April 21, 2014

Alcohol and the Social Construction of Social Problems

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

What do we know about the problems associated with alcohol, and how do we know it?

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind is that alcohol is a mainly problem of teens and college students. How do we know this? For one, we are taught at early ages about the dangers of teen drinking. Many universities include alcohol safety awareness as part of orientation programs. And we frequently hear stories in the news about young people who drink and drive or otherwise cause problems while drinking. Researchers study the incidence of teen drinking, often funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government agencies. Then the results of these studies are reported in the news, helping us focus on teens as problem drinkers.

It might come as a surprise to learn that a recent study—also conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—found that teens are the least of all age groups likely to die from alcohol-related deaths. In fact, the older one is the greater the likelihood of an alcohol-related death: 60.3 per 100,000 for those 65 and older compared with 4.1 per 100,000 for those under 20.

Of course the disparities in these numbers are based on age-related factors: people who have been drinking for decades are more likely to experience the cumulative effects of alcohol than young people, such as liver disease, and the under 20 group includes infants and children who are unlikely to abuse alcohol, or to die at all. But the data do include the impact of others’ drinking: being killed by a drunk driver, having an abusive alcoholic parent, or being born with fetal alcohol syndrome.

Based on the data, we might instead conclude that this is a problem mostly associated with being male, as men are more than twice as likely to die of alcohol-related causes as women: 42.4 per 100,0000 for men and 15.8 per 100,000 for women. This is a dramatic difference; we might wonder why in discussions and reports about the dangers of alcohol gender gets so little attention and teens get so much.

This is an example of how social problems are socially constructed. A social construction is a way of seeing or thinking about an issue that is created collectively. We may not be aware of how or why something is socially constructed, so we take this way of seeing an issue for granted.

This doesn’t mean the notion that alcohol causes problems is false—far from it. As the CDC report details, an estimated 88,000 Americans die each year of alcohol-related causes, and excessive consumption costs the nation approximately $223.5 billion dollars according to a 2006 estimate. So yes, alcohol causes lots of problems, but how we collectively think about these problems is socially constructed.

A century ago, many people were also concerned about the effects of alcohol. The temperance movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth century thought that alcohol led to poverty, family violence, crime, and a host of other social ills. They eventually prevailed in getting the Eighteenth Amendment ratified, banning the sale of alcohol in the United States and creating Prohibition.

But the temperance movement’s focus was not on teen drinking, as much of our attention is today. Instead, as sociologists Harry G. Levine and Craig Reinarman discuss, the group under the microscope a century ago were primarily the working class, specifically non-Protestant immigrants in urban areas who were viewed as a threat to native-born, Protestant rural dwellers.

As we now know, Prohibition didn’t work out very well and was repealed thirteen years later after the rise in organized crime, thousands of deaths from homemade alcohol concoctions, and the loss of alcohol-related excise tax revenue. We may have repealed the Eighteenth Amendment with the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933, but Prohibition still exists for people under 21.

Why didn’t the temperance movement focus primarily on teens? It’s not necessarily the case that teens didn’t drink alcohol, but instead they weren’t a particularly feared group during the nineteenth century, as they became in the middle of the twentieth. Not coincidentally, the term “teenager” was first coined by marketers around 1941, a time when adolescents had begun to gradually exit the paid labor force; first due to the Depression, and later thanks to postwar prosperity. Adolescence became viewed as a time of leisure—and danger—during this time. Concerns about delinquency rose, as news stories frequently focused on youth violence and disobedience during the 1950s. (For a cinematic example, see The Blackboard Jungle, released in 1955. It became infamous for featuring a rock and roll song, “Rock around the Clock,” at a time when rock was thought to be associated with delinquency.)

In the last half century, it became collective “common sense” that young people cause problems, and thus it should be no surprise that we focus so much energy on teen drinking—rather than male drinking—as a social problem.

What other examples can you think of that demonstrate how social problems are socially constructed?


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good information.

Great article.

Good information.

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