1Edited by the sociologist Marie-Laure Déroff and the historian Thierry Fillaut and published by the École des Hautes Études de Santé Publique, France’s most important school of public health, Boire: une affaire de sexe et d’âge comprises twelve chapters by 21 authors from a wide range of disciplines, including sociology, history, anthropology, public health, as well as psychiatry, education science, science and techniques of sports and physical activities, and even anthropology of marketing and British civilization. Most are from universities in Brittany or western France, and the examples analysed are often from that region, though there is no explicit mention that this is the book’s geographical focus.
2All chapters analyse how gender and age differentiate alcohol-related practices and representations. Gender is seen as a principle of bi-categorization that generates masculine and feminine rather than a decisive factor in social and power relations. Age here refers primarily to youth, though one chapter focuses on old age. Alcohol-related practices are not at all viewed in terms of sociology of consumption, an approach that would have led to discussing fine group distinctions in behaviour and practices (in line with Bourdieu’s Distinction), but rather of the socially “problematic” aspects of alcohol use, identified as addiction or deviance. According to the blurb, the aim is to “understand and prevent the health and social damage caused by excessive drinking”. Paradoxically, non-drinker abstinence is seen as a kind of deviance among men, a corollary of the fact that there is something normal about adult male alcohol consumption, even if excessive, contrary to female consumption.
3Alcoholism, excessive drinking and drunkenness are therefore more often the focus here than drinking at ordinary levels. The emergence of alcoholism as a “social problem” and the evolution of that problem over time are presented first from a historical perspective. In the nineteenth century, the problem and source of scandal were public drunkenness and “notorious” alcoholism (a matter of “public knowledge”). In the twentieth, alcoholism came to be seen as an illness that typically affects working-class men. Since alcohol consumption was a male attribute, female alcoholism paradoxically became both invisible and overly visible: in principle it was not supposed to exist, since women were temperate “by nature”; they tended to be seen as victims of their intimate partner’s alcoholism or guardians of household morality. When women started drinking, the effects were believed more devastating since women were supposedly more fragile. Women’s alcoholism elicited particularly strong social discomfort because it seriously disrupted the hierarchical order of the sexes and women’s social identity (causing them to forget their maternal duty), whereas excessive drinking did not adversely affect the image of the virile male, as sociologist Monique Membrado points out.
4Inserted between book chapters are medical texts on alcoholism (under the heading “reverse angle”), interview excerpts (“verbatim”) and useful statistical tables (“supporting figures”) that unfortunately are not really discussed. Indicators of ordinary consumption, frequency of excessive drinking episodes, and experiences of drunkenness are crossed with sex, age bracket and time period for a range of countries, from which it appears that young people of both sexes are frequently drunk though they only drink occasionally and that, conversely, older men and women drink much more often but seldom get drunk. Comparisons of male and female high school students in various European countries show that this age group drinks more in Northern Europe (Denmark, United Kingdom, Ireland) than elsewhere and that levels for young men and women are similar and actually higher for women in some countries (United Kingdom, Ireland). In Italy, on the other hand, the alcohol consumption levels of adolescent girls are much lower than those of their male counterparts. The figures seem to indicate that there is no precise alcoholism indicator; alcoholism remains a medical category that does not readily lend itself to statistical objectification.
5The episodes of binge drinking among young people regularly highlighted by the media, political and policy actors, and public health professionals are a source of another, historically more recent, social concern. The authors show that it is often public, collective drunkenness – a form of sociability and potential source of public disorder – that is most worrying, whereas young people’s private drinking, partially invisible, elicits less concern. Social actors analyse the question in terms of addiction, a somewhat ill adapted term since, as we have seen, young people’s alcohol consumption tends to be occasional.
6One chapter, written from a gender studies perspective, analyses the emergence in France of wine advertisements that target women. As women’s consumption is still well below men’s, the economic actors in the wine sector are trying to increase it. To do so they have devised a discourse that draws on representations of women’s supposed taste for the sweet and fruity, for white and rosé wines, their attention to bottle aesthetics – all of which, explains the author, reflects gender stereotypes in operation. Essentializing women’s preferences in connection with wine amounts to hierarchically ordering men and women in accordance with the strong/weak dichotomy and turning women into specific consumers as opposed to the universal male consumer. This is a return to the “differential valence of the sexes” analysed by Françoise Héritier.
7Another chapter focuses entirely on Ireland, an interesting case because it is one of the few European countries where alcohol consumption has risen in recent years and where women’s consumption has pulled ahead of men’s. The interpretation offered here in terms of that country’s identity – globalization and immigration have led Irish women to drink as a way of manifesting their Irishness – is perplexing: isn’t it somewhat tautological? Rising alcohol consumption rates, particularly those of women, probably indicate changes in relations between the sexes and sociability that would have to be analysed in finer detail.
8The book contains several interesting studies. Despite the reference to gender in the subtitle, however, the view of gender as a hierarchical ordering of male and female is not present throughout. It is regrettable that the afterword speaks only of prevention, making no further mention of gender or age.