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        The politics of drinking

17 October,  2011



Laurel and Hardy, the demon drink and the social anthropologist

Kate Fox, the social anthropologist, has brought a refreshing twist to rather repetitive drink debate with her talk on BBC Radio Four and accompanying opinion piece. Her view that current alcohol education is making matters worse by demonising the drug made sense to a lot of people Ė even though it attacks not only the consumption reduction orthodoxy of medical temperance but also the drinks industryís own social responsibility efforts.

Inevitably, Foxís motives and objectivity were questioned. Beneath the usual gratuitous drunk woman picture on the Telegraph website Andrew M Brown came out with one of the more sympathetic critiques.

But he also drew attention to the link between Foxís organisation, the Social Issues Research Centre, and its commercial arm MCM Research, which has carried out many projects commissioned by the drinks and pub industries. And he links to a damning expose by Lobby Watch in the British Medical Journal.

Following the money in these matters is always a good idea, but it doesnít necessarily prove that a piece of work or informed opinion is biased and wrong. Medical temperance is often too quick to dismiss anyone opposed to it simply on the basis of how they are funded.*

Every scientist has to get money from somewhere and cuts in state funding mean that industry has increasingly come to foot the bill. Itís not desirable, but thatís capitalism for you.

So what of SIRC/MCM?

I interviewed Kate Fox (then known as Kate Fox-Kibby), along with her co-director Peter Marsh, some 20-odd years ago. MCM (one of the Ms is Marsh, the other Desmond Morris) was doing some work for Whitbread around designing-out disorder problems in pubs.

It was a good story Ė in both senses. Since then pub and bar operators have gone on to try to design out trouble in a broader way, working with each other, with local authorities, police and other services to manage an entire drinking circuits. My home city of Brighton is a good example.

The theory underlying this kind of strategy fits Foxís view that itís not alcohol by itself that causes people to be violent and so on but the surrounding Ďcultureí.

To put it another way, itís the situations in which people drink that conditions their behaviour. Itís not a new idea. Anthropologists have been building up a convincing body of evidence on it since at least the late 1960s.**

Fox stresses that itís what you expect to happen when you drink that influences what actually happens. Thereís a story that when Swan Brewery launched its low-alcohol lager in the 1990s it invited all its staff to a party at which the new product flowed in great quantities. But it didnít tell them it was low alcohol so they all got raging drunk.

Even earlier, Laurel and Hardyís Prohibition-era short Blotto has them smuggling a bottle of illicit liquor into a venue. Swigging excitedly they soon get hilariously drunk Ė and suddenly sober up when they realise the booze has been swapped for something non-alcoholic.

So itís great that Fox has introduced the anthropological evidence into the debate and got such a lot of attention. The doctors have had it all their own way for too long.

But she does lurch a little into a crude determinism that sometimes characterises SIRCís work. Just look at Desmond Morrisís awful piece of pop-anthropology The Naked Ape. Although I confess Iíve had a down on Morris since I was a kid, always preferring Johnny Morrisís knockabout Animal Magic to Desmondís po-faced Zoo Time.

And I have my own suspicions about SIRC. Its website links to Sense About Science which is a front organisation for the shadowy LM Network, a nutty libertarian bunch who started out as quasi-Marxist revolutionaries and have finished up siding with big business. Lobby Watch finds other connections between the groups. (Though Lobby Watch itself is a little too obsessed about it for my total comfort.)

Itís a shame that Foxís contribution is tainted in this way but I still believe anthropology has a lot of important things to say about the way we drink Ė things that are almost always ignored by those who fashion alcohol policy.

*I myself, I ought to point out, am almost entirely, if indirectly, funded by the drinks industry. Itís either that or abject poverty Iím afraid.

**See, for instance, MacAndrew & Edgertonís Drunken Comportment; Dwight B Heathís Drinking Occasions; and Mary Douglasís attractively-titled Constructive Drinking.

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