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. 5. John
1. Orientation
John is now 18 . His legal status in terms of alcohol is an adult one. This distinguishes his experience from that of the others represented by their accounts in this report. Family, work and school remain important priorities in John's life. Despite having an older brother and sister whom he describes as socially somewhat restrained and not providing him with an example of 'going out', John has been going out to discos and parties since he was sixteen. Drinking alcohol he describes as something of a routine amongst his peers, particularly (and it would seem more or less exclusively) at weekends, on Friday and Saturday nights. He himself has been drunk on a number of occasions and experienced what seem to have been some fairly heavy hangovers. But nevertheless his commitments have been to his school work (he hopes to go to university), to his job (a recognition that going out on a Friday night is not conducive to working on a Saturday morning) and to his family (he ensures he is back home at a reasonable time (i.e. a time before his parents might become angry at his lateness). The role alcohol plays in his social life is now significantly altered by the fact that he runs a car. In all cases, it would seem, John balances the exigencies of a number of foci of orientation. He appears generally speaking committed to the moral and social order of his family, community and friends which all function as an inter-related web (or balance) of orientations. Within this, it is clearly permissable for a young man, in the context of a social life amongst other older teenagers amongst whom a normal behaviour, as he himself says, is the consumption of alcoholic drink to some degree or other, to drink regularly (at weekends) and, if circumstances are such, get drunk. Providing, the implication is, that the balance is maintained: the school work gets done, the job does not get lost, the family is not made angry, the car is never driven under the influence of alcohol. Even hangovers are contained within the balance. They are "fine" he says because "you expect that". Thus in the context of a party, a late night and sufficient alcohol , a hangover simply fits. In other words like Maria (see profile 1, above) alcohol and large quantities of it are synonymous with 'going out' (albeit this is changing with his current ownership of a car). Again like Maria, one could ask John how this synonymy came about. What is the content of the assumption that drunkenness and hangovers are the twin pillars that support 'going out'?. Why indeed does he appear to have no questions about this? Is it possible for John to view the role of alcohol in the lives of himself and his peers in a questionable light?

In the case of John his orientations combine to present a seamless world of normal development. There appears little that is problematic in his life. Perhaps one of the hardest decisions he has to make in relation to these orientations is on the Friday night when a good party is on offer. He must decide whether to go to the party in the evening or go to work in the morning. Amongst the prevailing equilibria of his life circumstances, it is here that the balance is thrown into question and he must decide. From his account, it would seem that the good party gets the vote and he phones in sick the next morning for work. But, one imagines that John would not and does not do this often. That would be, in a sense, an unbalancing act, risking the loss of his job, a nodal point in the web of family, work, peer group, education, community and so forth. John, without being a stuffed shirt, appears balanced and responsible. He knows how to enjoy himself even when he is out socially and not drinking because of driving. He enjoys the company of his peers; and he seems to be good company himself. Alcohol is closely identified with having a good time and hangovers are a variable price that has to be paid within a world of balance (a little extra suffering for a little extra enjoyment).

For John a central issue in relation to PSE may well be the issue of reflection itself. Unlike Maria he has no particular banner to wave. He does not describe himself ( c.f. Maria: known "as a bit of a nutcase"). He does not articulate a commitment to a certain identity. This leaves him vulnerable perhaps to unknown aspects of his character, of those parts of himself which do not fit into the seamless web of normal development. Self description , even of the relatively limited, rhetorical kind made by Maria have the potential for creating detachment, or a proving ground (that which matches or enables the expression of the self-description against that which opposes it); may even provide the preliminary grounds for 1) self-examination " Why am I no longer thus (like my self-description)?" or "Am I (my self-description) enough?"; and 2) for critical appraisal of society in relation to the self "Why am I prevented from being thus (like my self description)?" or "What factors support or what factors mitigate against my being like (my self-description) in this peer group culture?". John, it appears from the very limited account thus far, does not have points of critical purchase on his life. His life, in a sense, consists of doing what he is told, of maintaining rather than questioning the given structures, even where it includes the the assumption that having fun is getting 'blotto'. John might take issue with this analysis on the basis that his judgements are predicated upon fundamental social values of cohesion and balance. His life circumstances are successful ones not only in terms of the good fortune of given structures but in his response to them in the course of his development. He may not incline to critical reflection but he knows where to draw the line and promote personal and social survival . Most of the time anyway.

2. transitional event(s)
John provides one of the most revealing and interesting accounts in these seven profiles of the role of alcohol in sustaining experiences of transition and of offering learning from the realm of the non-sober to the sober (see profile 4). It is worth quoting in full because little more need be added in terms of analysis at this stage "[Alcohol] brings out your personality. If you go to a party and you get merry (pleasantly intoxicated with alcohol) and you start joining in with people you've never known before you say "hello, how're you doing, you alright? Can I buy you a drink?" and all this stuff. When you sort of come back, I feel that some of that experience has sort of gone onto your personality, anyway, even when you don't need drinks, you're sort of more open, more extroverted; it brings you self confidence: you can say "I can do it with drinks and I can do it without drinks". It's like a gate, if you like; have a drink, open the gate, and you sort of chat, you say "hello" things you'd never do, to a complete stranger. Then when you see the gate close, but you sort of remember it, and you want to go over there again". Alcohol opens out the self into the world of possibility. Where Chris (profile 3) was able to open the door to experience through his 'experimentation', John has to use alcohol like a magic key.

In this passage we see the social role of alcohol in a sense classically. Much of what John says here has been said of the uses of alcohol throughout history and indeed expresses a universal experience, a 'norm'. Alcohol disinhibits. The precise physiological mechanisms remain uncertain. The extent to which this is also a cultural artefact as much as a physiological effect has been cogently argued elsewhere (Mary Douglas, 1987). Be that as it may, alcohol serves the key social function of easing social barriers when the circumstances call for it. Adolescence is a period characterised in large measure by uncertain confidence in one form or another. It is also a period marked by the transition from dependency to independency, from the sphere of the home and family to the sphere of peer subcultures, sexual discovery and public spaces. Adolescence moves the individual from the more or less certain modus vivendi of the family to the altogether more uncertain business of the 'other', the world beyond the family. In the world beyond the family, how does one construct a public self (the self-for-other) to meet the Self's needs (the self-for-self)? This requires the breaking down of the structures of the Self in the way that it has developed within the family (the self-for-family). It is likely that the self-for-family inhibits the development of the self-for-others.

Thus alcohol as 1] a form of chemical disinhibitor, easily available, interestingly packaged, normally pleasurable in its narcotic effects and 2] as a ritual means of exchange and transaction. Alcohol not only calms anxiety, enhances self confidence, gives "Dutch courage", it also provides a purchase on others, a way of making contact "Hello" John says "Can I buy you a drink?" The drink enables him to make the first contact; and drink enables him to develop it. But crucially, according to John, the experience obtained with the assistance of alcohol (i.e. the proto-typical experiences of what is socially achievable) carry over into his sober life. In this instance alcohol serves as an aid to social learning, or, to put it another way, is an element of PSE in the PSD of the individual. It provides a way of making predictable the unknown world outside of the family.

What's the catch? There is one and it is the issue of control. Alcohol may disinhibit; it may serve a useful social function in unravelling the pragmatic repressions of everyday life. But what happens to decision making in the context of disinhibition? "It brings out your personality" This may well mean a grateful and occasional extroversion, a release from social timidity but it may well mean things of a less agreeable, more mysterious, violent caste. John experienced one such moment, which he describes but still cannot explain. The balanced world of his orientations was slightly, briefly ruptured when under the influence of alcohol. For no reason that he can think of, and quite unexpectedly, in what one would imagine were the agreeable circumstances of a summer barbecue whilst holidaying in Spain, he spat upon the windscreen of a car. What boundary had been crossed at this moment? If alcohol "brings out your personality" what one may ask was being brought out here? What elements or, perhaps, hidden levels of estrangement from his otherwise coherent world of normal development were revealed on the evening of the barbecue. John is as surprised as anyone. "What the hell did I do that for?" he asked himself at the time "It just clicks into your brain" he says "You just feel destructive. It's strange". This world of the 'strange' clearly needs further investigation. It points to something about himself that he does not know.

Of course there are a number of questions arising from this and a number of them have been touched upon in the preceding profiles. Does alcohol create violent urges? Or does alcohol have some amplifying or liberating effect upon usually repressed desires to commit an act of destruction?

3. Career objects/aims/values
At one level John provides a straight forward case of a career of 'normal development'. He wants to go to university and so is committed to studying (and getting) 'A' levels. He has a stable family background, and a controlled but fully enaged social life. Friendship and peer group, Fridays and Saturdays, work, school and the continued stability of his family life are key objects and values. In the context of all this his drinking is 'normal' drinking according to the criteria of his peer group, probably of his parents and in respect of his chronological age. His mates are important, being with them, sharing experiences. He can account for the development of alcohol consumption in terms of the development of himself and his mates. It also constitutes an unremarkable, almost a conventional pattern of development in which alcohol changed its nature as object. Once it was "contraband' with all the associations and excitments of the forbidden which John himself describes. He uses the term "taboo" which interestingly (given its importance) is the only time it is used in any of the 6 profiles. But as a system of values, with particular reference to alcohol, sex, drugs and other PSE related matters, taboo is absolutely central. There is simply not the space in the present document to do more than point this out. But in the context of the classroom, the concept, role, nature, functioning of taboo, in relation to the body, to sex, to the adolescent's adult divide or interface, to the teacher/ pupil relationship and so forth has considerable potential. Of one thing most people can be certain. There may not be alcohol in the classroom but there will certainly be a powerfully functioning system of taboos. Indeed, it may be argued that the central issue of PSE is 'taboo' and/or taboo mindedness. Taboos direct careers. Growing up is always about growing up within a field of the forbidden, with its myriad forms. Obtaining control over one's own learning requires direct engagement with the forbidden. What can we talk about in PSE and what can we not talk about and which has the most power in the realm of PSD?

To return to John's account. Alcohol as object moves from contraband, to the familiar (popping down to the local shop) to the problem of integration into the adult culture of alcohol ("Do I look old enough to go into the pub"). The values inherent in the object remain at one level more consistent. This is the value of pleasure, of having a good time. This value however is not one shared by the younger representatives in these profiles (e.g. Chris). The association for John, and he seems to be speaking for his peers, of alcohol with pleasure seems to have come early in the history of their consumption: "as soon as you've had some, and all your mates are drinking and you just sort of feel like you're having a good time, you know, and you're getting drunk and doing silly things and laughing; it's good times, and so you think "if I have a drink, I'll have a good time".

An object of crucial significance, newly arrived in John's life, is his car. This has changed his relationship to the other object, that of alcoholic drink. It has also changed the sense of what is possible with regard to a pleasurable and sufficiently expressed social life without benefit of alcohol. Because John is 18 years old his profile gives us the opportunity to witness a career, so to speak. What it shows is change. This is clearly an educational issue fundamental to any strategies dealing with alcohol and related PSD concerns. Adolescents (and other people!) are different at different times in their lives and require different educational responses to their dilemmas. This is, of course, a targetting issue as well as a developmental ones. John's profile begins to show us the different kinds of targets he has presented in the course of his development.