The litany of alcohol-related violence continues unabatedly to fill the newspapers and other media – especially in intimate partner and interpersonal relationships. But sadly, very little is being done to deal with the high level of alcohol abuse. While the scourge exists in all communities, like that other social pathology suicide, it is particularly prevalent among Indian Guyanese, with both arising from their indentureship experience. That origin also helped shape their reaction to alcohol consumption, which – a fact not widely known – is always socially constructed.
Provided alcohol by the plantation administration sometimes in lieu of wages, and facilitated later by permitting rum shops to be established outside “pay offices”, Indians expressed their frustrations with plantation life by venting their anger violently on each other. Violence – especially against wives and children — and alcoholism became a feature of Indian plantation life. This continued off the plantation into the present.
The epidemiological literature on alcohol consumption in New York makes a relevant point for us in Guyana: in measuring drinking problems, there were “clear cut, significant and persistent group differences…the groups with the lowest incidence of alcohol abuse, the Jews and Italians, have (a) the lowest abstinence rates among these groups, and (b) (especially the Italians) the highest consumption rates.” Alcohol abuse is a sociological problem.
Counterintuitively, then, the groups that drink the most and have the least number of members that abstain from alcohol have the least problems with alcohol abuse. One study of Irish-Americans in Boston over a 40-year period found that they were “7 times as likely to develop alcohol dependence as Italian-Americans — this despite the Irish-Americans having a substantially higher abstinence rate.” What is going on? If nothing else, alcohol abuse is not an individual idiosyncrasy, and socio-cultural factors are as crucial as physiological and psychological ones.
“Ways of drinking and of thinking about drinking are learned by individuals within the context in which they learn ways of doing other things and of thinking about them. That is, whatever else drinking may be, it is an aspect of culture about which patterns of belief and behaviour are modelled by a combination of example, exhortation, rewards, punishments, and the many other means, both formal and informal, that societies use for communicating norms, attitudes, and values.”
Another counterintuitive finding of anthropological studies is that aggression is not ineluctably linked to alcohol consumption. “Worldwide, however, such (aggressive) behaviour is typically quite rare, even among people who drink a great deal. Numerous anthropological studies demonstrate that alcohol-related violence is a learned behaviour, not an inevitable result of alcohol consumption.”
“The way people comport themselves when they are drunk is determined not by alcohol’s toxic assault upon the seat of moral judgment, conscience, or the like, but by what their society makes of and imparts to them concerning the state of drunkenness.”
“Cross-cultural evidence from diverse populations around the world shows that some have habitual drunkenness with little aggression, others show aggression only in specific drinking contexts, or against selected categories of drinking companions, and so forth. Such widespread and diverse variation contradicts the view — shared by both `common sense’ and much scientific writing — that characterises alcohol as having a relatively direct pharmaconeurological effect in triggering aggression.”
What has also been shown to be true is that cultures into which alcohol was forcibly introduced as a measure of control within a very compressed time had no time to evolve positive drinking norms, and in fact imbibed the foisted notion that the alcohol was a precursor to “letting off steam”. This was the case with Indians in the Caribbean. “The major colonial powers exported to those areas of the globe that fell under their control not only models of drunken behaviour, but also a host of beliefs about the effects of alcohol on human beings. It may be that the widespread belief in alcohol as a disinhibitor is nothing but an ethnocentric European folk belief foisted on subject peoples around the world during the heyday of colonialism.”