SHAD Interview: “The Monopoly Option: Obsolescent or a ‘Best Buy’ in Alcohol and Other Drug Control?” with Robin Room

Editor’s Note: Points continues its series of interviews with authors from the latest issue of ADHS’s journal Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (vol. 34, no. 2; Fall 2020), published by the University of Chicago Press. Today we feature Dr. Robin Room, Distinguished Professor at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia). You can see his article here. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to this article, or any other article from SHAD’s history. 

Tell readers a little bit about yourself

Dr. Robin Room

I’m an Australian, now back in Australia for 15 years, but I spent more than 30 years in the US and 7 years each in Canada and Sweden along the way. I still work—primarily at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at La Trobe University in Melbourne. But I also have a fractional appointment at the Centre for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs at Stockholm University. 

I’m a sociologist by trade, who has mostly worked on alcohol, drugs, and gambling, using both quantitative data (population surveys, and social and health agency records and statistics) and qualitative data (documents, etc.) I’ve always been interested in history, although I’ve had very little formal historical training. My long-ago dissertation was about governing images of alcohol and drug problems. Among other things, this involved looking at the rise of the concept of alcoholism as a way that the US “alcoholism movement” could talk about alcohol problems in American society in the wake of two generations of middle-class youth rebellions against temperance and prohibition.

Given my background and trajectory, I have always been interested in cross-cultural comparisons, and I was a member of the founding generation of the Kettil Bruun Society for Social and Epidemiological Research on Alcohol, the main international society in its field…. You can find a vita and quite a lot of my stuff at www.robinroom.net

What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

 As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, I switched from English literature to sociology, and I had to take a one-year course in survey research methods (survey research was going to turn sociology into a “Real Science”!). On the strength of that course, I got a two-month summer job on the California Drinking Practices Study, which had been funded to look at drinking practices in the general population—sociologists had convinced the US government of the importance of looking beyond alcoholics to understand problems with alcohol in the US. And I stayed on in the field after that.

Alcohol studies is an interesting area, because drinking and alcohol reaches into so many different fields—biology, tourism research, criminology, literary studies, international law, traffic engineering, history—you name it, there’s an alcohol aspect to it, which can be interesting to study. But alcohol is pretty peripheral to any particular academic discipline, and, for that matter, any profession, so the leaders in the discipline or profession won’t get too upset about an outsider messing around in “their” territory.

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Towards a Global History of Intoxicants: The War on Alcohol

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia , professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In it, she brings a global focus to drug and alcohol history and reviews Lisa McGirr’s book on federal Prohibition. Enjoy!

Screenshot 2018-10-18 at 8.23.09 AMLisa McGirr’s stimulating recent book The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (Norton, 2016) links early twentieth-century temperance to the origins of the muscular federal authority we know today. Historians typically trace the enlargement of state power to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to lift the United States out of the Depression in the 1930s. However, McGirr points to earlier growth in the Prohibition era. By creating new categories of legal violations, the ban on brewing and selling alcohol transformed crime into a “national obsession” for the first time in American history. The government responded to public panic by expanding law enforcement—a measure whose effects linger today in such forms as the War on Drugs.

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