- Alcohol: A History by Rod Phillips
In this impressive study, Rod Phillips provides a global history of one of the most ubiquitous economic and cultural practices in human society: the production and consumption of alcohol. The narrative is filled with details that are not only interesting, but also important for understanding the degree to which drinking is embedded in global cultures. The enormous historical depth of alcohol use is well captured here: our earliest records [End Page 414] suggest drinking in some human societies at least as far back as 7,000 bce — but even this dating is limited only by the physical record. The geographical scale is also made abundantly clear. Alcohol consumption can be identified in every continent and in just about every society, with only Islam and — to a far lesser degree — Buddhism establishing cultural norms that placed alcohol beyond the pale.
A key theme here is the degree to which alcohol-using societies have an ambivalent relationship with both the substance and its effects. The perennial nature of its ‘‘contested status’’ (3) arises from the fact that drinking never takes place in ‘‘a material or cultural vacuum’’ (5). This critically important observation frames the entire book and enriches the historical data by constantly reminding us that drinking is a cultural practice. It shows that not only can drinking practices be better understood by reference to their cultural context, but that culture can also be better understood by reference to its drinking practices.
While presenting a wealth of information, Phillips also highlights important caveats. His careful approach to average consumption data (noting that it tells us almost nothing about who is drinking which drinks, where and in what volumes) is commendable. So too is his balanced assessment of prohibition in America, in which he avoids the simplistic assumption that its legacy was nothing but violence, mob rule, and speakeasies.
Perhaps inevitably for a book of such enormous scope, there are areas that could have been developed more carefully. The notion of addiction, for instance, is mentioned only in the briefest terms — despite it being fundamental to the development of alcohol control movements since the eighteenth century. Similarly, more could have been said about the extent to which the problematization of drinking articulates larger social and philosophical uncertainties as to the nature and value of rationality itself. The ‘‘drunken Indian’’ trope, which Phillips rightly notes was a powerful weapon of colonial subjugation, did not just imply that Native Americans could not hold their drink, but that they were fundamentally lacking in rational capacity and hence were the proper subjects of colonial power. From a British perspective, there are some infelicities around the influence of the prohibition movement and the genesis of the influential ‘‘Gothenberg Scheme’’ for improving the nature of public houses, though they do not significantly detract from the overall arguments being made.
Quibbles aside, this book remains a major achievement. It provides an essential introduction to the social, cultural, and economic role of alcohol in human society. Anyone wanting to grasp just how important drinking has been, and remains, would do well to start here. [End Page 415]
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine