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Alcohol and Ethnography: A Case of Problem Deflation? [and Comments and Reply]

Robin Room, Michael Agar, Jeremy Beckett, Linda A. Bennett, Sally Casswell, Dwight B. Heath, Joy Leland, Jerrold E. Levy, William Madsen, Mac Marshall, Jacek Moskalewicz, Juan Carlos Negrete, Miriam B. Rodin, Lee Sackett, Margaret Sargent, David Strug and Jack O. Waddell
Current Anthropology
Vol. 25, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 169-191
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2742819
Page Count: 23
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Alcohol and Ethnography: A Case of Problem Deflation? [and Comments and Reply]
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Abstract

The modern ethnographic literature on alcohol tends to underestimate problems due to drinking. This "problem deflation" probably reflects a concurrence of various assumptions, methods, and theoretical orientations. Functionalist assumptions direct attention more to the gains than to the losses involved in drinking. The pleasures of drinking are more easily observed, given the ethnographer's focus on the everyday and the social, than the private pains and the rarer events-casualties, chronic disease mortality, etc.-that are the focus for epidemiologists; the ethnographer may also be less likely to notice abstention. English-speaking and North European researchers have dominated the literature, and those who came to maturity in the last half-century were reacting against the moralism of the later temperance movement and committed to a middle-class ideal of "moderate drinking." Ethnographic studies published before 1930 are more likely than later ones to report "extreme" male insobriety and regular drunken brawling. Ethnographers may also have been concerned to differentiate themselves from missionaries, with their emphasis on the immorality of drinking. The ethnographic alcohol literature has tended to accept as a transcultural reality the modern disease concept of alcoholism; since this culture-bound syndrome does not match the difficulties related to drinking in many cultures, ethnographers have often concluded that alcohol problems are rare. The immersion in concrete data has muted the effect of these factors on the literature, but there is a need to reexamine conclusions concerning culture and alcohol based on it. In the new generation of alcohol ethnographers, often working within their own society, problem amplification may be more of an issue than problem deflation.

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