The Social Meanings of Drinking: Strengthening the Social Bonds of Restaurant Employees

Rachel R. Doern, University of Northern British Columbia
Steven M. Kates, University of Northern British Columbia
ABSTRACT - The purpose of this article is to explore the social meanings of recreational alcohol consumption within the context of the restaurant working environment. The social influences which may precipitate drinking are important factors, but studies have not usually focused upon the dysfunctional and facilitating role alcohol has within various types of workplaces. This paper summarizes literature which specifically addresses social influences on drinking and then illustrates how behaviors in the restaurant workplace environment are significantly patterned around alcohol consumption.
[ to cite ]:
Rachel R. Doern and Steven M. Kates (1998) ,"The Social Meanings of Drinking: Strengthening the Social Bonds of Restaurant Employees", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 481-485.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 481-485


Rachel R. Doern, University of Northern British Columbia

Steven M. Kates, University of Northern British Columbia


The purpose of this article is to explore the social meanings of recreational alcohol consumption within the context of the restaurant working environment. The social influences which may precipitate drinking are important factors, but studies have not usually focused upon the dysfunctional and facilitating role alcohol has within various types of workplaces. This paper summarizes literature which specifically addresses social influences on drinking and then illustrates how behaviors in the restaurant workplace environment are significantly patterned around alcohol consumption.

Much alcohol and illicit drug consumption is a learned behavioral characteristic of an addictive society that serves to facilitate social interaction and perceived control, and thereby reduce individual perceptions of discomfort and isolation (Cross 1979). Consumer drinking patterns and preferences are often explained by social influences. Primary influences or determinants of drinking behavior include alcohol-related attitudes and behaviors of parents and peer groups. Economic factors and the media serve as secondary influences of drinking behavior.

The purpose of this article is to explore and illustrate the importance of various social meanings related to the use and abuse of alcohol within the context of the restaurant work environment. High alcohol consumption often characterizes the work environments of the restaurantindustry as a result of the encouragement by coworkers, management, and restaurant policy in the form of socialization, discounts, parties and other staff incentives. Further, our findings and insights serve to challenge the modernistic separation of work and consumption (e. g. see Fuat and Venkatesh 1995) and elaborate upon the constructed nature and connectedness of the cultural categories of 'unproductive leisure’ and 'productive work’; our informants reinforce social bonds by marking their ingroup solidarity with ritual drinking (see also Sonnenstuhl 1996). Moreover, these social bonds help create a sense of community among ingroup members and may contribute to the character and effectiveness of the work environment itself. Thus, the issue of drinking in the workplace helps consumer researchers more clearly understand the nature of the 'consumer in postmodernity,’ who creates 'virtual’ or imagined communities (such as in the workplace context) and social affiliations in place of the more traditional, monolithic, and integrated communities which characterized the age of modernity.

This paper will first provide a background on the social influences (which can be contrasted to the more phenomenological experience of substance use; see Hirschman 1992) regarding alcohol consumption including: the addictive nature of society, attitudes and behaviors of parents, peers, and the media. To illustrate how drinking adds to the functioning of the work environment, an in-depth introspective description of the work environment within a restaurant as the first author experienced it will be accompanied by five in-depth, semi-structured interviews.


The reputation of the United States as a "drug-taking culture" stems largely from western values emphasizing personal control and immediate gratification, promoting the use of external or pharmaceutical means to relieve pain and discomfort (Jaynes and Rugg 1988; p. 64). This notion is confirmed by the millions of prescriptions filled annually in which one in every eight is characterized as unneccessary (Jaynes and Rugg 1988). Alcohol as the most popular drug in America "sets the standard for the cultural norm of medicating yourself for unacceptable feelings" (Forbes 1994, p.79).

Consistent with western values, drinking most often serves to facilitate social interactions in its perceived ability to relieve tension experienced during certain situations. In this manner, alcohol also symbolizes one’s participation in events when drinking is the norm: parties, celebrations, or any group function that permits the use of alcohol. The act of drinking itself often serves as a bond between individuals; bonds may be reinforced and facilitated by a turn-taking process of purchasing rounds of drinks for fellow drinkers. Those individuals who neglect to participate in these rituals (or forego alcoholic beverages altogether) may feel awkward and considered an outsider by group members.

Riley, Marden and Lefshitz (1959) conducted a nation-wide survey to demonstrate how alcohol serves the individual by both avoiding ostracism and complying with social norms. Researchers assessed individual motivations of consumption, public attitudes and knowledge of alcoholic beverages. Male participants most often cited individual reasons for drinking (49%) as opposed to social reasons (33%), whereas female participants gave social reasons for drinking (55%) more so than individual reasons (31%). On average, sociability and the desire to "be a good sport" were the most important reasons participants gave for drinking. A smaller proportion drank to "feel good". In a Gallup survey conducted in the United States (1990), individuals gave the following reasons for drinking alcoholic beverages: "to be sociable", "to relax", "for personal enjoyment", "for special occasions", "to add to the enjoyment of a meal" (Milgram 1990, p. 31). Both studies show the relationship between alcohol and perceived personal and/or social control.


Social Learning Theory asserts that drinking behaviors are learned through the observation and imitation of models who receive reinforcement for their actions (Akers 1992). Moral attitudes and behaviors are also determined by the way individuals are reinforced. Positive reinforcement may take the form of meeting new people, whereas negative reinforcement might include removing inhibitions of shyness and/or embarrassment. Parents, peers, culture, religion, the media, and social and economic conditions influence individual alcohol-related attitudes and behaviors. The extent to which alcohol has been reinforced in certain situations over abstinence may predict later drinking occasions.

The Motivational Model as it applies to drinking suggests individuals are motivated to consume alcoholic beverages if they believe that by doing so, a certain outcome will result. In this manner, drinking behavior relies on preconceived notions regarding alcohol’s ability to produce a desirable state, as in reducing anxiety conducive to social situations or relieving personal tension and stress (Cox and Klinger 1987). To illustrate, Wilson, Abrams, & Lipscomb (1980) conducted an experiment to determine the relationship between intoxication levels and social anxiety in men. Results indicated the more subjects drank the less anxious they appeared; increased doses of alcohol in this study were related to lowered heart rates. However because alcohol usually has the effect of increasing heart rate, findings suggest that participant expectations regarding alcohol consumption may be more conducive to tension reduction than anticipating actual physiological effects.

Alcohol and Socialization

Peer Group Influence. The social function of drinking is evident at everyday familial, peer, professional and entertainment gatherings: "[t]he individual’s disposition to use illicit drugs is generally felt to be congruent with the values shared by members of the person’s membership/reference group" (Kaplan, Martin, and Robbins 1985, p.208). However, the magnitude of social consumption as pertains to alcohol may be affected by the individual’s stage or position in life, marking a state of transition (i.e. the university years marks the transition from dependence on parents for economic and social support, to economic and social independence; see Hirschman [1992]).

Between the ages of eight and fourteen, peer groups serve as important determinants of drinking behavior. Pisano and Rooney (1991) found that the percentage of students in grade four who generally approved the use of beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages was lower than those in the sixth grade. The percentage of students who indicated they would likely use alcohol in the future, approved of the use of beer and wine by persons of the same age, and those who would join friends in the use of substances, was also much higher for sixth-graders than fourth-graders. The results of this study point to a transitional stage in early adolescence wherein peer groups assume a greater role in shaping individual attitudes and behaviors than parents (Pisano and Rooney 1991, p.154). Other studies conclude that alcohol consumption and the perception of peer group influence also increases with age. Aitken (1978) studied the drinking attitudes of children and noted that measures of consumption and peer group influence were higher among the fourteen-year olds; fifty-five percent of the ten-year olds thought drinking was wrong, in comparison to thirty percent of the fourteen-year olds.

In adulthood, drinking patterns of friends and associates as well as the size of drinking groups themselves may predict consumption by the individual. De Ricco and Niemann (180) in a number of controlled experiments uncovered similar drinking episodes and consumption rates among companions. Observations of Canadian beer parlor patrons indicate that group size and drinking episodes are in fact correlated (Cutler and Storm 1975). Sommer (1965) in his observations, discovered that isolated drinkers consumed half the amount of those in groups.

Advertising. The social learning perspective assumes that upon viewing commercials and television programs, the behaviors of actors may be imitated or may serve referential purposes for viewers who find themselves in similar situations. The likelihood that viewers will follow the advice or example set by actors will increase if actors are rewarded for such behaviors. The following studies serve to illustrate the correlation between the use of alcohol on television by actors and the drinking behavior of viewers. Herzog (1944) found that forty-one percent of those radio soap listeners surveyed had, at some point in time, followed the advice conveyed by an actor on a radio program to deal with their own similar problems. Lowery (1977) observed the frequency and pattern of alcohol-related acts on television soaps. After viewing all day-time soaps for a 4-week period he determined on average, 1.49 drinking incidents per half-hour. Drinking was observed most often in instances of social interaction, of escapism, and in crises. As well, those using alcohol for social reasons were portrayed positively, while those using it for escape purposes were most often punished, suggesting that alcohol usage may encourage sociability.

The direct relationship between alcohol consumption and advertising is difficult to assess, but the following studies indicate a relationship between the two. Blizzard (1976) discovered that when the number of alcohol commercials was increased, consumption per capita in Australia also increased. In a more recent Australian study of children and the effects of television advertising (Pritchard 1994), researchers uncovered that children had "near perfect" recollections of alcohol-related ads, sponsors, brandnames, and logos during sport broadcasts (p.6). An increase in alcohol consumption due to an increase in wine commercials was also observed in California (Katzper 1978).


Personal Observations of the First Author

Drinking is often associated with group membership, particularly in the workplace. The first author’s personal experience of working in the hospitality industry as a bartender and server over a four-year period has allowed her to form the following conclusion: drinking after hours with coworkers plays an important (if not necessary) role in the socialization of the individual into the establishment. In her experience, the restaurant environment provided not only the obvious financial support but also fulfilled social needs including friendship, romance and a sense of community among staff members. Alcohol consumption and a lack of a rigid, formal work structure reinforced these social bonds. Like other families, the bar 'family’ includes both a nuclear and an extended version. The nuclear family is composed of one or more managers (usually the sociable types who join staff for drinks after hours maintaining more than just the professional 'manager/employee’ relationship) and most often those employees whom management considers to be responsible and independent. These individuals trusted to make most of their own decisions with regard to customers, constitute the 'backbone’ of the establishment, and set an example for new and inexperienced or less competent employees. They also spend much time together as a group both within and outside the workplace. In the first author’s experience, thse individuals most often included those most visible to the customers, those with sociable personalities, and/or those working in close association with one another (i.e. servers and bartenders).

The extended family on the other hand, includes employees reluctant to participate in drinking activities, separating their work from their personal lives, those working in other areas who held their own get-togethers (i.e. kitchen staff), and/or those not invited to participate in events. Invitations to stay after work for a drink initiated by management and/or coworkers was a sign of acceptance and regarded as essential to furthering congenial working relations. Drinking after hours was facilitated by staff parties, staff discounts and drink offers by both staff and management. Those individuals participating in drinking rituals were often granted better work schedules, given more responsibility, granted more lenience and were more likely to find shift replacements than nonparticipants. Abstinence often led to declining future drink offers and discounts, invitations to parties, and/or participation in matters concerning inside gossip. Nonparticipants were also afforded less lenience; in the event of a "screw-up" they were more likely than participants to be suspended or fired (witnessed several times).

Socializing with staff after hours within the establishment or at other restaurants and bars was commonplace. Staff discounts within the workplace on both food and alcoholic beverages facilitated in-house consumption. Maintaining cohesion within the work family was ensured by drink offers from management and/or coworkers upon shift completion. Drinks were also used as incentives for staff members to promote food specials, ensure high sales, or as reward for a job well done. Not all staff members participated or were invited to participate in after-hour night caps.


To supplement the first author’s personal observations, a series of interviews was conducted by the first author with five individuals presently working in or who have worked within the restaurant industry within the last year. All interviews probed the following themes: staff drinking incentives-staff parties, discounts, or free drink offers (initiated by management and/or staff members); cohesion between employees of the same or different positions; after-hours drinking practices; whether or not drinking increased during employment; drinking status of the individual (light, moderate, heavy); and sales techniques prescribed by the establishment. All participants were informed that research was being performed exploring the social atmosphere of the workplace particularly as it pertained to the consumption of alcohol.

All interviews were conducted confidentially, and informants were ensured that their names and the name of the workplaces in question would be kept confidential. Interviews were recorded and informants were encouraged to relax and discuss their experiences in an open, non-threatening manner. Informants were also told that if at any time they wished to discontinue the interview, they could do so. Interviews were conducted one-on-one. Five in-depth interviews were conducted in total, lasting between twenty and forty-five minutes. All subjects were between twenty and twenty-eight years of age and included four men and one woman, three of whom were students and part-time workers, two of whom were non-students and working full-time during their employment.


According to the informants’ reports, restaurant work structures appear to be dominated by 'the popular clique’ which engages in most of the drinking behaviors. To illustrate, Jeff (wm, 25) worked part-time as a server for a year and a half in a popular family-dining restaurant franchise. He describes his relations with both staff and management as "really good" although he found coworkers "cliquey, almost stuck-up." Within the restaurant he fet it was important to "fit in." He described fitting in as "socializing" and being "personable" with other staff members and management, which often meant "hanging out" after hours during which it was necessary to both initiate and accept offers of alcoholic beverages. Most of those who socialized after-hours were servers or the "partiers." During his employment, his drinking "definitely increased" to adhere to group norms. The restaurant where he worked employed a policy of granting staff members a fifty percent staff discount off meals and two drinks for the price of two dollars each. After consuming his two drink specials he would usually leave work as he felt, "there was no point after to drink."

Rick (wm, 26), another server who also worked in management, noted that the restaurant tried to promote the "family sort of ideal" and togetherness among staff in order to ease the tension of working with the public. Often, as a manager, he would offer drinks to staff members to reward good performance and to console those servers who had experienced difficult shifts, suffered the consequences of management mistakes or of circumstances beyond anyone’s control (such as "difficult" customers).

Andrea (wf, 20) described herself as a light drinker, and that her employment at the restaurant has not affected her drinking. "I never drink with them". The restaurant itself offers a staff discount of 20 percent off drinks. On occasion "if it was a really hard night management would say have a drink on the house. Some people may feel pressured to drink." When asked how managers felt about staff drinking after a shift, she laughed and said, "they’re usually there". For Andrea the restaurant served only economic needs. She did not socialize with other staff and was not part of the drinking ingroup. Significantly, she further observed that it took her "a long time to fit in" with other staff members. Michael (bm, 28) echoes her sentiments and noted that "if you stop hanging out with people, the distance grows between you" and the group, and as a consequence, staff are treated "differently" and excluded from future parties, gatherings, and other staff activities.

Justin (w, 26) has worked full-time in a popular steak house for the past two years and has worked in the business for the past five years. He mainly serves, but sometimes acts as a closing manager or bartender. He socializes with both staff and management after shifts both within and outside the workplace. He drinks "five nights a week", which includes after almost every shift. He describes other socializers as those from all positions, although there are those who tend to drink after work more often than others. He describes himself as a "heavy-drinker: I probably drink more often than I should. It’s convenient." He says that management encourages drinking, "it’s called staff incentive" and "keeps everyone in the spirit." It may also be used as "a reward of sorts" for selling the most dinner specials in a night.

Staff members are given approximately a twenty-five percent discount on drinks and a five to ten percent discount on food. He says that "If you added up how much staff consumes, it’d be a huge number for the year, I’m sure". He goes on to say "alcohol is predominant in the culture" and that the restaurant itself represents "red meat, sports and good times." Staff parties are held approximately once a month, he says it’s any "excuse to drop the price of alcohol" further. While he felt that he did not have "much in common" with management, they bought him drinks nightly and encouraged him to stay after work, in order to strengthen their ties with him, as he is considered one of their best servers.


The recurring findings include the following: mos often, restaurant servers were those who socialized (four out of the five indicated this group was very "cliquey"); all restaurants had staff discounts on drinks; most of the interviewees indicated that socializing and drinking were encouraged and participated in by management. Most were moderate drinkers, except for Justin who is a heavy-drinker, perhaps due to the fact that most of the other interviewees were students working part-time.

Drinking and the Workplace Context

Interview findings suggest that staff incentive to drink and socialize within the restaurant industry as initiated by staff, management and/or restaurant policy is common and may be considered necessary to the effective operation of the restaurant. Peer influence and exposure to alcohol may also precipitate consumption. The work environment fulfills several needs of staff: economic, social, and even romantic. In order to gain acceptance from more experienced work peers, new recruits often accept invitations to drink in order to become of one of the restaurant virtual community or family.

An interesting paradox emerges from the interpretation of the participant observation and the in-depth interviews: the social meanings of drinking centre around the pressures to conform to group norms, the internalization of which significantly ease the social interaction of staff members on the job, particularly in the stressful context of working with a demanding public. Since servers must rely upon each other and kitchen staff for the "smooth running" of the restaurant, drinking serves as an activity which builds trust and social commitment among restaurant staff. Drinking symbolizes social acceptance, especially by management and encourages an atmosphere of sociability, camaraderie, and congeniality. In this capacity, the social meanings of drinking in the workplace may serve to reinforce the individual desires to increase perceived control, numb anxiety and pain, and reduce conflict (Cox and Klinger 1987) while similtaneously achieving superordinate organizational goals.

Yet, the benefits accruing to the restaurant may not be fully shared by the individual employees. Informants reported the following negative consequences of working in their work environments, aside from the required pressure to perform on the job: social pressures to drink and to regularly socialize with others one may not particularly consider desirable as acquaintances, the personal stresses associated with "not fitting in", and the strain on working relations between the drinking ingroup members and abstaining outgroup individuals. Paradoxically, drinking contributes to both social cohesion among some and to social distance among others. Thus, drinking activity in restaurant workplaces may sacrifice the best interests of the individual in favour of the organization.

Understanding the Consumer/Producer in Postmodernity

Our findings also point to the artificiality of the divisions or boundaries between so-called productive work and unproductive leisure so clearly demarcated in society (Fuat and Venkatesh 1995). For some restaurant workers, the workplace provides the fulfillment of economic, social, and romantic needs. Managers often buy staff drinks and blur the distinction between supervisor and friendly acquaintance, raising questions about managements fairness in dealing with issues on the job as pertain to individual staff members. Drinking activities may be interpreted as the nexus where the personal and the professional realms meet, paradoxically contributing to social order and further tensions in the restaurant environment. When managers who both promote and participate in drinking are viewed as "just one of the gang," their role as authority figures is brought into question. In this manner, the social patterning of behavior in the workplace around consumption of alcohol facilitates both functional and dysfunctional outcomes such as staff communication, conformity to grop norms, the promotion of drug enhanced relationships and experiences, and the potential (ab)use of alcohol.

Our study also helps consumer researchers understand the role of the consumer in the postmodern era. Consumption is not an unproductive end in itself or simply the destruction of an object (see Poster 1975) as more traditionally conceptualized. Rather, it may be more meaningfully thought of as a social act "wherein symbolic meanings, social codes, political ideologies, and relationships are produced and reproduced" (Firat and Venkatesh 1995, p. 251). A more postmodern view of drinking in the workplace leads us to some worthwhile insights about the relationship between shared symbolic consumption and the construction of community. It may be argued that during postmodernity, the traditional bonds of affiliation (such as characterized by local ethnic neighbourhoods, church groups, and 'family values’) have been seriously eroded by changing demographics, mobility, and telecommunications, among other important factors. As Thompson and Holt (1997) contend, consumers may engage in social and symbolic activities in order to enact the 'mythical’ notion of the traditional community, attaining bonds of social affiliation in the process. Within the context of the restaurant workplace, recreational drinking may serve as this symbolic consumer activity which joins people together in an (albeit transitory) kind of 'virtual community’, very much reminiscent of the fragmented multiple realities of postmodernity.

In conclusion, our study may act as a springboard for a number of productive research trajectories. First, other researchers may wish to study the workplace socialization issue more closely, noting whether alcohol consumption plays a significant role in employee socialiation in the context of other kinds of businesses such as hospitality, tourism, or say, professional occupations. Another direction, more in the postmodern orientation explored herein might explore the resistances which may develop in response to the pressures of conformity which were revealed here. Do socially competitive office subcultures develop around various recreational activities such as drinking or sports? How do individual consumers 'juggle’ and manage the fragmentation which occurs between their home lives (food shopping, taking the children to the movies, etc) and workplace consumer activities such as joining workmates for drinks after work or playing on the company baseball team? It is our hope that further research takes many different types of directions-both traditional and more postmodern.


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