What are the positive aspects to binge-drinking? And are health experts and policy makers too quick to condemn what has been part of British culture since the days of the Vikings?
These are just some of the controversial issues raised in a study by a Dutch- born academic at Teesside University who has been observing the British taste for ‘binge drinking’ for a number of years.
Professor Anna van Wersch, a psychologist in the University’s School of Social Sciences & Law, has published her findings in an article in the Journal of Health Psychology.
As well as reviewing existing academic research on the subject, she and colleague, Wendy Walker from Leeds University, drew on detailed interviews with 32 people aged between 22 and 58 living in the North East of England. The sample included English and non-English alcohol drinking people (20 females and 12 males). Most were from northern England, but two Greeks, one Northern Irish person and one Londoner, were included for contrast.
Prof van Wersch explained that while official data tends to quantify binge drinking as five consecutive standard drinks in one sitting for men and four for women, the researchers explained to participants they were using the term ‘binge- drinking’ to mean ‘a drinking occasion leading to intoxication’.
And their findings highlighted some positive aspects despite possible risky consequences of ‘binge-drinking, such as unplanned pregnancies and alcohol poisoning. Time and time again those being interviewed spoke of ‘the culture of a binge drinker’ being ‘embedded in our national Zeitgeist’ and ‘accepted as the norm’. Others contrasted English drinking patterns with other European countries and saw ‘weekend binge drinking’ as a cultural pattern that people were socialised into and which demarcated leisure from time in the UK.
“For many binge-drinking was easier and tended to involve more people than say going out for a meal or to the cinema,” said Prof van Wersch, who admits to been taken aback by the British drinking culture when she first moved to England from Holland 12 years ago.
“There is a marked contrast to drinking alcohol in a ‘dry culture’ like Britain, where many people don’t drink during the week because they have got work next day and don’t want to suffer from a hangover and the Mediterranean countries and other ‘wet cultures’ like Holland, where it is quite normal to have a beer or a glass of wine every day with your meal,” she said.
The research gave examples of this contrast between ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ cultures, with one Greek participant saying that ‘binge-drinking’ was part of the English ‘pub culture’, which he only engaged in when in the UK. Another Greek said: “In Greece we say let’s go out to have a drink, while in England you say to go out because you want to get drunk.”
Prof van Wersch said: “We found the social aspect to drinking alcohol reflected again and again, with all the participants saying they were in company the last time they got drunk and several saying drinking alone was ‘pointless’. Getting drunk was about sharing happy feelings with others and being sociable.”
Participants in the research project were invited to reveal positive notions of binge drinking as well as negative effects. Positives included increased confidence, relaxed mood and reduction of inhibitions. Hangovers were cited as the main downside because they seriously limited next day activities, another reason for only binge-drinking at weekends. Regret was another negative, such as becoming more intimate with members of the opposite sex, more aggressive or saying things one wished one hadn’t and losing a bit of control.
The research paper also highlighted the constraints and cultural norms to drinking alcohol in the UK, such as saving oneself for ‘big nights’ out and abstinence during the week justifying ‘binge-drinking’ at weekends.
Prof van Wersch noted the British tendency to change drinking habits depending on the company, with comments like ‘If you’re out with work, you’ve got to maintain a certain image and behave in a certain way.’
“In Holland people’s attitudes to drinking alcohol are not really so dependant on who they are with,” she said.
So what conclusion does Prof van Wersch as a foreign observer of British culture?
“People in England are more high achievers than the Dutch. The quality of their work has to be perfect and their performance is much higher. There’s a lot of pressure to do well and to behave appropriately and control one's emotions and that can be stressful. That’s why I think the British put so much emphasis in having something to look forward to at the weekend: a chance to let off steam and let their hair down”.
Is it justified? “What we are saying is that there are cultural explanations for it. The drinking is so embedded in the culture here. It’s very hard for young people to resist. Everyone from a young age is integrated into this culture.”
“And if people didn’t have the ‘big night out with their friends’ to look forward to, what would they do and feel like at the end of the week? We don’t want a nation on Prozac, do we?”
“Although binge-drinking is exceeding healthy limits and despite public health warnings and the Government’s focus on the anti-social behaviour that accompanies it, no participant in this study mentioned these factors as a downside without being prompted. On the contrary only positive connotations were highlighted by the people we spoke to who said it reflected British ways of celebrating, relaxing and enjoying themselves.
"The main difference between dry and wet cultures is that in the wet cultures people drink because they enjoy the taste of a glass of wine or beer but not with the intention to get drunk. In dry cultures the taste does not seem matter much as long as there’s alcohol in it and it helps the sedation process.
However, an opposing point of view comes from Gordon Mitchell, Principal Lecturer in Mental Health at Teesside University’s School of Health & Social Care.
"The main question is: If we are going to abandon the binge drinking experience what are we going to replace it with to guarantee that people relax and can have a laugh together with their friends? My follow up research interviewing people in other dry and wet cultures might shine some light on possible answers," said Prof Van Wersch.
He has worked directly with people who binge-drink; then move on to alcohol dependency and physical damage to their liver. “I see the destructive effects of alcohol and the social impact it can have upon someone’s family, with loss of employment, divorce and social exclusion.
“ I’m not convinced that the binge-drinking culture goes back so far as from the Vikings, as we (British) are mostly decedents from Anglo-Saxon origin. The Vikings’ influence was only really in the north of Scotland and parts of northern England.”
He suggests that if binge-drinking is part of British culture, it is only because the media have picked up on it and possibly made it an ‘in-thing’ to do. “I also think the Alcohol and Pub trade has encouraged this approach by their happy hours promotions early on in the evening. They should be encouraging responsible drinking throughout the evening.
“There’s been a cultural change in the British approach to alcohol in more recent times, with the increase in female drinkers and younger drinkers. These groups are not only drinking at weekend, but drinking throughout the week.
“What we need to do is encourage people to change their drinking habits and take on a more European approach. We need to tackle the ‘binge-drinking’ culture by looking at how we sell and market alcohol in this country as well as promoting the health issues surrounding drinking large amounts of alcohol.”
- Van Wersch et al. Binge-drinking in Britain as a Social and Cultural Phenomenon: The Development of a Grounded Theoretical Model. Journal of Health Psychology, 2009; 14 (1): 124 DOI: 10.1177/1359105308097952
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