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The Social Network: A sociologist explores the rituals and life lessons of the college drinking scene 

By Adam Liebendorfer

With a looming 8 a.m. class the next morning, a 20-year-old college student named Tara begrudgingly agrees to go to the bars for a “few” drinks. She and her friends get in with fake IDs, and after consuming beer and several rounds of shots, the young woman and her friends are feeling “good and buzzed.” By 11 p.m., Tara has vomited in the bar’s restroom. At 7:20 the next morning, Tara is looking at her alarm clock, clueless about how she got back home, and blowing off class.

To many college students, a carousing night out like Tara’s is standard procedure for some weeknights. But Tara closes her account with a concerned question: “Why couldn’t I have had more control of myself to determine when to stop?”

Research on that question has been rooted mostly in psychology and biology, such as how an individual’s body chemistry affects his or her likelihood to binge drink or develop alcoholism, or what personality types are prone to abusing alcohol. Ohio University sociologist Thomas Vander Ven is exploring what he thinks is a major missing piece of the puzzle: the social conventions that allow college students to keep coming back to the party—despite the risks.

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Thomas Vander Ven (Photo by Ben Siegel)

“Drinking is not just individuals drinking alone and deciding alone what to do and dealing with their problems alone,” he says. “It’s very social.”

In his book Getting Wasted: Why College Students Drink Too Much and Party So Hard (NYU Press, 2011), Vander Ven paints a picture of college drinking as a social adventure with specific rituals that keep students out of trouble while also allowing them to test their adult decision-making skills.

Over the course of several years, the sociologist talked to students from a large public university, a smaller private university, and a university with a large commuter student body. He collected data through a combination of student surveys, interviews by colleagues at other campuses, and by personally spending more than 100 hours in the field ordering sodas at popular campus bars, meandering through street fests, and sitting in at house parties.

He tried to stay as much a fly on the wall as possible because he didn’t want his presence to sully his observations. The students, as far as he knows, didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes he prowled through the aftermath of street fests to talk to partiers on their porches the morning after—not something students expect from a professor old enough to be their father.

“It’s not hard to get students talking about drinking,” Vander Ven says. “Students seem to love talking about the drinking scene.”

Vander Ven determined that drinking in college is more than drunken buffoonery—it’s a nightlong story arc. While fewer than half of college students binge drink, and only half of them are considered frequent binge drinkers (those who drink four or five drinks in a row three or more times every two weeks), the sociologist focused on the drunkest, rowdiest parties that the students themselves likened to a theatrical performance. Better judgment is thrown out the window; students vomit, black out, strip off clothing, and engage in casual sex.

There’s a certain risk of danger—from illness and accidents to unwanted sexual encounters and arrests—inherent to the situation. But Vander Ven found that students create a system of solidarity measures that can shield the college drinker from the hazards of intoxication.

Integral to a night of heavy drinking, for example, is the ritualistic step of getting ready, which can include dining out and choosing clothing together. In this early stage, students look out for each other by reminding friends to eat and drink enough liquids for the evening ahead.

As the night wears on, young women may steer friends away from going home with dubious young men. Underage consumers work together to avoid law enforcement or dorm authorities. Fellow drinkers remind each other to keep hydrated.

Not only does this system keep drinkers out of trouble, but Vander Ven argues that it offers students a chance to prove maturity. In Getting Wasted, he cites a body of research that suggests that today’s middle-class teenagers have rigidly structured lives and less autonomy. As these teenagers move on to college, they must adjust to managing their new freedom. When college students drink, Vander Ven says they inadvertently put themselves in situations that demand adult responsibility. Nursing a sick friend or getting someone out of jail may allow college students to hone their problem-solving skills under stress.

“If I’m hanging out and a fight emerges, I’m going to ask myself, ‘What kind of guy am I?’” he says. “Am I the kind of guy that’s going to back up his friends? Am I going to be the kind of guy that drops everything and bails somebody out of jail?”

Few escape a night of heavy drinking without a hangover. Despite the malaise and an unproductive morning, Vander Ven says college drinkers reframe it as a fun group experience. As they swap remedies for feeling better, drinkers reflect on the previous night’s antics as worth their current pain and joke about their still-fallen comrades.

“Nobody likes being hung over,” he says. “When people become hung over, they tend to be hung over with friends and roommates and they redefine it as a positive experience. Sort of like they survived this thing together. You can’t get that from a survey.”

Vander Ven’s insights into the social rituals of college drinking can aid university officials tasked with managing the issue on their campuses. Ryan Lombardi, dean of students at Ohio University, says the sociologist’s research has reinforced administrators’ belief in the need to provide events during early weekend evenings when students typically engage in drinking before the night out. They’re also focusing on legal drinkers who supply alcohol to minors.

“We aren’t trying to preach an abstinence policy,” Lombardi says. “But in an ideal world, we want to see a campus environment where no students have to go to the hospital with alcohol-related problems.”

Vander Ven also wants to see students stay safe. His latest work examines how intoxication affects a person’s willingness to help strangers in need, including heading off sexual assaults. Although many college drinking misadventures fade fast into memory, Vander Ven hopes his work could help inform how to prevent the more serious, long-term consequences.

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine.