Risk, responsibility and experience: Exploring complex relations with alcohol

This project explores how risk and responsibility towards alcohol are understood and enacted.

Alcohol bottles by the side of the road


A key part of establishing how responsibility works and how it might create positive, community sanctioned relations with alcohol, is to explore the individual and social contexts in which drinking occurs. Participant observation and focus groups, conducted in the context of multiple drinking occasions in urban, suburban, rural and remote parts of New South Wales are conducted to explore how drinkers think about (ir)responsibility and alcohol use.


What does irresponsible drinking mean and how do drinkers recognise and undertake it?

  • A foundational property of the responsible drinker is the capacity to remain capable of maintaining the everyday social, physical and community practices that made up each of the participants’ lives
  • Related to the above, as a practice that is both risky and permissible, alcohol drinking is commonly regarded as a key context in which people can practice and hone becoming good citizens
  • Drinking in isolation – whether in the home, or within the confines of the pub, in isolation from one’s social circle – attracts a definition of irresponsibility

What are the foundational elements of risk as conceived and acted upon by drinkers, and how do they relate to conceptualisations and expressions of responsibility?

  • Drinkers consider risk primarily in the terms of disconnection from others – whether those others were employers, family members, friends, fellow gym goers, or current or potential romantic partners
  • Risks to the body, including exceeding its capacity to process alcohol and to undertake its everyday activity are also considered significant. While we spoke with many participants about risks they perceived over the long term, the risks of imbibing were generally experienced and responded to in the thick of particular moments – typically, directly before, during and after drinking events. This indicates an immediacy of risk assessment made in the moment; that a particular temporality of risk experience and decision-making is commonly afoot in drinking events. Coupled with specific temporality is the notion of corporeal peculiarity. The presumption of the universal body often made in public health materials and advisements was rejected in favour of ‘my own body’ as participants spoke from the perspective of their own unique corporeality
  • The risk of causing harm to others or being harmed by others as a result of irresponsible drinking is significant. For example, drink driving was universally regarded as a primary risk of imbibing, and universally considered irresponsible. Gendered violence was also frequently discussed as a high risk by female participants in our study, who often felt drinking could place women in situations in which they became vulnerable, and could make men more inclined to take advantage of women. Men often mentioned the risk of physical violence

What value do drinkers give to responsible drinking?

A very high value was accorded to responsible drinking across the entirety of the study. This analysis differs fundamentally from official public health conceptualisations that assume drinkers – especially in high drinking rural and remote areas – place a particularly low value on responsibility.

For more information visit the Responsible Drinking web page.

Project details


Alcohol Beverages Australia
Australian National University (ANU)

Research partners

Alcohol Beverages Australia is the pan-industry body created to highlight the positive social, cultural and economic contribution of alcohol beverages in Australia. Its goal is promoting, explaining and defending the legitimate rights of the industry and the 15 million Australians who responsibly enjoy our drinks. With members from all parts of the Australian alcohol beverages industry, Alcohol Beverages Australia uses a balanced, evidence-based approach to actively engage in public debate on alcohol policy issues and lead the development of innovative and effective alcohol policies.

Project team

Professor Andrew Dawson Chief Investigator (University of Melbourne)
Professor Simone Dennis Chief Investigator (ANU)
Dr Jacqui Hoepner Research Assistant (ANU)
Ms Cynthia Sear Research Assistant (University of Melbourne)


Professor Andrew Dawson