Saturday, June 21, 2014

Drunken behavior depends on cultural norms

A basic anthropological insight about drugs and alcohol is that the effect of a drug is a result not just of biology, but also of culture. The classic argument on this is “Drunken Comportment,” a 1969 book in which Craig MacAndrew and Robert B. Edgerton said that the effects of alcohol depended on local expectations. They wrote that when Americans drank, they fought, argued and were much more relaxed about sex.

When American undergraduates get drunk, they throw sofas out of the frat house and wake up next to people they didn’t think they knew. That’s because we Americans think that alcohol is disinhibiting and that we can’t really control what we do.

That’s not necessarily the case in other cultures. Mr. MacAndrew and Mr. Edgerton gave example after example of people in other cultures who drank plenty of strong alcohol but didn’t behave as Americans did when drunk. In these societies drunks became silent, “thick-lipped,” or they grew talkative, but not violent. ...

How people act when drunk, these anthropologists argue, is a learned behavior. People learn what it is to be drunk and what drunkenness permits.

Since then, anthropologists have demonstrated that this principle applies — to some degree — to the experience of many different drugs. As Eugene Raikhel of the University of Chicago summarizes the literature, drug experience is determined not only by the body’s chemistry but also by local ideas about what those drugs should do.

Right now, for many people, marijuana conjures up the mellow calm of the Rocky Mountain high. But that mellowness is associated with a set of cultural cues that may not be shared by all who buy legal cannabis. Alcohol is a factor in about 40 percent of violent crimes, according to surveys of perpetrators. Let’s hope that the meaning of being high doesn’t migrate.