Book review: ALCOHOL 500 words

Book Review

Heath, D.B(ed) (1995) International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. New York: Greenwood.


This work reviews the book International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture edited by Dwight B. Heath.  Assessment is provided to the overall work in conjunction with providing specific focus to Martin Plant’s chapter on the United Kingdom.

            In the wider academic discipline of alcohol studies, it is generally accepted that the social context of drinking has become the essential focus of social scientific analysis.  As such, in line with the general academic progression in this subject area, this book aims to provide an effective assessment of the relationship between alcohol and culture.  The book consists of 27 different chapters, each of which providing assessment of this complex relationship in a different national setting.  Given that the edited work is reliant on a plethora of different authors, there is a natural tendency towards divergence in analytical approaches.  Each author is a native of the country to which they are providing account, which indicates a clear empirical basis of the assessment being provided.  However, there is no fixed format for each chapter.  The result is a varying degree of effectiveness and in some respects highlights editorial failure to offer uniformity.  Nonetheless, although structurally each chapter differs considerably, similar themes and debates arise in each.  As such, issues discussed include: the histories of alcohol consumption, national social trends, popular sentiment towards alcohol use, and present drinking patterns and developments. 

            Furthermore, what the various chapters lack in methodological uniformity they make up for in effectiveness of discussion.  The overall aim is said to offer “easier access” to the interaction between culture and alcohol in different national settings (p. 3).  This aim is certainly successfully achieved.  Moreover, another clear aim of the book is to offer a comparative assessment of differences in alcohol and culture in varying parts of the world.  Again, this aim is successfully achieved with the full diversity of cultural impacts on alcohol provided in eloquent scholarly detail.  Certain chapters also highlight the degree to which cultural stereotypes directly affects the national and international outlook regarding the prevalence of excessive alcohol usage.  In this regard the chapter on Australia provided by Wayne Hall and Ernest Hunter is particularly effective.  Empirical evidence is used to show how drinking levels among Aboriginal groups is no greater than that found in any other cultural grouping in Australia and therefore “such similarities are ignored in stereotypes” (p. 14).

            The 26th chapter of the book contains Plant’s assessment of alcohol and culture in Britain.  The introductory outline is effective in the sense that it fully exemplifies the inherent relationship between British cultural tendencies and alcohol consumption.  However, Plant equally outlines the degree to which the UK exhibits “considerable ambivalence about drinking” (289).  From this basis the chapter offers a fairly effective assessment of the dialectic between alcohol driven culture and the traditional protestant foundations of British society.  Moreover, divergence regarding cultural attitudes towards alcohol within the constituent countries of Britain itself is given full expression and the “national differences in drinking styles and cultures” which emerges as a result (292).

            In line with the general themes of the overall book, Plant offers a detailed assessment of the historical progression of alcohol consumption patterns in Britain.  Comparative analysis within the chapter itself is attempted and thus comparison is made with consumption developments in “France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Denmark and Germany” (p. 292).  Although such analysis is helpful as a form of comparative assessment, the overall book itself is designed to provide much greater detail in this respect.  Thus, one must question whether such analysis is necessary.

            Nonetheless, unlike some other chapters in the book, Plant’s analysis of the interaction between British cultural trends and alcohol consumption is based on the best traditions of academic empiricism.  Suggestions which are offered are firmly rooted in general academic discourse and supported by a plethora of both quantitative and qualitative evidence.  However, little attention is paid to whether quantitative data has come from a reliable and effective source.  This issue once again raises questions regarding the editorial effectiveness of the overall book.

            Finally, Plant offers effective appraisal of youth drinking culture and the manner in which it has developed.  The suggestion that young people engage in an active social process of “learning to drink” clearly highlights the interaction between social processes and alcohol at a fundamental level (p. 295). Thus, in overall terms the chapter represents an effective contribution to the book and the ongoing academic debate regarding culture and alcohol.