Sarah MacLean (2016). Sociology, 50(1), 93-108.
In this article, Sarah MacLean focuses on a central construct for youth alcohol consumption: Friendship. More specifically, she illustrates how recreational alcohol use serves as a friendship constituting ‘technology’ for young adults, thus providing important nuances to the dominant epidemiological harm- or risk-focused understanding of ‘how alcohol works’ in the lives of young people.
MacLean thus succeeds in providing a novel understanding of a well-known phenomenon: Recreational alcohol use among young adults. Her analysis is based on 60 qualitative interviews with young adults between 18 and 24 years of age. By means of a thoroughly and clearly formulated theoretical framework, the notion of ‘friendship’ is highlighted as ‘something more’ than just the backdrop of young people’s alcohol-related choices
In theorizing alcohol as a ‘technology’ and friendships as ‘chosen, intimate bonds’ in contemporary Western cultures, MacLean challenges the notion of friendship as a ‘risk factor’ and introduces the idea that alcohol use “functions as a crucible where young adults may enact and affirm their friendships” (MacLean, 2016, p.94). In doing so, she succeeds in foregrounding the dynamic and processual nature of friendships in the context of young adults’ alcohol use. In the same vein, she questions the notion of ‘peer pressure’ as an explanation for young people’s heavy and perhaps risky alcohol use.
The article thus offers a good example of how it is possible to analyze complex interpersonal phenomena (such as friendship enactments, negotiations, trust, affirmation) on a micro-level, but in the context of structural social conditions, where focus is more on risk and harm, than pleasure and affirmation of friendship, in relation to alcohol use. In so doing, she nuances our understanding of young adults’ alcohol consumption and elegantly illustrates the strength of a theoretically informed analysis of qualitative interview data.
Maintaining focus on ‘what goes on’ between young people when they drink alcohol is arguably important, if we (as researchers, adults, policy makers etc.) wish to understand the significance of alcohol use in the lives of young people. Not only does MacLean succeed in performing a sophisticated empirical analysis, she also manages to discuss the practical implications of her analysis in the context of prevention initiatives targeted at young alcohol users.
Finally, we wish to emphasize that the article serves as a good introduction to the broader research field of youthful alcohol use, since MacLean draws on a number of central contemporary studies to contextualize and nuance her own analysis further.
Maria Dich Herold (lead), Thomas Friis Søgaard, Vibeke Asmussen Frank, Mie Birk Jensen, Maj Nygaard-Christensen, Else-Marie Emholdt, Cecilia Rand.
Center for Alcohol and Drug Research, Aarhus University (@CRF_Aarhus)
The opinions expressed in this commentary reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the Society for the Study of Addiction.