Research shows that heavy drinking in college is linked to school failure, illness, sexual victimization, and other catastrophic outcomes, including death. Since negative outcomes commonly occur in the drinking scene, then why do students continue to be so heavily invested in this activity? This question inspired my eight-year study of college drinking.  I surveyed over 400 students, conducted 25 intensive interviews, and spent over 100 hours observing the culture of drinking in bars, house parties, and at street festivals. As a sociologist, I imagined college drinking as a social process and a collaborative effort. While past researchers used surveys instruments to try to understand the motivations and consequences of individual drinkers, I designed my research to capture the collaborative forms of drinking and intoxication management used by university students.

My respondents felt that there were many social benefits associated with collective intoxication (e.g., it reduced shyness, gave them the temporary confidence to “hook up” with love interests). But, what about the negative effects? Why do they persist in an activity that carries such potential for injury, sickness, and emotional distress? The answer is “drunk support.”

Drunk support refers to the delivery of emotional and/or instrumental provisions from one person to an intoxicated other. This includes: attending to a drunksick friend while they are vomiting, consoling an emotionally distraught co-drinker who is upset about a relationship or feeling aggrieved by the actions of other drinkers, and providing physical reinforcement when one’s friend gets into a fistfight. Drunk support turns negative events into mutually beneficial, bonding experiences. Social support feels rewarding to both the giver and to the receiver. When negative events occur in the college drinking culture, then, co-drinkers mobilize to help one another in ways that turn the negative experience into a positive one. Thus, my data suggest that heavy drinkers continue to drink in spite of these noxious outcomes and they continue to drink, in part, because these negative events bring them closer together, because the experiences allow them to demonstrate the depth and quality of their character, and because these events become “war stories” that will become an important part of their friendship narratives.

Drunk support may actually perpetuate risky drinking because it gives drinkers a sense that they will be taken care of when the party train goes off the rails. On the other hand, drunk support can be positive if it prevents tragedy or reduces victimization. My respondents reported that they were vigilant, for example, about looking out for their friends if they felt that they were vulnerable to sexual victimization. Students escort their intoxicated friends home from bars and intervene when they see their inebriated female friends leaving a bar or house party with an unknown male. The informal support located within the drinking scene suggests policy implications. College administrators should recognize and encourage this sort of support by implementing bystander intervention training for students. While colleges should continue to use educational and prevention efforts to reduce high-risk drinking, they should also develop harm reduction strategies that involve training students to recognize dangerous situations and to act upon them. Bystander approaches are currently being used at SUNY-Stonybrook (see the Red Watch Band) and Dartmouth College (see the Green Team). It is time that we involve our students more directly in harm reduction strategies in the drinking scene.

About the author:
Thomas Vander Ven is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ohio University and author of Getting Wasted: Why College Students Drink Too Much and Party So Hard.