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 2. Laura
In comparison with Maria, Laura's relationship to her family appears to be considerably more complex. There is a split in her orientation towards her family, since mother and father are separated. There is the inclusion of a third party to the family in 'the boyfriend' of the mother. There is a feeling that she is being squeezed out. There is also a sense in which 'family' and 'home' have a boundary between them. Home is marked out as the place that is distinct from the 'bad area'. Home takes on the connotation of being a safe haven from the area. Home does not connote family as it does with Maria. Where Maria finds her support in her family (and in particular her sister who has inducted her into 'experience'), Laura finds her support in her mates. The more powerful orientation, is thus towards those peers who are her friends, but not those peers who constitute the 'bad area'. When friends move away from the estate she can find herself isolated. At this stage in her life she is not oriented towards much activity. She appears to have little enthusiasm. This makes her vulnerable to boredom. Indeed she suffers boredom. For example, although school is a drag, she prefers to to be there than at home. It would seem that the space in which alcohol use or abuse, smoking or other forms of behaviour with the potential for misadventure or 'harm' is to be found in holiday time or weekends when she has 'nothing to do'. School is an environment in which activity is provided and in the case of Laura who appears not much interested in school work per se, most of this is provided by her friends. On the basis of her account Laura would not seem to be someone who generates much of her own activity. The central issue then, in terms of alcohol, is not one of a peer culture of pubs and nightclubs, or even a concern with adult status or of a certain identity, as in the case of Maria, but one of boredom in a context of powerlessness. Alcohol has the potential of adventure, of something to do. On one of the two occasions that she has got drunk it was for precisely this reason. It was "just something to do".
Laura may well argue that she has firm opinions regarding alcohol and learnt
important lessons about it. Having been drunk, for whatever reason (in one case
to engage in an occasion, Christmas, in the other to create an occasion 'raiding
the drinks cabinet') she has learnt that she does not like it, that she will
avoid doing it again. Particularly what she does not like is the loss of control.
What for Maria is the good of "going a bit wild" is for Laura the
bad of "making you crazy". Thus Laura in a context of perhaps greater
felt powerlessness than Maria has a greater aversion to the disinhibiting effects
of alcohol. But of course a key factor is age. Laura is three years younger
than Maria. If Laura becomes drunk it is 'abnormal', it is strongly disapproved
of by her mother, a most infrequent occurrence, and not sanctioned or culturally
buttressed by her peer group. With Maria becoming drunk, going "a bit wild"
is a kind of norm, especially in connection with parties.
However Laura at this stage in her life is oriented 'away' from pubs and her limited experience of the consumption of alcohol has left her averse to getting drunk. Maria at the same stage was already oriented towards the culture of pubs, nightclubs etc by virtue of the companionship of her older sister. For Laura, through her experience as 'witness' as opposed to consumer, pubs have little appeal e.g. "They stink". Laura has encountered pubs, not in the glamorous company of an older sister's friendship group of young people, but with her family. The pub for Laura (unlike Maria) is not a glamourous symbol of the boundary between home/ family and the public world/ adulthood. Instead, it signifies 'stink', ludicrousness, and the absurdity of the hangover. Where Maria seldom if ever saw her parents suffering a hangover, Laura has vivid memories of her mother doing so. So while Laura from one perspective may be seen as more vulnerable in relation to alcohol then Maria ; (i.e. her family goes to the pub and at time takes her with them, her family is split, she lives in 'a bad area', she has seen her mother with hangovers, she tends to boredom when not at school), she has a firmer critical purchase on the potentially negative aspects of alcohol consumption. Safety is important to her but the question that may be asked of Laura is the extent to which a desire for safety inhibits the construction both of purposeful activities and the excercise and development of personal autonomy. The educational response here may be to garner more information from Laura. There are other questions that may be asked, more debate generated from the materials of Laura's experience. Laura herself may contribute more data and more insight, at any rate further learning in the course of continued thought and discussion.
Unlike Maria she appears susceptable to the vagaries of other people's decisions; e.g. to move away, or to stay in the house and "take over" her room. She has no control as it were over these caprices of fate. Nor does she seem to expect it. What bearing may this have upon the sense she may develop of the significance of her own decision making in relation to her own life? To what extent does she credit her life circumstances with the possibility of her own responsibility for them? This has implications for her potential use of alcohol. When the opportunity or the circumstances arise for its consumption an already somewhat attenuated sense of personal responsibility for (or of power over) her own life may disable her from a controlled use of alcohol. The evidence of her story seems to bear this out But Laura may have other views about this and these are needed .
Nevertheless, on the strength of the story so far told, there is an opportunity here for wider discussion with the group about the notion of 'responsibility". What is it? Responsibility to oneself? Responsibility for one's own life? Responsibility to others? Responsibility for others (such as younger siblings, pets, possessions etc)? A central aim of an education concerning itself with alcohol must be the development of the capacity of making responsible choices. Perhaps others in the group may be able to contribute their own experiences of 'having' responsibility, of behaving responsibly, of 'feeling' responsible, of being the responsibility of others (i.e. parents, older siblings etc). What would be the price of a failure of responsibility? In the context of alcohol there are clearly responsible and irresponsible choices, to be made, such as drinking and driving. How are these forms of responsibility defined and by whom? Examples could be generated of irresponsible behavoiur; episodes could be recounted. A central educational issue being that PSE is concerned to generate a critical awareness of the concept of responsibility, in preparation for adult life, for leaving home, for citizenship, for raising a family; that is, not only for one's own life and actions but for others and within the social and political domain. For example, who is responsible and what is responsibility in the context of learning in the classroom? Can one talk of young people showing responsibility when they are given none, when they may not sense their lives as their own? Further exploration of these questions requires an action research structure to underpin the development of educational responses relevant to Laura's needs and experiences.
To return to Laura's account. The relationship with her mother is games-like, in the psychological sense popularised by Eric Berne (1968). She likes to get her mum angry, it is her entertainment. There is a sense here of having control, of manipulating circumstances. The data so far presented invite a degree of psychoanalytic speculation that would not be appropriate to pursue without more data, particularly concerning the home life. Nevertheless, there is enough to suggest a 'nesting' of orientations which emerge from an initial split between Father and Mother:
level 1 Father / Mother + Boyfriend // AREA
level 2 (Absent Father) / Mother // Daughter /// AREA
level 3 HOME / AREA
Without further data, this can only be a crude analysis of the nested levels. Level 1 sets out the parental triangle in the family. Home as a 'family' is split but is still set against the Area. Within this, at level 2, there is the added split between mother and daughter which is articulated as daughter wanting to get her mother angry. The third level glosses over the internal splits at levels 1 and 2 in order to foreground the major home/area split so that home can be a unified signifier of 'safety', just as all the complex processes and structures of the community are glossed over in the word 'area' to signify danger. When the orientation shifts to include friends, then the AREA must be split to provide a structural level that looks something like:
level 4 Home + AREA-friends / AREA-dangerous-others
Although friends logically are outside of the Home, they are not associated with the Area but are placed oppositionally to it on the side of the 'safe'. Friends signify safety and support whereas Area signifies danger and threat. Yet, both Self and friends live in the Area.
This simple structural analysis of the levels could be made considerably more sophisticated with the addition of further data. Data in this case would not only satisfy theoretical interests but would be motivated by educational interests. A teacher, would be able to identify the next steps to gathering data for educational purposes. The educational clues reside in the fact that each split in orientations are maintained by associated discourses. The educational research question at this point is, what are the discourse strategies employed by the young person to maintain their views of the world and their actions within it? The answer must wait for a more detailed discussion of cultural and sub-cultural contexts. It is these that provide the repertoire of maxims, anecdotes, family and community histories, folk-lore and traditions which shape individual experiences and provide the knowledge, rituals, and forms of social conduct necessary to pass as a competent member of a community or sub-cultural group (Schostak 1983, 1986)
2. transitional event(s)
Transitions imply boundaries crossed. The fact of crossing boundaries can be kept from significant people in the life of the individual. So, for example, Maria can keep her 'wildness' distinct from her sober existence. It is like passing from one stage with its particular dramatis personae, story and audience, to another quite different stage, actors and audience. Orientations set up boundaries between contexts and within contexts. Like Maria, Laura marks a transition where she feels big or grown up. Like Maria, it is the objects of consumption that allow her to feel mature. But some boundaries are not meant to be crossed. They are there as prohibitions, or as danger signs that say 'turn back' or 'don't cross' or if one has to cross then 'cross with extreme caution'. Laura when she has no memory of her drunken behaviour passes such a boundary wheras Maria does not perceive herself as doing so. However, to make an educational transition, it is often necessary to cross into such 'forbidden' or 'dangerous' territories.
It is important therefore to study how the young person generates and maintains the boundaries, transitions and areas of danger in their lives. How do they talk about them? How do they justify and account for their actions? What function do they serve in the life of the young person? Indeed, what functions do they serve for the perpetuation of the cultures and sub-cultures which they inhabit? As the young person generates and maintains boundaries, transitions and areas of danger, narratives of transition, of heroic or tragic or comic action are generated, just like the more ancient stories of the frog-to-prince transformations of folklore. Such transformations are typically brought about by or associated with the use of magic substances, or objects, people or abilities which confer the powers necessary for transformation or transition (Propp 1968).
For example, the cigarette has certain properties much like the magical substance of fairy stories and myths. However, the cigarette can be experienced in a way which is double-edged. Laura recognises the power of addiction. A critical event involving her grandfather identified smoking as a dangerous pursuit. However, smoking had been associated with growing up, a desirable pursuit. Structurally, smoking set up a distinguishing boundary between childhood and adulthood and enabled her to cross that boundary Having made that transition, she then experienced being caught in an addiction when she felt pressured to 'give up' and could not. The experience of her grandfather falling ill frightened her. Yet, it was difficult to give up. Addiction generated a new boundary, as dificult to cross as the initial boundary was easy to cross. The new boundary and its transition point generated a new discourse, the discourse of addiction and of 'giving up'. The structure has now become one of traps within traps. Smoking, of course, feeds a major industry within the economic life of the world. Laura is a consumer of products. Laura's experiences must therefore be set within this pervasive economic context which links consumption with the expression of identity. There are powerful economic and media structures which continually circulate the images associated with adolescent transition: smoking, drinking, partying.
3. Career objects/aims/values
The effect of the commercial exploitation of transition is to generate career patterns which must continually be fed by the objects or commodities which signify successful transition within a given society, culture and sub-culture. The adolescent is thus drawn into the need to provide for his or her career. This then leads to questions of the adolescent economy.
Laura's own economy is based around baby sitting to pay for the things she likes to consume. The objects in her world derive from the splits in orientations e.g., mother as tormented object; friend as source of supportive valuations; smoking, drinking, stealing as interrelated objects in an economy of consumption and money. How all these hang together to produce her potential careers (thief, addict, low paid, low skill employee) is not clear. An educational relationship needs to be established through which the ways in which the psychological games she is playing with her mother, and the splits in her experience of the world combine to produce compulsive or addictive responses.