A depressant intoxicant, the drinking of alcohol is a popular practice in the leisure time of most cultures; it is also held in regard as a key part of many religious and secular ceremonies and rituals. However, some cultures forbid alcohol use for reasons of religion (for example Muslims), whilst some countries (such as Finland) have sought to impose tight regulations on its availability for social reasons. The best known failure of total prohibition is the United States in the 1920s. In the United Kingdom, licensing laws dating from the First World War regulate alcohol availability. Since the Second World War, spending on alcohol has risen in most advanced industrial societies, as part of the rising proportion of household finances available for leisure pursuits. Drinking in the home has increased, though drink remains associated with either sophistication and escape or masculine values and camaraderie. Public houses and bars retain a sense of being masculine territory. Alcohol is a disinhibitor and can impair judgement; in moderation, the former effect is socially valued, but the latter carries implications for health by increasing the possibility of accidents, unsafe sex, and such like. Drinking carries various symbolic meanings, for example ‘round-buying’ and other rituals involve reciprocity, inclusion, and exclusion. The perspectives of symbolic interactionists, anthropologists, and subcultural theory are particularly illuminating here.
Alcoholism was coined as a term to denote a special medically diagnosable condition of serious dependence upon or addiction to alcohol. Dating from the mid-19th century, acceptance of the term is the cornerstone of the self-help philosophy of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in the United States in the 1930s. Alcoholism has been described in terms of a disease, a genetic disorder, a psychological problem, and as the product of the dysfunctional family. Undoubtedly, drink and its heavy consumption are related to the incidence of petty and serious crime (especially violence and motor accidents), health problems, and workplace injuries. However, the term alcoholism has been justifiably criticized in recent years: the World Health Organization and others would no longer accept its description as a disease, and a broader set of perspectives, including social and cultural theory, now generally inform work on alcohol dependence.