can org-theory explain gambling?

A field known as “gambling studies” has really taken off over the past several decades (paralleling the diffusion of legal gambling in the US) .  It has its own association, it hosts conferences, it sponsors research, and so on.   While it labels itself interdisciplinary (see the mission statement of the Journal of Gambling Studies), this emergent field is actually dominated by two approaches: the economic and the psychiatric.

Consider an article in the most recent issue of JOGS: “Gambling Motivation and Passion: A Comparison Study of Recreational and Pathological Gamblers.”  It (and the field as a whole) departs from the assumption that there are two type of gamblers.  First, the vast majority who “purchase” gambling as they would purchase any other service or leisure good.  And second, a small minority who suffer from a psychiatric disorder whereby they crave gambling and cannot stop once they start.  A normal horde and a pathological few

Once you have these assumptions in place, you can do a lot of stuff.  First off, you can devise ever more sophisticated ways to deliver the gambling product to the vast majority who gamble “responsibly” (who among us doesn’t love a Survivor-themed slot machine?)  Next, you create and refine screens to identify the “sick” gamblers.  Then you can measure the incidence of pathological gambling in a given population, and compare rates across groups (men are afflicted more than women, while Australians tends to have the highest incidence rate globally).  You can even postulate what’s going on in the brain of the pathological gambler, and devise treatments to intervene (anti-depressants are currently in vogue, as are Gamblers Anonymous meetings).  So a paradigm is born.

As a sociologist, I am made uncomfortable by this whole endeavor.  But in general, my discipline hasn’t had much to say about gambling.  The last ASR article to have “gambling” in the title was a 1977 piece by Ivan Light on “Numbers Gambling Among Blacks;” for AJS you have to go back to 1951 for Herbert Bloch’s “The Sociology of Gambling.”  Sociologists certainly are underrepresented in the conferences, books and journals that constitute this new “gambling studies” field.

So one of the things I’m trying to figure out is how sociology, and organizational sociology in particular, would study gambling.  I think it would depart from a different set of foundational assumptions.  For instance, I wonder if the individual is the proper unit of analysis for gambling studies.  Don’t people generally gamble in groups?  Think about poker games, a busy craps table, or a bus tour to Atlantic City.  In each case, one gambles not alone but in the company of friends and strangers.  Is it not possible that these groups have a sui generis character whereby the motivations for and passions of the activity are constructed in sutu?  This is what Geertz argued in his classic paper on cockfighting, and Goffman too in his essay “Where the Action Is.”  A-Rod, currently under investigation by MLB for participating in illegal poker games, may want to claim something of this sort.

But then there’s the question of why rates of gambling differ across populations.  Here I suspect that it’s better to not bifurcate people into the normal versus pathological.  But rather, to do something along the lines of what Kieran did in his book on organ donation: i.e., to try to understand the organizations and institutions that facilitate or constrain this particular sort of “exchange.”  Living within a certain travel-distance to a casino, for instance, surely matters, as would having friends who approve or disapprove of gambling.  Are socially isolated people more likely to gamble (this would be gambling as a Durkheimian anomic act)?  Are you more likely to gamble heavily at a corporate-controlled casino, or one operated by a Native Tribe?  Does it matter if there are five casinos in your town, or just one (i.e., if firms have to compete, will they market more aggressively?)

Any other thoughts on how org-theory could inform gambling studies?


Written by Jeff_Sallaz

August 10, 2011 at 12:10 am

Posted in uncategorized

9 Responses

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  1. As it happens, the School of Sociology at the ANU (where I am visiting at the moment) has a big contingent of gambling researchers, and at least some of their work seems to fit your characterization here. There’s a fair amount of money available for research like this in Oz, in part because Australians gamble a hell of a lot. So much so that you get stories like this in the newspaper. There aren’t many places were Elster/Schelling “precommitment strategies” are a focus of policy debate. But the term “pokie precommitment” is surely a winner.



    August 10, 2011 at 2:32 am

  2. >The last ASR article to have “gambling” in the title was
    >a 1977 piece by Ivan Light on “Numbers Gambling
    >Among Blacks”

    You missed Steffensmeier and Ulmer 2006, which was basically an update of Light 1977.



    August 10, 2011 at 6:59 am

  3. What surprises me is that the study of gambling thus far appears to be limited to betting on cards, lotteries, dice, and so on but not bets on sports. I can see where psychologists may want to set sports aside. Betting on a hand of blackjack or a roulette spin are more participatory than betting on a sports outcome which may not occur for months. However, sports betting could be a great opportunity for sociologists to compare actions which appear to be similar (wagering on a team’s success or failure) across a wide range of organizational forms: formal and legal betting in Vegas, regular illegal transactions with a bookie, informal bets among friends (March Madness pools, for example).



    August 10, 2011 at 8:52 am

  4. This is a fine, recent, paper that speaks to the questions you raised:

    Syndication, Institutionalization, and Lottery Play
    Roberto Garvía
    The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 113, No. 3 (November 2007), pp. 603-652



    August 10, 2011 at 11:50 am

  5. @Kieran: Yes, as you say, all international data show that Australians gamble a “hell of a lot.” But my questions is why? Do they suffer from some brain chemical imbalance that makes that wager more than Canadians? What are the mechanisms?

    @Gabriel: Thanks, I did miss that.

    @ Noah: There’s been a bit on sports-betting, but it is just so small compared to the other forms of gambling (lottos, blackjack and slots)

    @ Ezra: Thanks, this is exactly the sort of work I was sniffing around for.



    August 10, 2011 at 12:15 pm

  6. I think org-theorists could also weigh in on the effects technology on gambling, which ties to your point about what facilitates or constrains gambling. I am thinking specifically of the increased popularity of online poker.

    Poker and online gaming were definitely helped by the emergence and growth of Internet and online banking, which made it easier for the average person to get their money in and out of online poker/gaming sites. The ease of use also allowed people to find poker games, which led to a proliferation of online gambling/poker sites. Internet banking emerged in the mid 1990s but became really popular in the early aughts:

    This also around the same time you saw televised poker becoming relatively big, with televised World Series of Poker, World Poker Tour, Celebrity Poker Shows, etc. The popular account often linked the growth of poker to the media exposure, and even to the movie Rounders (1998), but I think the real story lies in the organizational capacity to deliver poker games on a wide scale, and on the ability of the organizations involved to make money on the sheer volume of poker traffic.

    Though in the United States, we’ve obviously seen a backlash over the last couple of years. I think mainly because these sites were being run offshore and certain interests were unable to get a cut of the revenue being generated (i.e. fees for wire transfers, cuts of each pot played (the rake), or fees for tournaments). Surely, the moralists jumped on the bandwagon, but I think the underlying reason was money.

    I think I have incriminated myself enough with this post.


    Scott Dolan

    August 10, 2011 at 12:51 pm

  7. I think the “small minority who crave” is a misreading of the (now rather old) psychology literature on motivation and variable-interval reinforcement. Skinner, pigeons, behavior extinction and all that. Everyone who gambles more than a few times should crave more.

    A better sociological question might be what are the mechanisms that prevents many of those who have gambled in the past from continuing to do so.



    August 10, 2011 at 12:56 pm

  8. One other thing your post made me think of, it would be interesting to compare people’s perceptions of online blackjack/video poker/slots to the same games played in a casino.

    My gut feeling, based on very anecdotal evidence, is that people are less trusting of slots/blackjack/video poker online. As if these games were more likely to be fixed online than in the casino. In the case of video poker and slots online, this doesn’t seem to make sense on the face of it. For blackjack, I can understand how being able to see the dealer/automatic shuffler eases some of the worry of being had (even though people should know they are being had as the game itself is set up for them to lose more often than not).

    At first glance, this might seem to be a problem for psychologists. But I think org-theorists might be able to add to the discussion through an understanding of the regulatory environment. Casinos at least have that veil of trustworthiness with gaming commissions. I sort of think of it in these terms, the existence of regulatory environments seem to legitimize the fairness of unfairness. People can see certificates of inspections on machines and know that someone is at least checking up on what is going on in the casinos. In ways that are less clear online. They can take solace in the fact that they will lose exactly the amount of times they are supposed to lose, but can hold onto that hope they might hit it big that one time.


    Scott Dolan

    August 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm

  9. As far as science studies goes, I regard Natasha Dow Schull’s paper on the design of slot machines (“Digital Gambling: The Coincidence of Desire and Design”) as excellent. Her book is coming out this fall.



    August 10, 2011 at 3:30 pm

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