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Sociological Approaches Hold Promise to Curb Campus Drinking

by Kerry J. Strand, Hood College and ASA Visiting Sociologist

Though recent reports about newly discovered health benefits of drinking wine and longevity-enhancements associated with beer consumption emerge, Americans are alarmed at media reports that binge drinking has reached epidemic proportions on the nation’s college campuses. The data are, indeed, frightening. The 2001 Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, which surveyed more than 10,000 students at 119 colleges and universities across the nation, found 44 percent of college students are reported “binge drinkers,” tens of thousands die each year from alcohol-related injuries, and many more suffer injuries, endure sexual assaults, practice unsafe sex, and experience serious academic problems—all related to excessive and often-underage drinking on college campuses. The same report tells us that despite efforts over the past decade or two to curb campus drinking, the problem is as bad as—some reports say worse than—ever.

Sociological Analyses

Not surprisingly, sociologists have contributed in important ways to the large body of research as well as to public discussions about college drinking. Three of the most well-known are Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health and lead researcher of their college alcohol study; H. Wesley Perkins at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, one of the developers of the widely-touted “social norms campaign” approach to reducing excessive drinking on campuses; and David Hanson, who hosts an award-winning website called Alcohol: problems and solutions (www2.potsdam.edu/alcohol-info) at the State University of New York-Potsdam, where he is a faculty member.

While Wechsler, Perkins, and Hanson are in agreement about some aspects of the problem of campus drinking—for example, that it is a problem that brings with it significant personal, interpersonal, and institutional costs—their take on the problem differs in important respects. This is especially true when it comes to questions about just how widespread and serious the problem has become and what should be done about drinking on college campuses.

Perkins reviewed and synthesized much of the extensive research over the past two decades on types, extent, and patterns of negative consequences of campus drinking in a recent special supplement to the Journal of Studies of Alcohol (Supplement No. 14: 90-100, 2002). Studies ranged from small-scale and largely descriptive research at single institutions to those that used large nationwide databases. They identified a wide range of negative consequences that occur at many different levels: damage to self; damage to others in the form of interpersonal conflict and sexual assault, for example; and institutional damage, such as vandalism and tarnished town-gown relations and academic reputations of institutions. Studies of the consequences of campus drinking also explored patterns across groups (e.g., differing in gender, ethnicity, age) and looked at correlations of college drinking with factors such as high school drinking and students’ perceptions of their own problems with drinking.

Disagreeing on “Binge Drinking”

The consequences are serious, but how widespread is alcohol abuse on college campuses? While Wechsler and his Harvard colleagues suggest that binge drinking is a huge and worsening problem on campuses, others disagree. Perkins emphasizes that the harmful consequences associated with heavy drinking are not occurring for the majority of students in most contexts. Hanson goes further and argues that alarmist estimates of underage and binge drinking on college campuses are just that—alarmist—and that both underage and heavy drinking have steadily declined. He and others suggest that some of the problem has to do with definition and measurement issues, particularly the definition of “binge drinking.”

According to Wechsler and the Harvard studies, a male is a binge drinker if he consumed five or more drinks in a row on a single occasion within the past two weeks; for women, it is four or more drinks. This definition distorts the nature and scope of the problem, Hanson and others claim, in part because it does not specify the time period over which the drinks are consumed. Four or five drinks over, say, a six- or seven-hour period hardly indicate what most of us think of as very heavy drinking. Nor does it conform to the clinical definition of a binge—a multiple-day drinking episode with extended periods of intoxication. According to critics, then, to say that almost half of college students are binge drinkers seriously exaggerates both the nature and extent of the problem.

Prevention

Another area of some disagreement among experts is what should be done to reduce campus drinking. The Harvard study—and, indeed, much conventional thinking about the problem—stresses the need for laws regulating underage drinking and restricting the volume of alcohol sold or consumed, such as prohibiting pitcher sales and happy hours at bars adjacent to campuses. These recommendations are suggested by findings showing that colleges in cities with such regulations have lower rates of binge drinking. Living arrangements influence drinking behavior as well, Wechsler is quoted as saying, as indicated by their finding that students who live in substance-free dorms or with their parents are less likely to binge drink.

Knowledge (of “Normal”) Is Power

Other sociologists promote a different approach. Perkins is widely cited in connection with what has come to be called a “social norms” approach to combating alcohol abuse on campuses. Through his own extensive research of students’ views and behaviors related to drinking, he determined that students largely misperceive the drinking habits of their peers—that is, they think that other students drink far more than they actually do—and their own decisions about whether and how much to drink depend in part on their perception of campus drinking norms. Perkins, and others who support this approach, argue that the most effective preventive efforts are those aimed not at trying to convince students that drinking is bad for them or at imposing ever more stringent regulations to make it harder to drink. Rather, theirs is an approach that “gets the word out” on campus about how much most students drink—which is a lot less than others think they do.

“Social norms” campaigns seem to work. Large and small, urban and rural, and private and public institutions across the country have adopted the social norms approach, and institutions employing this approach (e.g., Northern Illinois University, the University of Arizona, and Western Washington University) report 10- to 25-percent decreases in high-risk drinking. At Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where Perkins and his colleagues oversaw a comprehensive campaign that combined data collection, print and electronic media, and other activities aimed at changing student perceptions about each others’ drinking, they saw an 18 percent decline in the frequency of student drinking over a five-year period.

The social norms approach is one that Hanson promotes as well, as it fits with his view that most popular assumptions about alcohol and alcoholism are seriously misguided. The source of drinking problems is culture, not alcohol, he argues. Hence, his proposed solutions all address social context: stop stigmatizing alcohol; permit parents to serve alcohol to their children; teach moderation rather than promoting abstention; stress responsible drinking, not drinking itself, as a sign of maturity; and stop accepting intoxication as an excuse for otherwise intolerable behavior.