Background & History

Alcohol is both an aged and arguably universal concept. Even before alcohol had its reputation of choice drink for socializing and liquid drug it had a different purpose. Prior to easily accessible clean water, “alcoholic beverages may have been the only safe liquids to drink” (E.S., 35). For people in earlier times, alcohol was literally a tool of survival. It should be noted that drinks at this point in time did not have as high of alcohol content because the fermentation process had yet to be developed. Regardless, this gives insight into how timeless the concept of alcohol is. Additionally, alcohol is also known to virtually every culture, “It [alcohol] is anciently the most widespread in use, the most widely valued as a ritual and societal artifact, the most deeply embedded in diverse cultures” (Mandelbaum, 281). While the concept of alcohol may be universal, the ways in which it is viewed and used are unique to the cultural atmosphere. For some cultures the high value is translated into the very language, “In some languages, as in English, the very term “drink” takes on the connotation of drinking alcoholic liquids” (Mandelbaum, 281). Drinking is embedded deep into culture and plays a different role depending on the area of interest. 

The primary functions of alcohol in society can be generalized into two different categories: alcohol as an intoxicant and alcohol as a food. Depending on which category a country feels alcohol falls into, it has significant impact on the cultural views about alcohol, “American pilots today are forbidden to drink for a number of hours before flying as well as during the flight. (French pilots have wine with their in-flight meals, but as we have noted, that kind of alcohol is defined as food by the French)” (Mandelbaum, 283). In American culture, alcohol is generally seen as an intoxicant. This categorization leads for certain rules to be put into place regarding its usage. In contrast, France largely views alcohol (particularly wine) as a food. As that is the case, it is served as a part of meals even to those currently operating large aircrafts. Despite cultural differences one commonality that is widespread in the attitude about drinking is this, “It is commonly a social rather than a solitary activity but is done much more in the society of age mates and peers than with elders or in the family circle” (Mandelbaum, 282). This simply means that in spite of the overarching role of alcohol in a particular society, most choose to drink in the company of others and specifically friends. So while the primary function of alcohol within various societies may differ, it is more universally accepted as a social activity for peer groups. 

There a number of influencing factors that help to define the culture of alcohol in different cultures, “Drinking patterns are influenced by economic development and by overall changes in living conditions and cultural patterns of everyday life” (Simpura & Karlsson, 10). For instance, because the United States is a very economically developed country, alcohol is not viewed as a luxury item compared to other areas. Since it is not seen as a luxury, more people indulge at higher rates. In contrast, other cultures place a higher value on alcohol, “In societies where alcohol is highly valued and praised, even considered sacred, and constitutes an inseparable part of everyday social life drunkenness is not necessarily considered a social or personal problem” (Room & Mäkelä, 478). It is within these cultures where alcohol is a part of everyday life and so alcohol is not seem as problematic. In addition to Simpura & Karlsson’s factors, legislation also has impact of the culture of alcohol within a country. While this is not always the most effective way of controlling the culture of alcohol it is a contributing factor. Depending on the country, people can start drinking at different ages. Oftentimes how adolescents are socialized into drinking plays a part in the impact of drinking on the culture in return, 

In societies where alcohol is more prevalent, adolescents may have more opportunities to engage in heavy drinking. However, countries with a tradition of high per capita alcohol consumption may nevertheless successfully socialize adolescents into responsible drinking practices, or they may successfully impose normative constraints against alcohol use (Biarnason, Anderson, Choquet, Elekes, Morgan & Rapinett, 201).

This argues that those who are exposed to more alcohol in their adolescents often are able to teach individuals how to drink responsibly. There is not one dominant factor that defines a cultures view on alcohol, but it is rather the culmination of many that lead to particular outlooks about alcohol. 

While alcohol consumption is widespread across the globe, not all people partake in consuming it. In fact according to Ahlstrom-Laakso (1976) 13 percent of the total world population accounts for about half the consumption of alcoholic beverages (p. 119). Additionally, it has been determined by Simpura & Karlsson (2001) that Europe has the highest per capita alcohol consumption of all the continents across the globe (p. 3). The consumption of alcohol is a big part of culture for European countries, but even so different regions of the continent have varying views about what alcohol means in society.


Ahlstrom-Laakso, S., (1976). European drinking habits: A review of research and some suggestions for conceptual integration of findings. In M.W Everett, J. O. Waddell, and D. B. Heath (Eds.) Cross-Cultural Approaches to the Study of Alcohol: An Interdisciplinary Perspective 119-132.

Bjarnason, T., Anderson, B., Choquet, M., Elekes, Z., Morgan, M., & Rapinett, G., (2003). Alcohol culture, family structure and adolescent alcohol use: Multilevel modeling of frequency of heavy drinking among 15-16 year old students in 11 European countries. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 64(2), 200-208.

E. S. (1998). History of Alcohol. Pharmacy in History, 40(1), 35.

Mandelbaum, D. G., (1965). Alcohol and culture. Current Anthropology,6(3), 281-293.

Room, R., & Mäkelä, K., (2000). Typologies of the cultural position of drinking. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 61(3), 475-483.

Simpura, J., & Karlsson, T., (2001). Trends in drinking patterns in fifteen European countries, 1950-2000. A collection of country reports.

Background & History