Theories of Deviant Drinking

1. A Typology of Sociological Approaches

In a previous section, we examined two different sociological perspectives on alcohol-related related deviance: the normative perspective, which focuses on deviant drinking as norm-violating behavior, and the relativistic perspective, which views labels like "alcohol abuse" or "alcoholic" as socially-constructed definitions of deviant drinking or drinkers. Here, we take a closer look at how these contrasting perspectives are applied in social scientific theories and research on alcohol-related deviance. First, we need to consider another important distinction in the field of alcohol studies: micro-level analyses vs. macro-level analyses.

Some social scientists who use the normative perspective are interested in how the alcohol use of individuals is influenced by groups, such as friends, families, or co-workers. These micro-level theories and research focus on small-scale features of the individual's social environment. For instance, how do friendships with alcohol users affect the individual's own alcohol use? Or, how does social isolation or loose ties to other people affect the individual's drinking behavior? As indicated by these examples, micro-level work deals with how group relationships and interpersonal interaction affect individual drinking behavior. On the other hand, macro-level theories and research within the normative perspective are concerned with large-scale patterns and trends in alcohol use. Here, researchers might attempt to describe and explain variations in rates of alcohol use or drinking problems across different societies or in different historical periods. Sometimes, macro-level research on rates of deviant behavior or medical disorders is referred to as epidemiological research. Clearly, macro-level research on large-scale units like entire societies requires different kinds of methods and data than does micro-level research on individual behavior. This is why the distinction between micro- and macro-levels of analysis is just as important as the distinction between normative and relativistic perspectives on alcohol-related deviance.

The distinction between macro- and micro-level analyses is as also relevant to social scientific work that falls within the relativistic perspective on social definitions of deviance. For instance, a number of relativistic researchers working at the macro-level of analysis have examined how historical changes in drug policy and societal definitions of alcohol problems are related to large-scale patterns of racial and ethnic conflict in American society. Still other relativistic researchers adopt a micro-level focus in research on how individuals get labeled and reacted to as "alcoholics" or "addicts" by family members, police, or doctors. Both approaches are dealing with the social definition of deviant drinking, but at quite different levels of analysis.

Therefore, different sociological theories and types of research on alcohol-related deviance can be classified according to two criteria: (1) the perspective—normative vs. relativistic—implied by a definition of deviance and (2) the level of analysis—macro vs. micro—at which deviant phenomena are studied. As shown in the following typology, this classification results in four relatively distinct sociological approaches to alcohol-related deviance: (1) the macro-normative approach; (2) the micro-normative approach; (3) the macro-relativistic approach; and (4) the micro-relativistic approach. This typology summarizes the major characteristics of each approach.

Typology of Major Sociological Approaches to the Analysis of Deviance

Definition of Deviance and Level of Analysis
Normative Definition (Deviance as Norm Violation)
Relativistic Definition (Deviance as Social Reaction)
Characteristics of Approaches
Macro-Level Analysis
Micro-Level Analysis
Macro-Level Analysis
Micro-Level Analysis
1. Descriptive term for approach
2. Example of theory using approach
Norm Qualities Theory
Social Learning Theory
Conflict Theory
Labeling Theory
3. Central theoretical goal
Explain rates of deviant behavior
Explain deviant behavior of individuals
Understand societal definitions of deviance
Understand reactions to individual deviance
4. Nature and focus of concepts
Large-scale structural and cultural variables
Small-scale interpersonal and group variables
Large-scale political and cultural processes
Small-scale interactional and definitional processes
5. Typical sources of data
Secondary data; survey data; cross-national data
Survey data; case studies
Historical documents; secondary data
Field observation; ethnographic research
6. Application to drug- and alcohol-related deviance
Epidemiological research on patterns of illegal drug and alcohol use
Research on group influences on individuals' drinking and drug use
Historical research on social conflict and changes in alcohol or drug policy
Research on labeling and stigmatization of deviant drinkers and drug users

As shown in the bottom two rows of this typology, the methodologies that sociologists employ in research on drug- and alcohol-related deviance vary substantially depending on their analytical approach. Epidemiological research, which is characteristic of the macro-normative approach, sometimes draws upon secondary data collected by official agencies (such as arrest data) to examine variations and trends in rates of illegal drug or alcohol use. However, many epidemiological researchers now design their own sample surveys to collect data on self-reported substance use among various populations of adolescents or adults. An good example of this strategy is the Monitoring the Future Project, which collects survey data on drug use from representative samples of adolescents in schools across the United States.

Survey research is also used by micro-normative researchers to study patterns and potential causes of individual deviant behavior. Literally thousands of studies have used items on questionnaires or interviews to measure the impact of family and peer relationships, attitudes and beliefs, and other micro-level influences on individuals' self-reported drinking and drug use. Although some micro-normative research takes the form of intensive case studies of the deviant "careers" of individual addicts, most studies of this type report statistical results based on school or community samples of non-clinical populations. In a later section, we will take a close look at a micro-normative investigation of social relationships and marijuana use based on survey data from two university samples.

Drug and alcohol problems have been one of the most fruitful areas for macro-relativistic research on the structural and cultural foundations of societal definitions of deviance. One classic example of this approach is the work of Joseph Gusfield on the "symbolic crusade" against alcohol that resulted in the passage of the 18th amendment to the U.S. constitution. Gusfield's historical analysis, which is discussed in the material on conflict theory linked above, argues that the Prohibition Movement was motivated by a cultural clash between rural Protestants and urban Catholic immigrants around the turn of the 20th century. This and other historical research on laws and policies regulating drinking and drug use have shown that societal definitions of deviance are frequently based on deep cleavages in the structure and culture of American society.

Finally, micro-relativistic research on processes of labeling and social reaction often takes place in natural settings, where sociologists can observe these definitional processes as they happen. For instance, researchers have ridden in patrol cars to observe and record how police react to people who are intoxicated in public. Some of this research indicates that the race or ethnicity of the drinker plays an important role in officers' decisions to arrest or ignore "public drunks." Based on evidence such as this, labeling theorists argue that arrests for drug- or alcohol-related deviance may be influenced more by "who you are" than by "what you do."

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