They used to be seen as the heart of the community, but today British pubs (short for "public houses") are closing at a rate of five a day. It is timely then that a Department of Health-funded study has published its findings on the views of 79 heavy drinkers about the role pubs play in the local community.
The participants had been recruited as part of a larger study, and were targeted for this research as they were seen by the researchers as "expert informants" on pub life.
While some of the participants said they used the pub as somewhere to be by themselves, the majority either saw the pub as its own mini-community or as a key part of the local community.
Many of the participants said they had been visiting the same pub for ten or even twenty years. They said it was somewhere to meet with friends and enjoy a sense of belonging; to take part in activities such as quizzes or darts; to hear gossip; to learn of cheap deals; buy goods; and receive social support during hard times. One participant described his pub as being like the "yellow pages".
Visiting the pub was a "way of bonding. . .everybody wants to drink and have fun so there’s a common purpose," said one participant. "I consider [the pub] a community in itself, you get to know each other’s personal details and share experiences," said another.
Other comments showed that the participants saw the pub as somewhere they could spend time that was separate from home and work. One person said it was a place to "to get away from reality". Others described the pub as "a neutral, levelling environment", "a great equaliser".
Many considered that local pubs were dying out, a trend that was often seen as reflecting the disintegration of "community" in general. The perceived reasons for this varied: some blamed drug dealers and trouble-makers, others pointed to commercial pressures and to people increasingly using pubs as somewhere to eat out rather than socialise.
"The clearest conclusion that we draw from these interviews," Jim Orford and colleagues concluded, "is that the pub was often viewed as more than just a setting for drinking, and, can in and of itself provide, for many, a real feeling of community."
Jim Orford, Alison Rolfe, Sue Dalton, Catherine Painter, Heather Webb (2009). Pub and community: The views of Birmingham untreated heavy drinkers. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 19 (1), 68-82 DOI: 10.1002/casp.980