In the millennia through which human beings have existed through the early twentieth century, culture has flourished everywhere that mankind chose to migrate and establish a way of life. The cultures which have evolved, adapted and become extinct throughout all this time were all mechanisms by which human beings chose to address the problems of survival. Of course the human animal is incredibly adaptive and creative and his answers to the basic questions of survival have been different all over the world. This has led to an incredible variety of cultures. The factors that have caused different cultures to choose their mechanisms of survival has depended upon the climate and environment in which each culture lives, the level of interaction with other societies and religions and philosophies espoused by the people of each culture. Children are raised throughout the world in ways that cause the child to adopt the surrounding culture.
This acculturation has been found to be a product of learning and biology. Children raised in different cultures from their parents have been found to adopt the ways of their adoptive culture and behave in ways completely adaptive to that culture and its standards. Almost universally the mechanism of acculturation has been found to be cultural and not biological with few exceptions. Drug addicts and alcoholics throughout the world have been found among every walk of life and in every socioeconomic strata. Since the 1930’s Alcoholics Anonymous has spread from the United States of America throughout the world and has transcended the boundaries of alcohol abuse to deal with all types of substance abuse and immoderate behavior. Anonymous programs draw their membership from all different races, religious backgrounds, nationalities and cultures and have in themselves formed a subculture with its basis in biology and psychology rather than geography.
AA and its spinoff groups are not the first biologically based subcultures, but they seem to be the most pronounced. It is human nature for people suffering an affliction of some sort to seek out the company of others who share their affliction. Leper colonies have for centuries been places for those with leprosy to live among other human beings who can relate to the terrible stigma of the disfiguring disease. The advantages drawn from such cooperative living have been protection from the fears and bias of the outside world, human companionship and compassion from fellow sufferers and the cooperative strength of a group of people with the same vested interest. For centuries such colonies were reviled for fear of their passing the disease to other people. Before the disease of leprosy left lepers indelibly different from other people they were ordinary people drawn from all different races and lifestyles.
To this day, the sufferers of affliction tend to form small clusters of cooperative living with those who share their disease. This unique culture forming mechanism has indeed made life tolerable for such people. For centuries the fate of the alcoholic in western civilization was a grim one. Alcoholics drank themselves into states of severe physical and psychological damage and at the same time suffered terrible legal consequences for outrageous behavior under the influence of alcohol. The medical community has been powerless for centuries to do anything about alcoholism and alcoholics were often relegated to insane asylums and forgotten as hopeless cases. Psychology and therapy has often demonstrated its powerlessness to stop alcohol abuse among the afflicted. By the 1930’s the medical prognosis for the alcoholic was well known and almost universally proven to be inalterable. Survival rates for alcoholics who do not join group programs to this day are not much better. Bill W one of the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous asked his doctor to speak to a fellow sufferer of the disease. Bill had been given a rough prognosis by his own doctor and felt helpless; he reached out to other sufferers for understanding. This was the beginning of an incredibly powerful movement.
AA in this time is still widely regarded as a cultural and medical phenomenon. It is endorsed by all races, religions and medical associations and dramatically helpful in coping with substance abuse problems. The groups have no political or economic aims of any kind. There is no central leadership to AA and yet members are often struck with an almost religious zeal for the program. The Nucleus of AA’s philosophy centers around the 12 steps of recovery espoused in the Big Book, the main literature of the society.
How could such a society form? One of the principle reasons that societies and cultures and civilizations formed to begin with was social welfare. All cultures, high and low tech, make some provisions for social welfare. In the United States we have the welfare system, social security and disability benefits. We have many beaurocratic institutions for the care of the sick, the elderly, orphans and the impoverished. Low tech, smaller societies tend to be closer knit social groups. These societies provide for such social care through the communities helping with the duties of caring for those that cannot help themselves. Children are raised with aid from the community. The elderly are cared for by the extended family. The sick are nursed by many and the mentally ill are cared for through some social and religious institutions. AA formed because somehow society’s ability to care for addict broke down. Doctors and therapists have discovered their own impotence in treating alcoholism. Clergy and ecclesiastical institutions have also failed to restore wellness to the alcoholic. The institution of family often tries much to the resentment and frustration of all to help the alcoholic. The failure of all these institutions to help does not lie in any lack of charity or effort on their part to find a cure. There is no cure for alcoholism. No amount of money, discipline, therapy, prescription drug or therapeutic treatment can restore the alcoholic to sanity. The problem is not a personality defect and these things do not work. Alcoholics and addicts of all kinds suffer only one thing in common universally, the inability to moderate their behavior towards a certain substance. The mechanism of this inability is not understood and therefore cannot be treated. Abstinence is found to be the only truly effective coping mechanism and AA professes success in nothing more than coping and abstinence.
The social welfare nature and social mechanism of AA is surrounded by nothing more than the comfort of empathy and understanding through shared experiences with drugs and alcohol. What outsiders do not have is the shared experience. They cannot empathize because while they can drink alcohol and take drugs, for whatever reason they can moderate their behavior while addicts cannot. This is the dividing line between outside membership to society and exclusive membership to the AA subculture. This the social nucleus of AA. The religious and philosophical core of AA are the reliance upon the group will, however it may function in the individual (be it peer pressure or shared strength or the status of having “more time” than other members), and the reliance upon the strength of a “Higher Power”. The Higher Power is not a clear-cut deity in the sense of any other society’s conception of the word. An addict’s “Higher Power” can be anything from traditional “God” to the group will of the program to one’s sense of love toward family. Much of the working of an AA meeting has overtones of a sermon in its ceremonies and traditions. There is no central leadership to AA, as mentioned before, but certain people are chosen and accept responsibilities of tasks to be performed throughout the meeting. These tasks range from clean up after meetings to procuring transportation for group activities and renting places of meeting. AA is not highly structured and participation is voluntary at all levels.
AA has one important social relationship. Most addicts and alcoholics choose a sponsor in their early days with the program. A sponsor is a peer who acts as a mentor in the fledgling alcoholic’s quest for sobriety. The sponsor is a role model strictly through empathy. The sponsor’s qualifications are as much the dysfunctional path taken to the first acceptance of a problem as they are through adherence to the program and sobriety. There is no official time one must be sober before being a sponsor though the rule of thumb of three years is generally accepted. The sponsor-sponsee relationship is a unique one in which both parties benefit substantially. The sponsee benefits in the wisdom and experience of the sponsor. The sponsor benefits through the sponsee’s troubles serving as a reminder of the consequences of using. The sponsor needs the sponsee as much as the sponsee needs the sponsor. The sponsee keeps the AA experience from staling in the mind of the sponsor and gets the sponsor to keep coming to meetings. The group welfare is paramount in AA and all people act to help keep one another sober regardless of how far into the program they might be. There is some elitism that can be observed in the only known stratification within the program. Time sober and adherence to the AA program can often serve as a social coinage within an AA home group that garners one respect. While this is not an officially endorsed mechanism, such politics are often clear to an observer of an AA group for any length of time.
Ceremony is a mechanism of emphasis within any society. Ceremony legitimizes relationships between people and serves as an apparatus of recognition and continuity within as society. Within an AA meeting there are several ceremony’s that take place every day. There is a group introduction and the avowal of one’s acceptance of being an alcoholic. A basket is passed at every meeting for voluntary contributions to fund the group’s basic temporal needs. Groups function differently depending on the day. Some meetings function around the theme of a specific lesson in the Big Book while other meetings focus on the story’s of individual alcoholics. Smaller meetings tend to have more discussion while larger meetings are structured. The main ingredient to a successful meeting, however is social interaction and the discussion with fellow members is crucial to each member’s feeling of empathy and acceptance. Outside the meeting, relationships are reinforced on a strictly social basis, member’s exchange phone numbers and email addresses in order to get to know one another and be there for one another in times of crisis outside each meeting. Anniversaries of sobriety are celebrated with much fan fare at home meetings. The basic anniversaries celebrated are at the marking of a member’s first 90 days of sobriety and then yearly anniversaries are observed. Outside celebration is common and encouraged. Gift giving is also a common practice, though strictly on a personal voluntary basis. All other anniversaries, birthdays and holidays are also celebrated by a close knit home group, but the principle emphasis is on sobriety.
A society forms and functions on the principle of division of labor facilitating the survival of everyone in the group better than individual subsistence. Directly, of course, traditional society’s tie in every facet of human existence into the collective concept of culture. Temporal needs are just as important to a culture’s functioning as spiritual health. Most cultures do not form based upon common characteristics of individuals but upon the environmental demands of different geographic areas. Membership in most societies is not voluntary and is marked by birth within the group to parents of the group. These major distinctions mark the more traditional trappings of culture. Anthropology, however, is the study of every aspect of human endeavor. While the formation of a subculture upon the basis of only one aspect of life is unorthodox, if the culture that is formed carries on as many social and philosophical functions as AA and other groups do, than it should be recognized and studied for human being’s better understanding of themselves and one another. AA is not merely a social frill or a club to its members but rather an adaptation of human beings to a problem which all other cultures in the world have seemed to find insoluble. One this basis of human adaptation and continued success, AA should be recognized as a distinct cultural entity existing a stable and unique existence in a world of constant change and chaos.