Given overwhelming evidence for the primacy of sociocultural factors in determining both drinking patterns and their consequences, it is clear that ethnographic research findings on the social and cultural roles of alcohol may have important implications for policy-makers - particularly in areas such as Europe where economic and political 'convergence' could have significant impact on drinking-cultures and their associated lifestyles.
In this context, it is essential for those concerned with policy and legislation on alcohol to have a clear understanding of the sociocultural functions and meanings of drinking. This passage outlines the principal conclusions that can be drawn from the available cross-cultural material regarding the symbolic uses of alcoholic beverages, the social functions of drinking-places and the roles of alcohol in transitional and celebratory rituals.
From the ethnographic material available, it is clear that in all cultures where more than one type of alcoholic beverage is available, drinks are classified in terms of their social meaning, and the classification of drinks is used to define the social world. Few, if any, alcoholic beverages are 'socially neutral': every drink is loaded with symbolic meaning, every drink conveys a message. Alcohol is a symbolic vehicle for identifying, describing, constructing and manipulating cultural systems, values, interpersonal relationships, behavioural norms and expectations. Choice of beverage is rarely a matter of personal taste.
At the simplest level, drinks are used to define the nature of the occasion. In many Western cultures, for example, champagne is synonymous with celebration, such that if champagne is ordered or served at an otherwise 'ordinary' occasion, someone will invariably ask "What are we celebrating?"
In the Weiner Becken in Austria, sekt is drunk on formal occasions, while schnapps is reserved for more intimate, convivial gatherings - the type of drink served defines both the nature of the event and the social relationship between the drinkers. The choice of drink also dictates behaviour, to the extent that the appearance of a bottle of schnapps can prompt a switch from the 'polite' form of address, sie, to the highly intimate du.