Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: alcohol from Philip's Encyclopedia

Organic compound having a hydroxyl (-OH) group bound to a carbon atom. Ethanol (C2H5OH) is the alcohol found in alcoholic drinks. Some other members include ethanol, propanol, and butanol. Alcohols are used to make dyes and perfumes and as solvents in lacquers and varnishes.


Summary Article: Alcohol
from The SAGE Encyclopedia of Food Issues

Drinking alcohol is both a physical and a cultural act, and alcohol functions as food and as drug. As a food, it provides calories, vitamins, and protection from polluted water supplies. As a mild intoxicant, shared between friends, it promotes social cohesion and allows for celebrations important to secular and religious social functioning. As a drug, it intoxicates, disrupts social life, and can cause addictions. This entry discusses the history and role of alcohol in societies.

Cultural Beliefs and Practices

One way to imagine these tensions is to characterize cultural beliefs and practices about alcohol use on a continuum between axes of food versus drug and intoxicant versus addiction, which allows for a conceptual mapping of how alcohol is perceived in each culture. Every society has different expectations for use, and there is much variation in rules and regulation of alcohol from culture to culture. But because alcohol also has distinct and predictable physical effects, there is similarity across cultures as well. To begin with a focus on the intoxicant versus addictive agent scale, Dwight Heath (2000) maintains that there are predictable rules that operate in every culture that uses alcohol:

  1. In most societies, drinking is a social act, embedded in a context of values, attitudes, and other norms.

  2. These values, norms, and attitudes influence the effects of drinking, regardless of how important biochemical, physiological, and pharmacokinetic factors may also be to the experience of drinking.

  3. The drinking of alcoholic beverages tends to be hedged with rules. Often such rules are the focus of exceptionally strong emotions and sanctions.

  4. The value of alcohol for promoting relaxation and sociability is emphasized in many populations and most populations treat alcohol intake as an act of celebration or something appropriate for celebrations.

  5. The association of drinking with any kind of specifically associated problems is rare among cultures throughout both history and the contemporary world.

  6. When alcohol-related problems do occur, they are clearly linked with modalities of drinking, and usually also with values, attitudes, and norms about drinking. What is normal for consumption defines the abnormal that is considered a problem. Societies that consider drunkenness shameful or disgusting usually have less incidence of intoxication.

  7. Attempts at prohibiting alcohol use (like Prohibition) have never been successful except when couched in terms of sacred or supernatural rules.

  8. In cultures where drinking is considered heroic, masculine, or desirable it tends to be embraced. These positive evaluations may provide little defense against the risks and dangers of excessive drinking.

  9. Societies in which alcohol is disallowed to the young, and in which alcohol is considered to enhance the self by conferring sex appeal or power, tend to have youth who drink too much, too fast, for inappropriate or unrealistic reasons. (pp. 196–198)

American beliefs about alcohol tend to grant it heroic status, restrict it from youth and tolerate drunken behavior, and our laws and regulations reflect these beliefs. Additionally, Americans currently view alcohol as a drug rather than as a food. According to Heath's observations, it is a cultural construction almost perfectly designed to encourage regulation, overuse, and abuse.

History of Alcohol Use: Food or Drug?

While alcohol is now regarded largely as a curse, during the colonial period, beer and cider were important sources of nutrients and fluids for men, women, and children. Alcohol was considered necessary because it was a safe drinking fluid, provided easily absorbed calories to a hard-working farming population, allowed for safe storage of grains and fruits, was an important economic product, and prevented boom and bust cycles in the farming economy because grain could be converted to easily stored and transported ale and whiskey. During the 19th century, the rise of Temperance Movement changed American ideas about alcohol; while the original intent of Temperance Movement organizers was to encourage drunkards to reform by giving up hard alcohol (spirits), over time, it morphed into a political and religious movement to outlaw production, distribution, and use of alcohol entirely. Beliefs about alcohol shifted from a healthful and enjoyable beverage to a dangerous and seductive drug. This belief predominates in the United States today, even though alcohol is legal in all 50 states with bars and liquor stores present in most cities and towns.

Reimaging alcohol as a drug ignores many thousands of years of more positive human use. Alcohol has been an important agricultural product and a good source of calories since the dawn of agriculture and, possibly even before. Archeological and historical evidence suggests that alcohol was considered a food by most cultures until distilled spirits, which have far higher alcohol content, became a common tipple. Alcohol has been incorporated into religious and secular rituals and has been used to produce, consolidate, and display economic and social power.

While the dangers of alcohol always have been recognized, the value of the social and nutritional functions to early agricultural societies guaranteed that alcohol remained on the table and that appropriate social rules were developed to limit its danger to individuals and communities. Because early farmers may not have produced grains in large enough quantities to allow frequent beer or wine production, and since most rural and traditional societies expect people to drink together and in public, it is possible that abuse and addiction were infrequent. Alcoholism, as we currently understand it, may very well have been almost unknown in ancient societies, although the consequences of overuse and abuse would have been obvious. The nature of our relationship with alcohol changed after the development of distillation, and especially when hard alcohol became an important economic trade item. For the first time in history, alcohol was cheap and concentrated enough to encourage easy intoxication on a regular basis—only a few shots, and the drinker could be nearly insensible. The low alcohol content of beer means that drinking a sufficient volume for extreme intoxication may overwhelm the capacity of the stomach and cause vomiting. Wine is stronger than beer, and most wine-drinking cultures have social rules about how, when, where, and how much to drink. Spirits are cheap to produce, are easy to store and trade, and enable fast and dangerous drinking. Hard alcohol is a drug, not a food: While it certainly provides calories, the proof is too high to be a good source of nutrients.

Drinking patterns in the United States are influenced by our particular social development as a colony established at the same time that spirits became a common drink. Unlike European cultures that had a tradition of using beer and wine as everyday foods and could contrast such use with that of distilled alcohol, the young United States was established during the period in which spirits were causing widespread problems in both the Old and New Worlds. The United States is one of a handful of countries that have implemented a secular ban on alcohol sales. Prohibition (the period during which trade in alcohol was made illegal in the United States after the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920) fueled a nationwide cocktail culture that glorified sophisticated nightlife and the martini. Hollywood romanticized drinking from the 1930s through the 1980s, when a neo-temperance movement once again made alcohol déclassé. But bars, nightclubs, and drinking events remain an important part of American social life and identity, and taking a first legal drink at age 21 remains an important rite of passage.

Cultural Roles

According to Mary Douglas, alcohol performs three important social tasks. Alcohol use (how it is shared and with whom) constructs the world “as it is.” Alcohol use charts how people interact with each other and reveals unwritten rules about conduct and social life. Alcohol use also defines identities and social groupings because those who are culturally allowed to drink together often have connections in other social realms, such as marriage and/or business. Drinking together indicates a connected social world and reveals connections between people. As a second example of the world “as it is,” the rules surrounding hospitality are important in most cultures with behavioral expectations of host and guest made clear as a part of good manners. It would be a grave social error to charge for drinks at a wedding, since a wedding reception is defined as a ritual party given by the parents of the married couple for the community of friends and family. The parents are hosts and must give hospitality rather than sell it. They, in turn, derive social power and hierarchy through being hosts; their social status rises because they give away food and drink to their community members.

Second, drinking constructs an ideal world by defining relations between people and giving cultural structure to the connections between gods and men. Most cultures with alcohol integrate it into religious rituals—the sacrament of communion is a good example. The communion could be described as a representation of the covenant between God and humankind; the wine stands for the commitment between the two parties, just as the community toast at a wedding represents the social acknowledgment of the commitment the new couple bears to each other. An otherwise social union—marriage—is made “official” by shared drinking as surely as communion represents being a part of a religious community. On more humble planes, who drinks with whom, where, and when often maps culturally normative relationships between age and gender cohorts. One unwritten rule prevalent among Americans is that people of different generations shouldn't drink (to intoxication) together; it's considered odd, for instance, for generations up or down to join a drinking party between same-age friends.

Douglas's third function is economic; every society that uses alcohol creates economic structures for production, distribution, and consumption, and alcohol usually provides significant revenue to producers and the state. Alcohol functions economically in a number of ways. It employs millions of people in direct production and advertising, distribution, and service jobs. It demonstrates economic control and power through taxation, rights to produce and distribute, monopolies and ownership of the means of production as well as the “earned” right to drink through hard work and ability to buy. Since it is a high-status item in most cultures, ownership of alcohol production and distribution capacities is often a mark of economic distinction; a good example is desire among the wealthy to own vineyards.

Consumption of branded alcohol provides a means to articulate status and identity through demonstrations of choice and purchasing power. This refers to connoisseurship as well as distribution in the gift economy. Drinking alcohol in the modern world of branded consumption has become a performance that signals social and economic characteristics of the self (unlike our ancestors, who drank a local beer and probably not much else), so what you drink and where and how you drink it becomes a matter of great social importance. Modern cultural actors use alcohol to signal something about themselves to others; like many consumer items, it can be used to construct a sense of self while also communicating scripted personal qualities to other people. And finally, because centralized political power is often linked to alcohol production monopolies, many cultures develop alternate economies of production and distribution as resistance to mainstream power and control. Such black markets have immense social power and meaning even if not official.

Why Is Alcohol Popular?

One of the finest attributes of alcohol is that it is reliably dose-dependent. Most intoxicants are far more unpredictable. Alcohol has highly predictable dose–response results, and because drinkers can usually sense the relative strength of a drink, it is not too difficult to regulate effect. This is probably one reason why alcohol tends to usurp the place of other drugs in cultures that are introduced to it through trade or cross-cultural exchange. Alcohol allows for social intake in a way in which other drugs do not. Of course, at high dosages, alcohol also promotes antisocial behaviors, from narcissistic babbling to violence, and that is why every culture has strong rules about how to drink. Cultural actors are expected to learn how to drink appropriately in order to contribute to a shared experience.

See also Alcohol Regulations, History of; Artisanal Spirits; Wine

Further Readings
  • Ames, G. (1985). American beliefs about alcoholism. In G. Ames; L. Bennett (Eds.), The American experience with alcohol (pp. 23-39). Plenum Press New York NY.
  • Barr, A. (1999). Drink: A social history of America. Carroll & Graf New York NY.
  • Burnett, J. (1999). Liquid pleasures. Routledge New York NY.
  • Clark, N. (1976). Deliver us from evil: An interpretation of American prohibition. W. W. Norton New York NY.
  • Douglas, M. (Ed.). Constructive drinking: Perspectives on drink from anthropology. Cambridge University Press Cambridge UK.
  • Engs, R. (1995). Do traditional western European drinking practices have origins in antiquity? Addiction Research, 2(3), 227-239.
  • Gately, I. (2008). Drink: A cultural history of alcohol. Gotham Books New York NY.
  • Gusfield, J. (1986). Symbolic crusade: Status politics and the American Temperance Movement (2nd ed.). University of Illinois Press Urbana.
  • Heath, D. B. (2000). Drinking occasions: Comparative perspectives on alcohol and culture (International Center for Alcohol Policies, Series on Alcohol on Society). Taylor & Francis Philadelphia PA.
  • Levine, H. G. (1993). Temperance cultures: Alcohol as a problem in Nordic and English-speaking cultures. In M. Lader; G. Edwards; D. C. Drummon (Eds.), The nature of alcohol and drug-related problems (pp. 16-36). Oxford University Press New York NY.
  • MacAndrew, C.; Edgerton, R. B. (1969). Drunken comportment. Aldine Chicago IL.
  • McGovern, P. (2009). Uncorking the past: The quest for wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages. University of California Press Berkeley.
  • Rorabaugh, W. J. (1979). The alcoholic republic: An American tradition. Oxford University Press New York NY.
  • Sherratt, A. (1995). Alcohol and its alternatives. In J. Goodman; P. E. Lovejoy; A. Sherratt (Eds.), Consuming habits: Global and historical perspectives on how cultures define drugs (2nd ed., pp. 11-45). Routledge London UK.
  • Standage, T. (2005). A history of the world in 6 glasses. Walker New York NY.
  • Warner, J. (2002). Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of reason. Four Walls Eight Windows New York NY.
  • Janet Chrzan
    Copyright © 2015 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles


    Full text Article ALCOHOL
    Dictionary of Probation and Offender Management

    Alcohol is the most common psychoactive drug in the world, consumed by most people in varying quantities with little or no ill effect. If used...

    Full text Article ALCOHOL
    Condensed Encyclopedia of Polymer Engineering Terms

    Alcohols refer to those compounds that are formed when a hydroxyl group (-OH) is substituted for a hydrogen. They have the general formula R-OH....

    Full text Article Alcohol
    The Atlas of Food

    11% of male deaths in Europe and 9% in the Americas in 2002 were caused by alcohol ALCOHOL is not normally thought of as a food, but it is a high

    See more from Credo