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Drugs & Society's Issue Honoring Don Cahalan

by Ron Roizen

    Yesterday's mail brought a copy of a welcome publication indeed--in the form of the journal Drugs & Society's long-awaited festschrifft for Don Cahalan (1912-1992), edited by Bernard Segal.1

    Segal began its preparation about four years ago, but the collection became delayed by a variety of unforeseen problems. In any event, the issue is now out, and by all appearances well worth the wait!

    Don Cahalan led Berkeley's Social Research Group (or SRG, later renamed and better known as the Alcohol Research Group [ARG]) from 1968 to his formal retirement in 1979. Don and SRG's other researchers produced a wealth of research and analysis over his tenure--much of it springing from the quite different image of drinking and alcohol-related problems that derived from general-population survey research.

    Also out of SRG would come some of the major theoretical/ideological formulations and some of the central figures of the then-still-nascent "New Public Health Approach" (NPHA) or "new temperance" orientation to alcohol in American society.

    Don himself--as it happened, well after his formal retirement--authored two books in the new orientation's voice, Understanding America's Drinking Problem: How to Combat the Hazards of Alcohol (1987) and An Ounce of Prevention: Strategies for Solving Tobacco, Alcohol and Drug Problems (1991). Robin Room, James Mosher, and Larry Wallack--all of whom served their alcohol research apprenticeships at SRG in the 1960s (Room) or 1970s (Mosher and Wallack)--would go on to play significant roles in the shaping and promotion of the NPHA.

    My guess is that any serious student of the history of alcohol studies in the U.S. will look upon Segal's commemorative issue on Cahalan as a small feast of rich information and commentary.

    If you read the issue back-to-front, the first item you'll encounter is SRG/ARG librarian, Andrea Mitchell's, useful and handy bibliography of Don's work. Even a quick scan of Don's worklist is suggestive of the general intellectual course his efforts followed--from (a) an early focus on methodological concerns surrounding the ticklish and formerly uncharted doorstep-territory of interviewing ordinary citizens about their drinking, (b) through a descriptive phase focussed on mapping the broad outline and demographic distribution of American drinking patterns,2 (c) through a focus on self-reported alcohol-related problems,3 and finally to (d) a preoccupation with alcohol policy.

    Next, you'll encounter a paper by this writer, on the subject of trends in youthful drinking in the U.S.4 It was published in this collection to pay a small tribute to my old boss, but the paper is not about Don, the intellectual life at SRG, or the great popular paradigm shift the group launched. (If you're interested in the NPHA's intellectual history, you can just skip over my paper entirely!)

    From thence forward to the journal's title page, however, you will encounter a rich collection of reflections and discussions authored by James F. Mosher, Raul Caetano, Robert Straus, Robin Room, Edith S. Lisansky Gomberg, and introductory comments by Bernard Segal.

    Much interesting history is recounted in these papers.

    Of course, telling histories is not merely an exercise in offering accounts of the past. It is also an exercise in shaping the definition and preoccupations of the present--in showing how the present embodies (as Jim Mosher's essay termed it) an honored "legacy," a reason for being as it is.

    But there are many "pasts" associated with Don and the good old days at SRG--my "past" there, and my perceptions and remembrance of it, differs from Robin Room's, which in turn differs from Jim Mosher's.

    There is nothing profound in all that really, but it affords one of the reasons I was particularly drawn to Jim Mosher's paper in the Segal collection, titled "The Emergence of an Alcohol Policy Reform Agenda in the United States: A Don Cahalan Legacy" (D&S 11[1/2]:73-92, 1997).

    Jim, who started out as a research assistant at SRG, has in the fullness of time become one of the country's most militant agents of the NPHA.

    As it happens, I like Jim and I respect him.

    His orientation to alcohol policy, however, is utterly foreign and baffling to me.

    So I looked to Jim's new paper in this volume, as I always do to Jim's writings, for clues to how-on-earth the two of us could have come out of the experience of the Cahalan-era SRG with such radically different understandings of alcohol and its relationship to human problems.

    Jim's paper didn't disappoint me--and I heartily recommend it to anyone out there who is trying to understand how the "new temperance" sensibility emerged from and was shaped by the alcohol survey-research of the 1970s.

    Indeed, this effort on Jim's part affords one of the clearest discussions he's offered of "his" history of this topic--it should undoubtedly be required reading for Jim's policy friends and foes alike.

    Jim traces the genesis of the NPHA sensibility to the Cahalan team's survey research discovery that something called "alcohol-related problems" appeared to be diffusely distributed in the American drinking population rather than concentrated solely in specially problematic drinkers called "alcoholics."

    This finding led to what Robin Room called the "disaggregationist" perspective on alcohol problems--namely, a picture of such problems that unpacked or disaggregated the traditional image of the heavily problem-laden alcoholic into a wider collection of drinkers with lower-level problems. These latter folk may have formerly been regarded as "social" or "moderate" drinkers, but not so in the viewfinder of the new survey research.

    There is nothing incorrect in Jim's historical account, and it is one that I'm quite sure Robin Room, Larry Wallack, and even Don himself would regard as a more or less faithful report of the disaggregation perspective's relation to the new policy "agenda" (as Jim called it).

    Disaggregation did provide one of the NPHA's key theoretical foundations.

    What especially struck me about Jim's account, however, is what it omits--and indeed what historical accounts in general omit--from the story of the Cahalan-based NPHA's conceptual roots.

    Yes, there was in due course a new interest in alcohol, per se, as a problem-occasioning vector in "alcohol-related problems" in the long wake of the survey-research-based revelations.

    But there were also very strong counter-tendencies--tendencies that led away from alcohol per se--in SRG's post-revelation intellectual life. In other words, the disaggregationist discovery cut both ways re alcohol's relation to the things survey researchers labeled "alcohol-related problems."

    These counter-tendencies--as much or even more than the tendency toward an alcohol-as-cause focus--grew out of the challenges SRG's survey perspective laid at the feet of the reigning alcoholism paradigm.

    They looked away from alcohol and into other explanatory possibilities for an understanding of the data we analyzed and puzzled over.

    And these counter-tendencies were every bit as much a product of the new perspective that survey data offered--indeed, and for some time, they were a more important focus of research and conceptual attention than the alcohol, per se, focus.

    A couple of splendid examples of this counter-tendency at SRG readily come to mind:

    1st Example: Comprehensive Review of "Alcohol-Causes" Literature

      The disaggregation perspective's conceptual invitation to examine the character of alcohol's direct relationship to untoward events and acts also spawned research and conceptual outcomes at SRG that were highly critical of the direct, "alcohol-causes" perspective.

      For instance, SRG's late-1970s monumentally comprehensive investigation and review of the research literatures on alcohol's (putative) direct relations to crime, suicide, traffic accidents, and other accidents resulted in a series of reports whose narratives discussed all manner of serious weaknesses associated with alcohol-based explanations.

      What exactly was the evidence for assertions one heard in the press or even in the scientific literature that took the form, "Alcohol is reponsible for n-% of murder, rape, auto fatalities, boating accidents and so on"? What was in fact the quality of the conceptual and empirical underpinnings for such oft-heard claims?

      The anwer that came back from our exhaustive and exhausting tour through these literatures was a resounding, "Pretty poor!"

      In other words, these proportional-causal attributions to alcohol were often based on the flimsiest of descriptive or correlational evidence, and certainly not very credible from an disciplined intellectual perspective. This was the celebrated "Casualty Study"5 at SRG, and it still represents--to my mind at least--one of the group's most important achievements in de-constructing standard claims regarding alcohol's causal/correlational responsibility for human suffering of various sorts.

    2nd Example: Alcohol and Disinhibition

      Out of the Casualty Study came a clear recognition that many of alcohol's would-be bad consequences sprang in fact from a single putative mechanism--namely, alcohol-occasioned disinhibition.

      Yet relatively little of real value could be found on this putative phenomenon in the scientific literature. Moreover, the disinhibition phenomenon tended to be regarded quite differently from different professional or disciplinary perspectives--e.g., from pharmacology, cultural anthro, or law.

      Consequently, SRG--largely through Robin's initiative--sponsored a multidisciplary conference focused on this singular topic: alcohol and disinhibition. The result was a wonderful conference and a published proceedings6 that ranks among the three or four best publications to come out of SRG, IMHO.

      The real payoff and denouement of this exercise, however, turned out (as in the casualty study) to be a deepening intellectual appreciation of the complexities and problematics of taken-for-granted disinhibition-based explanations.

      Alcohol's connection via disinhibition to bad conduct was a secure article of commonsense knowledge, to be sure--but it gave way to manifold and daunting conceptual and empirical problematics when it was held up to the light of the conference's assembled disciplinary specialists.

    These two examples of post-disaggregationist work and thought at SRG are very much a part of the group's history of ideas.

    Both these examples, moreover, offered significant critiques of a simplistic alcohol-causes perspective on various harms that popular and even scientific thought attributed, usually in part, to alcohol.

    Such critiques took the group's researchers in a variety of conceptual directions and highlighted a number of sociological puzzles. For example, the casualty study and the disinhibition conference experience showed us that popular notions of alcohol's responsibility for untoward events in fact had little secure footing in credible science.

    This dawning revelation, in turn, led some of us to wonder what it was about alcohol as a culturally defined object that made it such a attractive explain-all for untoward events. This was--especially for SRG researchers Harry Levine and myself--the beginnings of a search for an adequate cultural or sociology-of-knowledge perspective on American beliefs about alcohol's explanatory utilities.

    The two major research preoccupations cited above were, I believe, known to Jim. Indeed, Jim--a lawyer by training--presented an excellent paper7 on the legal perspective at SRG's disinhibition conference. So differences in exposure or familiarity with the group's work and history won't entirely account for the divide.

    In the end--and even after reading Jim's new paper--I find that the question of why such significant undertakings are overlooked in his history of the group's intellectual experience, when these undertakings would occupy quite significant places in my history of the group--remains still pretty much a deep mystery to me.

    It would be an easy matter, of course, to say that present-day interests have in effect colored or reconstructed Jim's remembrance (or mine) and account for the difference. My hunch, however, is that the matter goes deeper than that--and perhaps down to more fundamental differences in epistemological and social presuppositions.

    But such a discussion must be left to another time...


    1 This issue is titled, "Essays on Alcohol Research and Policy: A Tribute to Don Cahalan" (Drugs & Society, vol. 11, Numbers 1/2, 1997).

    2 See esp. Don Cahalan, Ira H. Cisin, and Helem M. Crossley, American Drinking Practices: A National Study of Drinking Behavior and Attitudes (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, Monograph No. 6, 1969).

    3 See esp. Don Cahalan, Problem Drinkers: A National Survey (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1970) and Don Cahalan and Robin Room, Problem Drinking Among American Men (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, Monograph No. 7, 1974).

    4 See Ron Roizen, "Whither Youthful Drinking in the United States, 1980-1992" (Drugs & Society 11:93-115, 1997).

    5 The project's main findings were conveyed in a single, 700-page document--Marc Aarens, Tracy Cameron, Judy Roizen, Ron Roizen, Robin Room, Dan Scheneberk, and Deborah Wingard, Alcohol, Casualties and Crime, Social Research Group Report No. C-18, November 1977. A number of secondary reports were also generated by this project.

    6 See Robin Room and Gary Collins (eds.), Alcohol and Disinhibition: Nature and Meaning of the Link, (Washington, D.C.: USDHHS, NIAAA Research Monograph-12, 1983).

    7 James F. Mosher, "Alcohol: Both Blame and Excuse for Criminal Behavior," pp. 437-460 in Robin Room and Gary Collins (eds.), Alcohol and Disinhibition: Nature and Meaning of the Link, (Washington, D.C.: USDHHS, NIAAA Research Monograph-12, 1983).

© 1998 Ron Roizen


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tree in autumn

some explorations in the
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mystery novella set on the
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