The Social Construction of Booze and Pot

What’s socially constructed about alcohol and inebriation, or pot and getting high? Well, almost everything:

New York Times – When People Drink Themselves Silly, and Why:

In a series of studies in the 1970s and ’80s, psychologists at the University of Washington put more than 300 students into a study room outfitted like a bar with mirrors, music and a stretch of polished pine. The researchers served alcoholic drinks, most often icy vodka tonics, to some of the students and nonalcoholic ones, usually icy tonic water, to others. The drinks looked and tasted the same, and the students typically drank five in an hour or two.

The studies found that people who thought they were drinking alcohol behaved exactly as aggressively, or as affectionately, or as merrily as they expected to when drunk. “No significant difference between those who got alcohol and those who didn’t,” Alan Marlatt, the senior author, said. “Their behavior was totally determined by their expectations of how they would behave.”

In a repeat of the session performed for a coming documentary, one participant insisted that she could not have been drinking because alcohol always made her flush.

“We told her that, yes, in fact she was drinking it,” Dr. Marlatt said. “She immediately flushed.”

The above article from the New York Times reminds me a lot of a classic sociology piece by Howard Becker, Becoming a Marihuana User (AJS 1953). That article’s abstract goes as follows:

“An individual will be able to use marihuana for pleasure only when he (1) learns to smoke it in a way that will produce real effects; (2) learns to recognize the effects and connect them with drugs use; and (3) learns to enjoy the sensations he perceives. This perception, based on an analysis of fifty interviews with marihuana users, calls into question theories which ascribe behavior to antecedent predispositions and suggests the utility of explaining behavior in terms of the emergence of motives and dispositions in the course of experience.”

So, comparing the two cases, I think, shows the fuzziness of the divide between biological effects and socially constructed effects. In the 2nd case, we learn that someone only becomes a regular marijuana smoker if they recognize the biologically produced effects as pleasurable and as being caused by the marijuana itself. In the 1st case, we learn that one of the largest observed effects of intoxication – changes in social behavior – occurs when subjects believe they are drinking, even when they are not.

The larger point I want to make from all this is simply to reiterate what I see as a fundamental dictum of sociology: Social construction is not the opposite of reality. Rather, things are real because they are socially constructed.

The effects of alcohol are real – but the source of those effects is not  simply biochemistry, but rather some inflection of underlying physical reality through the complexities of social interaction. Indeed, that inflection can function perfectly well without the underlying physical reality it presumes to have as its trigger (we can act drunk, and in some sense really be drunk, without drinking any actual alcohol). On the other hand, without the proper socialization, someone may never experience being “high”, as “high” is not a direct consequence of the chemistry of marijuana.

In other words, you get high and drunk on social construction, not just pot and booze.

One worthy reminder, from the NYTimes article:

The hope that a wild session might “reveal new things about myself” or “allow me to act completely out of character” is widely echoed in literature, pop culture and drinking lore. If the research is a guide, those hopes should be self-fulfilling at some level.

Unless, that is, the binge goes beyond any reasonable definition of excess. Then the amount of tequila consumed matters very much — and poison is poison in any culture.

The things we experience are real because they are socially constructed, but that doesn’t mean if you drink whiskey all night long thinking it’s water you won’t get alcohol poisoning. Understanding and accepting social construction doesn’t require rejecting anything physical.



  1. david

     /  March 9, 2008

    i’m sure you’re familiar with the rat park experiment.

    quite interesting study, though considered dubious by the academic community. yet, i have been unable to find any concrete reasons why. it’s rather difficult to disentangle the study’s claimed flaws from the politics of academia.

    not exactly a direct lesson in social construction, but related nonetheless in terms of the influence of context on that realm of biology which we so often consider to be “exclusively real.”

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