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Working Sober: The Transformation of an Occupational Drinking Culture (review)

From: Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Volume 72, Number 4, Winter 1998
pp. 822-824 | 10.1353/bhm.1998.0206

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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 72.4 (1998) 822-824

Book Review

Working Sober: The Transformation of an Occupational Drinking Culture

William J. Sonnenstuhl. Working Sober: The Transformation of an Occupational Drinking Culture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996. xiv + 143 pp. $37.50 (cloth), $14.95 (paperbound).

Since the arrival of the first settlers, Americans have been concerned about eliminating excessive drinking. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as work increasingly became a group activity, attempts were mounted to divorce drinking from the job. To set the stage for his study, Sonnenstuhl succinctly reviews the history of America's efforts in this direction. The form these efforts took in any given era depended on the current definition of what was involved in excessive drinking. While the explanations ran the gamut from immorality, weak will, and irresponsibility to disease, all defined heavy drinking as the attribute of an individual, and control efforts were directed at having that person change.

In Working Sober, Sonnenstuhl deviates from this usual path. While not denying that, for some workers, excessive drinking has roots in the person, he focuses on the role of the occupational culture in causing, sustaining, and sometimes changing drinking behavior. With the stated intention of arriving at "a grounded, substantive theory about the persistence and transformation of intemperate occupational drinking cultures in the American workplace" (p. ix), Sonnenstuhl undertook an intensive, sociological study of one of many occupational groups noted for their heavy drinking: the sandhogs, the men who build New York City's infrastructures and tunnels. For such an investigation, this group offers the advantages of being small, of having maintained its boundaries across a century, and of having had a heavy-drinking occupational culture that, over the past twenty years, has been undergoing change.

Sonnenstuhl gives a detailed, rich, and perceptive account of the sandhog occupational culture and of the integration of excessive drinking within every aspect of it. Both for outsiders and for the sandhogs themselves, heavy and constant drinking has been a crucial part of their personal and group identity. Both on and off the job, heavy drinking with other sandhogs provided the context within which the basic assumptions of their community were expressed, strengthened, and acted upon. As new sandhogs were recruited from the sons of sandhogs or from off-work drinking companions, their culture with its heavy drinking components remained stable throughout the century. To be a sandhog was to drink heavily.

The core of this book is the analysis of why and how the culturally central, heavy-drinking rituals of the sandhogs were gradually and permanently changed over a period of twenty years, until today their occupational culture is a temperate one. Sonnenstuhl suggests that what he observed in this small group would be found in other heavy-drinking occupational cultures. He hypothesizes that the following conditions are necessary for the transformation of such occupational cultures: (1) A crisis occurs, which the existing culture neither alleviates nor explains. (2) From within the occupational group, a dedicated, charismatic leader emerges who is able to go against established beliefs and practices, to reframe the crisis in terms of temperance difficulties, and to gain acceptance of the need for temperance reform. Drinking rituals no longer function to reinforce group solidarity, but are instead defined as destructive. Excessive drinkers are now defined as alcoholics, and hence draw into action the strong group values of mutual aid. (3) Old and new members who accept this reformulation are recruited to carry it into action, both in general and by helping individual alcoholic members to become nondrinkers. (4) The passage of time is important -- there must be enough time that the core culture can remain stable while incorporating the redefinitions of heavy-drinking values and behavior, until these are taken for granted. (5) Strong and persistent support for temperate beliefs and behavior by outsiders throughout this process is crucial to ensuring a lasting change. In the case of the sandhogs, this was provided by the involvement of the union's alcoholism program and of associations that foster a temperate way of life.

By using sociological methods and the paradigm of culture, and by studying a small, clearly delimited group...

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