THE CULTURE OF ALCOHOL IN RELATION TO SECONDARY AGED PUPILS: a feasibility study
Report submitted to funders in 1989, John Schostak, Richard Davies
return to report contents
return to Imaginative Spaces home
return to Enquiry Learning Unit
Analytic Profile 1. Maria.
Maria is 17. This is a major factor in her life. Like many young women of her age she can easily pass for older by a year, perhaps two. This provides her with ease of access to pubs and nightclubs and sundry other establishments commercially associated with the consumption of alcohol as a leisure pursuit. This carries adult status. It also carries the resonances of a world of excitement, sexual allure, and the environment of full adulthood. It provides meeting places of a higher category of glamour than those asssociated with younger people i.e. those too young to obtain access to social worlds outside the park, the youth club, the community centre, the home and so forth.
With respect to alcohol she appears not to be vulnerable at home. Her mother does not drink and her father moderately. Alcohol is not a problem in her life. Yet, alcohol emerges as a strong signifier of boundary. The orientation of mum and dad to alcohol contrasts very strongly with the youth culture orientation that she socially inhabits. Alcohol marks the boundary between too young and old enough. Chronologically/ legally she is too young to cross the boundary. However she can 'get away with' crossing the boundary' by virtue of her older sister's example, support and company and by her own capacity to look older than she is. Without alcohol, without the chronologcial/legal boundary to cross she would not be able to celebrate her state of "being older than she really is" in comparison with her contemporaries, a state of which she is clearly very proud. Alcohol and the social worlds it supports, creates, or accompanies is a central signifier of her status of extra maturity in relation to her peer group. Furthermore she has a non-problematic view of alcohol because of the moderate to zero consumption of her parents and by virtue of their own tolerance and delegation to her sister of responsibility for Maria when socialising. Her parents trust and do not express concern. She first drank because her sister who had money was buying a round of drinks in a pub. Maria followed suit. Her example and key influence was a slightly but significantly older group of contemporaries. Her models in relation to drinking were not adult. This clearly has educational implications. Is it appropriate or safe to be learning from learners or from the relatively inexperienced in the context of alcohol? Were there better, more admirable, more attractive (worse) examples of behaviour than others within the group she associated with when going to pubs, night clubs and discos? What is the nature of her learning about alcohol in this context? How does it fit and how does it represent, express or construct a desirable identity for her? What is such an identity?
These are all questions that may arise in the course of reflecting upon Maria's account of an aspect of her life whilst developing the notion of orientation. A great many more questions may be asked on the basis of the material she has been prepared to provide. This is just a beginning. But even at this stage the questions derived have the potential for generalisation e.g. what does it mean or why is it significant "To go a bit wild"? This is a question that has the potential to engage a group of people in discussion and reflection. To sum up: within Maria's family, there is an evident feeling of trust, they get on well, and she perceives her sister as a friend. Peers are divided into those who have and those who do not have 'experience' of drinking, smoking, going to pubs and so on. She has a sense of being 'older' than she actually is, because of this experience. A major boundary is thus created between the 'experienced' and the 'non-experienced'. A discourse is thus initiated which allows her to mark out and set apart those who have and do not have experience. Those who have experience she can call 'advanced' and to whom she can attribute status. There are strong values here to which the activities of drinking are associated. Drinking is itself a mark of experience, of being advanced, of being older.
Her fundamental orientation is towards a) her family, and b) towards older age groups. The potential conflict between the two never arises because they never meet. This is typical of one kind of adolescent strategy. Birkstead (1979) wrote of a particular boy who managed two conflicting social identities, one he presented to his mates, the other he presented to teachers and his family. Neither of the two kinds of groups knew anything about his alternative 'self'. Other similar examples can be seen in Schostak (1983). One possible interpretation is that Maria has a 'wild' and a 'sober' self who are never on the same stage at the same time. Other data from the profile would provide another possible interpretation. Maria herself might argue that there is no such split. Because, 1] her sister constitutes an integration of family and older age group and 2] her sober self has a 'wild' dimension, that is, by her own account, she is perceived as 'a bit of a nutcase' who walks about the school singing snatches of opera. Maria might argue that she expresses sober or non sober extroversion, in which one simply extends or alters the quality of the other. Both interpretations pose radically different views of the nature of the role of alcohol in behaviour. For example: does alcohol 'cause' bizarre/strange/non-conformist behaviour or 'allow' it? In the first intepretation, the decision making strategies and social values are in many ways distinct. The educational issue is, how does one integrate the two 'sides' to her presentation of self in a way that enriches and does not deplete her experience of Self? To begin to identify strategies of integration, it is necessary to begin an analysis of the transitional events or processes in her life. In the second interpretation, is the presence of alcohol irrelevant to the behaviour? Or, is it an aggravant of the behaviour? Or is it a necessary learning experience to allow the formation of a less repressed sense of self in both sober and non-sober situations? Can it be said that the non-sober self has lessons for the sober self that are not only the lessons of remorse (see below: profile 5. John)?
2. transitional event(s)
The first drink, along with all the other 'firsts' which set off the experienced from the unexperienced, is thus a powerful transitional event. Perhaps surprisingly, there is a lack of independence in her decision making. She drank because everyone else was drinking, she felt she had no say in the matter, she just accepted it. Thus, the transition was experienced passively, as something that happened to her. This in itself, has important educational implications.
The discussion of orientation has established the existence of a boundary between her parents' sobriety and the culture of alcohol in the clubs and parties. Outside the sober home, Maria faces a decision. She can either drink in moderation like her parents, or she can drink beyond their moderation. If she does, then the consequence is 'going a bit wild'. It is possible therefore that Maria has an assumption of "going wild' at parties. She seems to bring no culture from her own background of a critical concern for excessive drinking, or at any rate, problematic drinking is something that happens elsewhere, in other people's lives. At parties, since she has no experience of alcohol related problems, she may assume it is safe to adopt a party persona that stands in distinction to the family persona: she likes to be seen as extrovert "a bit of a nutcase', getting drunk at parties and being outrageous. She also says she goes "to a lot of parties". She goes to parties and she gets "rather drunk". Basically if she goes to a party she expects to get drunk "because that's what I do. I go mad". If she gets drunk at parties and goes to parties a lot it follows that Maria gets drunk a lot. It is also clear that she has no critical purchase on this fact. For her it is simply a matter of confirmation of a certain identity "It's what I do". Drinking and 'going mad' provides a fund of 'stories' by which to show herself in action in ways which support her in developing the sense of a social self.
At this point, there is undoubtedly an opportunity for critical reflection. The major educational problem is that partying and 'going wild' excludes or suspends critical judgement. Thus, it is possible that Maria has not put the number of parties together with the number of times she has got drunk excessively, nor about the ways in which individuals institutionalise events in their lives through the use of alcohol, or even, the abuse of alcohol. Is it possible to argue with Maria for a conception of parties that does not include drunkenness? For her at this point, it may be said, parties and drunkenness are synonymous. Furthermore she has a conviction of her own control in the process of transition from sober to non sober ("wild") states. There are however a number of ways, on the basis of the evidence of her own account, by which this control may be questioned, and then discussed in the broader context of the extent to which alcohol itself undermines control. Of course such discussion has to be handled sensitively. Maria may respond unhappily to suggestions that her control over her actions and decisions within the complex and powerful social contexts that feature alcohol was open to question. Her stories of her self in action are only one of a collection of stories told by others. There is an opportunity here to set these stories into relationship with each other, drawing out the structural patterns, the comparisons and contrasts, identifying the party personas, the dramatis personae, the typical sequences of actions, that emerge in stories of partying. In this way, the focus is shifted from the story teller as hero of the story. With this shift comes a sense of distance as the story is drawn into a more general cultural repertoire of party stories with their tragic and comic heros.
There is an established tradition starting with the Humanities Curriculum Project in this country and the person centred educational traditions in the USA focused around the work of people like Carl Rogers (1969), Assagioli and Perls (c.f., Brown 1975), which deals precisely with the methods by which sensitive and/or controversial subjects and experiences may be handled in the classroom, particularly in the context of open discussion or experiential learning. These and other methods provide strategies by which to allow some of the more challenging questions to arise in a way that does not threaten the individual or undermine the trust and confidence of the group. Such questions may be presented as mere possibilities, as alternative ways of looking at the data, as details of possible interpretation, or as gateways to generalisation, such as: "What is self control and is it always desirable or always possible?". "What does loss of self control mean to other members of the group? What examples can be given either of themselves or others 'losing self-control?'". "What do you think alcohol means in relation to self-control/ inhibition and loss of self - control/ loss of inhibition?".
Specifically in relation to Maria's account the issue is: what counts as control at parties? She defines control in terms of a) 'not having thrown up', b) asserting sexual equality (e.g, 'why is it so unlady-like to get drunk if you want to?'), and c) asserting the morality of having a good time as opposed to disorderly or what she conceives to be undignified behaviour (e.g, 'You don't want to go out and have a fight or anything ... there's some girls who I just can't stand ... they act all tiddly and they go "ooee there's a boy over there".').
The significance of this analysis lies in the fact that telling Maria that she should reduce her alcohol consumption at parties is unlikely to have much impact if it does not include all the subtle relationships of decision that are involved in her understanding of and engagement in parties. In addition it points to the way in which individual experience provides 1] the concrete starting point for more general debate and analysis 2] the stimulus by which the experience of others may be drawn into discussion.
Furthermore both Maria's incomplete account and the preliminary analysis of it that has followed tell us something about the nature of experience and the way in which, in this instance, alcohol functions within it. Actions form sequences that are co-ordinated within narrative structures: a story is told. Certain characters - the dramatis personae - are necessary to this story. And one character is privileged: in this case Maria. She is the Heroine. In this story, the Heroine is transformed from status-less child to a centre of social excitement who has a wild and commanding personality. If a critical act (e.g. drinking) in this pleasurable story (e.g. the story of the party) is omitted, how can the story proceed? And more importantly, how can she emerge as Heroine? This consequence is reinforced by two examples drawn from elsewhere in the study. One male fourth year pupil remarked on seeing a video of the misadventures attending a teenage party where uncontrolled drinking took place, that one of the exciting side effects of such catastrophes is that they "give you something to talk about for weeks after". The second example involved an out-of-school, end-of-fifth-year party with pupils from the school in which the research had taken place. One fifth year boy, already celebrated as something of a character by his contemporaries at the school (which may not have been unconnected to subsequent events), was rushed to hospital as a result of excessive alcohol consumption before the end of the party. He had to have his stomach pumped. Teachers report that his stock as 'legend' is now higher than ever before. There is little trace of censure amongst his peers. If anything there is pleasure in the memory of the drama he created. Nor does there seem to be, generally, a desire to emulate. The moment belongs to the particular individual, a splendid episode like watching a tight rope walker over the Niagara falls.
To returns to Maria's account. At this point, a simple analysis of Maria's
experiences reveals the following decision schemata:
(to be added)
Each sequence from decision to consequences can be related to the paradigmatic narratives which will be developed later in this chapter, as well as to the individual biographies as described in the profiles of section ..... The paradigmatic narratives play a role in the social construction of biographies. These are either passively received or critically chosen. The object of educational strategies is to encourage critical choice. Take for example, the creation of a 'legend' as an option in the above schemata.
'Legend' is a key aspect of a kind of excessive drinking. Much personal, social or health education, much in the way of educational intervention is predicated upon a theory of the personal health and well-being of the individual above all. In the case of legend such health and well-being becomes peripheral. In the event of "the pleasure in the memory of the drama created" the health and well-being of the individual creating the drama is secondary to another kind of good. That is the contribution to the fund of the memory of the community. The individual becomes a function of a collective act of meaning, whereby he or she is the actor to the audience which is the rest of the community. The role of the individual/ personal in a certain sense is 'sacrificial'. The health and well-being or the making of decisions sustaining either can become in certain circumstances and under other influences peripheral or secondary. In this case the largeness of the individual's hangover is a measure of the largeness of their contribution to the mythic life of their peers.
3. Career objects/aims/values
A simple categorisation of careers includes: 1. occupational careers - meeting broadly 'economic' needs; 2. social careers - referring to the continuum between 'conformist' and 'deviant'; 3. biographical careers - refers more specifically to the actual experience of the construction or evolution of the self identity over time. These, of course, may interlace in a mutually supporting, or in a conflicting and potentially damaging manner.
It has already been said that Maria values her family, and in particular her sister. They have, by their attitude towards her, made her feel older than she is, and have provided her with the much prized 'experience'. A major aim is to get more experience. There is, for her, an emergent career of 'wildness' which has the potential to split her life into two distinct domains of action. It is this awareness of the possibility of alternative careers which facilitates educational analysis and action. Transition points out the possibility of alternative futures arising from critical choices made at certain points in one's life. Educational action focuses attention upon these critical moments.
The possible career of 'wildness', and its more temporate articulation as 'bit of a character' stand in contrast to other careers adopted by other members of the dramatis personae involved in accounts of her life. There are the careers of her parents, her sister, her friends and others who are just seen as an audience. What role does she play in stories which centre upon and are told by them?
In order to remain a central character in stories told about her by others she is in a curiously dependent relationship to her audience, the company of responding peers. Extroversion is impossible to achieve alone, it is a social construct. She prizes 'experience' and she prizes 'society'. The one supports status, the other self expression. One is the entry to, and the measure of, the other. What for Maria are the points of vulnerability constructed by her prizing of these 'objects'? She is compelled to follow the career of the extrovert. Parties and drink facilitate this in the construction of her 'wildness' which is the focus of her stories and the structuring of her self image.