“Culture of Silence”: Why Common Sense Stops Us From Seeing Substance Abuse in Middle Class Families

Photo by Alan Cleaver via Flickr. CC

By Zuleyka Zevallos

The British not for profit organisation 4Children has published a study that finds parents who are wealthier tend to drink and use drugs more frequently than people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Most middle class parents do not see their alcohol and drug use as having a negative impact on their families. At the same time, these parents are overwhelmingly worried about substance abuse in wider society.

These findings seem to defy “common sense.” First, the results go against the social convention that substance abuse is a bigger problem for poorer people. Second, if middle class parents are consuming drugs and alcohol at higher levels, why don’t they see this as a problem for themselves, when it causes them alarm in others?

The 4Children study suggests that there is a “culture of silence” about substance abuse in middle class families that British society is not prepared to acknowledge. I use this  study to make a point about the social construction of deviance. This means that, because there is already a high degree of moral panic and stigma about being poor, drugs and alcohol abuse is seen as symptomatic of poverty.

Middle class groups enjoy certain social benefits, which include not having their personal problems define their character. This is why drinking and alcohol abuse is seen as a private affair for middle class families, and not a social illness. Poor people and other minorities are not entitled to such privacy.

I show how social perceptions of deviance are shaped by class privilege and the problematic values that lie beneath “common sense.” My analysis is not an indictment of people who are drug and alcohol dependent; instead, I seek to move away from frameworks of shame and stigma generally associated with substance use and abuse. My post explores why the personal troubles of some groups are positioned as a public issue for others.

Middle Class Drug and Alcohol Abuse as a “Personal Problem”

The 4Children study drew on a sample of 751 parents, as well as professionals, youth and volunteers from community groups providing social services. Around 30% of parents drank more than the weekly recommended amount. Over the past year, 13% of fathers and 4% of mothers have been drinking alcohol daily, 8% of all parents have taken illicit drugs, and 7% have gotten high through legal prescriptions.

4Children – Over the Limit: The Truth about Families and Alcohol.

The findings appear to have contradictory results with respects to the perceived severity of substance abuse at the social level: 85% of people said that UK families need help managing drug and alcohol problems. At the same time, 62% of the parents interviewed felt that their drinking had no impact on their family life while 18% said the effect was positive. So if drugs and alcohol aren’t a problem for them, why do so many parents worry about substance abuse for the rest of society?

Part of the issue revolves around definitions. Three quarters of people had heard about the recommended alcohol intake but only 10% correctly identified what these limits are. This means that they do not see that they are abusing drugs and alcohol because they don’t understand that they are over consuming these substances. Another reason revolves around definitions of the responsibilities of shared parenting. Men were less likely than women to reduce their drug and alcohol intake after having children. This means that if fathers were drinking or using drugs more, mothers do it less. There is either less social pressure on men to change after they have kids, or their social activities are more likely to involve getting drunk or high. In either case, perhaps the disparate drinking levels amongst men and women counterbalance individual perceptions about the immediate effects of alcohol and drugs on their families. Regardless, there is something deeper going on.

The study finds that many parents felt ambivalent about their parenting skills on a general level. They did not readily make a connection between this feeling of inadequacy and their drinking and drug taking, even when they noticed that their children were embarrassed about their parents partying hard. One parent recalls how her children would apologise to friends and neighbours that “mummy and daddy were drunk again.” Another participant who is now aged 21, says that their parents’ partying was mortifying while they were growing up: “it was kind of embarrassing to have anyone around.” The report finds that middle class children whose parents drank and used drugs excessively “embrace a culture of secrecy,” which flows onto other aspects of their lives and relationships. They become preoccupied with looking after their parents and siblings, and they grow up feeling “isolated, emotionally abandoned, and physically unsafe.”

The findings negate the stereotype that lower class parents are more likely to abuse alcohol – these middle class parents’ excessive drinking and recreational drug use is simply less visible. It is construed as “normal” aspect of socialising and unwinding.

Sociology would explain these divergent ways of looking at the same problem through the idea of the social construction of deviance. This refers to the way societies judge behaviours of non-conformity against mainstream expectations of what is “normal” and socially acceptable. This encompasses both criminal activities as well as behaviours that are informally condemned – anything from swearing, to style of dress, to religious belief, to arriving late at a meeting, to how we choose to spend our leisure time. In this case, the same behaviour – substance abuse at home – is understood as a problem for groups that are already socially stigmatised and disadvantaged. This is not the case for members of the middle class. Their substance abuse is rendered less problematic by virtue of the fact that this group is constructed as the ordinary “norm” to which Others are judged against.

The 4Children report argues that there is a “culture of secrecy” that insulates middle class families from having to be socially accountable for the impact that parental substance abuse has on children. So why is middle class drinking and drug taking not given more public attention in comparison to poorer families?

Lower Class Drug and Alcohol Abuse as a “Public Issue”

The shame and stigma that Western societies attach to poverty reinforces the idea that drug and alcohol abuse is a problem amongst poor families, which in turn poses a threat to civil society. Conversely, society perceives that middle class family problems are personal troubles. Such private affairs are  dealt with behind closed doors, or ignored politely by friends and neighbours.

This logic is inverted to poorer families, whose substance abuse is seen as a public issue that requires active intervention by state agencies. The 4Children report is trying to shift this thinking, by arguing that substance abuse in middle class families also requires social solutions. Sociology can use the report’s data to highlight how the social meanings attached to drinking and drug use are culturally determined. The data suggest that the negative effects of substance abuse can affect children from privileged households as well as those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This simple lesson might seem like common sense but it is profound: middle class people see that drinking and drug use is a problem for Other people – people who aren’t like “us.” This may be due to skewed social perceptions about what type of alcohol and drugs are acceptable to consume in particular contexts.

Photo by epSos.de via Flickr

Place is important to meaning. Middle class families get drunk and high behind closed doors in nice suburbs – “just” to unwind after a stressful day, “just” to have fun. As it’s construed as recreational use, it’s not constructed as a way of life. Parents who use drugs and alcohol in low-income suburbs and in housing commission homes are already under the radar of social services. In poorer neighbourhoods, poverty accentuates the fact that drug and alcohol is a way of coping with the stresses of daily life. In middle class neighbourhoods, affluence masks the extent to which alcohol abuse and medication is also part of every day life.

This type of thinking makes it possible for state agencies to remove children from poorer households, while leaving middle class families intact. We see this not just just in British society, but in other Western societies. For example, throughout Australia’s history, with the removal of Indigenous children from their parents since European settlement began over two centuries a go. This includes 2007’s “Northern Territory Intervention,” which targeted child abuse by restricting Aboriginal parents’ access to alcohol, withholding welfare payments and increasing police presence in remote Indigenous communities. Children from middle class homes escape the same spotlight because society doesn’t see the need to intervene on behalf of parents who are, by all public purposes, otherwise abiding by social conventions. Common sense about what groups are at risk of drug and alcohol abuse does not match reality. Sociology provides a way to examine why ” common sense” prevails false ideas about social reality.

Common Sense, Class Privilege and Social Problems

“Common sense” about what problems are personal or public, are connected to class relationships. Groups with less power have some of their private troubles defined as a danger to the established law and order. Middle class families, by virtue of their social position, fly under the radar because they represent society’s “average household.” Middle class families can go about their daily routines, without being forced to be socially accountable for what happens behind closed doors. Yet middle class individuals do not readily recognise themselves as having any special advantages. They are not super wealthy; they do not feel as if they have the autonomy to change the way things are; and so they do not feel like they enjoy any extraordinary social benefits. Being middle class isn’t experienced as a type of power, and yet it is a social privilege. Not having your personal choices and personal troubles define you as a problem is an entitlement that poor people do not have. Not having to think about your drinking and drug use as a problem for your children, and not having your children taken away from you because of it, is a type of luxury that poor people do not have.

Famed sociologist C. Wright Mills draws out this distinction more broadly. He argued that individuals do not connect their private troubles with broader social patterns. Sociologists, however, see a connection between individual biography, history and institutional processes. Most ordinary members of society are not fully aware of how their daily lives are the outcome of societal relations. Personal troubles become public issues only where something that society values is perceived to be threatened. Mills argues that sociology provides a way for individuals to be more self-conscious about the values that they take for granted. Sociology enables us to ask: why are some problems characterised as a public threat? Why don’t more people reflect on the contradictions between their personal choices (drinking too much, getting high) and their public attitudes (drugs and alcohol are not a problem for me, but they’re a problem for others)?

Mills shows that personal values and public threats are connected to the social order, and who benefits from having this order seem invisible and natural. The middle class and other elite groups benefit from having society accept the logic of the way things are being seen as the way things are meant to be. When their values are not perceived to be under threat, people in positions of privilege experience a sense of well-being. Things are right and normal as they stand. When these values are perceived to be threatened, these same people will experience a crisis. The point at which a personal problem becomes a public issue is when the established social order is threatened. Society panics about issues and groups that challenge or problematise the status quo. There are two general scenarios where this happens, with different public outcomes. These depend upon the level of public consciousness about what we value:

  1. When people are not especially aware of what exact values they hold dear and they do not feel under threat, they might experience indifference or apathy;
  2. If people feel under threat in spite of the fact that they don’t fully understand what they value, they will feel uneasy and they will perceive cause for social anxiety.

Drinking and drug use falls into this latter category: middle class people do not perceive their substance abuse as a problem because society paints this as a problem in other households, in poorer neighbourhoods far away from them. Poverty is preconceived as a public issue, and so people feel that poor people’s drinking poses a social problem, which causes them alarm. Mills points out that problems associated with leisure activities are only construed as a public issue when they are connected to the paid work force. Poor or unemployed people are seen to drain society’s assets – when people do not contribute to the paid labour force, their personal troubles are a public issue. Their inability to find secure employment is a personal failure and a public nuisance, but it is not always seen as the outcome of institutional and historical processes, like deregulation, exploitation, divergent life opportunities, and the pursuit of consumption.

Similarly, society sees that it is a social responsibility to take kids out of poor families where drugs and alcohol are a problem. It is not a social responsibility to do the same for middle class kids, because they’re not stuck in a cycle of poverty. So long as the middle class continues to contribute to paid labour, their personal troubles stay personal.

As Mills shows, the aim of sociology is to demonstrate how public issues come to be “officially formulated.” Sociologists critically reflect on the social processes by which the personal troubles of some groups are allowed to be experienced in private, whilst for others these troubles are publicly managed. Sociology argues that all personal troubles must be understood as a public issue: they are the outcome of history, social institutions and class relationships. The aim of sociology is not to keep maintaining the idea that personal troubles are a sign of deviance, but rather to understand why certain issues are given different social meanings. Who benefits? How do we reformulate social problems and take responsibility for them in a way that doesn’t perpetuate inequality and stigma? Sociology prevents us from taking social problems and “common sense” at face value.

Beyond the Culture of Silence

Although middle class parents in Britain drink higher rates of alcohol than the recommended daily intake, and despite the fact that they are getting high using elicit drugs and other medications, most parents do not see this as a problem for their families. These same parents are, however, concerned about the impact of substance abuse in society. Social convention dictates that drug and alcohol abuse is a public problem amongst poor families – society intervenes when lower class parents abuse drugs and alcohol because this is seen to endanger poor children. Middle class kids are not seen as being endangered when their parents use drugs or alcohol. The 4Children study  shows that substance abuse is, in fact, a much larger problem amongst middle class homes. Yet society does not construe this as a social problem requiring outside intervention. I have explored why this contradiction persists in the public imagination. It is the outcome of historical and institutional forces; specifically, the taken-for-granted privilege and unseen power embedded within class relations.

Sociology inverts the logic of common sense and provides a way to be critical about public conventions. As Mills argued, sociology provides a way to improve the quality of life, by making visible the values we hold dear, and those we take for granted. Using sociology, we explore and act upon the issues we are consciously worried about, and address why we ignore other troubles. Using sociology, we cannot explain away personal and public issues as other people’s problems. Drinking and drug abuse is either a problem affecting all families, or an issue for none. Sociology encourages us to see personal and public issues as a social responsibility for all members of society, whose solutions involves everyone and excludes no one.

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Link to study via BBC.