Flows, Friction and the Sociomaterial Metabolization of Alcohol



Abstract:  Political ecologists have considered the sociomateriality of diverse hybrids and the metabolism and circulation of urban flows such as water, food and waste. Adding alcohol to this list enhances our understanding of the geography of alcohol as well as the theory of sociomateriality. Viewing alcohol as a sociomaterial hybrid draws attention to the power-laden, dynamic processes which shape its flow, rather than considering it as already in place. Additionally, my examination of alcohol calls attention to aspects of sociomateriality which are widely relevant but underexplored in the literature: the role of friction in shaping flows; the need to examine microscale impacts of sociomateriality on the body and community; and the conditional impacts of complex, unpredictable sociomaterial hybrids. I use a case study of alcohol in Cape Town to examine how alcohol flows, encounters friction, flows over boundaries and shapes sociability and harm in complex, indeterminate ways.

Studies of alcohol typically focus on either its negative impacts on health and wellbeing or positive impacts on economic development, while policy debates focus on whether and how to control access. In this paper, I move beyond these binaries to provide a more nuanced, grounded articulation of how alcohol flows and what inhibits its flow. I examine the distribution of power and agency, limitations of state regulation, willingness of community members to act outside of and with little fear of the law, and the specificity of alcohol as a highly desirable commodity which easily flows around artificial barriers. These insights help clarify relationships, power and the (in)efficacy of policy efforts, and suggest the need to refocus debates. The paper is unable to provide specific policy recommendations, but instead argues that a better understanding of flows and frictions can move the focus from alcohol control to reducing alcohol-related harm.