QMJC December 2020 - Alcohol in the life narratives of women: Commonalities and differences by sexual orientation

First published: 19/01/2021 | Last updated: January 19th, 2021

Article: Drabble, L. & Trocki, K. (2014). Alcohol in the life narratives of women: Commonalities and differences by sexual orientation. Addiction Research & Theory, 22(3): 186–194. doi:10.3109/16066359.2013.806651.

The article can be accessed here

Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) team: GCU Substance Use Research Group (@SubMisuseGCU): Elena Dimova (lead),Carol Emslie, Matt Smith, Amy McEwan, Antonia Lloyd

Online journal club discussion with 22 colleagues supported by Scottish Alcohol Research Network (@SARNalcohol)

 Meeting summary

This qualitative paper explores the role of alcohol in the life narratives of women with different sexual orientations. The introduction explains that alcohol-related problems are higher among sexual minority women, compared to heterosexual women, and provides explanations for why this may be the case. Then the paper highlights a clear gap in previous research – very few studies have explored how sexual minority women perceive the role of alcohol in their lives and how these views and experiences compare to those of heterosexual women. The study is informed by the theory of social representations, which is explained very well. The authors make it easy for a reader, unfamiliar with this theory, to understand it and why it was suitable for this study.

The authors conducted in-depth life history phone interviews with 48 women, who were recruited from a larger study, examining mediators of heavier drinking among sexual minority women (lesbian identified, bisexual identified, and heterosexual identified with same sex partners) compared to heterosexual women. Interview questions explored the lives and experiences of women, and how use of alcohol may connect to those experiences. It is worth noting that conducting in-depth phone interviews and exploring respondents’ views beyond initial accounts can be challenging. For example, anonymity over the phone may amplify or minimise the participant’s desire to express themselves in a socially desirable manner (Block & Erskine, 2012). In addition, it may be difficult to establish interpersonal communication as the researcher cannot rely on body language and needs to ensure they articulate questions clearly and give participants enough time to answer (Block & Erskine, 2012; Musselwhite et al., 2007).

The theory of social representations guided data analysis, which focused on how social representations were embodied in participants’ discourses. The results section outlines how women perceive the role of alcohol in their lives, and how they define boundaries in relation to alcohol. The views of sexual minority and heterosexual women are compared. Social representations of alcohol use included social use, use in relation to community connection, addictive use and self-medication. Women defined boundaries by referring to loss of control and selective engagement of social networks. Representations across groups were similar, but the role of alcohol use in fostering community connection was particularly salient for sexual minority women. The discussion section of the paper relates the findings to social representations theory, which further highlights the central role of the theory in this study.

The journal club valued how easy to read and understand this article is. The discussion focussed on identifying the “key ingredients”, making this paper so comprehensible:

  • Building blocks: Components of the paper were compared to “building blocks”: the foundations for the study are clearly set and every subsequent section builds on the previous one, resulting in a clear narrative about the role of alcohol in women’s lives.
  • Centrality of theory: The centrality of theory in this study was clear and described exceptionally well. This was particularly valued by members of the club, who said they often find it hard to understand descriptions of theoretical approaches in research papers. Some said they would use this paper as an example of how to clearly describe the use of theory in their own work.
  • Relatable topics: Another reason why the paper is so easy to understand could be that many members of the club found the topic relatable. The paper prompted people to think about their own social representations of alcohol use and to reflect on how they define boundaries in relation to drinking.
  • Straightforward language: The journal club members agreed that the paper uses straightforward language, which makes it easy to read. Members said this is something they would try to apply to their own writing.
  • Balance between quotes and descriptions: The balance between participant quotes and authors’ descriptions and interpretations was another reason why the paper was easy to read and understand.

Further reading:

 Block, E.S. & Erskine, L. (2012). Interviewing by telephone: Specific considerations, opportunities and challenges. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 11(4): 428-445.

Condit, M., Kitaji, K., Drabble, L. & Trocki, K. (2011). Sexual-minority women and alcohol: Intersections between drinking, relational contexts, stress, and coping. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 23(3): 351–375.

Drabble, L., Trocki, K.F., Midanik, L.T. (2005). Reports of alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems among homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual respondents: Results from the 2000 National Alcohol Survey. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 66:111–120.

Moscovici, S. (2001). Social representations: Explorations in social psychology. New York: New York University Press.

Musselwhite, K., Cuff, L., McGregor, L. & King, K.M. (2007). The telephone interview is an effective method of data collection in clinical nursing research: A discussion paper. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 44(6), pp. 1064-1070.