.Alcohol and Social History


Alcohol is to social science what dye is to microscopy - Troy Duster1

In 1966, E.P Thompson published "Making of the English Working Class. The revolutionary outlook it provided became the basis for all socioeconomic class studies. Thompson's work was innovative because it was the first to accommodate the role of the common worker, the working class individual, in the making of history. Thus, labor history was born.

Thompson's work gauged mass reaction and sentiment to the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society. He included extensive analysis of mass displays of dissent (protests, strikes etc.), and other historians began to follow suit. Labor history at this time was a scrutiny of the actions of the proletariat as a whole. Historians studied rebellion, uprisings and other such historic mass action. However, what they initially failed to acknowledge was the buildup to these actions and the motives behind them. Why did the factory worker unite with his fellow workers in unions? Why did the unions oppose many of the owner's actions? Questions like these led to a broader analysis of the life of the working class individual. Historians began to study their family, social, religious, and communal patterns etc. They studied the working class way of life, as they had done for so many years with the aristocracy and nobility.

Consumption was a great source of information to the historians, particularly that of alcohol. For instance, regulated consumption, or the complete absence of alcohol provided information on religious and/or societal conventions; perception and treatment of alcoholics gave insight into communal ties. The study of alcohol consumption is not simply a study of the degeneration of morals and values, but a study of various components of society itself. For instance, it can shed light on social control and groups, ethnicity and religion, norms and conventions and so on. It is important to note that such information is on hand because early historians associated alcoholism solely with working class society. This is one of the reasons why very little information is available on alcohol consumption in the upper classes. Working class alcohol consumption differed greatly from their upper class counterparts. The differences include types of alcohol consumed (depending on price and availability), drinking environment and company etc. The greatest difference arose in the amount of alcohol consumed, and the extent of alcoholism or drunkenness within each class. The higher classes, particularly the bourgeoisie, blamed the alcoholism of the working class as the source of moral degradation. However, alcohol was seen in a more positive light among the working class. This gives rise to the question of alcohol being a division between the classes. Were alcohol related factors (that were encouraged and nurtured by working class alcohol consumption) responsible for broadening the class divide?