This Christmas holiday season has seen the usual sensational media stories of drunken scenes in UK city centres, alongside pieties from health officials about the need to drink ‘sensibly’. It all seems very familiar, and indeed, Government has huffed and puffed over ‘binge’ drinking for two decades. Little seems to change, and the government has recently announced yet another set of revised and more stringent alcohol consumption guidelines.

Amidst this concern, the various agencies have neglected one important question: why do people find heavy drinking such enormous fun?

Alcohol-related illness and harm continues to rise according to government statistics in spite of well-resourced and high profile government anti-drinking campaigns and general health advice, so it is important to understand the consumer motivations behind drinking.

This was the main research question addressed in our JMM paper ‘Young adults and ‘binge’ drinking: A Bakhtinian analysis. The paper evolved from a larger ESRC funded research study that explored the role of alcohol in the social lives of young people.

In previous papers from this research, my colleagues and I have pointed out that getting very drunk, and having stories to tell of drunken escapades, seems to deepen and intensify bonds of friendship for young people, and constitutes the social binge drinker as an engaging person who enjoys a fun social life. Bakhtin’s theories helped us nuance this experience further by expressing the sense of transgressive escape extreme drinking brings from the dreary responsibilities of work and ‘official’ life.

Our JMM paper used the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival to explore the young drinkers’ lived experience of drinking.

Bakhtin drew a parallel between the irreverent abandon and drunken, parodic laughter of medieval street carnivals and Roman Saturnalias, and representations of street life in the literature of Rabelais. Bakhtin didn’t focus on the role of alcohol, but throughout European history drink has not only facilitated ‘cultural remission’ or ‘time out’ of official life for informality and congeniality, but has also fuelled more exuberant scenes of celebration on carnivalesque occasions.

Carnival time for Bakhtin meant subversive fun and the reversal of the normal order within a momentarily collapsed social hierarchy. The only rule of carnival is that rules must be broken. Crazy situations occur and improbable friendships breach the social divide: the low can become carnival kings or queens and the high can be brought low, perhaps with a well-aimed turd in the eye. Medieval carnivals such as the Feast of Fools involved a lot of bodily waste being flung about, and for Bakhtin, carnivalesque bodies were used in grotesque ways, with much laughter deriving from gross slapstick antics that parodied the polite norms of bodily deportment.

Young people talking about their experiences of extreme drinking in our research exhibited a lot of bodily grotesquery- there is much vomiting, weeing on furniture, outrageous sexual indiscretions, crazy situations, and exposure to physical risk and injury. The overall effect is a subversive and comic parody of polite public behaviour, for both men and women.

Extreme drinking unlocks a door to an alternative world of heightened risk and intensified friendships, a world that carries risk and danger yet also a kind of joyous and uninihibited freedom.

It is a world of urban space that has been ideologically reclaimed from the conformist consumption spectacle of ‘sensible’ drinking. Drinking turns the night time economy into a liminal zone that is latent with the possibility of surreal events and transformational experiences. It is, above all, a world of escape from boring normality and oppressive social conformity. By comparison with the grey world of responsibility and duty, the carnival world of drunkenness is experienced by young people as richly colourful, surprising and, above all, fun.

But for Bakhtin, the excesses of carnival are not only about fun. They also exhibit a need for a deeper sense of symbolic death and rebirth. It is almost as if, through drunken indulgence in the absurdity of carnival life, people feel cathartically cleansed of the absurdity of normal, ‘official’ life. Extreme drinking entails memory blackouts and behaviour that is strikingly out of character- as if the self is temporarily annihilated, in order to begin again afresh.

The paper develops the idea of carnivalesque drinking in greater detail and offers a few comments on policy implications.
I also discussed the paper on BBC Radio 4’s flagship sociology programme, Thinking Allowed, with host Laurie Taylor and experts on intoxication Professor James Mills and Professor Fiona Measham. James and Fiona are both leading experts in addiction, and, helped by his excellent production team, Laurie hosted an enjoyable and informative discussion around the pleasurable aspects of intoxication. In contrast to most media stories around drinking, the show focused on the sociology and history of intoxication rather than on policy and culpability.

Read the original research article: Hackley, C., Bengry-Howell, A., Griffin, C., Mistral, W.,  Szmigin, I., & Hackley née Tiwsakul, R.A. (2013). Young adults and ‘binge’ drinking: A Bakhtinian analysis. Journal of Marketing Management, 29(7-8), 933-944. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2012.729074

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Chris Hackley

Chris Hackley

Chris Hackley is Professor of Marketing at Royal Holloway University of London, UK. His PhD from Strathclyde University focused on the creative development process in top advertising agencies. His research into marketing, advertising and consumer culture has been published in many journals including Journal of Management Studies, British Journal of Management, and of course the Journal of Marketing Management.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.