Sociocultural Analysis of University Student Drinking

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17th May 2019 Sociology Reference this


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Alcohol consumption among university students has been found to be higher than the average population (Mekonen, Fekadu, Chane, & Bitew, 2017). Due to binge drinking culture students consume alcohol at excessive rates which can lead to certain negative consequences (Gill, 2002). Binge drinking is classified as the consumption of more than 6 units of alcohol in one session for men and women in the UK (National Health Service, 2016) Sexual health consequences such as unplanned pregnancies and risk of possible sexual transmitted infections can be ramifications of heavy drinking (Robertson and Plant, 1988). Anti-social behaviour such as damage to property was influenced by drinking, West, Drummond, & Eames (1990) found that 26% of students caused damage to property. There are various factors which influence student drinking such as biological and environmental factors. However, sociocultural factors are important in the influence of student alcohol consumption.

Peer influences is known to be a strong factor in student drinking intentions and behaviours (Borsari & Carey, 2006). Peer influence is the way an individual adjusts their values, behaviours and attitudes to suit or conform to a group or individual peer (Goethals, 2009). There are three pathways of peer influence that affect alcohol use which are outlined by Borsari & Carey (2006). The first pathway asserts that the absence or breakdown of quality peer relationships could be a factor in increased alcohol consumption among students (Borsari & Carey, 2006). There is an increased consumption of alcohol due to this dysfunction in relationship (Borsari & Carey, 2006). Research provided by (Hussong, Hicks, Levy, & Curran, 2001) supports this notion at it was found that students who supposed that their friendships lacked intimacy and social support, consumed more alcohol at an excessive rate during the week (Hussong, Hicks, Levy, & Curran, 2001). The negative feelings associated with this breakdown of a peer relationship can lead to increased alcohol consumption (Borsari & Carey, 2006). To counteract this lack of peer relationship the intake of alcohol consumption could be more due to expectations and self-efficacy to handle the lack of stability and support that is in a peer relationship (Borsari & Carey, 2006).

 The second pathway outlines that excessive alcohol consumption is part of peer interactions and can influence university students’ drinking (Borsari & Carey, 2006). If the consumption of alcohol is a fundamental part of peer relationships, then it is more probable that drinking rates would be higher. Research provided by Weitzman, Nelson, & Wechsler (2003) found that college students exposed to heavy drinking environments in a social setting, were more probable to binge drink than peers who were not exposed to these same environments. Supporting research for peer interactions affecting alcohol consumption provided by Piacentini & Banister (2006) found that university students social lives revolved around drinking. This affects university students’ drinking because alcohol was described by students’ as being a social lubricant and a good ice breaker, in particular this was the case when students were around peers that they were not familiar with (Piaccenti et al, 2006).  

Therefore, excessive drinking becomes the norm within peer interactions because of the positive sociable aspect they get from drinking (Gill, 2002). Furthermore, peers encourage alcohol use through modelling this is when individuals observe a new behaviour and then replicate it (Borsari & Carey, 2006). The modelling of alcohol consumption has been found to be common among persons who have higher social approval needs and who consume more alcohol when socialising (Caudill & Kong, 2001). This affects student drinking because alcohol becomes integrated in social settings and becomes normalised due to the social positive reinforcement that they receive from their peers (Borsari & Carey, 2006).

The final pathway asserts that peer disapproval of alcohol makes it more probable that students refrain from alcohol or consume less of it if they are around peers who do not drink (Borsari & Carey,2006). Due to alcohol not being an integral part of your peer relationship alcohol consumption is lowered. Social reinforcement is encouraged by peers refraining from alcohol because not drinking is seen as a positive reinforcer. Research by Cotner (2002) assessed college students’ motivation for abstaining alcohol. Findings had shown that religious influences or previous negative alcohol experiences from their peers would influence other students not drink alcohol because it was not suitable. The abstainers would remove themselves from the alcohol based student environment (Cotner, 2002).  In relation to peer influences this research shows that a peer’s decision to abstain from alcohol could impact other peers and thus, they do not consume as much alcohol. This affects student drinking as it shows a different narrative to student drinking because alcohol is not always the centre of peer and social interactions in university students.

The quality of peer relationships in societies/clubs at university can also influence alcohol consumption as this is part of university culture. Research provided by (LaBrie et al., 2007) outlined that there are two main influential peer groups in the college setting in America. These may influence drinking culture as these sororities and fraternities are more involved in excessive alcohol consumption (LaBrie et al., 2007). In a similar way, UK university sports clubs have been found to consume high levels of alcohol (Partington et al., 2012). Excessive alcohol consumption is important in university sports teams as it is seen as developing a sense of belonging (Clayton and Humberstone, 2006). Thus, it can be said that alcohol affects students’ alcohol consumption because alcohol is engrained in university culture and to a great degree in clubs and societies (Partington et al., 2012). In addition, university sports clubs that are in the UK who receive alcohol industry sponsorships engage more in problematic drinking behaviour than unsponsored university sports clubs (O’Brien et al., 2014).  Therefore, it can be argued that it is a social norm and affects university drinking as these sports teams are encouraged to drink which may lead into negative effects like anti-social behaviour.  They are reinforced in a positive way by gaining sponsorships and are celebrated for it, as it is a ‘laddish’ thing to partake in risky alcohol behaviour (Dempster, 2011)

Alcohol consumption through pre-drinking is when students drink large quantities of alcohol before they go out to their main event in order to avoid high alcohol prices at bars (Zamboanga, Schwartz, Ham, Borsari, & Van Tyne, 2009). Peer interactions are an integral part of pre-drink settings, so students consume more alcohol than normal (Eastman, 2002).  Many students participate in pre-drinking activities as it is a cheap way to get drunk faster, it enhances group bonding and thus the positive social experience that students get out of it (Wells et al, 2008 as sited in Marsh, 2018). This affects university students drinking as research has found that student drinking is responsive to alcohol events (Magill, Kahler, Monti and Barnett, 2012), more students are inclined to attend pre-drinks because the rate of attendance has been associated with alcohol availability (Zamboanga et al., 2012). However, negative effects are associated with because pre-drinkers have an increased risk in the likelihood of alcohol poisoning and blackouts, due to the excessive amount of alcohol consumed before going out (Wells, Graham, & Purcell, 2009).

Socialisation and peer influence were used to assess alcohol consumption in first year college students (Miller, Prinstein, Esposito-Smythers, 2014).  Findings had shown that first year students chose to be friends with those who had similar binge-drinking patterns as they did before they had started university and continued to maintain that binge-drinking pattern (Miller, Prinstein, Esposito-Smythers, 2014). This provides a different aspect of peer influence on the consumption of alcohol as from this research there is a limit to how much alcohol that the students in this sample consume but they choose to engage with a peer that consumes similar amounts of alcohol to them (Miller, Prinstein, Esposito-Smythers, 2014).

Social norms have been found to be one of the significant predictors for heavy drinking among students (Neighbors, Lee, Lewis, Fossos, & Larimer, 2007). Social norms refer to the accepted behaviour that govern groups and societies (Bicchieri, 2016).  Binge drinking has become a social norm because university students in particular consider this rate of alcohol consumption as being acceptable (Gill, 2002). During Freshers’ week the social norm among students is to drink to excess and participate in other risk-taking behaviour (Brown,2016). Research provided by File, Mabbutt, & Shaffer (1994) looked into the alcohol consumption of medical students during Fresher’s Week. Findings had shown that in the sample of first year undergraduates the maximum consumption of alcohol was 28 units this included 34% of the sample who were non-drinkers, 10 of these students drank during Fresher’s Week (File, Mabbutt, & Shaffer, 1994). Social norms and social pressures were thought to be reasons affecting drinking in medical students in particular the first-year undergraduates (File, Mabbutt, & Shaffer, 1994).  This is due to the normality of excessive drinking during this period shown and modelled by other year groups and each other (Purshouse, Brennan, Latimer, Meng, & Rafia, 2009)

Peer influence along with social norms are important influences in students’ drinking at Bangor University because students are around peers who are just like them, thus peers are influencing each other to either consume more alcohol or drink less. Research that has been conducted at universities about student alcohol consumption has a general consensus that alcohol intake is influenced by peer influences through social interactions. This important factor in Bangor University as the social norm like any other university is that students often participate in binge drinking for the majority of students. In university halls the majority of students do participate in drinking culture because of its social acceptance, and their peers are doing the same thing. Fresher’s Week which is utilised to welcome new undergraduates in Bangor, this includes students going to pubs and clubs which often have offers on alcohol, thus promoting the social norm of drinking. The Athletics Union have their own night in a local university club where the majority of sports societies attend. Some drinks are £1 including pints and there are 2 for £3 bottles. The cheap prices allow students to buy more, it is an important influence on Bangor University because one it is one of the student nights when student consume more alcohol which further reinforces the social norm surrounding alcohol.

In order to counteract this influence at Bangor University increasing alternative extracurricular activities amongst peers with more volunteering opportunities and introducing dry events could help binge drinking in Bangor students.  Extracurricular activities have been found to be beneficial in university students due to the reinforcing role that student activities have on reducing drinking in campus. Murphy, Correia, Colby, & Vuchinich (2005) found that students who had reduced their consumption of alcohol had an increased reinforcement from substance free activities. Furthermore, social norm interventions could counteract this influence at Bangor. Pilot projects have been conducted to counteract student drinking in seven universities across the UK (National Union of Students, 2015).

Alcohol Impact is a programme which was created to change the social norm of irresponsible drinking in university students (National Union of Students, 2015). Through social norm interventions about alcohol consumption results from this pilot study showed that there was a large reduction in student rejections from campus venues due to the anti-social behaviour they would display from drinking and they were a vast increase in freshers’ events that did not focus on alcohol (National Union of Students, 2015). This programme could be used in Bangor University as this research has shown it has helped other UK universities and it could decrease binge drinking behaviour in students to sensible drinking patterns.

Peer influences and social norms have impacted on university students’ alcohol consumption. There is encouragement for students to drink a lot of alcohol, despite the negative effects that are associated with it. Counteracting these influences will take time, however if students take precautions like eating a meal before drinking, it could lessen the effects of high-level drinking.


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