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Globalization, differentiation and drinking cultures, an anthropological perspective

Thomas Wilson


Alcohol is not only big business, it has become an essential part of social relations in so many cultures that its global importance may be outdistancing its critics. Despite grim health warnings, its consumption is at an all-time high in many parts of the developed world. Perhaps because drinking has always played a key role in identity, its uses and meanings show no signs of abating. What does sake tell us about Japan or burgundy about France? How does the act of consuming or indeed abstaining from alcohol tie in with self-presentation, ethnicity, class and culture? How important is alcohol to feelings of belonging and notions of resistance? Answering these intriguing questions and many more, this article looks at alcohol consumption across cultures and what drinking means to the people who consume or, equally tellingly, refuse to consume. From Ireland to Hong Kong, Mexico to Germany, alcohol plays a key role in a wide range of functions religious, familial, social, even political. Drinking Cultures situates its consumption within the context of these wider cultural practices and reveals how class, ethnicity and nationalism are all expressed through this very popular commodity. Drawing on original fieldwork, contributors look at the interplay of culture and power in bars and pubs, the significance of advertising symbols, the role of drink in day-to-day rituals and much more. The result is the first sustained, cross-cultural study of the profound impact alcohol has on national identity throughout the world today.

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1Drinking culture in Ireland, at home or in more public domains, has not been a major interest in the ethnography of Ireland, but it should be. The pub, or public house, is a particularly important ethnographic arena, wherein drinking practices and other aspects of Irish culture merge, and where the questions of identity and identification continually matter. In my experiences of over 25 years of Irish pub activities, principally but not exclusively in rural areas near Dublin and in Belfast city, drinking, alcohol varieties and brands, and the public drinking house have been as important and interesting to the people of Ireland as they have been to me. The Irish are aware of their popular, common and distinctive drinking practices, and use these as points of discussion, often but not solely in the pub, about Irish culture and history. These are in effect differentiating discourses in the construction of socially meaningful identities and identifications, a process of differentiation that sets ‘the Irish’ apart from other like entities, such as ‘the English’, ‘the Scots’ and ‘the Germans’.

2This process of differentiation is an example of a motoring force in changing notions of national culture on the world stage. Not all socially meaningful items and actions are aspects of individual’s and groups hierarchies of identity, but most are, and their significance extends more and more beyond the limits of the national to the global. Thus the processes of differentiation in which alcohol and its consumption are so important are themselves processes of globalization, in that they involve the recognition that some things, and some behaviours, set us apart from others in the world, but draw us closer to others too. And not only do academics recognize this process and its importance in globalization. Corporations sell their products based on the marketing of symbols of national quality, where the quality of the product cannot be disentangled from notions of the quality of the nation (is Evian a global success because of consumers’ notions of its quality, or because of their notions of its French quality?). Governments spar with each other over the right to use brand names, and supranational bodies act as referees (as witnessed in the US-Czech debate over the right to sell ‘Budweiser’, a debate resolved for the moment in Europe by the European Commission). And international governmental and non-governmental organizations develop distinctive logos and trademarks so that their instant brand recognition can facilitate their endeavours (for example, through the easily recognizable panda that represents the global wildlife NGO, Greenpeace’s logo, and the blue of the UN).

3Before entering further into a discussion of drinking, the nation and globalization, let me return briefly to the Irish case. It has been my experience of Irish drinking culture that has been the primary influence on my ideas about the relevance of drinking cultures in the production and expression of identity in contemporary societies, and this motivation has led to my editing of a collection of essays that address the roles of drinking and alcohol in national cultures and identities across the globe (Wilson 2005).

4The importance of alcohol and drinking to Irish life are apparent to all who seek to look. While some of these practices are common elsewhere – in the United Kingdom and across the former British Empire—many of them have distinctive Irish dimensions, or so I have often been told many a night in the wee hours in an Irish pub! The elemental roles of beer and whiskey in Irish society and culture are pervasive: billboards and television advertisements in Ireland and throughout the world proclaim the joys of drinking Irish whiskey and other spirits, and they offer the promise of sharing an Irish beer with friends, or people soon to be friends, in a public house of some kind. In fact, Guinness beer, as represented by its colour, foam, trademark, and related imagery, has become one of the most recognized national product symbols in the world. To many people around the world, according to my media watching and life experiences, Guinness is synonymous with ‘Irish’, i.e., the Irish way of life, Irish fun, and the Irish people. And this importance of the ‘dark stuff’ to Irishness is not simply a fabrication of creative advertisers, although its increasing importance as a national symbol has much to do with them. Marketing aside, Guinness is the preferred drink of many people in Ireland, it is a motif in Irish discourse of self and identity, and it is one of the principal Irish-made products consumed at home and in export. As anyone who has lived for any time in Ireland knows, it is difficult to think of Guinness and not think of ‘the craic’, the Irish term for having fun with friends, in ways that involve good conversation, the display of wit, and the establishment and reinforcement of social ties of reciprocity and affability.

5Simply put, Irish beers, wines and spirits, and the ways, means and importance of drinking them, are indispensable aspects of ‘Irishness’, whatever that is and wherever it is found. As all cultures and identities are based on notions of common ideas, values and practices, in shared pasts, presents and futures, Irish culture depends a great deal on alcohol. In this respect Irish culture is little different from the majority of cultures in the world today. But if culture and identity depend on behaviours and institutions that are shared by their members, it is also just as true to conclude that culture and identity are socially constructed and produced differentially, based in part on the circumstances of place, space and social structure. Irish drinking culture, whether in Liverpool or in Limerick, is a manifestation of the sameness and differentiation of culture and identity. I became aware of this the first time I visited a friend and her family in Cannes almost fifteen years ago. I was looking forward to good conversation, a lovely wine and delicious meal, in a little café perhaps, or just some wine while sitting outdoors to enjoy the summer night sights. In essence I hoped for an experience of France, in France, in ways which would help me remember other times, places and people from my previous visits. Instead, my hosts insisted on bringing me to a local Irish pub, so that we could have a Guinness, and so that I might feel ‘at home’ (I had at that stage been living in New York for ten years, and they knew that I missed my ‘home’ in Ireland). During the course of the night’s drinking, in good company with great craic, it became clear that many of our notions of local and national identities were being performed, with the beer, because of the beer a bit, and stimulated by the importance of that drink in its Irish-Cannes-French-European [and definitely not American] contexts. We all agreed that the following night we would do something typically ‘local’ and ‘French’, which in that context at least meant we had to drink French wine and eat French food (in counterpoint to Ireland, where a ‘typical’ ‘Irish’ celebration with overseas guests would not necessarily entail wine or food, but probably beer, spirits and a pub).

6This remembrance, in its mix of occasion, context and expectations, reveals some of the ways in which ethnography and ethnic and national drinking practices might intersect, and how these practices might lead us to consider ethnic and national distinctions and identities. The places and behaviors of drinking, an action which in this essay refers specifically to the consumption of alcohol, should not be mistakenly conceived as small ethnographic windows on more important structures and actions in society (see de Garine and de Garine 2001 for a broader anthropological approach to drinking and culture, that places alcohol within wider fields of production and consumption; see also Douglas 1987 for the best introduction to drinking as a social construction). ‘Drinking cultures’, as I utilize it here, is an analytical approach to how the places, spaces and practices of drinking play more or less important roles in the construction of social and political identities. In this short essay and in the book from which it derives I seek to contextualize drinking with reference to its wider webs of social and political meaning, and to investigate the changing dimensions of national and global culture and identity through the analysis of drinking in such disparate locations as Hong Kong, the Basquelands, the inner city of San Francisco, and the Irish pubs of urban Germany.

7Alcohol, like many other global commodities, is an agent and symbol of the overall forces of globalization that affect us all; at the same time alcohol and drinking are actions and symbols that are part of forces that seek to inhibit external interference in local and national matters. Alcoholic products are often protected by national and supranational laws (in the European Union for example) and defended as important markers of national culture and identity (in much the same way that the British pinta milk, the Irish red sausage, and the Italian lard sandwich became rallying points against globalization). As such the intersection of drink, culture and identity may provide extremely informative domains for ethnographic investigation into ways in which local, national and global identifications emerge and change. The recognition and acceptance of an anthropology of drink as a window on globalization should stimulate more anthropological and sociological research into the production and consumption of drinking than has been done in the past. In fact, given the increased interest in the cultures and politics of identity in all of the social sciences, and the general turn to issues of globalization, consumption and commoditization, it is surprising that more scholars do not examine drinking in its social and cultural, rather than its medical, contexts. It is clear that the anthropology of alcohol and drinking has a distinguished pedigree, but some of the major figures in this anthropological tradition have long recognized the need to withdraw to some extent from theorizing drinking alcohol as a social problem, and to pay more attention to the roles which alcohol and drinking play in historical and contemporary practices and imaginings of the nation and other cultural and political formations (see, for example, the review essays by Heath 1987 and Hunt and Barker 2001).

8The cases we present examine something which many ethnographers have experienced, namely that drinking alcohol has been an extremely important feature in the production and reproduction of ethnic, national, class, gender and local community identities historically, and there is little prospect that this will change. In many societies, perhaps the majority, drinking alcohol is a key practice in the expression of identity, an element in the construction and dissemination of national and other cultures. And the roles of drinking, in terms of culture and identity, are not ‘simply’ (as if such things are simple) aspects of everyday life, that arena of discourse and action so beloved of ethnographers. Drinking is the veritable stuff of any and perhaps every level and type of culture, and is implicated in the behaviors, values, ideologies and histories of these cultures. Drinking is itself cultural. It is an example of national and other cultural practices, in the sense that it is a performance of something that runs deeper in the national or ethnic makeup. It is an integral social, political and economic practice, a manifestation of the institutions, actions and values of national and ethnic culture.

Drinking nations

9While many social sciences have concentrated on alcohol and drunkenness as social, psychological and health concerns, if not outright problems, anthropology has just as often looked at drinking in its cultural and historical contexts, as part of acceptable, sometimes encouraged, often mainstream, majority and normative behavior. In so doing, however, anthropologists have had difficulties in recognizing and defining the boundaries of these research populations, as well as the boundaries of the notion of culture that is used to both identify groups of people and to understand what they do. These difficulties have many causes, among them: people are more mobile, and culture is a tool and the metaphor of this mobility; globalization relies on many forms of integration and disintegration, including processes of social identification and the production of culture; identities and cultures which seemed relatively immutable in the past have been shown to be quite changeable, historically and today; ethnicity and national identity have receded in academic importance in favor of gender, race, sexuality and class identities; and anthropologists no longer study ‘cultures’, but view culture as practice, process and narrative.

10Overall, in fact, anthropologists have stopped investigating ‘culture’ as the object, and in many cases as the subject, of their studies. There has been a turn away from theorizing culture, in terms of its fixity in place and time as well as of its content. The best example of this avoidance of studying culture as a concrete entity, as a thing, is Appadurai’s (1996: 12) compelling notion that ‘culture’ is troublesome as a noun but attractive in its adjectival form, ‘cultural’. Appadurai concludes that culture itself is a differentiating process, a process of recognizing and mobilizing group identities:

11When we therefore point to a practice, a distinction, a conception, an object, or an ideology as having a cultural dimension (notice the adjectival use), we stress the idea of situated difference, that is, difference in relation to something local, embodied, and significant... culture is a pervasive dimension of human discourse that exploits difference to generate diverse conceptions of group identity (Appadurai 1996: 12, 13).

12Appadurai provides a key to why more attention might and should be paid to drinking cultures in their national and global contexts. Drinking is an act of identification, differentiation and integration, and is a projection of homogeneity and heterogeneity in ethnicity and national identity. Drinking practices are agents in individual and group identifications, and drinking sites, the locales of regular and celebrated drinking, are places where meanings are made, shared, disputed and reproduced, where identities take shape, flourish and change. Drinking cultures are as poorly and permeably bounded as any other form of group culture; when drinking and the nation are investigated, there is a simultaneous examination of ethnic, national, class, gender, sexual, racial and other identities. An examination of drinking cultures must also be a focus on the social fields and political arenas which define and shape drinking places, spaces, and occasions.

13This approach may be less agreeable to those scholars who focus on alcohol and drinking in their health, medical and social problem aspects, than perhaps it might be to scholars who wish to theorize identity and culture in local, transnational, global and supranational contexts. This is because as culture has waned as the principal object of study in disciplines such as anthropology, it has waxed as the major means in social science generally to describe and understand configurations of power, social practice, history and identity. The fact is that comparative studies of culture(s) have been all but replaced with case and comparative studies of identity. These identity studies rely on the appreciation of individual and group performances of culture and identity, on historical constructions of culture, and on the laying out of cultural constructions of various manifestations of history, politics, economics and society. Such studies of identity are often couched in terms of the ‘politics of identity’ and ‘identity politics’ (for a discussion of some of these approaches to culture, power and identity, see Hill and Wilson [2003]). Culture and identity, including the inventions and constructions of history, values, and social practices, direct the critical eye away from such things as norms, institutions and organizations. This is especially apparent in studies of nations and nationalism, may of which have become bogged down in attempts to support or oppose ‘primordial’ or ‘modernist’ interpretations of the nation. Critics of the primordialist position point out that pre-modern or pre-industrial notions of the nation are combinations of contemporary social constructions of the past, along with an undue emphasis on the roles of culture and identity in the origin, organization and spread of the nation. These critics also are skeptical of any notion of the nation that is not linked to the development of the nation-state. Critics of the modernist position take the opposite view: nation is a social construction, in that nations are simultaneously cultural and political, and national differentiation, as a process of individual and group identification with ideas, people and social and political institutions, does not depend on the development of industrially forged nation-states. Their evidence is in the historical records of the cultural awareness of the nation, as a process of social differentiation.

14While there are many scholars who do not hold to an either-or approach to the primordialist-modernist positions. This middle ground is perhaps best represented by Anthony Smith (see, for example, Smith 1999) and Walker Connor (see, for example, Connor 1993). Their work goes a long way to subvert the notion that the nation is either primordial or modern, but they support the view that the nation is an inherently cultural entity, as cultural as it is political. This is not a surprising conclusion for anthropologists, but it is an important conclusion for many other social scientists because of the emphasis which must then be placed on the differentiating processes of identity. It is no wonder that scholars across the social sciences are theorizing new local, national and global forms of citizenship, now that culture and political and social identities are implicated in what was once seen as a relatively unproblematic set of relationships among citizens, their nations and their states. Complicating these efforts to theorize politics, power, culture and history are the various perspectives on globalization, transnationalism, and supranationalism that together have asked us all to reconsider the dimensions and boundaries of past and contemporary nations and states. One manifestation of this reformulation of the nature of boundaries is the increased attention to culture and state borders, and to the people, goods, ideas and capital which flow across them [cf. Wilson and Donnan 1998; Donnan and Wilson 1999]). This attention to national borders urges us to turn our critical eye to ‘drinking borders’, where drinking and alcohol serve as the realization of social and political boundaries, as for example between those who drink wine and those who drink beer (much like those who use olive oil and those who use butter), distinctions that separate Southern and Northern Europe.

15For many years now scholars globally have benefited from theories of the nation which have asked us to use culture as a tool to understand ethnic groups and nations. When we consider ‘invented traditions’, ‘imagined communities’ and ‘ethnies’, however, we are demonstrating that culture and identity are not windows on the nation, they are the nation. National and ethnic identities are dynamic states of being and becoming, and the values, actions and institutions which make these identities material are differentiating practices which must be of paramount concern to social scientists. Drinking is such a practice: it is a historical and contemporary process of identity formation, maintenance, reproduction and transformation. Its importance to scholars of national identity and ethnicity is not principally in its often overlooked role in grand state policies and the loftier ideals of the nation. Rather, drinking is the stuff of quotidian culture, which at the end of the day may be as important to the lifeblood of the nation as are its origin myths, heroes, and grand narratives.

Drinking culture

16The volume that I have recently edited, Drinking Cultures (Wilson 2005), builds on the comparative and analytical bases presented above. In the following paragraphs I discuss with reference to a few of its chapters some of the themes that run through the book, in part to suggest some potentially useful ways forward in the anthropological and sociological examination of alcohol and its consumption, and in the exploration of that consumption’s roles in the production and reproduction of identities, particularly the national.

Sites and practices

17Culture, including global culture, is spatial and localized. It is precisely when certain aspects of culture are localized across great stretches of the multiple world-systems that make up our socially constructed globe that we begin to recognize globalization as a cultural process rather than a more narrow economic or technological one. Thus, an anthropology of drinking cultures must simultaneously be one of drinking places, sites where drinking practices are welcome, constrained, fostered, disputed and comfortably predictable. Much anthropology has been interested in drinking sites. People spend a great deal of time in the places where it is socially appropriate to drink, and at the times when it is appropriate (for example, most British do not drink in a pub after the licensing hours, most Americans do not have a martini in the den for breakfast, and most Italians do not have a beer during mass). Drinking places are locations where other significant behaviors are evident, where other things of importance occur. Much of the data I gathered in local politics in rural Ireland was not collected in government offices and political meetings, but was freely offered and sometimes hotly disputed in the pub. In fact one reason that anthropologists have traditionally been interested in bars and drinking is because they are time-tested ways to meet and befriend possible key informants; at the very least public drinking sites are relatively acceptable places for professional strangers to relax and make friends, and to listen and to learn. Drinking places also have rules and dimensions of their own, which may serve as indicators of structures and actions which are significant beyond their own walls, and thus significant portals to wider networks of people and meanings. Simply put, drinking places are particularly meaningful and culturally patterned spaces for drinking and other intercourse. As Hunt and Satterlee (1986b: 524) have suggested, we might approach the spatial dimensions of drinking by examining ‘arenas’, where arena is seen to be an allocation of space with a surrounding boundary that acts as both a physical barrier and symbolic border. These arenas are realized in any ‘drinking space, which can be created instantaneously and practically anywhere and the drinking place, with its more elaborate physical structure’ (Hunt and Satterlee 1986b: 524; emphasis in original).

18The important role which drinking arenas can play in local and national senses of the self can be illustrated by an analysis of the vorspiel, a home drinking party in Norway. According to Garvey (2005), who conducted ethnographic research in the town of Skien, when young adults drink together in the pub or at home they often enter into friendship groups where some degree of reciprocity is expected. The activities of these groups help their members to demarcate time and space, between day and night, and between work and leisure. But their drinking practices are also linked to wider notions of individual and group character, identifications which in turn are generated by, and are reflected in, state policies. The vorspiel, the particular drinking party that begins in the home and then moves to the club or pub, provides some coherence to groups of people who in other ways and times might reject the values of normalcy in Norway. In this informal but regularized cycle of drinking, however, alternative and broader conceptions of social order are presented to young men and women. In this way the drinking place, the home, becomes a building block of the national space, but a national space constructed by youth for themselves.

19The construction of national spaces can also be found in public domains dedicated to social drinking, but sometimes the national spaces of drinking places that are situated near each other can be markedly divergent. In Berlin, according to O’Carroll (2005), two types of bars offer opportunities for Germans to act out their notions of what it means to them to be German, and sometimes that may need to be accomplished through a diverting rejection of Germanness. The ‘Irish’ pub and the Eckkneipe, the local version of the working-class bar, are drinking places that have historical roots in common. The local pub in Ireland, especially in the cities, functioned much like the Eckkneipe continue to do in Berlin. However, the German-Irish pubs that O’Carroll researched no longer seem to serve the same purposes or peoples. While the Irish pub presents itself as a comfortable alternative to Germans who do not have access to the comforts of the community Eckkneipe, it is not in itself a direct substitute. Rather, the pub may be viewed is an arena of contesting identities, of at times disputed and at times uncontested authenticity, where the differentiating processes of local, national and even European identities are as much a part of the make-up of the pub as is the Guinness on tap and the commoditized Irishness. Due to the mix of pub culture and Irish and German cultural representations, the pub provides an arena of drinking places and spaces where the transformations of national and transnational identities in a changing Europe are played out.

20Drinking places and spaces are not neatly bounded research sites; their tremendous significance depends on this dynamic permeability. No matter how socially significant drinking arenas seem, their importance also rests with their roles in the framing of actions, networks, and other social relations beyond their own bounds. There is perhaps no more important place where drinking is seen to be a significant social act than in the pubs of the British Isles, yet even in their case Hunt and Satterlee (1986a: 63) conclude that although there exists within the walls of the pub a social world which possesses its own rules of behavior and its own practices, these behaviors and practices cannot be fully understood if they are seen as discrete entities. The rituals, practices, behaviors and social groupings found within the pub are inextricably tied to life outside the pub. The ‘culture’ of the pub... has to be seen as a continuation of the culture of social groupings outside.

21The obverse is also true: the cultures that originate in public and private drinking sites have their own continuations elsewhere. They too are productive forces in the differentiations of identity, in part because they are sites in the making and maintenance of social memory.

Drinking occasions

22Drinking places and actions also must be seen within their temporal dimensions, as ‘drinking occasions’. As Heath (2000) demonstrates in his book-length analysis, it is all but impossible to separate when we drink from all of the culturally significant behaviors, ideas and values which are associated with alcohol. Consider, for example, how drinking establishes the temporal pattern to the middle class American’s daily life, when the time of day inhibits or entices particular drinking behaviors, and those actions and times mark the socially significant transformations from work to leisure, from the work-place to the home (Gusfield 1987).

23David Sutton (2001: 7) has persuasively reminded us all that in issues of local and ethnic identity ‘we are what we eat’, and ‘we are what we ate’. This notion, based on his ethnographic research in Greece, highlights how food and eating can figure in identity formation and reproduction, today and in the past. The key to their roles in identity are the ways in which they are remembered. Just as food needs to be understood in the development of national and ethnic sameness and difference, drink’s place in these historical processes of identification and differentiation must be clarified. Anthropologists need to understand contemporary interpretations of what food and drink meant to people in the past, and how these memories are manifest in identities today. These ‘drinking memories’ are particularly important among people who perceive that their distinctive regional behaviors and values are at the core of what can, and perhaps should, be seen as a ‘nation’.

24There is perhaps no nation on earth that is more associated with a particular type of drink, and particular styles of enjoying that drink, then the French. However, as Marion Demossier (1997, 2000, 2005) has demonstrated, while the significance of wine and wine-drinking may be growing in France, the types and uses of drinking behaviors are the basis for remarkably divergent social and cultural identifications. Wine is a mode of regional differentiation, of class distinction, and of the expression of French national identity. What, when, how and why the French drink wine are increasingly debated topics, in ways which show the twin forces of integration and disintegration at work among the French. As a result wine and its relation to the life cycles of individuals, of villages, and of regions continue to play important roles in the historicity and negotiations of French region and nation, a negotiation which Demossier contextualizes within globalization.

25This globalization is apparent when one examines how a regionally specific drink, cognac, that has become world-famous as a French product, is appropriated as expressions of class and status half-way around the world, in Hong Kong. Josephine Smart (2005) has investigated how the processes of globalization, and the configurations of transnational and other identifications of the international migrant, are changing the ways in which Hong Kong people demonstrate ethnicity, regional identity, status and mobility. In that former British colony cognac, a symbol of French drinking and regional identity, has taken on new social meanings as the status drink of choice at wedding feasts, to a degree that familial competition and financial jeopardy might be outcomes of the ambitious attempts to find and fund this drinking occasion. Cognac use in Hong Kong today, and in recent memory, serves as an example of how one commodity can provide the code for understanding great changes in local and global economics, the changing culture of class, and the roles of authenticity and nostalgia in local, regional, national and transnational identity formation and transformation. For Hong Kong emigrants to Canada, another site of Smart’s research, cognac continues to serve as one of the memories of migration, a practice which allows one to think of home. The globalization of drinking culture, and drinking as a window on globalization, are thus made apparent in France, China and Canada.

Drinking politics

26Drinking is a political act, whether it be in terms of the grander formal politics of government, party and policy, or in the interpersonal relations of power and authority. No matter how hard I tried to be an objective observer in those Irish pubs where I learned so much about Irish politics, my presence and participation were correctly perceived as political actions by my hosts and informants. Drinking was an important part of this politicization of me and my field research, due in no small part to the ever present politicization of drinking. The beer, wine or whiskey chosen was seen to be political. The pub was associated with one or the other political party, or was Protestant or Catholic. The people I met, and said hello to, and what I discussed with them, were all either political in nature or the politics were just beneath the surface. And in this politicization I mainly refer to the politics of the nation, the government, and political and civil society. Just imagine the research depths to be mined when one also adds to the mix the politics or gender, race and class.

27It should come then as no surprise that drinking arenas are increasingly being seen as political arenas, worthy of more scholarly attention. Anthony Marcus (2005) recently examined how members of the working and underclasses are adapting to changes in civil and political society in the Unites States, on the margins of big-city and small-city life. In the situations in which he and his respondents found themselves, in public arenas of drinking and drug use, the political ideologies and social networks which these people created and sustained provided the basis for alternative politics to mainstream notions of democracy. These are not electoral politics or party politics, but they are examples of new constructions of political culture, linked to the divisive politics of power and representation in a country which seeks to export its democracy, as if that too was a global product with brand-recognition, ‘made in the USA’.

28San Francisco’s politics of the street, where violence constructs the boundaries of ethnicity, masculinity and the social and economic roles of gang members, drinking is an important part of being masculine, and that is an important part of youth violence. Geoffrey Hunt, Kathleen MacKenzie and Karen Joe-Laider (2005) have explored the occasions, preferences and expressions of drink and identity among the youth of three ethnic groupings who find solidarity within San Francisco gangs. Both gangs and their victims are faced with the violence and dehumanization of the identity politics of the city, where one ‘does’ drink, drugs and gender in order to gain and keep power. Drinking provides social cohesion to these gangs, whose actions are often agents of fear and disintegration within wider social structures of the city.

29Other types of alternative and subversive politics can be approached through drink, as Sharryn Kasmir (2002, 2005) has shown in her analyses of Basque politics. Her research into the small and big politics of workers in the Basquelands assumed that the politics associated with religious and other rituals are real politics, like other rituals elsewhere, which are often as central to political expression in industrial and modern contexts as they are in less developed countries (cf. Kertzer 1988). Kasmir’s (2005) review of a night of slightly profane actions, revolving around a representation of the Madonna, is but an introduction to the roles which patterns of reciprocal drinking in bars play in differentiating Basques from other nations in Spain and France. This nationalism, among the Basque youth who take pride in the associational life rooted in local bars, is a movement for self-determination, a valued prize for many types of nationalism in Europe and beyond in today’s seemingly borderless world.

30According to Jon Mitchell and Gary Armstrong (2005), cliques in urban Malta, born from long histories of colonial relations, express their localism and nationalism through feasts, reciprocal rounds of bar drinks and visits, and sporting celebrations. As Mitchell (2002) has discussed elsewhere, Malta also serves as one of the many places where European identity is a new and important form of cultural differentiation, and one that is sure to have many more comparators in the recently expanded European Union. As such Valletta, capital of Malta, is a global crossroads in the politics of the movement of ideas, people, values and goods, where tourists, European football teams and ethnographers intersect, crafting new dimensions to the ‘everyday’ and ‘extraordinary’ drinking arenas of Maltese life, where new and old expressions of identity mix.

31This case study of Malta illustrates many of the themes which drive the new anthropology of drink, culture and power. Among these themes are the politics of class and national identity, the distinctions represented in beer and wine drinking, the formal and informal economic relations which depend on alcohol and drinking behaviors, the local and global intersections which give definition to so many social and political identities, and the forces for change in all the drinking arenas which have proved so important to our local and global memories. Drinking is a social, economic, political and cultural act. For a great many people across the globe it involves as much time, effort, and thought as does prayer, church-going, electioneering, work and for some even sleep. Without alcohol and drinking globalization would be an entirely different thing, as would many other processes of social differentiation and cultural identification. While many anthropologists and other ethnographers have realized these facts, there is still so much more to learn and investigate.

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Electronic reference

Thomas Wilson, “Globalization, differentiation and drinking cultures, an anthropological perspective”Anthropology of food [Online], 3 | December 2004, Online since 01 December 2004, connection on 01 March 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Thomas Wilson

Binghamton University State, University of New York

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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