Costs of oversimplifying intoxication: Forthcoming handbook chapter

In an invited chapter for the forthcoming Handbook on Intoxicants and Intoxication, DruGS program members David Moore, Duane Duncan and Emily Lenton compare the treatment of intoxication in Australian alcohol policy documents with the accounts generated during in-depth interviews with Australian alcohol policy stakeholders, in particular their reflections on the complex relationship between intoxication and violence.

Entitled ‘Handling complexity: Constituting the relationship between intoxication and violence in Australian alcohol policy discourse’, the chapter argues that policy documents rely on a simplistic emphasis on intoxication that obscures the many factors shaping behaviour. In the accounts offered by stakeholders, a more complicated dynamic is at work: complexity in the relationship between intoxication and violence is acknowledged but, for a range of reasons, this complexity is lost in considering responses. Notably, the simplifications interviewees made all worked in much the same direction: policy responses need to reduce alcohol availability (and presumably all intoxication) in order to reduce violence. It is also possible to see in the interview accounts general support for the public health principle that a direct relationship exists between per capita alcohol consumption and harm, and a belief that this offers the strongest strategic ground for achieving the desired changes in alcohol policy. These framings have at least four significant effects: (1) they tend to reinforce the allocation of causal responsibility to alcohol alone, (2) they authorise blanket measures that pay little attention to the range of forces and elements co-constituting violence, (3) they unnecessarily limit drinking choices for those unlikely to contribute to violence, and (4) they sideline approaches to intoxication, and to alcohol more generally, that mobilise alternative ways of handling complexity.

In offering this analysis, the authors’ aim is not to argue that alcohol should not be the focus of government policies but to call attention to the simplifications evident in them and to their effects. The simplifications evident in the analysed policy discourse foreground, for the most part, the pharmacology of alcohol and the reduction of alcohol availability. As lead author David Moore asks:

“What if alcohol policy relied on different forms of research that emphasised the gendering of alcohol-related violence or took a more critical view of the methods, assumptions and practices of the research it currently relies on? What different effects might result if the framing and simplification were of a different order: for example, if men’s drinking was identified as the main issue of policy concern with respect to violence?”

As an authoritative discourse that plays a key performative role in the constitution of realities, the allocation of government resources and the governance of health, alcohol policy deserves close scrutiny for what it can tell us about the contemporary problematisation of intoxication.

Edited by Tamar Antin, Vibeke Asmussen Frank and Geoffrey Hunt, the Handbook on Intoxicants and Intoxication will be published by Routledge in 2021.

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