Ethnographic Observation and Reflection in Drinking Youth Culture


According to sociology, drinking is the first communication. Therefore, as an anthropology ethnographer, I was commissioned to conduct ethnographic research on drinking youth culture. I carried out this activity in the context of three Russian youths sitting in a pub drinking vodka as they chat. In order to protect their anonymity, they were given made-up names, Sam, James, and Martin. Any theoretical position was not used since the observation, participation, and reflections are methodologically accredited to profuse descriptions (LeCompte & Schensul, 2010). The objective was to reveal the conceptual framework that notifies my subjects’ acts, and what is said as social discourse, and to establish a system of analysis that determines human behaviour and cultural influence on their behaviours (Angrosino, 2008). This paper intends to present the critical findings from the observations, findings from active participation in the activity and as well present the dire reflections of the ethnographic actions that took place in youth drinking cultures.


My observation took place from around 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm on a Saturday evening at an Oregon pub.  To begin with, it is certain that alcohol plays a vital role in Russia’s socio-cultural practice. Consuming specific alcoholic drinks is an indicator of identity one of the informants said: “Other people meet to discuss the issue over beer, but we Russians discuss issues over vodka,” (Sam, personal communication, 7.7.2018). However, in the Russian context youths’ drinking is attributed to being together in a group as was evident from the connection they seemed to have. It was evident that their drinking culture was not only for the company but also based on interpersonal relationships and a sense of brotherhood. “We are brothers; brothers stick together, drink from the same bottle, and have fun together.” (Martin, personal communication, 7.7.2018)

When their popular music would play, it distracted their communication as they sang along to the lyrics of the song playing that they seemed to be familiar with. Also when a pretty lady passed by, they would stop talking and look at the lady. As they continued drinking one could tell that these Russian youths are characterized by a heavy drinking culture as they took quick shots of vodka and added more bottles of vodka. On the contrary, drinking alcohol results in deviant behaviour; as one of the informants said: “Last week after leaving this club and left for home, I ended up smashing a windscreen of a car that was parked in front of my apartment’s gate. Man, I must have taken much that day!” (James, personal communication, 7.7.2018)


At about 7:30 pm, I opted to join the three Russian youths to participate in the drinking. Participating by joining them to drink was quite fun, involving and sustained the objectivity of the study. Drinking with the participants made them more open and comfortable to reveal more information based in relation to their drinking culture since joining them gave them a feeling of cooperation and solidarity. Youth drink to relieve stress, this is asserted by Sam when he was getting drunk and honest and said: “I’m stressed up. I just found out that my girlfriend has been cheating on me. Anyway, I have alcohol to get me out of it. Tonight, I am drowning myself in alcohol to help me get over her.” (Sam, personal communication, 7.7.2018)

We drank the alcohol at a moderate amount, as we share personal experiences which enabled me to get to understand their history in relation to drinking alcohol and together with their attitude to alcohol. For instance, “I started drinking alcohol at a tender age of 9 years; alcohol has been part of my life. Alcohol makes life to be fun and that’s why I love alcohol no matter what happens.” (Martin, personal communication, 7.7.2018) Drinking together made the communication more intense and informative as James said: “We are happy to have you; you should join us to be family. This is how we rock, we Russians stick together. We come here to drink here every evening. Vodka is our favourite drink. Life is short, so let us have fun, drink!!” (James, personal communication, 7.7.2018) Participation drives the participants to speak up their minds and confess. Therefore, engaging and participating enables one to view and experience the youth drinking cultures and get to determine how the social environment backs it.


    This paper portrays how my specific presence as the observer, and engagement with the three Russian youths impacts the real heavy drinking practices, the actual things seen and the identity of the person observed. In the subsequent thematic reflections, using verbatim quotes, observations and participation based on the study conducted on three heavy drinking Russian youths, a significant difference is depicted in the etic view (observation) and the emic view (participation). Participation was quite inclusive and facilitated the sustainment of the research relation since participation in alcohol consumption eased acceptance of the group as it signified acknowledgement and appreciation of the culture. Engaging to take part in drinking, facilitated more access to relevant and useful information which not available in scholarly ethnographic resources thus giving an opportunity to document exclusive attitudes and actions exhibited by the participants (Angrosino, 2008). By spending time with them drinking, the study managed to document the amount they drank and their attitude towards alcohol. For example, the Russian youths prefer taking vodka particular in shot glasses. This is not documented in any scholarly resource. Taking active participation by drinking with the participants not only established the relationship with the participants but also enabled me to determine ways youths practice drinking including their social facilitating environment and those who constitute the social scenery. For example, when we were drinking I got the opportunity to get myself in the shoes of these youths and get to experience what they had been feeling when drinking.

On the other hand, observation findings and its strategies were quite different. Observation involved patience, viewing and listening from a distance without making any interruptions or engaging the participants. What was heard was noted without inquiring for more clarification unlike in participation where it would have asked for the participants to justify the points they have made for a clear understanding. Observation puts the participants in an awkward point and as well impacts the participants negatively making them feel uneasy or are tensed thus reducing the effectiveness of the study (LeCompte & Schensul, 2010). For instance, the participants were uneasy and unwilling to share some information while in the observation but when participating; they immediately opened up and revealed the important information that was needed. Therefore, participation was more persuasive while observation was less persuasive.

My area of concern that was focused on is to get to understanding the reason behind youth binge drinking culture. The study centred on observing the reasons why youths drink heavily. For many years it has been reported that the younger generation, has a binge drinking culture that has been a major issue of concern. Moreover, there has been little ethnographic research conducted on youth drinking cultures (Pelto, 2017). None among these few studies have come up with the appropriate findings that can be a solution to addressing the youth’s heavy drinking culture on the grounds of fearing ethnographical ethics committee from rejecting their study. This study took a bold step, facing challenges and dilemmas about whether to participate in drinking in order to achieve the objective of the study.

Both the observation and participation had an effect on the participant. They felt that they are not isolated or rejected despite their heavy drinking culture. Participation in the drinking actually made the participants feel acknowledged and appreciated. Moreover, participation in the activity facilitated the participants to express themselves in order to give an understanding of their heavy drinking culture which in return will open doors for the researcher to come up with intervening measures to control and manage youth-heavy drinking culture. The observation strategy makes the participants feel intimidated as they feel uncomfortable being watched (LeCompte & Schensul, 2010). Observation failed to win the trust of the participants to open up and act in a normal way. Participation is very important in useful as it managed to establish a solid relationship with the participants. It also manages to persuade the participants to act in their normal life and reveal the relevant information required in an indirect way.


This study used observation and participation strategies to research youth’s heavy drinking culture. It is evident that though termed dangerous, participation in drinking with the Russian youths was found to be the most appropriate and effective method of gathering information useful to achieve the objectives of the study, unlike observation. The observation was to some extent effective as it managed to keep the study in focus but was not that effective as compared to participation. Therefore, both observation and participation should be adopted in every study. None should be under-looked.