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  1. Introduction
  2. The Development of Sociological Perspectives on Gambling
  3. Current Sociological Perspectives on Gambling
  4. Researching Gambling in the 21st Century
  5. Gambling and Public Policy
  6. Linkages with Other Sociological Perspectives
  7. Conclusion: Technology, Change, and the Future
  8. Bibliography


The size and scope of legalized gambling—to put aside its illegal manifestations for a moment—are simply mind-boggling. In America, for instance, more money is legally spent on gambling than is spent on movie tickets, theme parks, sports events, and music events combined (Morais 2002). Of course, sociologists have spent a substantial amount of productive research time examining the vast sociocultural impacts of Hollywood’s movies, and the field has developed an impressively broad literature on the sociology of leisure and sport. Furthermore, sociologists of popular culture have studied the sociological reach of a music culture that today encompasses everything from Mozart to MTV.

Meanwhile, the gambling industry now dwarfs these more familiar sociological subjects, at least in the economic sense. Gambling also constitutes a formidable political entity: As of this writing, 48 of the 50 U.S. states offer some form of legalized gambling (Utah and Hawaii stand as the lone holdouts). Just as strikingly, a somewhat similar proportion of international jurisdictions are also embracing legalized gambling (or considering doing so).

Of course, gambling activity has probably been around as long as human groups have been around (the phrase “rolling the bones” harkens back to an era when playing dice games meant exactly that). Nor are the activity’s intimate linkages with government new: In the United States, for instance, lotteries were legalized in the colonies by 1750. City governments, churches, jails, public utilities, road repair, and institutions of higher education, including many Ivy League schools, were financed by these lotteries (Rosecrance 1988).

However, at no time in human history have more types of gambling been more widely available to more human beings than they are today. In light of these observations, it would seem that sociologists everywhere might devote their tools to help advance our understanding of those of us who wager money on events whose outcomes are in doubt.

The Development of Sociological Perspectives on Gambling

Some of the earliest writings on gambling were not specifically sociological, but they certainly invoked themes familiar to today’s sociologists. For instance, because gambling was seen as undermining the very foundations of the Protestant ethic, it threatened those who were passionately protective of the latter in predictable ways. In 1883, Anthony Comstock warned that “the promise of getting something for nothing, of making a fortune without the slow plodding of daily toil, is one of Satan’s most fascinating snares” (p. 56). For many, gambling’s insidiousness offended social and moral sensibilities more than other scourges of the day such as alcohol.

In his pioneering study, Edward Devereux (1949) lamented that sociologists had neglected the study of gambling, given its ubiquity and institutionalization. Devereux viewed gambling within the context of functionalist theory, suggesting that wagering behavior had societal implications beyond the individualistic and pathological approaches that seemed to dominate then—and indeed, continue to dominate studies of gambling behavior today. Given the sociological frameworks popular in his time, it was perhaps predictable that Devereux explored the act as a safety valve that relieved stress and strain generally emanating from the restraints and rationality of a capitalistic system. In addition, Devereux also felt that dominant values were reinforced with admonitions against gambling and other deviant behaviors (p. 946).

Of course, it was recognized that gambling can also be dysfunctional, as Bloch (1951) pointed out, creating problems for family, work, and personal life. Much of the early nonsociological work on gambling behavior focused on the dysfunctional effects that gambling has on both the gambler as well as those close to him or her. This perspective coalesced in the field of psychology into a vast literature exploring treatments for gambling pathologies. Even sociologists were not immune to this impulse: Herman’s (1967) study of racetrack betting used this more or less pathological framework for his analysis, as did Zola’s (1963) research on offtrack betting.

In the early days of the field, legalized gambling was rare, and illegal gambling was widespread. As such, many of the first studies of the gambling act tended to employ a more or less criminological framework to interpret these behaviors. For instance, Tec’s (1964) study of football betting in Sweden found that bettors were more likely to be employed, upwardly mobile, and motivated to achieve. They did not appear to be alienated or detached—contrary to what anomie theorists would predict. Other analysts presented evidence to support opportunity theory and anomie, demonstrating that those with available avenues of advancement and lower levels of status frustration were less likely to gamble (Li and Smith 1976). Studies by Light (1977) and Newman (1968) did not find that relative deprivation motivated gambling activity, particularly within the lower class. Instead, gambling was interpreted as a communal or shared activity with important cultural meanings. Downes et al. (1976) found that gambling was not peculiar to the lower class but was found across all categories of the social structure—that is, across racial, class, and occupational divides.

Not all studies of gambling focused on the financial “losers” who constitute the majority of gamblers. One interesting sociological research piece explored the familial, social, and professional changes confronted by lottery winners—a scenario that many of us have no doubt contemplated (Kaplan 1978). This was the first systematic study of gambling’s “winners”—all of whom had come away with a prize of one million dollars or more. In his work, Kaplan found that relationships transformed in significant and unforeseen ways, and that many winners found that they could not maintain their prior institutional or organizational affiliations.

Against this background, the sociologist Henry Lesieur’s work emerged as a pioneering contribution to our understanding of the ways in which social networks and communities affect gamblers’ lives. Lesieur (1977) sought sociological explanations for problem gambling in his groundbreaking study of the career of racetrack and sports bettors—a work that established him as a pioneer of this emerging area of sociological inquiry.

In fact, Lesieur’s work was so influential that despite his background as a sociologist, he was asked to play a central role in defining the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for pathological gambling (see American Psychiatric Association 1994). Lesieur observed that many problem gamblers found themselves entangled in an effort to try to win back losses—or “chasing”—a characteristic that has since served as a central feature of the diagnostic literature (Lesieur and Custer 1984:149–50; American Psychiatric Association 1994). Later, Lesieur served as the founding editor of the first specialty journal in the field, the Journal of Gambling Behavior, later renamed the Journal of Gambling Studies. Today, he is widely recognized in mental health circles as one of the founding figures in the field of pathological gambling studies.

Current Sociological Perspectives on Gambling

The sociologists Smith and Abt (1984) argued for a shift from concern with the problematic aspects of gambling to a focus on understanding the activity as “play.” In their view, gambling reinforces capitalistic and materialistic American values of self-reliance, risk taking, decision making, and skill enhancement. Furthermore, much like other games, gambling provides an outlet for socialization and cultural learning: From marbles to baseball card flipping, games of chance prepare children for games at a higher level and for participation in American life.

As Goffman (1967) noted before Smith and Abt, character is demonstrated through rituals—including gambling rituals. Thus, gambling might be seen as functional for social order by providing an escape from everyday life while reinforcing existing cultural norms (Smith and Abt 1984; Abt, Smith, and McGurrin 1985:64.)

Today, gambling has “normalized” and may be understood via lenses currently used to study other late-emerging capitalist industries. Reith (2003) points out that

the gambling industry itself is increasingly owned by a limited number of multinational corporations, concentrated in an oligopolistic market. It is organized in a similar way to other major industries, with market research and advertising strategies designed to identify and target niche groups . . . Modern consumers have a variety of products and experiences to choose from, and an ever-larger and more powerful industry to supply them. (Pp. 19–20)

This “new” gaming industry has attracted a growing number of professional observers, primarily in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. Most sociological perspectives have employed familiar tools of the field and applied them to our understanding of the spread of gambling. As the Australian sociologist Jan McMillen attests, gambling has not been exempt from trends commonly associated with the spread of globalization. McMillen (2003) points out that gambling has succumbed to

the homogenizing forces of globalization: economic dominance of transnational corporations, often American; the acceptance of certain governing rules and economic tendencies; and standardization of products and consumer behavior . . . this new globalization is a largely cultural phenomenon, whatever its economic base. Nowhere is this better seen than in the transformation of gambling into one of the world’s most rapidly expanding consumer activities. (P. 51)

More generally, it would seem that the development of the global tourism industry—one that, by many accounts, has evolved into the world’s largest—has provided the macro-economic backdrop for the development of a global gaming industry. And as this industry becomes a truly global one, scholars of the globalizing gaming industry— like scholars of globalization as a whole—might begin to focus on homogenizing forces as well as those forces that highlight local differences.

For instance, gambling locations in North America, Australia, and Europe are largely dominated by a relatively similar collection of machine games developed by a handful of multinational corporations. In a postindustrial “deforestation effect,” the overall portrait on the casino floor is one of machines replacing wooden tables, which are being hauled off to storage.

In Asia, meanwhile, these machine games have not proven as popular. In Asian casinos, these games are usually relegated to peripheral spaces within the gambling environment, as table-oriented games of chance predominate. Gamblers, for their part, “play” in an environment that is notably more serious than settings in Western societies. Were we to insist on a one-size-fits-all theoretical or methodological model for understanding such disparate sociocultural locales, our approaches might well prove to be deficient.

In some more-developed regions of the globalizing world, we are observing signs of a shift from social problems of deficiency to social problems of excess: for instance, starvation becomes less of a problem, only to be replaced by obesity. Both starvation and obesity, of course, are shaped by sociological as well as psychological and biological factors—as is certainly the case with gambling problems as well. In this context, it would seem that the “individual” problem we now call problem gambling may in fact be characterized as a quintessentially twenty-firstcentury “social problem”—one that is profoundly affected by macrolevel factors and that predictably involves an overindulgence (rather than an underindulgence).

Of course, professional views of those with gambling problems have not always been nuanced or multidimensional. For years, the experts who tackled the task of understanding and explaining the lives of those who “gambled too much” spoke from church pulpits (rather than academic podiums) and located the problem in morality. In a sermon delivered on April 19, 1835, Samuel Hopkins tells us exactly how we are to “treat” the problem gambler:

Let the gambler know that he is watched, and marked; and that, as a gambler, he is loathed. Let the man who dares to furnish a resort for the gambler know that he is counted a traitor to his duty, a murderer of all that is fair, and precious, and beloved among us. Let the voice of united, incensed remonstrance be heard—heard till the ears of the guilty tingle. (Pp. 17–18)

Unfortunately for problem gamblers, these kinds of historical perspectives have not been forgotten. This is why problem gamblers—who now are labeled by psychological institutions as “sick”—still self-diagnose as “evil” many years after these kinds of sermons were delivered.

This is a classic illustration of how a sociological imagination can help people understand the nuances of what “ails” them. A problem gambler might wonder, “If pathological gambling is a medical problem, then why is it that my friends treat me like a moral one?” The sociological answer is this: because the older religious interpretations of problem gamblers have generated far more momentum and power than the relatively youthful medical interpretations have. In the social battlefields of public discourse, 20 years or so of medical interpretations do not somehow magically eliminate the inertia of hundreds of years of influential religious interpretations. No matter how much we hail the recent advances of problem gambling science and medicine, they have not yet captured the public’s intellectual and emotional imagination in the way that earlier moral-religious understandings have (Bernhard, forthcoming-b).

In his book Pathological Gambling: The Making of a Medical Problem, Brian Castellani (2000) concludes that the field is careening carelessly down a decidedly medical pathway at the expense of more multidimensional perspectives. Drawing on the insights of Foucault, Castellani argues that medical experts have dominated the problem gambling discourse for too long and that it is time for those representing a wider range of discourses to be included in the construction of knowledge about this social problem. Castellani argues for an approach that explores how medical discourses collide with those emanating from moral or policy quarters. What remains to be seen is whether these kinds of sociological perspectives can contribute to the popular view of gambling in the way that moral and then psychological ones have.

Researching Gambling in the 21st Century

The British sociologist Gerda Reith recently developed a thoughtful critique of the ways in which sociology should engage gambling as a subject of sociological inquiry. Noting that sociologists have long focused on the immorality or the sickness of those who gamble too much, Reith (2003) seeks instead to focus on the vast majority of gamblers who engage in gambling for recreation and fun.

In her work, Reith (2003) skillfully contemplates how an “age of chance” has emerged and engaged an age of reason. Long ago, of course, very little that occurred was attributed to mere chance—the gods, after all, controlled virtually every imaginable outcome. In the current context, chance has become accepted—and even commodified—by capitalist economies in the Western world. Looking to the future, Reith senses that a peculiar affection for chance will continue to develop, noting that “at the start of the twenty-first century, life does seem to be increasingly insecure,” citing market fluctuations, transformations in work life, environmental doomsday scenarios, and the postmodern grappling with truth and certitude as evidence (pp. 182–83). Against these sociological backdrops, Reith astutely notes that gambling serves as “a conduit for chance: an arena in which (chance) appears in an intensified and, more importantly, controlled form” (p. 183). Hence, gambling provides a unique outlet for the impulses that accompany this era. From this perspective, gambling seems less a deviant act than a distilled one: It serves as a microcosm for much that is characteristic of our times.

Methodologically, the field continues to grapple with a variety of issues that are common in many relatively young areas of inquiry. Summarizing the methodological state of the field, Eadington (2003) notes that “it remains difficult to fully comprehend what the evidence is telling us” (p. 32) and later argues that “benefit/cost analysis applied to . . . gaming activities is still a relatively primitive science, primarily because of the difficulties in conceptualizing, observing, and measuring social costs” (p. 46).

Notably, it is a sociologist, Rachel Volberg, who has served as the problem gambling field’s leading prevalence methodologist and researcher. Volberg (1996), whose tool of choice for determining problem gambling rates has been the telephone survey, nevertheless insists that multiple methods are preferable to any single one:

Many of the questions now being asked about gambling and problem gambling cannot be answered by single surveys . . . As we move forward, it will be important to use a variety of methods to provide insights that no single approach can yield. Since all scientific methods contain biases, multiple research techniques (including experimental, clinical, historical, ethnographic and survey approaches) are needed to resolve puzzles and discrepancies as well as to provide a much-needed depth of perception to the field of gambling studies. (P. 126)

Today, it appears that even the medically and psychologically oriented researchers in the field of gambling studies are embracing these broader approaches to theory and method. For instance, a group of influential scholars—all trained in psychology—recently put forth a call to embrace a more macrolevel “public health” approach to the study of gambling behavior. Interestingly, this public health approach strikes a chord familiar to sociologists, because it advocates multiple levels of analysis, including those that focus on the individual, group, organizational, and institutional levels (Blaszczynski, Ladouceur, and Shaffer 2004).

Gambling and Public Policy

From a policy perspective, what makes gambling different from more conventional industries is the peculiar relationship between government entities and gambling businesses. As Eadington (2003) notes, “Gambling is one of the largest industries whose fundamental economic characteristics are substantially determined by political decisions” (p. 45). To this, we might add that state lotteries exist in a way that allows the government to sell products to its constituency directly and not via a generous tax break or other subsidy. Because of these relationships, government bodies may well find themselves with conflicting interests: On the one hand, they have an interest in maximizing gambling revenues (to sponsor government programs); on the other, they have an obligation to protect the public (some of whom may consume excessive amounts of lottery tickets).

In the United States, the government has been largely content to allow individual states to enforce and regulate gambling within their borders (Frey 1998). In other jurisdictions, national and provincial governments have entered into unique agreements with gaming business operators to offer gambling to native and tourist populations. In some cases, as with Canada, the government serves as a sort of “owner-operator” of casinos. As Rosecrance (1988) envisioned, gambling’s widespread acceptance and its partnership with public entities has resulted in its mainstreaming and legitimization—and also its decriminalization.

Recently, gambling has enjoyed unprecedented support from a wide variety of public figures. Especially in more conservative political environments, where uttering the “t word” (taxation) is a sure way to get voted out of office, gambling is often seen as a “voluntary tax” willingly donated to state coffers by participants, who in exchange for their donation receive an entertainment benefit.

At the same time, in jurisdictions across Canada and Australia, for instance, public clamor has resulted in growing efforts among government entities to mitigate the costs associated with this “entertainment.” Social movement organizations—most of which are affiliated with religious organizations in some manner—have once again emphasized the downside of gambling, and some jurisdictions have moved to address these critiques. To wit, the Canadian jurisdiction of Nova Scotia recently unveiled a test study of “responsible gaming devices” that have been attached to all gambling machines provincewide. These devices allow gamblers to check the amount of money they have won or lost over given periods of time (a sort of gambling “bank statement”) as well as set monetary limits and/or time limits for their play.

With each technological leap forward, however, we must also be on guard against falling into traps that some of sociology’s most famous voices have articulated. Bernhard and Preston (2004) point out that these policy interventions have a way of backfiring, as Robert Merton famously warned. As it turns out, several of the policies implemented in an effort to mitigate problem gambling have had unintended consequences, and a few have actually harmed those whom the policies ostensibly target. For instance, some jurisdictions have slowed down the speed of machine gambling games (thinking that this would help slow down the progression of gambling addicts), but research emerged that suggested that addicts actually played for longer periods of time when this policy was implemented. It would seem that in the twenty-first century, sociologists may well continue to rest their analyses on the able shoulders of the field’s twentieth-century giants.

Linkages with Other Sociological Perspectives

Some of sociology’s favorite tools and perspectives can help illuminate a variety of aspects of gambling behavior. Robert Putnam’s (2000) popular work Bowling Alone, for instance, argues that many of our recreational activities have become decidedly less social over the past few generations. Putnam’s fundamental argument is that Americans are engaging in fewer social activities than in the past, and that this reduction in “social capital” can have potentially deleterious—even disastrous—consequences. Most germane to our discussion, in developing his argument, Putnam laments the decline of traditional game playing (such as bridge games) and the expansion of machine-based gambling:

Substitutes for card playing have emerged, of course, everything from computer and video games to casino gambling. Like cards, these pastimes provide the spice of chance. Unlike card playing, however, these successors are distinguished by their solitary nature. My informal observation of Internetbased bridge games suggests that electronic players are focused entirely on the game itself, with very little social small talk, unlike traditional card games. Even fanatics of Microsoft Solitaire rarely play in a group, and any visitor to the new megacasinos that dot the land has chilling memories of acres of lonely “players” hunched in silence over onearmed bandits. Bridge, poker, gin rummy, and canasta are not being replaced by some equally “schmoozable” leisuretime activity. (Pp. 104–105)

For Putnam, the recent gambling mania is symptomatic of far larger social ills. Beyond Putnam’s perspectives, there is much that is sociologically rich about the “social capital” (or lack thereof) of problem gamblers. For many problem gamblers, earlier in their “career,” gambling activity was decidedly unproblematic and heavily social—a way to socialize and enjoy and evening with friends. Later in their career, many problem gamblers find themselves gambling in social situations less often and gambling alone more often. By the time they reach what the 12-step groups call “bottom,” very few are gambling with anyone else— their social capital, it seems, has been reduced to nearly zero. Interestingly, their “recovery” embraces a dramatic reversal of this trend: Many turn to organized groups (such as professional therapy groups or Gamblers Anonymous) and reconnect with social worlds that they had abandoned. Whereas once they gambled alone, they eventually heal together (Bernhard, forthcoming-a).

For sociologists, obviously, group life has long been accepted as a foundational element of sociological inquiry. For gamblers with problems, an enhanced understanding of the nature and power of group life can perhaps deliver what Mills’s (1959) sociological imagination once promised. As Bernhard (forthcoming-b) argues, gamblers with problems can recognize, as all of us can, that “individual” problems can in fact be better understood by exploring the sociological backdrops on which they are projected.

Other books that are familiar to sociologists touch on gambling as well. The cultural critic Neil Postman (1985) begins his seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death by talking about the American “city symbols” that captured the essence of a variety of periods—Boston in the colonial days, for instance, or New York in the Ellis Island immigration era. In this work, which is remarkable for how well it continues to resonate 20 years later, Postman suggests that in our current age, the ultimate city-symbol of the times may well be found in Las Vegas. For Postman, this is not necessarily a positive development:

For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Out politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts on show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death. (Pp. 3–4)

Following Postman’s lead, other analysts engaged in research that might be called a “sociology of Las Vegas.” The work of Gottdiener, Collins, and Dickens (1999) presents an urban sociological perspective on Las Vegas—one that emphasizes the need to understand what might be called the first postindustrial city. After all, unlike Detroit or Pittsburgh, Las Vegas produces little that is physical in nature. Instead, the city “produces” experience for the nearly 40 million people who visit it annually.

Drawing on the sociospatial approach, these authors continue by arguing that we have seen a “Las Vegasization” of the rest of America and a simultaneous “Americanization” or “normalization” of Las Vegas. This convergence effect means that Las Vegas is no longer the deviant case study it once was—in fact, quite the contrary, it may well be a model laboratory for urban sociological inquiry.

The sociological study of gambling also shares affinities with the sociological study of “risk” (see, e.g., Frey 1991). Risk is a cultural construct that is shaped by the perceptions and evaluations of risk that individuals and societies assign to certain activities (including, presumably, gambling). More recently, some scholars have used this framework to better understand gambling’s effects on societies. Invoking the term “risk society,” Kingma (2004) observes that the liberalization of gambling laws, the growing perception of gambling as a legitimate economic and recreational pursuit, and the subsequent development of mechanisms to deal with gambling addiction are natural outcomes of the modernization process.

Risk analysis may well provide us with a framework for understanding the pros and cons of a variety of social influences. Social processes, as Short (1984) notes, have benefits as well as negative impacts on the “social fabric” (Giddens 1990, meanwhile, focuses on the term social order in his analysis). Wildavsky (1988) claims that risk is inherent in all activities, and seeking a “zero-risk” society—where all is safe and secure—leads only to stagnation.

Thus, as with all development, opportunities arise in some sectors, but costs too rear their heads. In policy and social research contexts, this means that gambling’s potential benefits as a recreational, employment, and economic resource must be considered against the potential costs of addiction, crime, and personal/familial disruption. Risk management is the exercise of alerting individuals and societies to these adverse conditions (Short 1984).

Finally, gambling as risk was also examined by Erving Goffman (1967), who actually assumed the role of a dealer for several months in a Las Vegas casino. He was not studying gambling per se but rather used the gambling setting to study patterns of social interaction. Goffman was interested in the choice individuals made to place themselves in settings where there was personal or property risk at stake. In these settings, individuals seek “action,” pursuing risky activities even when the risk is avoidable. Later, Frey (1984) applied this concept to gambling: “Action activities are consequential and fateful in that something of value can be won or lost on the outcome, and, by committing something of value, players indicate their seriousness. The greater the consequences, the more fateful the enterprise becomes” (p. 113).

Conclusion: Technology, Change, and the Future

Like so many forces that ensnare our sociological attention, technology will certainly continue to shape gambling activities in the twenty-first century. Already, a variety of newer technologies can double as a gambling device, including cell phones and computers. In the United States, attorneys for the Bush administration have decided that Internet wagering is illegal under the 1961 Wire Act, which prohibited phone bets that took place across state lines. Of course, the Internet is more amorphous than the phone lines of the 1960s were, revealing the complexities inherent in regulating and monitoring acts that take place in virtual rather than brick-andmortar worlds. Despite this presidential interpretation, millions of Americans (and many more bettors internationally) wager billions of dollars on sites that operate in jurisdictions that allow operators to flourish. Few Internet gamblers, it is safe to say, are fully aware of the legal status of the act—an oversight that is understandable, perhaps, given the widespread and increasing acceptance of gambling in general.

Other familiar technologies will also continue to shape the gambling landscape. Television has recently wielded its powerful cultural force, contributing significantly to the gambling boom by televising events such as celebrity poker and an ever-growing number of fictional and reality tales set in Las Vegas. With all this sociological momentum, it is difficult to envision a twenty-first century in which gambling becomes increasingly less important as a sociological force.

In closing, however, we should note that the history of gambling is hardly a tale of linear expansion: The activity has experienced spikes in popularity as well as occasional bouts with prohibition. To wit, even the state of Nevada has legalized gambling on three separate occasions (and banned it twice). When it comes to gambling, if we take the long sociological view, it seems prudent to bet on both growth and backlash as we look ahead to the twenty-first century.


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