three more mentioning dinner), and “eating contexts” were even more associated with drinking – with restaurants mentioned by 25 students as a setting associated with drinking (and 11 more mentioning “at dinner” or “at a dinner” as settings). At the same time, “eating before drinking” was listed by only two students as an attribute of responsible drinkers (with both in the upper level nutrition and health course). This is not so surprising given the (understandable) greater emphasis in public health campaigns on not drinking and driving, though at the same time, eating before and during drinking is often mentioned in public health campaigns, brochures, etc., as one strategy to reduce potential dangers of overconsumption of alcohol. This pattern of associating eating with drinking in one set of domains, but not within the context of thinking of responsible or appropriate behavior, is possibly the result of one message being swamped by another (and in this case more important) one.

Drinking and Sex

In one way, students clearly associate sex and drinking. Aside from dancing, sex was mentioned by the largest number of students as an activity associated with drinking. At the same time that sex is clearly part of the model of drinking generally, responsible sexuality does not seem to be a significant part of students’ model of responsible drinking. “Promiscuity” was mentioned by one student as a trait of those who drink irresponsibly, and one student mentioned “Has condoms” as a characteristic of someone who drinks responsibly. This, and the previous example to a lesser extent, is indicative of the fact that as we engage in further research to fine tune our understanding of students’ cultural models of drinking, we will almost certainly be dealing not with a single or unitary model, but multiple overlapping models.

Irresponsibility and Responsibility

Possibly the most interesting example of the existence of overlapping but not identical models concerns the freelists of traits of irresponsibility and responsibility. For the most part, these appear as opposing domains – which is what I expected – in the sense that items frequently listed in one domain tend to show up in similar frequency in opposite form in the opposite domain. The major exception to this has to do with drinking and driving. Students have clearly absorbed the message that not driving drunk and/or having a designated driver are responsible thinks to do when drinking: Doesn’t drink and drive (36), chooses a designated driver beforehand (24) were common responses. When it comes to what makes a person irresponsible, though, drunk driving seems to have fallen out of consideration - only five students mentioned anything to do with drunk driving or not having a designated driver as being a characteristic of someone drinking irresponsibly.

Ongoing Research

The goal of this first stage of research was to elucidate the common terms of students’ models of drinking, which it has done. A second stage of research will ascertain relationships between the terms to understand the shape of the larger model(s). Those items commonly listed in the free lists were used to produce cards (with one item listed on each card) to be sorted by another sample of 30 students, with students in my Applied Anthropology course conducting this research. The results from this stage of research are still being tabulated and will be analyzed using non-metrical multi-dimensional scaling techniques to provide a “map” of the relationships between sorted terms. This in turn, along with the results of another ongoing survey, will be used to develop a fine tuned survey to ascertain degree of cultural consensus on various elements of the model.

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