Practices of Learning, Earning and Intimacy in Women's Drinking Biographies

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis explores how women use and make sense of alcohol in their day-to-day lives. Drawing on 38 life history interviews with women born between 1939 and 1995, the thesis examines how women from different generations and social classes navigate a key contradiction underpinning the place of alcohol in British society: while on the one hand alcohol is highly visible and celebrated in popular culture, its use is also an object of moral regulation. The moral regulation of alcohol is gendered and shifts both over the life course and historically. Women’s alcohol use is particularly subject to moral judgement at specific points of the life course, principally when they are single young adults, and when they are pregnant or involved in providing care for children. Moral discourses on women’s drinking have changed considerably over the past 50 years in line with wider changes in women’s lives. Despite these changes, moral discourses surrounding the health and personal safety risks of drinking alcohol continue to position women as ‘maidens at risk’ or as ‘mothers in ruin’. The thesis investigates how women negotiate contradictory norms and expectations arising from popular cultural scripts that represent alcohol as pleasurable and moral discourses aimed at regulating their drinking. Through engaging interactional, relational and life course approaches to the study of social life, the thesis argues against the tendencies of existing perspectives on women’s alcohol use to interpret drinking as instrumentally driven toward intoxication, and as a site for the reproduction of dominant social norms through the construction of gendered and classed identities. I argue that existing approaches underplay the significance of personal relationships in providing contexts for women to experience and negotiate the meanings of alcohol across the life course. The opportunities, demands and practical constraints and requirements of ‘doing’ relationships shape how alcohol is encountered and how its meanings are interpreted and evaluated. The logic of women’s relationships to alcohol exceeds both an instrumentalist orientation to intoxication and the imperatives to reproduce dominant social norms of gender and class. Though the desire for intoxication and negotiations with gender and class scripts can at times play a part in how women use and make sense of alcohol, the uses and meanings of alcohol in women’s day-to-day lives are shaped and conditioned by their personal relationships. The thesis further argues that changes in the relative significance of personal relationships over the life course lead to changes in how women approach alcohol.
Date of Award1 Aug 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPenny Tinkler (Supervisor) & Gemma Edwards (Supervisor)


  • Alcohol
  • Women
  • Life course

Cite this