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The Social World of Alcoholics Anonymous: How It Works

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Annette R. Smith, and is taken from her 2007 book The Social World of Alcoholics Anonymous: How It Works. Smith received her masters in social work from the University of California, Berkeley in 1961, and her Ph.D. from UC San Diego in 1991. She worked for several years as a psychiatric social worker at Napa State Hospital in California, where she helped develop an innovative co-educational unit for treating alcoholics, who had long been merely warehoused in those giant institutions. As one of the key elements in this new approach, she worked with the local A.A. Hospital and Institutions Committee in bringing A.A. to the inpatients in that program. This experience began her lifetime association with the fellowship. The Social World of Alcoholics Anonymous asserts the value of viewing AA as a social world, and argues that the success of AA is dependent on integration into the social world. Enjoy!

Annette R. Smith

Annette R. Smith

After several years working as a clinical social worker and program manager in the alcoholism treatment field, and being involved as an associate of Alcoholics Anonymous, I returned to school to obtain a doctorate in sociology. As I became more aware of sociological constructs, it became clear to me that although there was considerable literature on the history and philosophy of AA, its value as treatment, its bases of affiliation and the experiences of its members, AA as a social organization and the impact of that organization upon recovery, had not been widely examined.

The term social organization refers to the structure of social relationships within a group, among subgroups and institutions. Sociologists have identified several forms of social organization. Some of these include a formal organization such as a corporation, with its hierarchy of official roles and strong bureaucratic structure; an interest group such as an environmental advocacy group, with a shared interest in a particular issue; a voluntary association such as the PTA of a local school, with membership rolls, a hierarchy of officers and fairly formal roles; an informal group such as a book club, with informal roles, lack of stable structure and shared interest in a particular topic or activity, and a social world, defined as a “universe of mutual response” (Shibutani 1961) such as the social world of tennis or music, with a broad, loosely structured, interconnected environment, potentially large population, and common interest as its basis of involvement. A social world has a structure which is highly permeable, which means that membership is voluntary and people move in and out of it with ease. There is an absence of a formal hierarchy, and social roles are highly informal. Nevertheless, it is a fairly defined entity with a technology and language of its own that is passed on to its members through various means of communication.

As an organization, A.A. has largely been referred to as a voluntary association, and most studies of it as such have focused on its formal structure and activities. However, it is noted that there are characteristics of voluntary associations, such as formal membership rolls and a hierarchy of officers, which do not apply to A.A., and that while there is a formal structure of meeting groups, districts, areas and a general service organization, A.A. is much larger than this formal structure, with a network of loosely connected organizations and relationships, involving both formal and informal components and activities. These include service centers or recovery homes and Alano clubs and the events they sponsor, as well as informal activities such as clusters of members meeting for coffee or meals and other social gatherings. All these comprise the social world of A.A.

This book, based on my doctoral thesis, explains the features of the social world of A.A., and proposes that by studying it from a social world perspective, evaluating both the formal and informal environments, it is possible to see that social integration into that social world is a key to successful recovery. Through participant observation and numerous interviews with A.A. members, the process by which this integration occurs, as well as variations in the pathways to that integration are demonstrated. Finally, a typology of A.A. members is suggested that represents types of social world participants, (rather than of alcoholics). It is contended that the social world perspective is a useful approach to understanding how A.A. works for those who experience the A.A. conversion and successful recovery.

The book, published in 2007 by iUniverse, (, is available in both paperback, ISBN: 978-0-595-47692-3, and ebook, ISBN: 978-0-595-91956-7.


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