Alcohol, Race and Ethnicity: The United States, Mexico and the Wider World, 1845-1940

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Sch of Historical Studies


Stereotypes about "national" or "ethnic" drinking styles can be harmful, both by shaping drinking behaviours and by fostering racial prejudice. Racial stereotypes have shaped alcohol regulation, marketing practices and harm-reduction policies in the United States and Mexico, and in other parts of the world, since at least the nineteenth century. Some continue to do so to this day, with serious consequences for public health and race relations.

Understanding the history and development of these racial stereotypes is a critical step in reducing the harm that they do. This project examines how and why racial stereotypes about drinking developed in the United States and Mexico between 1845 and 1940, and how they interacted. Very little is known about the extent of dialogue between the multiple racial stereotypes about the drinking behaviours of different ethnic groups that formed in this time period. Nor do we know the extent and effects of transnational exchanges about alcohol and race.

The period from 1845 to 1940 was marked by increasing intercultural contact and conflict between the US and Mexico, and by racial ideologies underpinning the formation of ideas of national identity in both countries. Analysing the commonalities and interaction of different stereotypes within and across borders can therefore reveal the relationship between the racial stereotypes about drinking, debates about the state of the nation, and the increasingly unequal power relations between the US and Mexico. To achieve this, the research analyses points of heightened international exchange: the Mexican American War (1846-48), international exhibitions (1876-1929), international alcohol conferences (1885-1939) and temperance tours (1891-1940). To systematically examine a range of popular and official perspectives on alcohol, it studies a diverse range of historical material, including diaries, correspondence, newspapers, military field orders, exhibition catalogues, prize lists and commentaries, conference proceedings, government education and development records, and the papers of international temperance organisations.

This historical study of racial stereotypes in the US and Mexico will be disseminated as a book length monograph, journal articles and conference papers. It will also be the starting point for a collaborative investigation of the racialisation of drinking behaviours as a global phenomenon. I will convene two small workshops and a larger interdisciplinary conference to lead a collaborative research agenda on alcohol and race in a global context, resulting in the publication of an edited book. Throughout the project, blog posts and working papers will be published online, charting the development of the research, and publicised via social media. I convene a Drinking Studies Network, which issues a monthly newsletter with 275 academic and non-academic subscribers and has a twitter account with over 1,550 followers. This will ensure the project's ongoing research, events and outputs reach a wide audience. In turn, the fellowship will improve my capacity to lead the Network in new directions, consolidating its international reach and impact and providing a model for future collaborative research on a global scale.

To disseminate how this research can help to improve contemporary approaches to reducing alcohol-related harm, I will work with the Director of Research and Policy at Alcohol Research UK/Alcohol Concern, the UK's most important charity working to reduce alcohol-related harm. The Director will participate in all the project's events, act as a mentor in successfully mobilising historical research to inform contemporary policy, and assist me in cementing working relationships with other organisations in the UK and beyond. To build capacity in this area, I will convene a further workshop that trains arts and humanities scholars to engage with organisations seeking to address problem drinking.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit?

The main non-academic beneficiaries of the research will be public sector and third sector organisations engaged in initiatives to reduce alcohol-related harm. These include national alcohol charities such as Alcohol Research UK/Alcohol Concern; industry-funded charities such as Drinkaware; and policy-shaping bodies such as the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Harm and the Department of Health and Social Care's policy group on Harmful Drinking. Impact activities will be focused on working with UK-based bodies initially, to capitalise on the existing relationships I have developed with these organisations through the Drinking Studies Network. Historical work deconstructing stereotypes about drinking are of interest to these bodies as stereotypes about British, Scottish and Irish drinking cultures have shaped recent policy discussions about alcohol regulation and harm reduction. As the project progresses and beyond its lifecycle, I aim to further engage with similar bodies in the US and Mexico, where specifically racial stereotypes about drinking have had even greater impact. The fellowship will increase my capacity and that of the Drinking Studies Network I convene to reach and work with such international beneficiaries.

Secondary beneficiaries could include the drinks industry, the media and the wider public all of whom have a role to play in challenging the prevalence of stereotypes about drinking behaviour.

How will they benefit?

1. Reducing alcohol-related harm

The project aims to improve the ability of organisations seeking to reduce alcohol-related harm to engage with and mobilise historical knowledge in their harm-reduction initiatives. By raising awareness of how stereotypes about drinking behaviour have developed historically, how they have changed over time, and how they are produced by specific power relations, stereotypes that remain powerful in contemporary discourse about alcohol can be more effectively challenged.

This builds on a recent collaboration between Alcohol Research UK/Alcohol Concern and the Drinking Studies Network I coordinate. "Changing Drinking Cultures" (2016-18), brought together scholars from history, literature, geography, social sciences, and education, with public health professionals, industry representatives and journalists. This concluded that historians and other humanities scholars have a key role in improving knowledge of the multiple, complex factors that go into forming, entrenching or changing attitudes and behaviours surrounding alcohol, and that recognising this complexity is a necessary precondition for any effective campaign to reduce alcohol-related harm.

2. Reducing use and circulation of racial and other stereotypes about drinking behaviour

The project will raise awareness of the historically contingent ways in which racial and national stereotypes about alcohol have developed, and the damaging effects that these can and have had. This could encourage the drinks industry to avoid any marketing campaigns that inadvertently reproduce such stereotypes in their imagery or rhetoric. It could also encourage media coverage of issues around alcohol to be more critical of a wide range of stereotypes and received wisdoms about the drinking behaviours of different social groups. Finally, it could encourage the wider public to reflect on and challenge any stereotypical assumptions about their own or others' drinking behaviours they may have internalised.


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