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Dry Pushback Against Mann’s Alcoholism Movement and Robert King Merton’s Manifest and Latent Functions: A Perplexing Combination

Updated: Mar 29

My thinking on this post started off in one direction and then suddenly veered into another direction entirely.  As you’ll see.

My original plan was simply to recount a triangular correspondence involving Laurance L. Cross, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Marty Mann that occurred in 1947.


Their letters to one another captured a telling instance of pushback against Mann’s then-fledgling alcoholism-is-a-disease campaign from a disgruntled dry. 

Laurance L. Cross was pastor of the Northbrae Community Church in Berkeley, California and, from 1947 to 1955, that city’s mayor as well; he was also apparently a staunch and diehard dry sympathizer and as well (sans any hint of mutatis mutandis) chair of the local unit of Mann’s National Committee for Education on Alcoholism (NCEA).  

Harry Emerson Fosdick was a nationally prominent Protestant theologian.  His controversial advocacy of a modernist position on biblical interpretation landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1930.  Fosdick was also a member of Mann’s organization’s advisory board and as well brother of Raymond Fosdick, chief of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s philanthropic establishment.   According to Wikipedia, H.E. Fosdick’s 1939 favorable review of Alcoholics Anonymous (i.e., “The Big Book”) is still regarded in that fraternity as “significant in the development of the AA movement.” 

Cross had previously contacted Mann directly and, not having received a satisfactory response, referred his displeasure on to fellow member of the cloth Fosdick. 

Cross’s letter is a fascinating document and merits close reading.

After apologizing for bothering Fosdick with his concerns, Cross explained:  “Ever since it was announced that I was to be the chairman [of the local NCEA chapter] I have been bombarded with criticism.  And when Mrs. Marty Mann came and lectured for a few days, it grew worse.” 

Cross’s consternation focused on some indisputably un-dry assertions Mann was quoted as making in local newspapers.  For one, as Cross re-quoted it in his letter, Mann had opined:  “Ailments popularly attributed to alcohol are not caused by alcohol at all – they are diseases of malnutrition arising from the alcoholic’s practice of drinking his meals instead of eating them.”  For another, once again quoted by Cross for Fosdick’s eyes:  “This organization is not dry, does not want Prohibition.”

Cross wasn’t buying. 

“As to the first [quoted assertion],” he wrote,

I have buried too many alcoholics, gotten too many out of jail and tried to settle too many family rows due to it, in the thirty years of my pastorate, to believe that alcohol does no more harm to a man than the missing of a few meals.

“As to the second,” Cross continued, “I feel that Mrs. Mann’s statement was not neutral but definitely on the side of the wets.” 

Mann, reported Cross, had responded that she had been misquoted.  “But to be misquoted,” lamented Cross,

in every paper with statements that are highly offensive to traditional drys and highly comforting to the wets makes my position as chairman very uncomfortable.

Cross next turned to the awkward issue of rumors of wet support for Mann’s campaign and organization.  Cross wrote:

Mrs. Mann made the statement that the Committee took no money from either from the organized wets or the organized drys.A prominent member of the San Francisco committee told me that Mrs. Mann told him that they intended to take money from the organized wets but that, for the moment, she did not consider the Committee strong enough to resist criticism.Another man who claims to have worked with Mrs. Mann at Yale and who also claims to have been the publicity agent for the Yale School of Alcohol Studies, says that the Committee is now taking money from the organized wets but that it insists that the checks be personal ones rather than company-signed.

The conclusion to Cross’s letter included four short, no-nonsense paragraphs:

I am not a member of the Anti-Saloon League or the WCTU, but I do see the tragic and terrible harm being done by liquor, and I have a standing in the community to maintain, and I don’t propose to be used by a group which is giving forth as uncertain a sound as the Committee is giving forth right now.Can you tell me if Mrs. Mann is sincere?  And if sincere, is she tactful enough, and wise enough, not to do more harm than she does good as she travels about?Is the Committee sacrificing the whole for the part in limiting its work to the chronic alcoholic?Is the Committee being used by the liquor forces to promote the idea that drinking is all right for the 97 out of a 100 who can hold it but all wrong for the 3 out of 100 who are congenitally “Allergic” to it?

Cross’s January 14, 1947 letter doubtless put Fosdick on the spot.  Fosdick shared it with Mann, requesting that Mann ghostwrite Fosdick’s reply.  Mann responded to Fosdick in a letter dated January 23rd, which response, it appears, comprised both a letter to Fosdick himself providing some context for the dispute with Cross and a ghosted text for Fosdick’s use in reply to Cross.  Fosdick replied to Cross in a letter dated January 24th.  I am not going to unpack Fosdick’s letter to Cross in this post (maybe another time) but I will convey something important about the letter’s content in what follows. 

Now, the veering off part.

Reading Cross’s, Mann’s, and Fosdick’s letters caused me to dig out my old copy of Robert King Merton’s Social Theory and Social Structure for a fresh look at his wonderful essay on manifest and latent functions in sociological analysis.  The reason will become clear in a moment.

But first, a few preliminary words about the functionalist interpretation of the modern alcoholism movement:

The manifest function of the alcoholism movement was to transform and improve the social definition and handling of alcoholism in American society.  But the movement had a key latent function as well.  By lodging the problem of alcoholism in a small segment of the population with an anomalous physiological reaction to the commodity, the alcoholism movement effectively made alcohol use safe for the great mass of the rest of us. 

In this way, the alcoholism movement served the latent function of domesticating, normalizing, or de-vilifying the commodity in the nation’s new post-Repeal cultural environment.  In this sense, then, the alcoholism movement provided a layer of symbolic legitimacy for alcohol to go along with its renewed, post-Repeal commercial legitimacy.  Incidentally, I have long marveled at how very timely A.A.’s genesis was in relation to this legitimizing latent function:  AA often dates its commencement event to May, 1935, a mere 18 months after Repeal’s final ratification by the states in December, 1933.

I mention this duality of the alcoholism movement with respect to its manifest and latent functions for a reason.  As I read Mann’s letter to Fosdick and Fosdick’s letter to Cross it struck me that Fosdick’s reply to Cross lent itself to a quite simple interpretive scheme, namely:  Whereas Cross had cried foul on account of the alcoholism movement’s latent functions (i.e., domesticating alcohol), Fosdick’s response to Cross (probably mostly or entirely ghosted by Mann) took refuge in an emphasis of the movement’s manifest function (i.e., helping alcoholics).   In other words, Fosdick’s letter emphasized all the good things the movement was accomplishing and could accomplish in the future for the alcoholic.  Fosdick’s letter also implicitly conveyed that the alcoholism movement’s interests were orthogonal to the old wet-dry axis of debate. 

How much or how little Mann’s movement’s manifest function actually required, for instance, her assertions about alcohol’s innocence respecting many illnesses formerly attributed to drinking is an interesting question.  That sort of assertion would not have stemmed from Mann’s experience with A.A.  Instead it doubtless reflected Mann’s attachment to the Yale alcohol research group headed by Howard W. Haggard.  The Yale group’s suasive agenda included making a determined effort to differentiate its “new scientific approach” to alcohol problems from the preceding era’s temperance sensibility and temperance science. 

Only five years earlier, a report by public relations specialist Dwight Anderson had urged the new, post-Repeal mainstream scientific community to embrace the disease concept of alcoholism as a symbolic device for clearly installing that crucial differentiation in the general public’s mind.  Mann had been retained by Haggard and E.M. Jellinek in 1944 to take the point on promulgating the disease concept to the American public.  Her campaign’s main purpose, as far as Yale scientists were concerned, was to advance the interests (and, incidentally, the funding prospects) of a new, neutralist science in the American alcohol problems domain.  In effect, then, the new scientific initiative harbored a third set of purposes for the alcoholism movement.   

Sociologist Robert King Merton’s essay on manifest and latent functions — incidentally, originally penned in 1948 — is something I remember reading with great appreciation a long time ago.  I examined it once again over the past few days hoping to shed a little light on the functionalist interpretation of the Cross-Fosdick-Mann exchange.  It helped.  But it also raised more questions than it answered.

Therein, Merton made a strong point of analytically distinguishing motives for actions from social functions.  The two notions, Merton argued, occupied two quite different planes of agency and explanation.  Yet intentionality and awareness did figure into how Merton discussed functionalism.  Latent functions, he argued, were generally unrecognized by actors on the ground for their contribution to the social system.  Manifest functions, on the other hand, were recognized or known.  Hence, the element of individual cognition and intention made a backdoor entrance into the discussion of manifest and latent functions and their proper differentiation and analysis.

All this spun through my mind as I tried to unpack and understand, in particular, Fosdick’s reply letter to Cross.  How latent after all was the alcoholism movement’s domestication-of-alcohol function if a dry such as Cross, for whom domestication represented a poison pill, complained bitterly about it?  Obviously, Cross recognized this aspect of Mann’s rhetoric on behalf of the alcoholism movement.  Did that also mean that, for Cross at least, the domestication function was not a latent function at all?  Cross’s concern that wets might be bankrolling the new movement also harbored implications respecting recognition and latency.  Cross’s belief or suspicion that the beverage industry might not be wholly unaware of the alcoholism movement’s symbolic benefits for their products suggested, in turn, that the movement’s domestication function might not be properly termed a latent and unrecognized function with respect to the beverage industry too.

Beyond the post-Repeal dry and wet camps or interests, how would the new scientific community emerging around (and, in part, because of) the disease concept campaign – with their special knowledge of the campaign’s public relations motivations – parse out into manifest and latent functions?  It bears noting that one of the underlying goals of the new scientific approach to alcohol was to provide an escape hatch from the seemingly unending cultural warfare between the two great adversaries, dry and wet.  This conflict-minimization goal arguably fits nicely into functionalism’s underlying presumption that eufunctionality, whatever else it does, must contribute to the overall functional integration of society.  Conflict reduction of course serves that end.

Well then.  If helping alcoholics, domesticating beverage alcohol, furthering modern science’s hegemony in the American alcohol problems domain, and minimizing social conflict over alcohol all may be said to have been functions of the alcoholism movement, how many more functions might be attached to it?  Moreover, which should be designated manifest and which latent, and from what particular individual or institutional perspective should those designations be made? 

A flock of questions tumble out of this complexity.  Can one institution’s manifest functions be latent functions from the perspective of another institution?  How successfully can sociological analysis maintain the explanatory separation of the social-functional and individual-motivational levels of understanding in assessing latent functions?  Interestingly, Merton explored Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption as an exemplar of good latent functional analysis.  In that connection Merton paused to consider a special problem presented by Veblen’s theory — namely, Veblen’s ideas eventually became pretty well known in popular culture.  Merton interjected only the following bracketed comment, and no more, on the issue:

[This raises the interesting problem of the changes occurring in the prevailing pattern of behavior when its latent functions become generally recognized (and thus are no longer latent).  There will be no occasion for discussing this important problem in the present publication.] (p. 124)

What a pity – for it is precisely this cultural seam between the unrecognized latent functions and recognized latent functions that the history of the alcoholism movement has presented us with.  My own impression, incidentally, is that the domestication-of-alcohol and self-serving purposes of the alcoholism movement, once these became more generally recognized in the alcohol science community, provided an important spur toward reframing alcohol as a public health problem in the U.S.  NCA’s transformation into NCADD was also driven, I think, largely by an increasing awareness of the earlier alcoholism movement’s domestication-of-alcohol and self-promotional functions.

But where then does this leave the prospects for a latent functional analysis of the emergence of the modern alcoholism movement in post-Repeal America?  Let me take a wild stab:

I suggest is that it’s a pretty safe bet that most Americans are still unaware of the complex story of the alcoholism movement’s emergence out of the ashes of national prohibition and that movement’s complex subterranean nexus of purposes, motives, and functions.  Only much smaller camps associated with the alcohol domain – scientists, NGO leaders, public policy mavens, government agency bureaucrats, some undergrads and grad students, and diehard drys – may be said to represent active nurseries for knowledge of this nexus of purposes, motives, and functions. 

The barrier between a small nexus of in-the-know parties and the larger not-in-the-know society in the U.S. has remained remarkably impermeable.  Perhaps this impermeability ultimately reflects the inescapable reality that a great many people cannot become intimately familiar with the complexities of a great many subjects.  It may also reflect that most Americans do not view the alcoholism movement or its public problems paradigm from the vantage points of institutions with a stake in the ongoing struggle and competition over control of the U.S. alcohol problems domain.  Hence the alcoholism movement’s legacy may be said to have retained its latent functionality with respect to its domestication-of-alcohol effects for the vast majority of Americans — and probably will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.  I’m not sure this is an altogether bad thing.

Too bad we don’t still have Robert King Merton (1910-2003) among us to take a crack at the perplexing but also intriguing relationship between the modern alcoholism movement and the fine points of latent and manifest functional analysis.



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