Is Alcoholism a Disease?
(Sociology 130, Updated August 16, 2009, Writing Assignment #1)

Write a three-page paper in which you take a definite pro or con position on the proposition that alcoholism is a disease. Turn in a paper copy in class. Without advance permission, papers may not be handed in late.

This paper has three goals.

1. You must take a clear position and give an argument that both advances your point of view and also recognizes and incoporates the best arguments from the counter position.

One of the main reasons that I assign the short writing assignments in this course is to prepare you for the debate. In a debate you must present a strong, well-informed argument or position but you also have to recognize and acknowledge counter arguments. Furthermore, if you say that those who disagree with you are simply stupid or immoral you will have immediate problems because an opponent will immediately challenge you and perhaps embarrass you. You also are likely to alienate your audience, people who in the end will vote about whether you have won or lost the debate.

To do well on this assignment you must look at the handout available on this website for writing short paper assignments in this class. You also should read the assigned material from the book on writing, I Say, You Say that is available on Blackboard and that is listed in the syllabus. You also must understand and present the complex issues related to heavy drinking. You can get a top grade on this paper using only material presented here and on Blackboard. However, you may do outside research if you wish and that effort is always appreciated.

2. You must understand the concept of disease, recognizing that it is used in several different and relevant ways for this topic. One ways is in terms of the distinction between disease, illness, and sickness. A second way is in terms of the "medical model" and the biophysical model of disease. A third way is in terms of the medicalization process in society and the reality that if medical insurance covers it and doctors name it perhaps an entity is a disease.

It is important to understand that there is no absolute or correct definition for a term like "disease" and you probably will be disadvantaged if you seek out and use a dictionary definition as the basis for your paper discussion. One important definition is the biophysical one. It tells us that pathology has specific biological causes related to the homeostatic processes of the human body. This is represented in what sociologists call "the medical model" and it is an important approach to use if we hope to understand specific processes that lead to disease and that allow us to intervene and achieve a cure. Fingarette's book Heavy Drinking is mostly devoted to showing that this narrow definition of "disease" does not work for alcoholism.

Does it make sense to have such a narrow definition of disease when we are working in the real world? Doctors in their common language will talk about disease as any process that makes people sick. We have conditions like epilepsy that often have no identifiable biological cause but that produce dramatic physical symptoms and that most people classify as disease. Realistically also, conditions have to be classified as "disease" for health insurance to cover treatment. Because of this, conditions like obesity are classified by many health insurance companies as diseases so that patients can receive stomach shrinking surgery. Similarly, alcoholism is classified as a disease so that patients can receive 28 days of in-patient therapy (the standard length of treatment).

On the other hand, the sociological concept of "medicalization" refers to the institution of medicine expanding into areas of behavior that in the past would have been considered immorality or misbehavior. The medicalization perspective argues that medicine increasingly serves as a means of social control by which those in authority seek to control the behavior of less powerful people who behave in ways those in power do not like.

3. You must understand and explain the nature of heavy drinking (to use Fingarette's term) and explain the nature and usefulness of the concept of alcoholism.

"Medicalization" and "disease" are general concepts that apply to many areas of social life and behavior. In this paper you also want to talk in real, concrete, and immediate terms. People in this class drink, you have friends who drink a lot, and we have a campus culture that institutionalizes heavy drinking. We also have a control structure in place where if you do bad things you have to answer to the dean and to the police. You may be forced to visit with our campus drug and alcohol counselor, you may be forced to attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous (even though forcing anyone violates the norms of the organization), and you may be forced to take a leave from Bucknell to participate in alcohol rehabilitation.

While certainly some Bucknell students become "alcoholics" while at Bucknell (or arrive as first year student in that situation), there seems to be controversy about whether heavy drinking on campus is a bad thing. Most particularly, there seems to be unhappiness about people being forced to accept the label "alcoholic" when their behavior does not seem that out of line to their friends. Feel free to bring your own ideas and experiences into the paper. But when you do so, be sure to follow my guidelines about presenting a balanced argument that is well-informed.