Meeting: #3, May 2019

Article: Griffin, C., Bengry-Howell, A., Hackley, C., Mistral, W., & Szmigin, I. (2009). Every time I do it I absolutely annihilate myself’: Loss of (self-) consciousness and loss of memory in young people’s drinking narratives. Sociology,43(3), 457-476.


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Team: Center for Alcohol and Drug Research, Aarhus University (@CRF_Aarhus) Maria Dich Herold (lead), Vibeke Asmussen Frank, Sheila Jones, Maj Nygaard-Christensen, Jeanett Bjønness.

Meeting summary:

In this article, Griffin and colleagues focus on young people’s excessive drinking by investigating their ‘passing out’ stories. The focus is, thus, not on young people and alcohol consumption per se, but on consumption which is seen as a particular risky, ‘senseless’ or ‘irrational’ practice by, amongst others, public health officials and other policy makers. Based on focus group discussions with 89 young adults between 18 and 25 years of age in the UK, Griffin and colleagues show how excessive drinking is both a classed and a gendered practice. From a narrative point of departure, the authors apply the concept ‘drinking stories’ as their theoretical starting point. By focusing on ‘stories’, they emphasize the function of storytelling and the meaning that ‘passing out’ stories have for young people, and not (merely) excessive drinking as a problematic and risky practice.

By applying this qualitative methodology, they manage to show how excessive drinking – to many an incomprehensible practice – can in fact also be seen as comprehensible and meaningful. They do so by listening to (and taking serious) young alcohol users’ own stories, their experiences and explanations. While we today (2019) see more research focusing on excessive drinking and gendered drinking practices, Griffin and colleagues’ article was one of the first to focus on young people’s excessive drinking in a gendered and classed context. Their article is still widely referenced, and for good reasons.

In the well-argued background section, the societal developments around alcohol consumption, involving both gender and class, is elegantly described. The authors thereby place their study within contemporary discussions around risks of binge drinking, ‘determined drunkenness’, the alcohol industry’s influence (as for example development of new beverages targeting young people and women in particular), and the particular focus in the media on the drinking practices among working class youth. By also taking the ‘neo-liberal social order’ and how rationality, self-control and moderation is at the heart of neo-liberal subjectivity (p. 460) in to discussion, the authors emphasize in more detail the gendered and classed processes around excessive drinking. As the above idea of the neo-liberal subject is based on middle-class values, excessive drinking by for example middle or upper class men in private settings (e.g. university sports teams) are to some extend condoned, unlike public display of determined drunkenness by young working class men. When it comes to public display of determined drunkenness by women, Griffin et al. argue that this, in general, is seen as unacceptable and unrespectable behavior, while public display of drunkenness by (white) working class women in particular is ‘frequently constituted as the epitome of feckless excess’ (p. 461). These points, however, do not only serve as a point of departure for the data analysis – they are also what this article sets out to nuance and even question based on focus group interviews with young alcohol users. By taking a situational perspective and a point of departure in the empirical data (i.e. young peoples’ own accounts) the authors successfully show the complexity of young people’s stories about excessive drinking.

The focus groups consist of established friendship groups among working class youth and middle class youth, respectively. This allows the authors to take the group dynamics in which the drinking stories arise into account analytically, as well as how class and gender play a role when drinking stories are established and legitimized in friendship groups and how they become meaningful, on both an individual and a group level. In that sense, the method used matches the analytical ambition in understanding the collective function of ‘passing out stories’ really well. The analysis, therefore, foregrounds the complexity of excessive drinking stories, i.e. how different perspectives and/or meanings become important in the young people’s accounts of passing out: for some it is embarrassing, whilst for others it is what makes it ‘a good night out’ and a ‘funny story’. For example, some young middle-class women distance themselves from the loss of (self-)control which is associated with excessive drinking, whereas others balance their stories in order for them both to transgress the bounds of (middle class) femininity, but without losing their respectability. In terms of the young male participants, the authors for example show how determined drunkenness is constituted as a voluntary engagement, yet with embodied experiences of disgust and unpleasantness. It is not something that is to be avoided, but is actually desirable, what exactly makes excessive drinking a transgressive experience and fuel for identity work. In that sense, the authors show how ‘passing out’ stories come to function as counter-narratives to the neo-liberal social order in which self-control and individual rationality stand out as key deeds.

The article is ambitious in its analytical approach. It sets out to show how societal discourses (i.e. on class and gender) are present in young alcohol users’ narratives, but in complex ways and often as counter-narratives. It is a valuable example of how gaining knowledge from substance users themselves (here young alcohol users) can contribute to much more nuanced and complex understandings of practices such as excessive alcohol consumption. Griffin and colleagues, thus, provide insights into a wide-spread practice which at first sight appears incomprehensible, a kind of knowledge that can have implication for policy and practice, for example when developing prevention interventions.

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