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Meaning of Alcohol in Five Different Societies: Native Americans, Maori, Chinese, French and Russian

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Meaning of alcohol in five different societies: Native Americans, Maori, Chinese, French and Russian
This essay was conducted in order to look over whether the meaning of ‘alcohol’ differs across various cultures. The essay will compare how tribal people conceptualise the definition of this substance and how it is explained by contemporary societies in developing and developed countries, and also in the post-Soviet country. Contemporary or postmodern period is known as the latter 20th and the 21st century (Johnson, 2001). This paper will provide examples of indigenous societies from North America and New Zealand, and also societies from China, France and Russia. The essay will briefly review the way their attitude to alcohol changed since earlier times. It seems that in practice relation with alcohol is usually understood by drinking alcoholic liquids. The behavioural consequences of drinking depend as much as on a people’s idea of alcohol does to a person as on the physiological processes that can result from alcohol abuse. It would be advisable to say that alcohol as a ‘drink’ played an important role in almost all societies’ cultures since Neolithic times. Alcohol helped to drive the globalisation of trade since 17th century (Hames, 2012). The role of this substance was usually described in relation to religious experiences or by enhancing the enjoyment of life. Historically, alcoholic beverages also were widely used as sources of antiseptic nutrients in medicine. In modern time, definition of ‘alcohol’ became more pervading, and the means by which alcohol can be consumed have diversified with the development of industrial-scale distillation. Mentioned above helps to form the following statement, which aims to argue that time and state of the country affect different understanding of the notion of alcohol and its different treatment. The essay will also externally discuss alcohol-related problems.

The term alcohol originally refers to organic compound ‘ethanol’, the prevailing of it can be found in the alcoholic beverages. Despite, that the substance is usually examined for medical and scientific purposes, the issue on alcoholic liquids created a significant stimulus for sociological research. The historical time of Indians from North America was chosen to begin to describe complexity of alcohol meaning in sociological significance. Alcohol was a unique item in the relationships between Native North Americans and colonists in the late 16th (Carpenter, 1981). Europeans brought alcoholic liquids as presents that were main satisfactory during festive parties (Brady, 2000:440). In time, Europeans started to trade different commodities such as food, tobacco, clothing, alcohol and others to North America. Used as method of domination, traders exploited indigenous people by exchanging these goods for fur (McCormic, 2000:25). The alcohol was the most profitable for Europeans. Though, liquor or rum, as opposed to metal weapons, tools or cookware, did not provide utilitarian advantage to Indians. They began to incorporate alcohol into their society because there was a thought that alcohol could bring them to the condition of ‘getting beyond the self’, meaning it allowed them to connect with spirits (Carpenter, 1981). Native religious practice placed a great emphasis on beliefs in spirituality. Alcohol use could lead Natives Americans to a state close to alcoholic intoxication or drunkenness, which, in the opinion of Indian nations, could endow them by courage and bravery (Carpenter, 1981). This sense of invulnerability seemed to be a very attractive thing to them. Carpenter (1981) wrote that “For the Iroquois nation, intoxication originally meant not flight but search; not escape, but fulfillment; not loss of self, but discovery of self. To them it was a positive spiritual experience”. Iroquoian tribes were one of the most powerful leagues in North America (ibid).

Indians’ society lacked any moral rules about quantities of alcohol consumption, because it was totally new for them (Carpenter, 1981). At the beginning of 21st century for many remained indigenous people in North America consumption of alcohol was their attempt to struggle with the state of hopelessness and sicknesses that appeared due to the devastation of traditional cultural values (McCormic, 2000:27). Devastation is a strategy utilised by churches and formed government of Canada in attempt to assimilate Indians into Euro-Western culture (ibid). Alcohol is seen as one of the ways to replace anxious feeling; it became an alternative for happiness (McCormic, 2000:28). The society began to develop other strategies to deal with the pain of cultural dislocation and the resultant problem of alcohol abuse, therefore, alcoholism rate decreased from 95% to 5% over some time (McCormic, 2000:29). The high rate of substance dependence is seen among some reserved tribes today in Canada (Ehlers et al., 2013). It can be noticed that absence of knowledge about effects of alcohol led indigenous community to be in a greater number of those who suffered from alcoholic liquids, comparatively to a general population of Canada (ibid).

As for another tribal society, Maori were one of the fewest who did not use intoxicants (Cook, 2013). This society did not have an alcohol as a commodity until British colonists settled in New Zealand (ibid). According to the Hutt (1999), on the contrary to Indians, Maori did not like the taste of substance (cited in Brady 2000:439). They called it ‘waipiro’ or ‘stinking water’ (Cook, 2013). Even so, for Maori alcoholic beverages played some role in trade relationships with Europeans as it was for Indians. Until the 1850s some Maori tried to trade their local goods for alcohol and tobacco; and beginning from the 1850s Maori attempted to control access to liquor, proclaiming in some communities the prohibition (ibid). A possible reason could be to avoid the massive alcohol abuse. In the 1860s alcohol began to appear at Maori ceremonial gathering or ‘hui’. Rum and whisky started to increase in meaning during rituals (Brady, 2000:440). Maori tried to introduce alcohol into their culture, making it part of their hospitality, and later, it became associated with the transfer of knowledge during sincere conversation. (ibid). In the 2000s average daily consumption of alcohol was the same for Maori and non-Maori, however, still articles with discussion on high drunkenness among Maori were not found. As was investigated by studies of Brady (2000) Maori had a relative temperance to alcohol.

It would be advisable now to compare meanings of alcohol among societies in countries with different level of development in contemporary time. In general, adults in developing countries are likely more to abstain from drinking than adults in developed countries (WHO, 2002). Consumption of alcohol in large quantities is a general characteristic and a major cause of illness in almost all countries of the former Soviet Union (Pomerleau, 2008). In many developing countries traditional use of alcohol is still dominates the method of alcohol usage associated with the sake of temporary pleasure (ibid). Economic research suggests that China is still likely to remain in the list of developing countries due to high rate of poverty (IMF, 2014). Nevertheless, culturally China is very rich on different tradition ceremonies supplemented by drinking of alcohol. Therefore, treatment of drinks containing alcohol in Chinese society seems to be specific from other countries. Especially Chinese alcoholic beverages take an integral part in the Eastern Chinese society.

China is a motherland of alcohol spirits distilled from a yeast-fermented base (Heath, 1995:42). The conceptualization of alcohol in Chinese society was stressed by their beliefs and values. Alcoholic liquids as rice wine and other spirits have been involved in such parts of Chinese as religion, marriage and hospitality for a long time (Hanson, 1995). As for the religion, earlier sacrificial activities often involved alcohol (Heath, 1995:42). In relation to marriage, it was suggested by studies of Heath (1995) that alcohol still plays a significant role at all its steps. However, there is a difference in a behavior of different ethnic groups towards alcohol. Among the Hans (the major ethnic group) the family of fiancé offers alcohol to the bride’s family as an approval for the marriage ceremony (Heath, 1995:43). Another group such as Ewenkis also believe that if the gift is drink then it means that the parents approve the marriage. Mongolians engagement procedure is divided into two steps, which include confirming rituals involving liquor as the main alcoholic liquid (ibid). It can be concluded that alcohol is inspired by the idea of future happy relationships. As for socialisation, for a host of different events it is honorable and respectful to serve an alcohol as a combined expression of open-armed welcome (Hanson, 1995). For instance, Mongolians serve three cups at a time, and guest has to choose two of them to drink; among the Ewenkis, a host propose to friends cowberry wine after pouring a little on the fire as a tasting if himself/herself (Heath, 1995:43). In the paper of Cochraine et al., (2003) was found that alcohol still remains to be an important in traditional part of Chinese life.

Moreover, alcohol has a special meaning in Chinese medicine. Alcohol was regarded as a good for medical use in ancient China and has been used in this way more than for 4000 years (Hanson, 1995). Famous Chinese beverage as millet wine or strong white spirits were used. Li Shizhen, who was a major doctor in China in the 16th century, believed that effects of wine could prevent cold (Hanson, 1995). In present time, the wine is effectively used for problems that are caused by chest pain and traumatic injuries (ibid). It is a tradition of Chinese community to prepare herbal wines for patients who are recovering from illness or who suffer from chronic conditions. In parallel due to an increase in market economy the commercial production of beverages increased and this, therefore, resulted in rise in prevalence of alcohol dependence, which moved from the ninth to the third most prevalent mental illness in Chinese society (Cochraine et al., 2003).

According to International Monetary Fund (2014), France is the fifth worlds’ largest economy with high development rank. The French were always interested in the grape and how it is used in the wine production (Brennan, 1989:71). The history of wine consumption is still considered in France as one of the most important subject for research. Therefore, this section is to explain the meaning of alcohol in French society based on wine as the principal alcoholic beverage; it also will explain the importance of wine in production. For French people wine always characterised Frenchness, so it is much important as being born in France or speaking French (Demossier, 2010:1). Status of wine drinking was associated with wealthy people, with those who believed that the ability to distinguish between different kinds of wine is very important (ibid). Meanwhile significance of wine tasting become a disused technique and French people can no longer differentiate ‘good’ from ‘bad’ wines (Demossier, 2010: The studies of Brennan (1989:71) revealed that with increasing in wine trading the luxury drink for the rich evolved to a common drink among the lower classes.

In the 20th century in France wine was assimilated also into the definition of the food and the delight that good food brings (Marshall, 1979:30). It is also believed that everyone around the dinner table in the family drunk wine; other kinds of drink as cognac was classified in a different way and consumed in non-family environment (Marshall, 1979:30). French pilots could have wine with their in-flights meals (ibid). However, along with this, wine use oriented towards festive became more common thing. Since 1980, people who consume wine while having the meal continuously decreased in number, on the contrary, the proportion of occasional drinkers continues to rise as a new social phenomenon (Demossier, 2010:2). In 1980 50.7 percent of the French population over fourteenth drank wine with dinner every day while in 2005 only 20.7 percent did (ibid). Nevertheless, the wine drinking as part of the dinner diet is still prevails in the society (Demossier, 2010:5).

Moreover, for the French, especially for winemakers, the meaning of wine is of great importance not only in the consumption this alcoholic beverage, but in its steps of production. Historically, France was the oldest and the major country in the production of wine, and it still remains the number one producer by volume (Ruelle, 2008). In the 21st century, the government issued certain laws concerning the use of wine, especially in public places (Demossier, 2010:4). The wine growers became to complain that the strict governmental attitude sounded the death for wine drinking culture in France. On other hand, these laws were adopted in order to control alcohol abuse (ibid). France, as the European country, has the most excessive alcohol consumption by people from higher social classes; therefore, it is one of the reasons that cause high mortality rates in different regions. (Corn-Ruelle, 2008:6).

Russia is a country with the largest territory in the world; it is also the founder of the Soviet Union. This section will explain the meaning of alcohol in Russian society based on most common beverage vodka. Jargin (2010) claims that vodka was an important part of Russian society for a long time signifying goodwill and friendliness (cited in Kravets, 2012:361). At the time of Soviet Union, vodka, as one of the main alcoholic drinks, was among the main means of redistribution of wealth between different classes (Christian, 1990:4). Upper classes could generate a main part of their revenue on vodka production and its trade as also on bread production. Therefore, for people from elite vodka formed a meaning of earnings (Christian, 1990:5). For working classes, vodka was seen as a drink that is important for social life, hospitality and leisure (Kravets, 2012:361). In the 21st century, an increase of distribution of this alcoholic beverage led to its significant meaning for the economies in other countries (ibid). It is important to say that first production of this alcoholic liquid was in Russia; sometimes Poland is also considered to be a birthplace of vodka, however, many articles support that the first appearance of vodka for drinking was in Russia (Smith, 2007:693).

Traditionally, vodka is alcohol water without any colour and smell, which is distilled from fermented grains (ibid). Vodka is a powerful part of what it means to be a true Russian. This part always was made by different historical events, in which the Russian society was involved; later, the quantity of vodka consumption became a creator of understanding of Russian soul (Kravets, 2012:364). It was found by analyses that drinking vodka or even alcohol overall is associated usually with simple occasion in Russian society (Bobak, 1999:859). Alcohol water accompanies Russian people, especially men, during their loneliness of not occurred marriage. It means that Russians put the alcohol in meaning of struggle with unhappiness or, better to say, non-experience of family relationship (Bobak, 1999:860). Unemployment of most Russian men is also associated with meaning of massive vodka drinking (ibid). Furthermore, it is outlined by the report on alcohol and health that Russia still stays among the highest in the world (WHO, 2011). It can be noticed that negative influences of socio-economic circumstances are intertwined with the meaning of drinking of vodka. On the other hand, in present time, in many households people keep vodka in their fridges not just for their own consume, but because vodka is a "symbol of a cardinal disposition toward guests" (Kravets, 2012:364). Vodka is served on a table as a ‘trustworthy companion’ to the celebration birth or to the grief over death (Kravets, 2012:361). Nevertheless, binge drinking is relatively frequent in Russia; it may cause a heart attach which can lead to the death, therefore, alcohol control has to be a key priority for Russian nation (Bobak, 1999:862).

In conclusion, essay aimed to explain that different meanings of alcohol exist among different societies; different culture, history, and economic status are important reasons for that. It is believed that in all times different types of alcoholic beverages that may be consumed during the various events represent the general concept of alcohol for people. The essay studied different societies in order to support mentioned above. It was found that indigenous nations from different North America and New Zealand distinguished from each other's attitude towards drinking, however, it was proved that with developing of good exchanges, for these traditional tribal groups alcoholic drinks came to play an equally important role in trade. Rum, whisky and liquor were connected with theirs cultural beliefs. In the 21st century alcohol abuse is more recent among Native Americans and Maori than among general population of nowadays Canada and New Zealand. Next sections of the essay tried to compare different meanings of alcohol by looking over countries with different level of development. It could be noticed that alcohol still may have a significant meaning in marriage ritual and medicine in developing China, while wine symbolize socialisation and privacy during dinner in developed France. Still health-related problems due to occasion drinking are identified in both countries. And finally, Russian vodka is a major alcoholic beverage in the post-Soviet country Russia. Usually it is used for celebrations and hospitality among Russians; but still rating of drunkenness in Russia is one of the highest. Vodka may cause serious cardiac-problems. It seems that people in developed countries are likely to drink more than people in developing countries; perhaps due to the fact that people in developed countries has a higher affordability. Time is proved to be a key in the issue of changes of notion ‘alcohol’ in sociological sense. Therefore, it can be seen that more complex research on alcohol has to be carried out.

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Bobak M., Mckee M., Rose R. and Marmot M., (1999). Alcohol consumption in a national sample of the Russian population. Addiction 94(6), 857-866.

Christian D., (1990). Living Water: Vodka and Russian Society on the Eve of Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cochraine J., Chen H., Conigrave C. M. and Hao W., (2003). Alcohol use in China. Alcohol and Alcoholism 38(6), 537-542.

Cook M., (2013). Maori smoking, alcohol and drugs- tūpeka, waipiro me te tarukino. Retrieved 3rd January, 2015 from:

Corn-Ruelle L., Dourgnon P., Florence J. and Lengagne P., (2008). Alcohol Consumption in France: one more glass of French paradox. Questions d’économie de la Santé 128, 1-6.

Demossier, M. (2010). Wine drinking culture in France: a national myth or a modern passion? French and Francophone Studies. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Edmund Carpenter E., (1981). Alcohol in the Iroquois Dream Quest. Anthropology and Aesthetics 1, 84-87.

Ehlers C. L. and Gizer I. R., (2013). Evidence for a Genetic Component for Substance Dependence in Native Americans. American Journal of Psychiatry 170(2), 154-164.
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Pomerleau J., McKee M., Rose R., Haerpref C. W., Rotman D. and Tumanov S., (2008). Hazardous Alcohol Drinking in the Former Soviet Union: A Cross- Sectional Study of Eight Countries. Alcohol and Alcoholism 43(3), 351-359.

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