Going to the pub as an investment in social capital

pintMedically, there are plenty of reasons to suppose that alcohol harms the human body and produces damaging behaviours. However, I’ve come across a couple of pieces of research in recent weeks that might help remind us that drinking can also be related to social capital, which in turn has some benefits.

These positive effects of alcohol first came to my attention when I was writing the second edition of my textbook on social capital. A friend sent me a copy of a paper – available online – that found higher earnings among social drinkers than among either non-drinkers or solitary drinkers. This finding was based on analyses of the US General Social Survey, controlling for other factors such as full-time/part-time work and qualifications; interestingly, the study showed some differences between the effects of drinking for the two genders. Overall, the authors suggested that this gain arose because social drinkers formed networks that then gave them access to knowledge of opportunities that were denied to non-drinkers or solitary drinkers.

This seemed to me interesting enough to look at this literature again, for a third edition of the text. I found some refinements to the analysis of drink and earnings, with one particularly persuasive study of US panel data showing that both abstinence and heavy drinking were associated with lower lifetime incomes than those enjoyed by light/moderate drinkers.

The Crown Liquor Saloon, Belfast. Image copyrighted by Albert Bridge, licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons

The Crown Liquor Saloon, Belfast. Image copyrighted by Albert Bridge, licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons

I also came across some qualitative research on health and drinking among men. This study drew on group interviews with middle aged men in Scotland. The authors found that while beer drinking in a pub was very much part of masculine culture, it also helped men to define ‘some non-hegemonic behaviours as forgiveable – and indeed acceptable’. This included open discussions of emotions and mental health issues while drinking beer together, so that while the men might engage in damaging behaviour – excessive drinking – they also provided social support that could improve health outcomes.

Finally, there are studies of the influence of social capital on drinking levels. These tend to show that those with higher levels of social capital are less likely to indulge in binge drinking. It is, though, difficult to know what weight we can place on these studies. They tend to be based on samples of university students, who might well be untypical of the wider population. And they tend to measure social capital in terms of the time spent volunteering, which of course may include activities undertaken on behalf of a faith organisation that disapproves of or forbids alcohol. So I am not really persuaded that these studies are of wider significance.

But one study, based on English survey data, and using a wider range of social capital indicators, found that those who lacked social support tended not to drink at all, while civic participation at individual level and social capital community level were both associated with moderate alcohol consumption. Note that this was an association – with cross-sectional surveys, it is hard to draw any conclusions about causality. Again, I’m not inclined to rush to generalise, but these findings seem on the face of it to be compatible with those showing that moderate drinking can have some beneficial effects.

In practical terms, I am faced with two decisions. Fascinating though this is – and reassuring for me as a sociable drinker – I have to decide whether it really merits inclusion in a textbook. And when it is published, where should I take my partner to celebrate?


5 thoughts on “Going to the pub as an investment in social capital

  1. You could get the same social benefits by going to the pub but sticking to soft drinks, right? I’m doing Dry January and finding that it is impeding my social life somewhat. I’d like to see bars offering more soft and low-alcohol options.

  2. But so many women can’t go to the pub because they have the main responsibility for kids and/or (now more influential than ever) elder care. And if they do go to the pub with male colleagues, they often feel excluded by talk about rugby, football etc.

  3. Thanks for the reassurance that social drinking is the right thing to do, even though my liver might slightly disagree 😉

    @Helen: I don’t have kids (yet), but I’d be more than happy to leave them with my partner if I’d like to go to the pub. Women can go to the pub if they want. Which I am currently doing twice a week or so, with my male colleagues, while discussing football. I love football! And know what? They are capable of talking about other things as well…

    • Well, I hope it works out that way for you if you do have kids, Klara – if it does you will be one of the lucky ones. It certainly has not been that easy for many of my female colleagues over many years, who have been consistently excluded from the social networking because of caring responsibilities. It might seem easy to say ‘I’ll just leave the kids with my partner’ – but what if they are sick? What if they are experiencing problems and need you as well as your partner to be there? I could give a long list of ‘what ifs’ that you probably haven’t thought about, and which would make a visit to the pub with colleagues on Friday after work a great deal more difficult that you perhaps imagine in your current situation.

      And perhaps the burden of eldercare is too far off for you to contemplate, but that doesn’t mean that it’s OK to dismiss the pressures that brings for other women – again, I hope you never do have to cope with the years of daily care, support, hospital visits, medical appointments, meetings with professionals etc that eat up so much of my and other female colleagues’ time, and exhaust us, and destroy our social lives. But if you do end up in our situation, perhaps you will think about it a bit differently than you do now…

      It’s great that you love football too, but aren’t you just being rather sociologically naive about the ways in which male bonding often – completely unwittingly most of the time – excludes women? I used one example of how this often happens, and should you jovially join in the football talk, good for you, but you might find other aspects of social interactions are not so female-friendly for you. Of course men are capable of talking about other things – but many years in academia have shown me that all kinds of subtle forms of exclusion go on in informal talk.

      • Why should all these care tasks fall to women only? I for one won’t buy this. At the moment my partner is actually helping my grandparents out, I’m not. He will take the major part of eventual childcare. Which does not mean he can never go to a pub again. Of course, if someone’s ill I’ll skip pub, but that will apply to anyone, not only to females…

        And luckily, my male boss is showing me this is possible. He is the one picking up the kids from school and not joining to the pub every now and then – instead his wife is! I only have to watch myself not to start talking about knitting with her on such occasions, as to not exclude the men…

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