Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology 
edited by Mary Douglas.
Cambridge, 291 pp., £25, September 1987, 0 521 33504 3
Show More
For Prayer and Profit: The Ritual, Economic and Social Importance of Beer in Gwembe District, Zambia, 1950-1982 
by Elizabeth Colson and Thayer Scudder.
Stanford, 147 pp., $32.50, August 1988, 0 8047 1444 4
Show More
Show More

In Angola, where the local currency is all but worthless, people use cans of imported beer as a means of exchange: a very heavy sort of money, but at least you can buy bananas and fish with it. In Zambia, some people pour a little beer onto the ground in the doorways of their huts to placate the ancestors. The supplicant says: ‘Be cool, as water is cool. Do not trouble the children. Let us all prosper. Here is your beer.’

On the whole, however, people use beer to get happy or drunk. In Zambia they get very drunk indeed, in West Africa they get drunk on palm wine; in the Soviet Union they get drunk on vodka; in France they get drunk on wine made from grapes; in Britain lager louts get drunk on lager. Such an international phenomenon, taking up so much time for so many people in so many countries, was hardly likely to escape the attention of the likes of Paul Antze (contributor to Constructive Drinking), who says his research interests include ‘social theory, symbolic anthropology and ethno-psychiatry’.

You are no longer safe from observation by alcohologists, whether in the snug of a London pub, the lokal in Austria, or Zairean mapalu, forest clearings which serve as bars for imbibers of palm wine. That bloke next to you with the glasses and the Tia Maria might be the editor of the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, or of the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs. The Antzes and Desmond Morrises are everywhere, analysing, comparing and contrasting different sectors of the world’s community of drinkers and drunks. Two researchers attended more than forty feasts in Soviet Georgia in pursuit of knowledge about competitive drinking; another spent hours in taverns near the wharves of Port St John’s in Newfoundland staring at the longshoremen and wondering who would buy the next round, and why.

Even books are not safe. Lisa Anne Gurr combed through Simenon’s Maigret books to confirm that drinks indicate social class and that Maigret drinks a great deal of beer, brandy, wine and coffee; he has herb tea when ill. Anthropologists anxious to examine the habits of their fellow drinkers must be unrelaxing holiday companions. But alcohol – like food, sex and work – is a rich field for transcontinental comparisons and the study of the common human condition.

Worldwide, drinking is seen as macho; it is usually part of a ritual; and its main purpose is to make sad people happy. In that sense it is an international equaliser. Alexander the Great, according to one controversial researcher, was no better than Ringo Starr and suffered progressive drinking problems before dying in withdrawal. There is not much difference between a Scottish drunk dripping blood from a head wound and tottering through Euston Station and a Zambian drunk staggering around injured after a brawl outside a Lusaka discotheque. In some countries you have to discard your firearm when you enter the bar; with the Mambila in Nigeria you have to leave your spear behind. Britons compete to drink yards of ale, and Georgians seek to excel each other in consuming jugs of wine without sneaking away from the revelries to urinate or vomit. In almost every drinking culture there is a formal structure within which alcohol is drunk. Toasts are made, certain drinks are drunk at certain times, and the buying of rounds or hosting of parties is regulated by status, wealth or a sense of fair play.

Sometimes alcohol is used as a symbolic marker to define the end of work (work is usually a time for coffee or tea) and the start of leisure. That is why a workaholic is the opposite of an alcoholic. At other times alcohol is used by employers to attract labourers or keep them docile and dependent. Cheap drink has been and still is used as a political tool for the same reasons.

The British Navy once gave its seamen tots of rum. Tonga villagers, we learn from For Prayer and Profit, brewed beer for the payment of working parties in their fields. Polish landlords in the 18th century, we read in Constructive Drinking, gave peasants plenty of drink, apparently because the serfs were thus more easily beaten into submission and because a monetary economy would have meant a labour market based on wages rather than feudal service. He might have added that a very similar drink system or traditional dopstelsel exists in South Africa to this day. Farmers in the western Cape often pay part of their workers’ wages in cheap wine purchased in bulk, and some of the older and more dependent labourers say they would not want it any other way. In black Africa and white Africa beer is used to buy submission or allegiance. It was not for nothing that the young Soweto rioters of 1976 attacked the government beer-halls: they felt their elders were being sapped of money and political anger.

Anthropologists and sociologists have a way of saying both obvious things and obscure things in very complicated ways. We should perhaps not even blink when Haim Hazan writes, in a chapter on tea at a Day Centre for elderly Jewish residents of a London borough:

The occasion of tea-drinking in English culture is so linked to certain divisions of the day that the notion of temporality seems to be imbued in its essence. Tea-time or just ‘tea’, a night cup or a morning cup, serve for some people as temporal codes almost as accurate and recurrent as mechanically set markers. Unlike arbitrary commonly-accepted means of indicating time, tea-drinking is socially generated and hence is more manipulable and versatile than other time-reckoning devices ... Conventional tea-drinking is essentially of a cyclical nature and I would maintain that this particular property qualifies it to serve as a prevalent symbolic code in the constitution of situations where the general structure of the time universe is non-linear.

And that is only the introduction to the paper.

Constructive Drinking took ten years to compile, and some of the essays in it go back to the Sixties, but it remains a heterogeneous collection of specialist research work. It is part of what Dwight Heath calls ‘the emerging field of alcohol studies’. Did you know that, according to studies on American whites, the rate of drinking varies in direct proportion to the rate of talking, at high rates of talking; but at low rates of talking, the relationship is inverse? Or that there is a Finnish Foundation for Alcohol Studies? We are told about Maigret’s drinking habits, about the ladies in the Day Centre and their tea, about the making of Vin Santo in Tuscany, about the economic impact of rum bootlegging in the Chiapas highlands of Mexico, and about the kava plant ceremonial in the Kingdom of Tonga.

These are all intriguing subjects in their own right. But most intriguing – and controversial – of all are the introductory chapters by Mary Douglas and Dwight Heath. They are anxious to challenge Western assumptions that the drinking of alcohol should be treated primarily as a problem. They point out that in many societies, even where drunkenness is frequent and highly esteemed, ‘problem drinking’ and alcoholism are rare. Solitary drinking is almost unknown. Anthropologists, says Mary Douglas, ‘challenge the view that some races are, because of their biological inheritance, peculiarly vulnerable to ill-effects from alcohol ... They find no clear relation between the use of alcohol and a tendency to aggressive or criminal behaviour ... The general tenor of the anthropological perspective is that celebration is normal and that in most cultures alcohol is a normal adjunct to celebration.’ Dwight Heath recalls research disputing the commonly-accepted thesis of the noble savage ruined by the white man’s firewater. It seems that the number of Navajo murders and Eskimo suicides was much the same before the introduction of the demon drink.

It is also true, however, that the Amerindians of Guyana cannot be doing themselves any good when they cross the Brazilian border to buy industrial alcohol to drink. And in For Prayer and Profit, Elizabeth Colson and Thayer Scudder paint a comprehensive – and grim – picture of the alcohol-assisted decline of the rural Tonga communities in Zambia’s Gwembe District. In Zambia drink and economic decay have complemented each other over the years and helped to humble the nation. Zambians are poor and miserable, so they get drunk to drown their sorrows; because they spend money on drink, they are poor and miserable. The breweries do not work very well, so they spend even more money on importing beer from South Africa or on smuggling it from Zaire; because beer is expensive, they make lethal home-made concoctions.

For Prayer and Profit charts the depressing course of Tonga life over three decades. In the early days, women brewed beer for offerings to the ancestors and for work parties in the fields. Drinking was controlled and drunkenness rare. Then many of the Tongas were uprooted from the land of their ancestors to make way for the great lake created by the Kariba Dam. They endured the Rhodesian commando raids which marked the war between Ian Smith’s regime and the guerrillas infiltrating from southern Zambia. They suffered the effects of the rapid economic collapse after the end of the copper boom in the early Seventies, and the Government’s increasing neglect of rural areas. They drank to get drunk. Problem drinking emerged. Men beat their wives and children more than before. Food production suffered. Villagers accused each other more and more of sorcery when things went wrong.

President Kenneth Kaunda, mission-educated, is himself a teetotaller. He often urges Zambians not to drink so much – once he even sacked a cabinet minister in public for alcohol abuse – but heavy drinking has become a way of life. European missionaries, including the Salvation Army, have called for restraint, but the whites in Africa have hardly set a good example. In the Fifties beer in Tongaland was thought of unequivocally as a good thing, but by the Eighties the villagers were ambivalent: beer was good in some ways, but it also led to neglect of work, stealing and violence.

The sudden advent of Western culture and a modern economy (however flawed and inefficient) has had a profound if indirect impact on African village life. The creation of a fishing industry on Lake Kariba hastened the arrival of the monetary economy. Women began to brew for profit rather than religious ritual. Men aspired to the decadent, smart ways of the big city, and drank in the comfortable anonymity of bars rather than with relatives and friends. Roads meant fuel, which meant empty fuel drums in which beer could be brewed in bulk. Village women have to compete with the state’s supplies of chibuku and bottled lager (known for obvious reasons as mapint), and the inefficiency of state industry has been a mixed blessing for the Tonga. The brewing companies cannot meet the demand for beer, leaving the women with a chance to make a living. But at the same time there is not much that anyone can buy with their money – except beer – because other industries are equally inefficient and other consumer products are in equally short supply.

‘We have queried the belief that drinking is likely not to be problematic in societies where alcohol has long been known and is well integrated into ritual and social life,’ the authors of For Prayer and Profit say. ‘When alcohol becomes a commodity, it breaks through the old limits.’ Pretty much the opposite of what we are told in Constructive Drinking.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences