this is the third post in a series of discussions examining the research i conducted and the choices i made while working on my master's thesis, "shamrocks, sombreros, and the stars and stripes: ritual drinking on nationalistic holidays and the creation of cultural identity," last year.
you can read the first part of this series and my paper's abstract here.
and the second part can be found here.
alcohol and participating in the observations
i learned early on that there are two sorts of reactions you get when you tell people you’re writing your master's thesis about drinking holidays.
people who celebrate, who like drinking holidays, or are just generally receptive respond with a fascination and a glee — an almost infectious exuberance. i get excited about my work all over again just explaining it to these people.
and then there are the people who don’t get it. they look at me like i’m crazed, and no amount of explaining will change their minds. perhaps the best word to describe their reactions is incredulous? at the best, i get a wary “sounds… interesting.” at the worst, i’ve gotten accusations of being an alcoholic looking for an excuse to drink. i find these people… interesting. luckily, for my self-esteem and stamina, the people in this second category are fewer and further between.
writing about alcohol is difficult, within academia and without, and there are inherent problems in conducting ethnographic fieldwork focusing on alcoholic consumption. in my paper, i write:
keeping in mind possible dangers i might encounter, i made a definite decision before all three holidays to avoid taking any shots of alcohol. i also made a concerted effort to try to stick to one drink an hour to avoid impairing my observations. despite those efforts, however, i understood that alcohol would affect my perceptions and ultimate analysis. when possible, i took notes en route between destinations, as well as at the bars. i also took photos to attempt to provide some balance between experience and memory. recognizing that my alcohol intake, although controlled, may have affected my cognizance, i approached my notes with heightened reflexivity. this meant being aware of how my comprehensions of events may have been altered and how those understandings might influence my conclusions, while still understanding that consuming alcohol was a key component of the celebration and the participant observation. the altered state of consciousness from alcohol consumption was therefore a necessary part of the research, one that allowed a lived understanding of the ritual.
the truth is, when you drink alcohol, it affects your perception of events and happenings. and the more you drink, the more effect it has. there’s no way to get around this.
conversely, to conduct an ethnographic study of a drinking holiday and to not drink would also be problematic. the resulting work would be “observation,” not “participant observation.”
complicating this is that fact that celebrations are communal events. to not drink on a drinking holiday is to not participate, to be atypical, to stand apart.
playing a primary role was the importance of group dynamics and groupthink on individual behaviors. celebrations are inherently communal activities and, whether celebrated with friends or families or strangers just met at a bar, they provide opportunities to interact with others and encourage a sense of conviviality and connection. while sharing a pitcher of harpoon ale with my companions at the stadium bar & grill, our second stop in the early afternoon, one of my friends turned and pointed out a girl sitting alone in a booth, keeping her head down and doing her best to avoid interacting with anyone else.
"what do you think is wrong with her?" timothy* asked.
this question highlighted the importance of the group and emphasized social interactions: participation requires companionship. not having companions on a holiday is in itself atypical, however, this sort of deviance, exemplified by this girl, implied to my friends a rejection of celebration and participation. susanna barrows and robin room iterate this notion, stating: “the essentially social nature of drinking is indicated by the fact that solitary drinking is commonly considered to be a problematic symptom” (1991). isabel gonzález turmo considers the question of whether or not drinking alcohol is a social or individual act, suggesting instead that drinking is simultaneously both a social act and a solitary act (in de garine and de garine, eds. 2001:131). the meanings and intents embedded and imbued within the prescribed actions and performances create social connections that can cross cultures and language boundaries. in this way "[d]rinking is always an individual act, since each drinker necessarily has to situate himself, more or less consciously, according to the change of emotions produced by the ingestion of alcohol;" and yet, "[i]t is also a social fact, even when drinking alone, since it is loaded with socially assumed meanings. it is a language that, on many occasions, needs neither words nor expressions" (gonzález turmo in de garine and de garine, eds. 2001:131). my companion’s observation of the lone drinker emphasized the silent language of ritual behavior and the ways those messages could be perceived.
* all names have been changed