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by Thomas Vander Ven
NYU Press, 2011
Review by Hennie Weiss on May 1st 2012

Getting Wasted

Getting Wasted: why college students drink too much and party so hard by Thomas Vander Ven is a multimethodological and sociological examination of college drinking culture. The book is filled with observations, drinking stories and interviews with undergraduate students.

Vander Ven briefly discusses the history of college drinking starting with the "big three" (Harvard, Yale and Princeton), and then moves through the prohibition era, Greek life, and the more recent decades. Throughout the book, symbolic interactionism is used to study and analyze college drinking culture.

Vander Ven then describes the process of drinking that students go through starting with the intoxication process. College students drink for various reasons, such as celebrating one's birthday, the end or beginning of the school year, or gameday. Various consumption methods are also discussed, such as drinking in dorms or frats, "pregaming" and drinking games. Students also try to manage the intoxication process through eating food, or examining their level of intoxication ("buzz check").

In the next chapter, Vander Ven examines "being wasted". Vander Ven states that intoxication frequently results in friendships and the appreciation of others. Alcohol often serves as a "social lubricant" as students note that drinking alcohol allows them to be more outgoing, exhibit fewer inhibitions, feel more care free, talkative, loving and prosocial. They are more likely to dance and sing in public, as well as being more flirtatious. The drunken world can be more adventurous and unpredictable, and therefore more exciting.

The next chapter discusses challenges of the drinking scene, such as the "drinking crisis". A drinking crisis can include a person getting sick and vomiting, getting caught drinking when underage, being involved in drunken argumentations and physical alterations and being sexually victimized. An important factor in managing the drinking crisis is social support. College students often continue to drink after a drinking crisis due to the social support they receive. Friends often assist those that get sick, coordinate activities to minimize the risk of getting caught when being underage and drinking, as well as support each other during physical altercations and arguments.

 In chapter 5, Vander Ven turns his attention to the morning after a drinking binge and the consequences many students face, such as regrets, shame and hangovers. During this time, there are many ways that students deal with these consequences. Some deny their hangover; some use various treatments to get rid of their hangover (sleeping, drinking water, using pain relievers, or drinking more alcohol), whereas others state that the hangover is irrelevant since it does not interfere with their daily activities. Some students claim that the hangover is the consequence of having a good time, and therefore accept it. At the same time, students often reflect over the consequences of "getting wasted", resulting in intercourse, failing to meet academic requirements, gaining weight, and "acting a fool".

During this process, students often use excuses and clarifications of their behavior to minimize shame and regret. They disassociate their post-intoxication behavior and take the role of the other when evaluating their own and others behavior.

In the final chapter, Vander Ven discusses how students respond to heavy drinking. About 20 percent of college students do not engage in drinking behavior due to religiosity, being involved in sports, being part of the straight edge movement, among other reasons. Many students also limit their drinking, as they get older, get married, have children and careers. At the same time, heavy drinking in college persists due to several reasons. First, college students believe that they can avoid getting in trouble. Second, because they receive social rewards associated with drunkenness, and finally because of the social support they receive. Vander Ven ends the discussion with suggesting ways to support and aid college student through harm reduction and bystander-intervention strategies.

This book is foremost aimed at college students who partake in the campus drinking culture, but it is also helpful to parents of students who are going to, or are already in college. At the same time, the book is valuable to those in the field of sociology, and those who are interested in, or are researching, college student's drinking behaviors. Vander Ven writes in a straightforward, easy to understand manner. He explains slang word common to the college drinking scene, while including personal stories from students. Vander Ven does mention racial and gender differences in drinking habits and social support, but it would be interesting to see an extension and deeper analysis of how his research is gendered and racialized. However, as noted in the methodological appendix, a deeper analysis based on race was difficult to establish as the IRB (Institutional Review Board) at one of the research sites stated that the small presence of minority students on campus could result in these students being identified. It should be noted that the language used in some of the interviews and personal stories might not be suitable for younger readers. At the same time, the book is an important contribution to the existing research on college drinking habits and behaviors.      


© 2012 Hennie Weiss


Hennie Weiss is a graduate student in Sociology at California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.