What Causes Alcohol Abuse (Do You Agree?)

What causes alcohol abuse? Psychologist Dr. Bruce K. Alexander explores this issue below. You might be surprised at his observations. See if you agree with his theory of what causes alcohol abuse.


I.   Temperance View

II.  Replacing the Temperance View

III. Conclusion

What Causes Alcohol Abuse

by Bruce K. Alexander, Ph.D.

Alcohol abuse is not a significant cause of social problems. It’s largely a result of those problems. Therefore, simplistic minimum age laws, zero tolerance, or reduction of consumption policies are doomed to failure.

I. Temperance View

The temperance movement popularized an explanation of social disorder in the 19th century. It preached that alcohol was the primary cause of ill-health, crime, and family violence. That drinking ultimately menaced civilization itself.

Drinking was said to transform people into drunkards who were doomed to perpetual inebriation and vice. Moderate drinking was impossible – all drinkers were on the road to degradation. Universal, total abstinence was the cure-all.

Ways of promoting abstinence generally fit three categories. They were temperance education (meaning anti-alcohol propaganda), treatment (often religious conversion), and prohibition.

When the religious terminology is dropped, these 19th century ideas are strangely familiar. This is because today’s alcohol policy is build on temperance assumptions. There are only minor changes. It sees ill-health, family violence, and other social ills largely as results of alcohol consumption.

Its remedies for the “alcohol problem” fit the temperance model. That is, promoting abstinence through education, treatment, and reducing availability. It uses a contemporary vocabulary, of course, but the temperance ideas shine through.

Disproven Ideas

Although these ideas were promising in the 19th century, their contemporary popularity is difficult to justify. The bulk of the temperance and neo-temperance claims are unsupported and are actually contradicted by current data.

This is true of such early claims as that drinking inevitably converts people into drunkards. And of later claims as that alcohol is a “gateway or steppingstone” substance leading to drug use.

It is also true of political predictions, such as that alcohol prohibition would reduce ill-health, crime, and violence. However, these flawed temperance beliefs and ideas form the basis of alcohol policy in North America.

II. Replacing the Temperance View

causes alcohol abuse
Dr. Bruce K. Alexander

It is reasonable to expect that the failed temperance framework will be replaced with a more productive perspective. What follows is a sketch of my nomination as the replacement.

In the temperance view of history, alcohol is a major cause of society’s problems. However, the social history of the temperance era suggests different causes. I collectively label these as “dislocation”.

By “dislocation” I mean separation of people from material, social, and spiritual ties. These are essential for a tolerable existence.

Human Dislocation

The last two centuries saw human dislocation on an unprecedented level. It was driven by geometric population growth and the industrial revolution. All over England, for example, hundreds of thousands of people were dislocated from rural homes and traditions. First, to cities, factories, work houses, poor houses, and jails. And then from these institutions to North America, Australia, and other colonies.

The crime wave that accompanied these dislocations provoked furious application of the lash and the gallows. Also the “transportation” of 160,000 convicts to Australia and 40,000 to the American colonies. By contemporary standards enormous amounts of alcohol were consumed during this period.

The more fortunate of the dislocated poor made their way to Canada and other colonies as free settlers. But even those who prospered were still bereft of families and traditions. Moreover, many were perpetually re-dislocated. The population grew convulsively. The industrial revolution took up where it had left off in the old world. Military forces dispersed rebellions of industrial workers, tenants, and slaves. Wars, repeated depressions, and new waves of immigration made everything insecure. Westward expansion flooded the continent with fighting, drinking Europeans.

Settlers Dislocated Others

Settlers were victims of dislocation, but they also displaced indigenous peoples wherever they landed. And these native Americans often moved and displaced still others. Native people quickly learned the English custom of seeking solace in liquor and other drugs. The settlers provided these in abundance when it suited their purposes.

In our times, North America continues to be swept by waves of immigrants, refugees, and economic immigrants. Moreover, social problems and excessive alcohol use characterize not only geographically dislocated people. People were also “dislocated” in a more general sense. They ­ included the unemployed, victims of family and community disintegration, and ghetto blacks cut off form mainstream society.

Dislocation is Now General

Obviously, excessive alcohol use is not confined to the poor. Its existence among the affluent seems to have similar roots. Dislocation, in a broad sense, is now the norm for rich and poor. Jobs disappear on short notice. Communities are weak and unstable. People routinely change spouses, technical skills and fundamental beliefs. The continued habitability of the earth itself is in question. For rich and poor alike, dislocation plays havoc with the delicate interpenetrations of people, society, and the physical world. Yet these are necessary for an existence that is tolerable without chemical crutches.

III. Conclusion: What Causes Alcohol Abuse

This view of history leads to an understanding of alcohol and society that contradicts the assumptions of the temperance framework. Most fundamentally, alcohol abuse is not a significant cause of society’s problems.

Instead, alcohol abuse is a result of the same dislocating forces that cause other social problems. In this view, pursuing abstinence from alcohol is, at best, a roundabout route to personal and social improvement.

Reduction of social problems will require direct attention to the causes of dislocation. It will also require helping people adapt to those forms of dislocation that are truly inevitable.

Much exploration is needed of the evidence supporting this way of thinking, the implications, and the new puzzles it raises. But, however this approach measures up, our most urgent task is to develop an alternative to the outworn temperance mentality. That will enable us to think creatively about what causes alcohol abuse and social problems once again.

About the Author of What Causes Alcohol Abuse

Dr. Bruce K. Alexander is Professor of Psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, Canada. He has long been interested in what causes alcohol abuse.

Also, Dr. Alexander is the author of many publications. One is Peaceful Measures. Canada’s Way Out of the War on Drugs. “What Causes Alcohol Abuse” reprinted by author’s permission. Slightly edited and headings added.