Drinking Studies Showcase: ‘Bright Lights’

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our new feature: Drinking Studies Showcase, where we spotlight the work of those within the Drinking Studies Network.

Laura Fenton, Claire Markham and Samantha Wilkinson answer my questions about their recently-published chapter ‘Bright Lights, No City: Investigating Young People’s Suburban and Rural Drinkscapes’ within edited volume “Youth Beyond the City” (Eds. David Farrugia and Signe Ravn).

For any readers interested in themes of youth culture, drinking practices, drinking spaces and places, and rural/urban cultures, this one’s for you.

Describe your book chapter in terms your bartender could understand.

Where people drink shapes their experiences of drinking. Drinking places in suburban and rural areas tend to have a different feel to them than drinking places in cities. The chapter looks at how young people in their late teens to early twenties experience drinking in suburbs of Manchester, a city in Northern England, and in rural village pubs in Lincolnshire, a county in Eastern England.

One of the authors, Sam, did a study that looked at two suburbs: a relatively affluent and diverse one with lots of pubs and bars and a less affluent and less diverse one with far fewer pubs and bars. Sam found that the atmosphere of bars and pubs (made up of things such as smells, lighting and music) influenced whether young people wanted to drink in these bars and pubs, or decided not to. It was interesting that young people in Sam’s study said they avoided certain bars and pubs if they thought they were “pretentious”, “kooky”, or “posh”.

Another author, Claire, did a study of pubs in rural villages. The people she spoke to talked in both positive and negative ways about what it was like to go to the pub in their village when they were young. They spoke positively about village pubs because they saw the pub as a place of community and belonging. One man said how he liked the fact that his ancestors sat in the same chairs that he now sits in. The pub was a part of some people’s sense of attachment to where they lived.

On the other hand, village pubs were sometimes places where young people, women and anyone seen to be ‘different’ could feel uncomfortable. Some of those who could access reliable transport often left their villages to drink instead in nearby towns or cites, where they felt they were less likely to be seen and judged by people they knew or who knew their families. Overall, there was a gap between the idealised myth of the village pub and the reality.

In recent years there have been a number of studies that examine contemporary youth drinking practices, what makes your chapter stand out from the rest?

Much of the existing qualitative and ethnographic research on the spatial organisation of  young people’s drinking takes urban nightlife as its explicit or implicit backdrop. Our chapter is relatively unique in focussing on how young people construct and engage with suburban drinking spaces and rural village pubs.  We explore how they craft and experience suburban and rural ‘drinkscapes’, that is, the places where alcohol is consumed and their atmospheres.

We argue that suburban and rural drinkscapes have distinct material cultures and sensual atmospheres, which can either allure or repel young people. Whilst much of the existing literature has been interested in how moral judgments about the working-class are used to justify socio-spatial processes of exclusion, our chapter is different in highlighting that for some young people avoid certain commercial suburban nightscapes on the basis that they are perceived as upper-class (‘posh’) spaces. In relation to village pubs, we highlight how the material and sensory aspects of pubs can be important in cultivating a sense of belonging.

What do you think historians and sociologists of other drinking spaces and/or cultures, would find valuable from your case study of Manchester and Lincolnshire, UK?

Sociologists of drinking spaces would find young people’s motivations for consuming alcohol in the space of the home interesting. Often the home is spoken of as a space for ‘pre-drinking’, or thought to be preferred by some because it is a cheaper drinking space (being able to consume alcohol purchased from a corner shop or supermarket rather than paying bar / pub prices). However, young people in Sam’s study expressed a preference for consuming alcohol in their home due to their familiarity with the micro-geographies of the space of the home. This familiarity enabled young people to take control of their drinking experiences, and ‘stage atmospheres’, for instance by playing with lighting and darkness to influence their drinking experiences. The findings are therefore of interest because we have shown how young people are not passive to drinking atmospheres, rather they contribute to their generation.

In relation to village pubs, historians and sociologists might be interested in how these spaces can be simultaneously valued as sources of belonging and community and experienced as hierarchical and exclusionary. A lot of people in the study had a complex relationship to their village pub; it was often not one or the other.

Were there any quotes, examples or themes that didn’t make the final manuscript? What were you most disappointed to cut?

Due to space restrictions, data from a study by one of the authors, Laura,  could not be included. This study drew on oral histories of suburban and rural youth drinking cultures in the 1960s and 1970s. It would have been interesting to include historical and generational as well as geographical comparisons but there is only so much that one chapter can do! 

Lastly, if your chapter were to be turned into an audiobook, who would you like to be the narrator?

Great question! We think it would be good  to have narrators from the field sites: Manchester and Lincolnshire. As it happens, the fantastic and highly influential geographer Doreen Massey was born in Wythenshawe. While she is sadly now deceased, this is a make-believe question, so anything goes. We would like to choose her as the narrator of the theory, methods and suburban sections of the chapter.  For the second half of the chapter, which is about the village pub, we would choose Lincolnshire native and comedian (not to mention skilled narrator), Robert Webb.

Feature image by Mangopear

Laura Fenton
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Laura Fenton is a sociologist with expertise in youth, gender, generation, and the life course.  She is a Research Associate at the University of Sheffield, where she works on the Wellcome-funded Youth Drinking in Decline project, and at the University of Manchester, where she is conducting research for the UKRI-funded Austerity and Altered Life-courses project. Laura's previous and current research builds on her PhD work on the changing place of alcohol in the lives of three generations of British women. She is co-editor (with Thomas Thurnell-Read) of Alcohol, Age, Generation and the Life Course (Palgrave, 2022).

Claire Markham
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Claire Markham is a senior lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at Nottingham Trent University. Prior to this she worked as a Research Fellow at the University of Lincoln. Claire's PhD is in Social Policy, and explored multiple representations and experiences surrounding the village pub. Findings from her PhD have been published in book chapters. Her main research interests focus on rural pubs, rural services, and the sustainability of rural communities.

Samantha Wilkinson
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Samantha Wilkinson is a Senior Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies, at Manchester Metropolitan University. Prior to this, she was a Lecturer in Human Geography at the same institution. Samantha is an interdisciplinary researcher, and has undertaken research on a diverse range of themes, including: young people’s alcohol consumption practices and experiences; Airbnb; home care for people with dementia; and university students and conceptualisations of place. She completed her PhD in Human Geography at The University of Manchester (2012-2015). Her doctoral research explored young people’s (aged 15-24) alcohol consumption practices and experiences. This research has made significant contributions regarding the centrality of care, intragenerational relationships, and atmospheres of music and lighting to children and young people’s drinking practices.

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Claire Davey is a PhD candidate at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK. Her PhD research explores UK women’s increasing engagement with sobriety or alcohol-free living, and the growth of female-led online sobriety communities. She is also the Managing Editor of 'Points'.

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