Report submitted to funders in 1989, John Schostak, Richard Davies

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Appendix Critical decisions in: Accounts, Encounters and Learning about Life

The purpose of this appendix is to illustrate the complexity of the encounter and to place it as a central term in the forming of strategies adequate to dealing with the development of alcohol awareness. During an encounter, problems of varying kinds arise that require choices to be made. In describing an encounter and the choices made, reasons are given. However, the reasons that are given do not necessarily follow a simple logic. In making explicit the range of encounters, this part of the study also makes explicit the range of reasons attributed to action. The encounters and the reasons culminate in the individual's sense of 'knowledge about life' and the 'everyday logic' or everyday rationality that makes the actions seem plausible or even inevitable to the social actors themselves.

An encounter is typically a situation which is charged by some identifiable feeling, emotion and cognitive/conceptual viewpoint. That is to say, an encounter can determine and condition responses in ways which are experienced as compelling to the individual. Such encounters are talked about or turned into accounts by individuals as they make sense of, communicate or express something of their everyday life to others. Such accounts can arise spontaneously during conversation, or can be provoked during more formal encounters say between teachers and pupils, or between researchers and their respondents. It is important to keep these two kinds of accounts analytically and methodologically separate. It is the latter type which dominates the following data analyses. This is significant in developing programmes for reasons which will be discussed during this report. Consider the following example of an account produced during a research interview:

RD: What is having a "whale of a time"? What are you doing "dossing about"?
S: Playing cards, smoking, drinking, going after the girls.
RD: How many are there in your group?
S: About nine of us.
RD: And you all meet fairly regularly.
S: Usually the first two to get out, at night about six o'clock, go after the others. Sort of split up. Arrange to meet at the bus shelter. Get round to get all the others out. And then we all go and doss about.
RD: How do you finance it all? It can't be cheap.
S: No it isn't cheap. But ...we always make sure we've got a good supply of fags before we go out each night. And then we sort of limit ourselves to how much we spend each person. So..we manage.
RD: Is there a lot of sharing?
S: Yea. I mean if someone's got to get something and they're a bit short, then we all more or less chip in and help them. Like we did that bottle of whisky. It wasn't just me and a mate. All the others thought, yeah, great, bottle of whisky, just get it. So everyone sort of chipped in about it.

This account of encounters made between friends, meeting at the bus stop is one of comradeship, fun and sharing which generates therefore a sense of comradely obligations where each 'chip in' for the bottle of whisky. It describes what the boy considers to be 'having a whale of a time' this becomes the 'rationale' behind the action of 'chipping in'. There is also something idealised about this account. In order to make further sense of it, and to 'get behind' or 'unpack' the idealised nature of this account, other related kinds of data need to be gathered. In order to 'triangulate' this account, it needs to be compared and contrasted with other similar accounts and there also needs to be an observational element. Since this study concentrated upon a school based field-site, the observations could not be made. However such observations are feasible during future research.

A contrasting kind of encounter involves the generation of unwanted obligations from which an individual seeks escape, either within the encounter or subsequently. For example, the experience of a 16 year old girl described by a teacher as "a leader, completely capable, streetwise" and who was "a leader in the youth club, trusted by the youth club" and viewed as "the toughest girl in her group". She recounted the events of one evening in a fashionable pub in the city centre close to the club and discotheque areas. She told the interviewer that a friend had challenged her: "I bet you can't drink six double whiskys". At this stage she claimed already have drunk one pint of lager and had a vodka and orange "on the go". She fulfilled the bet with consequences including a four hour hospitalisation and stomach pumping. The director of the Senior Tutorial Centre with whom she had also spoken about that evening said later "She saw that the two men who were getting her and her friend drunk had 'one thing in mind' as she put it. They were after one she decided to get so drunk that they wouldn't be interested. That's a conscious decision on the part of a 16 year old". The last thing she said she remembered was "rolling on the ground outside the pub" being violently sick and the ambulance arriving to collect her. Another consequence of that evening, is that in the two months since she says she has not had any alcoholic drink and she has been "put off whisky for life".

In both these accounts, something is being learnt about life. Alcohol has been an essential ingredient in what has been learnt. Both were told in the context of having a good time. The first maintained the experience of 'having a whale of a time', the second ended in the experience of having been duped for the purpose of being exploited and let down by so-called friends. Her decision to drink until she was utterly helpless was rationally made according to the principle (albeit naive) that she would be no good to the men in sexual terms if she made herself 'so drunk that they wouldn't be interested'. Her decision making can easily be criticised, but the point is clear that when decision making takes place within dramatic contexts different kinds of criteria are employed than the purely informational. She could have said to herself 'these men are no good, alcohol in excess is known to be bad for the health, therefore I will leave this situation'. She was perfectly aware of these facts. She did not. Why? Because much more was at stake. She had reasons to account for her actions but something else was at stake which reduced the options that were open to her in that specific encounter. It is this area of 'what is at stake' in any dramatic context where alcohol features that is essential to uncover for the purposes of targeting programmes.