Making visible the politics and ethics of alcohol policyresearch Academic Article uri icon


  • Although research on alcohol policy has produced a huge international literature, alcohol research and policy itself-its cultural assumptions, methods, politics and ethics-has rarely been subject to critical analysis. In this article, I provide an appreciative review of an exception to this trend: Joseph Gusfield's 1981 classic, The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic Order. I first outline Gusfield's argument that the 'problem of drinking-driving' is constructed as a 'drama of individualism' centring on the 'killer drunk'. The 'culture' of drinking-driving research and policy emphasizes alcohol as the problem and locates the source of car accidents in the moral failings of the individual motorist, rather than in social institutions or physical environments. For Gusfield, this construction of the problem is the outcome of political and ethical choices rather than of 'objective' conditions. In the second part of the article, I highlight the book's remarkable foresight in anticipating later trends in critical policy analysis, and argue that it should be regarded as a sociological classic and as required reading for those working in alcohol and indeed other drug policy research. I conclude by arguing that The Culture of Public Problems remains relevant to those working in alcohol and other drug policy research, although the reasons for its relevance differ depending on readers' theoretical commitments.

publication date

  • 2017