The First Draft (yikes!)

Over the past week or two I’ve been trying to take the 30-40 hours of interviews I collected and boil them down into a couple key themes and a paper of reasonable length. I’m still wading through the transcripts and coding, but the deadline, only about a month away, is making me a nervous. I’ve decided to get a first draft of the paper rolling using meaningful quotes and examples from the interviews I’ve already coded, while marking places where I can insert more examples from the interviews I have yet to code.

I’ve also focused my analysis on a few key trends I observed in my project. Number one: transition periods. Almost everyone I interviewed tried drinking during a transition period, which I defined as a time in which they were entering or preparing to enter an unfamiliar environment. I created a chart to illustrate when my participants first started drinking, and their experiences clustered around eighth grade/freshman year of high school and senior year of high school/freshman year of college. I’ve attached my draft of the chart to this post. Based on what people said about their first times drinking, I think this trend occurs because transitions force people to mentally reevaluate their ideas and attitudes. Additionally, drinking seems to increase during transition periods even if the person has already tried drinking. For example, many who drank throughout high school described drinking especially heavily during their senior year spring as a way to prepare for college and celebrate their upcoming graduation. Others also described drinking heavily fall of freshman year of college because of greater access to alcohol, and as a way to ease into a new school and make new friends. People are more likely to try something new or change their habits in a period when many things feel new; it somehow feels appropriate and adds extra significance to the transition.

This is also true of the second trend I observed: special events. Many people tried drinking for the first time on a special occasion, such as a birthday, a holiday, or a school social event, and also tended to increase their alcohol intake on those occasions after they started drinking. This trend seemed like another way to add significance to both the event and the choice to drink. Participants also described how special events allowed them to justify drinking more heavily, because drinking was wrapped into the culture of the event and because the same social norms didn’t apply on those occasions. For high school, people described drinking on Homecoming, post-Prom, or New Year’s Eve, while for college, many people described the culture of events like Blowout and how that affected their drinking.

I plan to address several more trends in my paper, including the role of traumatic experiences involving drinking, and how interest in drinking appears to taper off after an initial period of great excitement about it. However, I think all four of these trends boil down to the same idea: novelty. A sensation feels most potent when it’s new and unfamiliar. However, as someone experiences it more frequently, their excitement about it wears off, and their habits plateau. It also seems like people tend to group novel experiences together or use a new experience to solidify the significance of a transition, during a time when they’re more amenable mentally to change.

This project has been fascinating so far and I can’t believe it’s almost coming to an end. I look forward to my last month of research and finishing up my paper!

Participants' first times drinking.

Participants’ first times drinking.


  1. cjhiggins01 says:

    Wow, this is really interesting. It definitely makes sense that novelty can play a huge role in deciding to begin drinking. I’m wondering how that idea intersects with the culture of drinking idea you mentioned, particularly at a more macro level in ongoing environments that aren’t necessarily novel. Did any of your interviewees give insight into what factors may cause a stable culture/group to change social norms relative to drinking over time, and what might the relationship between individual behavior change and group change be?

  2. lroemer says:

    Thanks for commenting! In response to your question, I think drinking-related social norms within a stable group change when a new factor is introduced into the environment, or the environment itself undergoes a big change. For example, if there’s a friend group where everyone drinks pretty heavily, but then one member goes to the hospital or has to seek treatment, the friend group as a whole may start drinking less, and extremely heavy drinking might be regarded as a social negative rather than a positive, now that the group has seen its consequences. Throughout my research I also found that some people had more of an impact on their friend group than others; in a sense, they were greater “influencers” of the group’s behavior. If that person’s drinking habits changed, it was more likely that the drinking culture of the group as a whole would change. Also, if someone had extreme drinking behavior, that set a sort of boundary for the other members of the group in terms of how far they could go within the limits of social acceptability. If the extreme drinker started drinking less for personal reasons, then the limit overall decreased for the other members of the group as well.

    I’ve thought about social norms a lot for this project, especially regarding how alcohol education can be improved so that people begin to drink more safely. I think a lot of it depends on what people value in a friend group, and what’s rewarded socially. Some groups laugh at stories of extreme intoxication and view them as a positive experience, so members of those groups are motivated to get drunk or encourage their friends to drink, because it brings social rewards. Someone who doesn’t follow the same norms may be treated as divergent from the group. I think if people had better education on how to drink safely, as well as a more realistic education on the negative consequences of drinking, then getting blackout or plastered wouldn’t be viewed as lightly–it wouldn’t lead to acceptance or closer bonds as it does in some friend groups. I also think we need to work to end the culture of extreme college drinking; people feel the need to drink heavily because “it’s college,” and their drinking habits are excusable within that timeframe because “it’s college.” Social norms would ideally shift so that binge drinking in college gets a negative social response, as binge drinking does for adults. One subject in the study shared a saying commonly used at her school: “You’re not an alcoholic till you graduate.” If social norms shifted, someone with the same drinking habits over time would be considered an alcoholic both before and after graduation. College wouldn’t justify and reward binge drinking.

  3. Wow – what an interesting topic. This is definitely a project that I’m looking forward to seeing the final results of.

    As a student who hadn’t had a sip of alcohol until the night of her high school graduation, I definitely agree with you in that special events can be that last little push to get someone drinking. My high school was a bit different than those of my peers at W&M, as drinking wasn’t considered “cool” or “fun.” It has been interesting to watch some of my closest high school friends, those who were 110% against drinking, go off to large state schools where the drinking scene is more prevalent and start to participate in said scene. It also worries me, though, as many of us from my small high school went off to college without an inkling of how alcohol may affect us personally, leading to scary situations if one ends up drinking too much.

    Overall, I think you’ve done a great job identifying the most important trends, and I do hope that I can access your final result somehow. Good luck finishing up your research!

  4. Hi Caitlyn! Thank you so much for your comment. It’s certainly encouraging to hear that your experience matches my theories about teen drinking. My conclusion for the project will offer recommendations on how to improve alcohol education so students aren’t as susceptible to the power of transition periods, special events, and peer attitudes, etc., when making decisions about drinking. It’s ridiculous that many students graduate high school and go off to college without any resources or knowledge on how to drink safely–they’re just told not to do it. Hopefully in the future people like your friends have a better idea of the potential consequences of drinking; by no fault of their own they were thrown into a heavy-drinking environment with few ideas about how to handle it. I hope to eventually turn this research into a thesis or try to publish it, and will be showing it at the symposium this fall as well. If you are interested in the paper itself feel free to email me and I can send it to you! Thank you so much for your encouragement and interest, and best of luck on finishing your project as well!