The ‘social worlds’ concept: a useful tool for public health-oriented studies of drinking cultures

Sarah MacLean, Robyn Dwyer, Amy Pennay, Michael Savic, Claire Wilkinson, Steven Roberts, Karen Turner, Emma Saleeba, Robin Room

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleOtherpeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


Intervening in heavy drinking cultures within groups below the level of the population has been under-utilized as a means of reducing alcohol-associated harms. We argue that the concept of ‘social worlds’ is useful for the identification and investigation of heavy drinking cultures in collectivities at this level. The concept may also support investigations into other practices with health implications, such as other substance use or gambling. Social worlds are understood to be loosely bounded groups that change over time and any individual may be affiliated with many. Membership of a social world entails shared commitments, practices and norms generated and reiterated through interaction with other members, albeit not necessarily with all members participating together or at once. Social worlds of heavy alcohol consumption are also framed by the settings where people drink, products consumed and technologies used in doing so. As a tool to support public health efforts, we suggest that these social worlds should entail collective drinking, include sufficient members and involve a magnitude of harm to warrant public health investment and be accessible for research and intervention. Researchers can usefully consider how wider forces, including discourses about alcohol and the gendering of drinking practices, are enacted within particular social worlds. Although they may be explored through empirical research, social worlds of heavy drinking are analytic devices rather than perfect reflections of an objective reality. To see them as such allows us to define them strategically, looking for opportunities to modify cultures associated with harms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)231-238
Number of pages8
JournalAddiction Research & Theory
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 4 May 2021


  • Alcohol
  • cultures
  • research
  • social world

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