Defending, contesting and rejecting formal drinker categories: how UK university students identify as ‘light-drinkers’ or ‘non-drinkers’

Dominic Conroy, Christine Griffin, Charlotte Morton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Definitions of drinker ‘categories’ (e.g., ‘light drinkers’) typically ignore the role of self-identification involved in drinking practices. To explore this, we presented self-identified ‘non’ or ‘light’ drinkers with official formal definitions of ‘light’ and ‘binge’ drinking as found in public health and academic research. A qualitative design was adopted. Semi-structured interviews with ten 18–27-year-old UK University students self-identifying as non-/light-drinkers were analysed using critical discourse analysis. A first data pattern saw participants working to defend and maintain self-identified ‘light drinker’ status in the face of contradictions to such claims. A second pattern involved participant challenges to the rigidity and legitimacy of formal drinking categories. A third pattern reflected participants' rhetorical work to hold at bay or reject disavowed and stigmatised drinking categories (e.g., ‘alcoholic’). Interviews suggested how formal definitions could create ideological dilemmas for participants, partly through investment in how formally defined drinker categories connected with recent personal drinking practices. Our data helps explain why units-based drinking guidelines may be poorly understood. More nuanced use of ‘drinker categories’ in units-based drinking guidelines could strengthen the visibility and credibility of alcohol health messages or could be drawn on in digital interventions designed to encourage moderate consumption behaviour by delivering personalised feedback.

Original languageEnglish
JournalDrugs: Education, Prevention and Policy
Early online date1 Jun 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 1 Jun 2021


  • Alcohol
  • binge drinking
  • critical discourse analysis
  • drinking guidelines
  • university students
  • young adults

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Health(social science)

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