In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Alcohol

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Perspectives
  • International Trade in Distilled Alcohol and International Response
  • General Overviews and Regional Studies
  • Alcohol and Regulation in West Africa
  • Alcohol and Regulation in East, Central, and Southern Africa
  • Alcohol Abuse, Dependency, and Policy

African Studies Alcohol
Charles Ambler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0220


There are no single-volume studies that address the whole topic of alcohol in Africa or its modern history. Globally, fermented alcohol has a very ancient history, with archaeological findings documenting such drinks many thousands of years ago. Given the relative lack of archaeological work in sub-Saharan Africa, the evidence for the ancient consumption of fermented drinks on the continent is thin, but the earliest records in combination with ethnographic research point to a very long history and to the ubiquity of fermented drinks. Virtually every African society produced one or more kinds of fermented drinks, whether it was palm wine in coastal regions, various wines made from honey or local fruits such as bananas, or, especially, beers produced from millet and sorghum and later maize. In Muslim societies, these fermented drinks, often classified as foods by local peoples, were not seen to violate Qurʾanic prohibition. Ethnographic studies often include detailed accounts of the complex processes through which such drinks were produced and the equally complicated social practices related to drinking. Such drinks were often bought and sold through local trade networks, but fermented drinks are expensive to transport and until the development of modern bottling technology had very short shelf lives. Distillation technology dates only to the 11th century and its spread was closely connected to international trade. During the 20th century, alcohol regulation emerged as a critical element in colonial hegemony, and the importance of alcohol to state revenue persists to the present day. Following independence, with the end of international prohibitions on distilling, industrial brewing and distilling grew rapidly in many African countries, generally led by international enterprises. South African Breweries ultimately emerged as a major international player, with large stakes across the continent. Racist thinking dominated colonial policy on alcohol sales and consumption across much of eastern, central, and southern Africa, and colonial states in those regions used revenue from alcohol monopolies to reinforce racial segregation and domination. This thinking incorporated a racially defined view of collective dependency and abuse which was fueled by colonial expediency and in turn shaped public perceptions and response to African alcohol consumption. Such perspectives have persisted in “expert” discourse in postcolonial Africa. Yet alcohol consumption has been, for men, among the most important leisure activities in many African societies, and in the 20th century, drinking establishments emerged as very important sites of popular culture.

Theoretical Perspectives

Until the 1990s, two theoretical perspectives shaped accounts of the production and use of alcohol in Africa. On the one hand, many travelers’ accounts, a number of ethnographic studies, and a host of temperance tracts portrayed alcohol as a destructive agent in the deterioration of African communities and, in conjunction with eugenics thinking, “racial degeneration.” Early European records of African drinking with depictions of excess and debauchery are subject to the same critique that Taylor 1979 developed regarding the Spanish documentation of alcohol use by indigenous peoples in Mexico. Taylor argued that claims about alcohol abuse reflected European assumptions regarding drinking practices rather than actual patterns of consumption and inebriation. In many African communities, as in Mexican societies, alcohol production required substantial labor and thus alcoholic drinks were only available occasionally. Fast spoilage meant that drinks had to be consumed quickly, thus accounting for the apparent prevalence of binge drinking. Taylor leaned heavily on MacAndrew and Edgerton (Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton, Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation Chicago, Aldine: 1969). This pivotal text, based in part on evidence from East Africa, disentangled drinking behavior from levels of consumption and established the social dimensions of inebriation. Nevertheless, scholars continued to portray alcohol as an agent of “social disorganization” (Hutchinson 1979). Colson and Scudder 1988, a detailed study of beer drinking in an area of Zambia the authors had studied over decades, more subtly perpetuated that perspective. As Crush and Ambler 1992 (cited under General Overviews and Regional Studies) pointed out, a strain of this argument surfaced in some of the scholarship that documented the linkage between state oppression and alcohol policy, particularly in South Africa. In contrast, and consistent with the functionalist anthropological perspectives, ethnographic work on African societies generally portrayed alcohol as integrated within the larger nexus of social structure and practice. Focused studies such as Sangree 1962 and Netting 1964 emphasized the roles of beer production and consumption in revealing and reinforcing the deeper structures of these societies. Karp 1980 adopted a similar perspective but with much greater sophistication. Wolcott 1974 extended the concept into urban society without really coming to grips with the larger context of economic and racial oppression. Contributors to the collection Douglas 1987, edited by the eminent anthropologist Mary Douglas, extended functionalist interpretations at a time when scholars were beginning to look at alcohol use from cross-cultural perspectives and in more historically specific terms. Willis 2005 has charted this transition. Control over African drinking was a uniquely British (and South African) preoccupation, a fact reflected in the paucity of historical work on alcohol and drinking in French or Portuguese.

  • Colson, Elizabeth, and Thayer Scudder. For Prayer and Profit: The Ritual, Economic and Social Importance of Beer in Gwembe District, Zambia, 1950–1982. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988.

    Drawing on more than three decades of fieldwork, the authors describe in very pessimistic terms the impact of alcohol consumption on these communities disrupted by dislocation and economic decline.

  • Douglas, Mary, ed. Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    The introduction and the original case studies in this volume, although providing useful information, extend functionalist interpretations of alcohol use almost to the point of caricature.

  • Hutchinson, Bertram. “Alcohol as a Contributing Factor in Social Disorganization: The South African Bantu in the Nineteenth Century.” In Belief, Behaviors and Alcoholic Beverages: A Cross-Cultural Survey. Edited by Mac Marshall, 328–341. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979.

    The use of the term “Bantu” in the title signals the degree to which this study is embedded in apartheid-era assumptions of the nature of African societies and cultures and the degree to which modernity represents a threat to their supposed coherence. Reprint of a 1962 article.

  • Karp, Ivan. “Beer Drinking and Social Experience in an African Society: An Essay in Formal Sociology.” In Explorations in African Systems of Thought. Edited by Ivan Karp and Charles Bird, 83–119. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

    A sophisticated study of drinking practices in which the author, in the tradition of functionalist thick description, explains critical elements of social norms through close analysis of drinking practice.

  • McAllister, Patrick A. Xhosa Beer Drinking Rituals: Power, Practice and Performance in the South African Rural Periphery. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2006.

    A deeply researched study of the ways that drinking rituals have evolved in Xhosa communities to facilitate labor migration and the underdevelopment of rural areas in South Africa. Very much in the functionalist tradition.

  • Netting, Robert. “Beer as a Locus of Value among the West African Kofyar.” American Anthropologist 66 (1964): 375–384.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1964.66.2.02a00120

    A detailed and deeply informed study very much in the functionalist tradition.

  • Sangree, Walter H. “The Social Functions of Beer Drinking in Bantu Tiriki.” In Society, Culture, and Drinking Patterns. Edited by David J. Pittman and Charles R. Snyder, 6–21. New York: John Wiley, 1962.

    Based on fieldwork from the 1950s, this is drawn from a major ethnography, which as the title to this chapter suggests, examines the Tiriki as an integrated society in which social practices can be understood in functionalist terms.

  • Taylor, William B. Drinking, Homicide & Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1979.

    An examination of peasant society in central and southern Mexico after the 16th century. An important work in understanding the social constructions of alcohol use in indigenous societies experiencing extreme dislocation.

  • Willis, Justin. “Drinking Power: Alcohol and History in Africa.” History Compass 3 (2005): 1–13.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2005.00176.x

    A masterly synthesis of the available scholarship, which is an essential starting point for anyone interested in understanding approaches to the study of alcohol in Africa or African societies.

  • Wolcott, Harry F. The African Beer Gardens in Bulawayo: Integrated Drinking in a Segregated Society. New Brunswick, NJ: Publications Division, Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, 1974.

    A study based on fieldwork in the segregated, state-controlled drinking facilities where Africans were permitted to consume alcohol. Although insufficiently rooted in analysis of the larger structures of racial domination, the author challenged assumptions regarding drinking cultures and alcohol abuse.

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