If you google ‘anthropology’ and ‘alcoholics anonymous’ you will likely come up with a hit for a chapter in a book edited by Mary Douglas.* In ‘Symbolic Action in Alcoholics Anonymous’, Paul Antze (1987) offers a Geertzian-style symbolic anthropology of how AA works. I’m sure Antze’s chapter reads perfectly well to other anthropologists, but as an alkie, and an AA member, it grates. Let me explain why.
Now that I got your attention: symbolic anthropology was very much in vogue in the early ’80s, a decade after Clifford Geertz’ Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight (1972) had inspired a new direction in writing about and understanding cultural situations. Geertz’ analysis of the Balinese Chook Thunderdome**, includes some of the obvious penis puns that one would expect, as outlined in this lovely bit of writing:
Similarly, if you hang around AA members long enough you will realise that we really only share one thing in common, and we are as much defined by our relationship with this dangerous-yet-alluring substance as we are by its absence: Alcohol is our defining symbol par excellence.
Unsuprisingly, Antze makes a good fist of likening AA to totemic societies who practice avoiding something because they belong ‘to a category of persons uniquely endangered by it’:
As an anthropologist, I understand Antze’s analogy well, having researched the patrifilial totems (an identity passed down from father to son) of a number of Koori groups in south-eastern Australia. Indeed, a close friend of mine has a particularly badass bird of prey as his personal totem. He is responsible for holding and looking after the country that sustains that magnificent bird. Alcohol, by comparison, is a shitty totem and, I might add, the comparison is rather low hanging fruit.
What Antze is also doing here is distilling alcohol – separating the substance from its deeply embodied affects on we alcoholics (for example, memory loss, brain damage, anxiety, sweating, heart palpitations etc etc etc). He is doing this, presumably, because he has never experienced these sorts of things as a result of his drinking. Although, we never know, because, science.
It reminds me of something Bree Blakeman, an Australian anthropologist, intersectional feminist, anarchist, blogger and all round excellent human, wrote (albeit in a different context):
I remember one of my most admirable anthropology teachers once commented (upon reading my work) that my use of theory visa vi the subject of analysis was ‘like trying to dissect a microchip with a carving knife’. It’s kind of how I feel about anthropological analysis of emotion and morality without an understanding and account of how individuals learn and process both thoughts and emotions. This stuff happens in the brain (and yes, in the body – the brain is in the body).***
By distilling alcohol from its affect on the addicted bodies and minds of alcoholics, Antze’s symbolic analysis similarly feels like carving ivory with a chainsaw.
My main beef with Antze’s take on AA is that he steadfastly holds a perspective of the rigorous, dispassionate, objective observer throughout. From an AA member’s perspective it reads like he’s spread the collective, addicted body of AA open on a glass slide, made a few well-placed slices with a scalpel to splay out the good bits, and recorded and analysed the ordeal with a jeweller’s loupe.
But, does he drink like a fish, and should we care?
More importantly: is he one of us?
Or is it none of our business?
Antze provides a rare glimpse into his research methodology in the footnotes, stating that he mainly relied on printed AA materials along with ‘observation at meetings’ that provided ‘an essential check on the relative importance that various teachings assume in the thinking of members’. He attended at least two dozen AA meetings in Chicago and Toronto. By my calculations, Antze’s period of fieldwork totalled less than two whole days in the field, given an average AA meeting runs for 90 minutes.
Anthropologists have long talked about the need for reflexivity in their work. Reflexivity is when an anthropologist looks and accounts for their own subjectivity (things like personal failings, biases and relationships with their informants) in recording or documenting a cultural situation. It is also about something similar to the observer effect in physics – or how an anthropologist’s consciousness is altered when they engage in a cultural situation that they are observing.
Remember Erwin Schrödinger’s 1935 thought experiment, where he presented a scenario about a poor cat that may or may not be both alive and dead? I like to imagine Erwin was hanging out at a particularly hip pre-war party:
Erwin: I call this quantum superposition. The cat is linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur. It’s like the wave collapses upon observation.
[Passes joint to Klaus]
Now, I don’t mean that an anthropologist’s informant suddenly disappears *whoosh* when they hang out together. Rather, I think reflexivity stresses the need for researchers to be critically self-refective, to recognise that our personal objectivity has limits, and that anything we do necessarily places us in the thick of the action – thereby making us accountable.
This is like doing AA 12 step work.
A good example of reflexivity in practice is found in our old friend Geertz’s notes on the illegal cockfight, where he sets the scene by describing how he and his wife were caught up in a police raid, and bolted in fear along with everyone else. Once they had caught their breath, Geertz noticed that the Balinese were pretty impressed by the white folk’s footspeed:
But above all, everyone was extremely pleased and even more surprised that we had not simply “pulled out our papers” (they knew about those too) and asserted our Distinguished Visitor status, but had instead demonstrated our solidarity with what were now our covillagers. (What we had actually demonstrated was our cowardice, but there is fellowship in that too.) Even the Brahmana priest, an old, grave, half-way-to-Heaven type who because of its associations with the underworld would never be involved, even distantly, in a cockfight, and was difficult to approach even to other Balinese, had us called into his courtyard to ask us about what had happened, chuckling happily at the sheer extraordinariness of it all.
Dr Blakeman describes these times where we lose our shit as ‘Geertzian moments’:
These are pivotal moments when something in one’s disposition and social relations shifts dramatically. Often it’s a moment of losing oneself and behaving in a way that one wouldn’t have expected or couldn’t anticipate, and it’s not until afterwards when you pause and reflect that you realise what has just occurred. It is in that moment of reflection that the ethnographer realises they’ve reached some tipping point of enculturation. This tipping point, in turn, changes the way that the ethnographer is perceived and treated. You become less of an outsider and start to be considered and treated more like ‘one of us.’ In this sense, there’s an element of intimacy and trust involved and I suspect this is because so-called ‘Geertzian moments’ are often triggered by some stressor and the ethnographer’s response often leaves them vulnerable or exposed in some way.****
Unfortunately, we never get this from Antze’s chapter. He doesn’t lose his shit, or at least if he does, it doesn’t get acknowledged. And yes, I have a resentment about this.
Resentments, or throwing out the baby with the bathwater
And you thought you’d get through a whole AA blog without having to read about resentments! It’s true, AA understands that one of the fastest routes between recovery and another drink is to nuture a resentment.
Every single AA meeting has a story about a resentment, and how that resentment is causing an individual to feel restless, irritable and discontent. In most cases, it is a niggling, piddly thing: 99 percent of something might be perfectly ok, but we choose to focus on the one percent. Then we fertilise and water it until it grows unruly.
My resentment against Antze’s chapter can be summarised as:
- I identify as a member of AA – a member of the ‘in-group’ of Antze’s study
- I feel that group identity is threatened. This is an irrational fear, and
- I look for and focus soley on the weak points in Antze’s argument, rather than weighing the contribution of the chapter as a whole.
What Antze does particularly well is show how medical concepts – such as the idea of alcoholics being sick people – become ‘common sense’. He argues, quite rightly, that the popularity of this idea in medicine actually comes from AA, and AA’s therapeutic successes.
But, like a surfing buddy probing a fleshwound for coral, Antze presses straight on the raw nerve: he questions our unthinking acceptance of our alcoholic status.
Then, he applies 30 percent hydrogen peroxide with a nail brush and scrubs out the wound to remove any polyps: he suggests that we exist in a feedback loop, dependent upon our willingness to define our experiences in the terms ascribed by the institution of AA.
You know the hydrogen peroxide is working when it fizzes.
Good anthropology should make a reader question their reality by making contrasts – pulling apart bits of meaning for interpretation and analysis. Antze does this in spades.
However, should an anthropologist ask the subject of their inquiry to question their reality – for example, an individual’s belief that recovery from a progressive, ultimately fatal illness is contingent upon their willingness, acceptance and observance of AA’s philosophy? That is a different moral question entirely.
Fortunately, I didn’t read Antze’s chapter in early sobriety. If I did, I probably would have used it as a reason to drink again. Picking apart holes in AA logic was a favourite sport of mine, along with many of my fellow heathen alkies. These days, I’m happy just to accept that it appears to be working,
* Paul Antze, ‘Symbolic Action in Alcoholics Anonymous’, in Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology, Routledge, London, 2003 (first published 1987), pp.149-80.
** Clifford Geertz, ‘Notes on the Balinese Cockfight’ in The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, New York, 1973, pp. 412-54.
*** Bree Blakeman, Zigon on Morality and Ethics in ‘Ethos’, Fieldnotes and Footnotes, 4 December 2009.
**** Bree Blakeman, ‘Geertzian moments (or, “when ethnographers lose their shit”)’, Fieldnotes and Footnotes, 19 March 2016.