Daniel Goldman

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Do anthropologists have a negative bias towards alcohol?

I've only had a chance to do a small amount of research on the topic of alcohol as it relates to anthropology. However, even though alcohol certainly has positive effects on populations such as acting as a societal glue, anthropologists seem to focus on the negative effects related to its use.

Is this an actual bias or have I simply not researched enough in order to find the anthropologists focusing on the positives of alcohol use? Also, if there is a bias, why? Is it due to the western, and thus "puritan", origins of anthropological research?

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    May 13 2014: I just want to talk about my personal experience, and through it hopefully can achieve to expose a point of view:
    I'm Mexican and a few years ago I got a scholarship to study in the United States, but there was a small problem (not so small at the time) ... I could not speak English, so I had to take an express course to access the scholarship that I had already obtained. With this course, I succeeded to aprove the Toefl score enough to study abroad .
    When I got there, my lines were reduced to a simple "Hello, my name is Said and I am from Mexico", but step by step (baby steps), as I was accessing the world of festivals, partys and so (alcohol included) , I could afford to start interacting with people in a more confident way.
    At first I was not sure if my English had improved or I just felt more comfortable with the little English I knew, but what is a fact is that alcohol helped me to lose my inhibitions and from that moment my English improved considerably and also my social relationships during that time.
    I'm not saying that alcohol was the only factor, but I think in my case played a very interesting role for myself in order to develop my social skills as I do in my native language.
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      May 13 2014: While it is anecdotal evidence, it does suggest a major beneficial attribute to alcohol consumption. As I've said repeatedly, alcohol acts as a social glue. While over consumption and "wild parties" are negatives, reasonable consumption gives us a reason to interact freely with others.
  • May 8 2014: There have been many studies and in fact there is a very interesting one that showed the growth of beer consumption matched the growth of human population growth almost exactly. Done in the economics department and not in the anthropology department. I would expect both groups to read the research.
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      May 8 2014: Can you provide a link to that study?
      • May 8 2014: will try to dig it up. It was a friend's phd thesis at Harvard.
  • May 5 2014: Keen observation, I agree with your theory. Social Scientist put forth the premise for years that the Mayan culture were humanoids devoid of the blood sacrifices that plagued other cultures. You have the same story line in the native cultures in the Southwest, that don't want the general population to know their ancestry had a more robust belief in blood letting. The same with alcohol and associated problems from drunkenness. The catch 22 is a public health disaster. Anthropology doesn't want to go on the record as pinning any of the success humans have had on alcohol. So they avoid the connection; association and the downside of educators promoting alcohol use as necessary to our survival. The retelling by scribes of any of the holy men who walked about or among us is ample proof we like to enunciate our life story with positive attributes even if it seems fantastical. The same with anthropological research, I think.
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    May 3 2014: What an interesting take on alcohol. Short answer seems to be no from a purely scientific view. But the species' often tragic fascination with the subject would definitely garner a lot of attention.

    Let us not forget that alcohol is a poison and the reason we "get tipsy" is because it impairs our balance and co-ordination and excessive amounts will kill us outright. Every year the news is rife with stories of teens "chugging" so much booze that they die shortly afterwards. We "pass out" because our bodies are saying that our minds are so impaired that the body has to step in and shut us down before we kill ourselves but many still die anyways. Alcoholics are addicted to the use and abuse of alcohol while drunks who far outnumber them are prolific.

    Then there is all the mayhem that flows from copious alcohol consumption, namely assaults and brawling in the streets, domestic violence, impaired drivers mowing down the innocent and child abuse. Add to that all the unnecessary health costs of ruined livers, failing kidneys, stomach cancer and diabetes and a host of other illnesses directly attributable to alcohol consumption.

    Anthropologists study human beings and surely would find the species' fascination with the substance to be curious, especially since the use and abuse of such a substance can become such a negative factor in the well being of the species. .They would also be fascinated by the proliferation of purveyors of the substance, the consumer clamor for the substance and all the social ceremony that evolves around the substance despite the problems that flow from it.
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      May 3 2014: This is conflating the use and the misuse of alcohol. Also the bias against alcohol seems to be greater than against other drugs including tobacco and various hallucinogenics used in religious practices.

      Should we ignore the positive aspects of alcohol use, including its health benefits in smaller dosages (most substances in a high enough dose will be toxic, but many are helpful in smaller doses) because it has negative consequences of over consumption? Let's not forget its use as a societal glue. Moreover, we have leavened bread because of alcohol. There are other beneficial aspects as well. Human evolution was, to some extent, driven by alcohol in nature. I could go on about the interrelation between alcohol and humans (and plan to in a book, if I ever have time).

      Also, why alcohol and not the others? Don't get me wrong, anthropologists do look at the negative aspects of drug use, but there are also quite a few who focus on the positives of its use or at least do not make a judgement call regarding it.
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        May 4 2014: While I admit I only spent a couple of sentences on your question I appreciate the opportunity to expound on the subject.

        Only the most obtuse would try to argue any positive benefits of booze given all the harm that flows from its use. Granted, there certainly exists a culture as well as a very lucrative industry that evolve around its consumption but there are just as many people - perhaps more - who avoid that culture, its use and, thereby, its consequences as well. Fortunately I am not an anthropologist and, therefore, can speak much more frankly about the stuff.

        What I find amazing about the consumption of alcohol is the need to "acquire" a taste for it because everyone's first drink of booze is, invariably, a repulsive experience. To consume it regularly we have to ignore our natural revulsion at its harsh taste until our body develops a tolerance for it, not unlike becoming accustomed to the stench of urban pollution and noise that assaults city dwellers every minute of the day.

        It seems that human beings do all manner of things that are unhealthy for them and will blithely ignore the harm being done to their health. Others make different choices.
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          May 4 2014: Anthropologists are not there to judge good or bad. They are there to learn. In either case, ignoring positives simply because they are negatives is obtuse and poor science.

          However again, you are confusing the effects caused by misuse and the effects caused by use. You are also ignoring many beneficial aspects of alcohol including its use in creating bonds and reciprocal relationships. You're forgetting that alcohol has in part driven our evolutionary history. You are forgetting that alcohol is, at least in part, the reason why we have breads. Then we h

          You did at least mention economics, and alcohol has a huge impact on our economy. The amount of revenue generated by alcohol production and consumption is something worth studying and should not be ignored simply because there are negative consequences of over-consumption. And there are noted health benefits.

          Regarding the idea that one must acquire a taste for alcohol, this is not true. It depends on the individual and also on the drink. In addition, this is the same result with many foods/drinks. For instance, we've lost our taste for bitter herbs for instance, even though we used to consume them all the time. Introduce someone to sushi for the first time and odds are there will be some repulsive experience. Likewise natto (that you more or less love or hate).

          "It seems that human beings do all manner of things that are unhealthy for them and will blithely ignore the harm being done to their health..."

          Again, this is due to the over-consumption of the product. You called alcohol a poison. However it is only a poison if it is over-consumed. You also mentioned earlier that teens get wasted, but again, this isn't a product of the alcohol, but rather the way we treat alcohol and its access to teenagers. Nations where people are introduced to alcohol in a family setting do not have this same concern.

          So, while there may be negatives, there are positives and the job of an anthropologist is to study all of it.
      • May 5 2014: Daniel

        I dare you to ".. go on about the interrelation between alcohol and humans.. in a book.. " without using the word "boredom".
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    May 2 2014: I don't know, I do recall reading an article in a magazine called Omni that said drug and alcohol use comes from a natural desire to feel differently than you usually feel?
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      May 3 2014: A lot of human activities in part stem from that desire I'm sure.
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    May 6 2014: Anthropologists do not have a negative bias towards alcohol; but in the course of their duty they do come in close contact with the effects of alcohol abuse.
    Some of them do take alcohol. It is easy for us to simply take their view as negative, but in reality alcohol abuse has its trails of destruction.
    Truth hurts, so they say. Alcohol abuse is not sugar abuse; so when it would be spoken of, together with its accompaning ills, it would be called alcohol abuse.

    Is alcohol the bad 'guy'? Not really. But 'He/she' was there.
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      May 6 2014: I think you're somewhat confusing anthropologists and sociologists. Sociologists tend to make more of a judgement call about what is and is not "destructive" behavior. Anthropologists simply try to understand behavior.

      > Alcohol abuse is not sugar abuse; so when it would be spoken of, together with its accompaning ills, it would be called alcohol abuse

      Actually, sugar is highly addictive and has a large number of associated health problems. It's probably more of a "problem" in America than alcohol. And yes, when spoken of, together with its accompanying ills, it would be called alcohol abuse. The question is why is it always spoken of in such a fashion?

      In order to fully understand humanity, we cannot make judgement calls and must study every aspect of the human race. This includes the positive and neutral aspects of alcohol use. Its role in shaping our evolution. It's role in shaping agriculture and microbial science. Our role in shaping yeasts associated with alcohol production, etc.
  • May 5 2014: @Martin.

    The Central American populations and Asia Minor city state inhabitants in my opinion used honey first which has sugar a necessary ingredient for fermentation and then transitioned their understanding of alcohol alchemy to beer and wine. The process was probably gleamed from the Asian communities along the Pacific who were fermenting rice which is harder to cultivate than wheat-barley or corn grains which are easier to grow and require less water to cultivate. Coca pods made balchi a cermonial chocolate fermented drink but that process stayed localized as did fermenting rice.
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      May 5 2014: From what I've read, wine is probably the oldest, partially due to the fact that social wasps inoculate grapes with yeast.
  • May 5 2014: My experience with anthropologists is that very few of them are averse to raising a glass. What you are seeing is "field bias" determined by who they study. Anthropologists usually focus on the most remote and poorest people. I think it's silly, because we could learn a lot by applying the anthropological approach to all cultures (I'm a molecular biologist, by the way, very hard-core and number-crunchy, and I STILL respect the anthropological method). However, anthropologists can't get funding to study industrialized cultures because they're treading on the sociologists' toes.

    These poorer and more remote cultures, like it or not, tend to have very bad experiences with alcohol. Thus, that's what we see in the literature.
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      May 5 2014: That could have something to do with it. And it's true, unless an anthropologist is specifically working for a business in order to determine a market or make a deal, it does tend to conflict with sociologists a bit, who also seem to focus on negatives of alcohol use rather then the benefits.

      Ritual drinking was a fairly large part of Andean culture for a while. In some places it's still practiced. I'd love to study it if I had a chance.
      • May 13 2014: There's no money in publishing about how alcohol isn't harmful or is even beneficial. There enormous pressure groups devoted to eliminating alcohol use, although they now hide behind less extreme masks.
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          May 13 2014: Unfortunately that is a plight afflicting scientific research: research has no other choice but to follow the money.
  • May 5 2014: Here's one, but there are many such articles:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/opinion/sunday/how-beer-gave-us-civilization.html?_r=0

    The negative views of drugs and alcohol are a filter placed on our discussion by the authorities in society, generally because users tend to be disruptive to society. Any 'good' is downplayed or glossed over. Admitedly, most drug or alcohol use is 'bad', but since the authorities cannot trust individuals to make their own decisions the universal message is 'bad.'
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      May 5 2014: Not actually an anthropologist, but it's something at least.
  • May 5 2014: I've not seen negative attitudes towards alcohol. I've never read an analysis that said 'this culture drank itself to death.' I have seen the opposite: people claiming that our transition from nomadic to agrarian society was due to the need to cultivate barley and hops to make beer.

    Humans desire escapism, because frankly the average day of the average human really sucks, and it always has. Alcohol is one of the easiest forms of escape to create.

    I would counter with positive effects such as rituals (from drunken solstices to drinking Christ's blood), expanded awareness (Oracle of Delphi's volcanic gasses to finding God while holding the toilet bowl), societal acceptance (drinking buddies to the Super Bowl/Octoberfest) and reduced inhibitions (exposing yourself to more of what the world has to offer to ... err... exposing yourself.)

    Most references to alcohol or drugs in antrhopology that I remember show an attempt at Spirituality like the American Indian's Vision Quests. Then again selling whiskey to those same Indians was seen as a weakness of the Red Man.

    If anything is promoting a Puritanical self-censoring, my guess would be that in general Western society has frowned on drugs, therefore anything positive about drug use tends to be suppressed or discouraged. What is the perspective of Asian or African cultures?
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      May 5 2014: Perhaps we've read different sets of articles. Do you happen to remember the study regarding cultivation of barley and hops?

      Also, if you read the comments on this thread, negative views of alcohol do seem to be pretty common.
  • May 5 2014: Daniel

    I like alcohol: white wine, red wine, cider, perry! Apart from it being an external-use anti-septic and internal-use anaesthetic, what are its "health benefits in smaller dosages"?

    And, please, indulge me off-topic. ".. we've lost our taste for bitter herbs.. even though we used to consume them all the time." Which ones? - I'm bored with spinach. Also, coffee, tea and blue-cheese give me heart-burn/excess-acid but not alcohol (or chilli-pepper.) "You're the expert", why not alcohol?
  • May 4 2014: If there is a bias I would guess that it is because supposedly 25% of the population are allergic to alcohol and have all the problems that come along with alcoholism. Of them, each alcoholic adversely effects around 20 other people. If this information is even any where close to being true, it would mean that we are "all" effected in one way or another by the alcoholism problem. Higher insurance rates, higher crime rates, higher government costs, higher health care rates literally everything we pay for is more expensive because of this problem.
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      May 4 2014: First, you're looking specifically at Western, and more or less American culture. Anthropologists study many cultures. Second, these are again problems with over consumption rather than consumption. Finally, drugs obviously have these same issues and yet there are still more positive, or at least neutral, writings on drug use than there are on alcohol use.
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    May 2 2014: In my also 'brief' research (here's one article i found: http://medanthro.net/adtsg/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Heath-Anthropology-+-Alcohol-Studies.pdf), i see the subject of alcohol taken enmasse with other psycho-altering drugs discovered throughout history, and recognized simply as the most predominately used. some observance of 'effects' are noted, but i see no real bias either positive or negative. some 'credit' is given to various drugs - including alcohol - for mankind's development culturally and medically along with the negative repercussions. So i would say 'no' to your title question.
  • May 2 2014: People get bored. People drink alcohol. But to the anthropologists it presents a dilemma: do they write 'People get bored' or 'Alcohol is bad'?
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      May 2 2014: This is a very puritan-centric idea. People drink because they're bored? No; people drink for many reasons.