The Social Importance of Your Bar

Mass Observation Unit Book

Bars tend to appear in the media in one of two ways:

  1. Boozy Celeb’s Late Night Nipple Slip Club Exit
  2. Teenager In Coma Following Jagerbomb Binge

While pubs are often portrayed as earthy places where normal folk gather to sip ale and watch football, bars are presented either as celebrity hangouts you can’t afford to visit, or mysterious places where young people go to do bad things.

This arbitrary, agenda-led reporting doesn’t simply paint an inaccurate picture of the bar industry, it willfully neglects the proven, positive impact a well-run bar has on society.

To explain:

In the 1930s, an English gent called Tom Harrisson formed the Mass Observation Unit (MOU), a social research body which went on to conduct the earliest and most extensive study of social drinking. Centered around the British city of Bolton, Harrisson’s teams spent two years observing the complex rituals and behaviors displayed daily in the town’s pubs.

While 1930s Bolton didn’t have much of a cocktail scene, almost all of the MOU’s findings are applicable to bars, and have been replicated and confirmed in further studies by social anthropologists all over the world.

Here are a few of the social functions your bar performs, possibly without your conscious knowledge.

Freedom from Thought Control

The only way to watch Channel 5

Tom Harrison of the MOU says this of bars and pubs:

“(They are) the only kind of public building used by large numbers of ordinary people where their thoughts and actions are not being in some way arranged for them; in other kinds of public building they are audiences, watchers of political, religious, dramatic, cinematic, instructional or athletic spectacles.”

As true as this was in the 1930s, it is immeasurably more so now. Try and think of another public space that is not beaming the media and advertising into your eyes and ears via TV screens, posters, jingles, and browser pop-ups? Even pubs are guilty these days, with huge flat screen TVs inexorably drawing patron’s eyes to a constant cycle of commercials.

Harrisson goes on to describe bar patrons as participators in, rather than spectators of, their environment, interacting with and affecting it in a way they can’t anywhere else – in other words, creating their own vibe. People simply visit a cocktail bar to ‘be’ there, the entertainment coming from the company of others and a convivial atmosphere.

As a place untouched by relentless media thought control and advertising, cocktail bars are hard to beat, stimulating instead conversation and interaction between guests – It’s no surprise that many good ideas are first written down on a bevnap.

Next time you experience a peaceful moment after setup and before opening, look around and appreciate your bar as a place for people to bond and share ideas in a rare, advertising and propaganda-free space.

Round Buying Keeps Society Whole 

You are thinking of a name right now, aren’t you?

Desmond Morris, the famous sociobiologist, has this to say in a report entitled Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking, produced by the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC):

Next to breathing, drinking is the most essential of all human activities… for a man deprived of sustenance will die of thirst long before he will succumb to starvation.

Today the legacy of this dependence takes many forms – rites and rituals, customs and ceremonies all focused on the simple yet vital act of taking a drink.”

He goes on to describe how early humans recognised the importance of drinking, and began to use it to commemorate special occasions. At first the only options were water, milk, plant juices and blood, but once the mood-enhancing properties of fermented fruit were understood, alcohol was immediately used to mark momentous events and celebrations.

To bartenders, the story of mankind’s acquisition of the brewing and distillation arts is common knowledge. But how many think of a Friday night service as a reflection of social drinking rituals born over 5000 years ago?

The SIRC report goes on to say:

In almost all drinking-places, in almost all cultures, the unwritten laws and customs involve some form of reciprocal drink-buying or sharing of drinks. This practice has been documented in drinking-places from modern, urban Japan and America and rural Spain and France to remote traditional societies in Africa and South America and has long been recognised by anthropologists, sociologists and even zoologists – so fundamental is this practice to the survival of any social species.”

Many of the underpinning principles of modern society, especially those relating to fairness and social justice, find their roots in the earliest drink-sharing rituals, and are reinforced every Friday night when friends gather to talk about their lives and buy rounds for each other. This keeps social bonds strong and builds relationships which last entire lifetimes, and, as the report says, is fundamental to the survival of our social species.

Think about that person you know who doesn’t pull their weight when it comes to buying rounds, and you will immediately see the truth in this.

Promoting Good Drinking

No, not that kind of lowered inhibitions…

Good drinking, in this sense, has nothing to do with volume. It refers to alcohol’s effects as an inhibitor of inhibitions.

Mention loss of inhibitions and tabloid headlines spring to mind, the term painting a mental picture of lost dignity and bad behavior. But this is not what loss of inhibitions means, it is what the tabloids have told us it means, as was the case as far back as 1943, when Professor and physiologist Selden Bacon said:

“…dysfunctional drinking has attracted all the attention, just as a comet or shooting star elicits more comments than do the millions of ‘ordinary’ stars.”

Good drinking eases the inhibitions caused by shyness, social awkwardness, reticence to share ideas and helps overcome social barriers.

This doesn’t promote drunkenness, as quite often the very act of buying a drink for someone or sharing a bottle helps to ease these inhibitions before any alcohol hits the drinker’s bloodstream.

Desmond Morris describes the process:

For it (alcohol) is not a stimulant, but an inhibitor of inhibitions. And there is a subtle difference. Whatever the dominant mood of the drinker, alcohol will exaggerate it by removing the usual social restraints. If the drinker is happy, he becomes happier; if he is sad he becomes sadder… For this reason, the happy social occasion is the ideal environment for the human ritual of ‘taking a drink’. As such it has always had – and will always have – great social significance.”

Gathering with friends in a good cocktail bar is the very definition of a ‘happy social occasion’, and along with quality liquor and responsible service, lowers inhibition is the best possible way. This is what we mean when we say ‘good drinking’ and is a long way from the scenes of debauchery and violence our newspapers love to peddle.

The List Goes On…

There are any number of other ways bars contribute to society, from tangible things like the amount of money they generate for the economy, to less tangible things like the amount of couples who meet and fall in love in them, there isn’t space in this article to list them all.

Suffice it to say that over and above the enjoyment your guests experience night after night, from the drinks they consume to the conversations they have, your bar is an important place.

Not just to you and the other people who work there, and not just to your customers, but to society as a whole.


Facts and quotes reproduced with kind permission from The Social Issues Research Centre’s reports:
  • The Enduring Appeal of the Local
  • Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking