Alcohol consumption as symbolic capital: Understanding how young women’s drinking shapes and is shaped by social relations

Author: Belinda Lunnay

Lunnay, Belinda, 2016 Alcohol consumption as symbolic capital: Understanding how young women’s drinking shapes and is shaped by social relations, Flinders University, School of Health Sciences

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In this thesis I provide an understanding of the complex social conditions that produce and are produced by young Australian women’s alcohol consumption. This gives insight into the social mechanisms that generate and regulate alcohol-related practices and make drinking alcohol meaningful for young women. Current understandings of young Australian women’s alcohol consumption are dominated by biomedical approaches that individualise and misrepresent drinking behaviour. Limited attention has been given to the socially constructed, symbolic and gendered meanings of alcohol consumption from the viewpoints of young women themselves, occupying different social status positions. To explore these meanings, I used Bourdieu’s theory of social relations and his concept of symbolic capital. Data about drinking practices and attitudes were collected from 32 South Australian women aged 14–17 years through interviews, focus groups and photo elicitation, with the social media platform Facebook® used to facilitate communication with participants. For these young women, alcohol consumption was a means to enact practices through which legitimisation of identity and social gains were obtained. Social groups were symbolised and differentiated by their consumption practices. Forms of drinking conduct congruent with valued ways of consuming alcohol brought a sense of social ease through the accrual of symbolic capital, while incongruence caused tension and risked jeopardising social status. The embodied, performative practices associated with consuming alcohol reflected participants’ interpretation of broader societal expectations to drink and were emblematic of pre-existing social distinctions. Young women’s ability to accrue alcohol-related symbolic capital was determined through aspects of opportunity pertaining to the possession of economic, cultural and social capital, and gendered social power. By interpreting these Bourdieusian themes alongside postfeminist philosophy, I understood drinking as symbolically meaningful through the specific ways young women consumed alcohol within gendered fields of power that linked to their patriarchal expressions of femininity. Alcohol provided these young women with opportunities to experiment with non-traditional femininities as only temporal transgressions enacted within socially-regulated boundaries. Its consumption remained a site for the reproduction of traditional versions of femininity and patriarchal power differentials stemming from gender. This thesis captures the diverse ways young women consume alcohol in dissimilar social contexts. The range of alcohol-related values reflected in young women’s drinking indicates that young women should not be considered a homogenous collective when designing public health policy.

Keywords: young women, alcohol consumption, drinking, symbolic capital, Bourdieu, gender

Subject: Public Health thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2016
School: School of Health Sciences
Supervisor: Professor Paul Ward