There is probably no culture anywhere on earth that has not used alcohol, hallucinogenic substances or other plant-derived concoctions to create altered states of mind. Most of the time, these uses do not result in addiction, or even in regular drunkenness.
What then drives some individuals to addiction, while others seem to use such substances regularly with impunity? Do different cultures have different perspectives on addiction? Do different cultures have different mechanisms for control, and do some work better than others at limiting substance abuse?
The answers to these questions can guide us to better practices in prevention and treatment as we learn about addiction and cultural erosion.
While it would be possible to write a book in answer to each one of these questions, a brief overview here can give some directions for exploration of the issues. A few specific examples will reveal the range of cultural diversity in attitudes dealing with alcohol.
1. In West Africa, in some animist villages, women are in charge of making the millet beer. They are also in charge of distributing it, and they allow men to get drunk on market day, once a week, but on no other days. Market day intoxication is a sanctioned form of relaxation and release from work, but the other days are considered work days. Not only is drunkenness frowned upon during those days, but it is highly unlikely, since the women won’t give beer out then, and store it privately. Commercial beer and alcohol are harder to acquire in these villages far from the paved road system.
2. The !Kung San, in Southern Africa, have probably used hallucinogenic substances in curing ceremonies for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. Young people were supervised in use of these substances, and discouraged from using them unsupervised in the curing ceremonies. In traditional !Kung San culture, older male healers trained the young men to help them achieve a trance state, as part of their apprenticeship in healing. During the ceremonies, other members of the community would surround and support the healers as they reached the trance state, massaging them when they later fell into exhaustion. Now that their culture is suffering massive erosion, destroyed first by colonial practices (including state permission to shoot the !Kung San on sight,) eventually the introduction of Western diseases, and a cash economy that forced them onto more marginal lands, hurting their subsistence economy, many more !Kung San are falling into alcohol addiction and other drug abuse as a way to cope.
3. Similarly, Native Americans, forced from their lands, and faced with the disintegration of their cultures through the separation of young people from their communities, and oppressive punishments at the boarding schools in past generations when they attempted to use their own languages, have succumbed to high rates of alcohol addiction. Native American social workers and healers, faced with epidemic alcoholism in their communities, see it as a result of anomie, a deep spiritual loss of norms and cultural cohesion, meaningfulness, and a sense of one’s proper place in the world. Emile Durkheim first identified this term with cultural change that happened too fast; it should be noted that this cultural change was forced upon the Native American communities and resulted in the loss of their traditional environments and connection to the land.
4. Other examples, including from Jewish and Muslim communities, stress the role of religion in mediating alcohol consumption. In the case of the Jewish religion, alcohol consumption is most often associated with religious ritual from an early age, and over-consumption or addiction is considered especially bad because it defies religious as well as social mores. Likewise, Muslims who eschew alcohol consumption regard it as a religious failing if a person becomes alcoholic, although other substances, such as qat, may be allowed. Among most Christians, alcohol is allowed; drunkenness is a sin.
When alcohol and other substances are positively associated with rituals in a traditional community setting, either as part of a religious practice, or as a secular tradition with social bonding as an important, recognized role for consuming alcohol, there seems to be much less risk of addiction. In these more cohesive communities, there is much greater pressure from social sanctions in the form of gossip and exclusion for people who do frequently drink to excess. Alcoholism, or addiction, may be regarded as illness, possession by evil spirits, or a failure of moral will, but in all cases these communities discourage it through social sanctions.
But addiction is much more than individual failure; when it affects more than a few individuals, it reflects a failure of the culture as well. Essayist Wendell Berry, like geographer Jared Diamond, notes that cultural erosion goes hand in hand with soil erosion. As rural face-to-face communities, whether hunter-gatherers or small farming families, lose ground to global markets and resource colonialism, they break apart, creating refugee populations in the cities, where they must rebuild cultural community.
The weakened cultures, suffering from the loss of norms and rituals when cultural change happens too fast, and involving the forced loss of the ecological environment in which the culture grew up, leads to increased substance abuse and addictions. Both the ritual support system (the consistent expected daily life in a small community where people know each other) and the social sanctions for stepping out of line and getting intoxicated become severely distorted. The inability to return to the cultural home fosters responses based in despair and a loss of sense of place, community and belonging.
Humans have not changed much genetically from the time, 12,000 years ago and before, when we all lived in small hunter-gatherer bands. We knew the other group members intimately, shared food, songs, relaxation, and moments of sorrow. We were attached to a particular landscape from birth, and walked over it our entire lives, learning it through the soles of our feet, our ears, our eyes. We became a piece of that ecology and it became us. Losing that connection and losing the face-to-face community that knew us well, and provided both support systems and sanctions for departing from the norm, has driven people around the world into alcoholism, substance abuse, and addiction as a form of relief from the sorrow of separation, the unfulfilled soul of the modern human life.