As Erving Goffman has noted, what goes on in gambling establishments and risk-taking situations is worth close study

At a previous post (Dec. 27, 2012) about Erving Goffman, I’ve added a comment (alongside references to gangster literature) which is sufficiently noteworthy that it warrants a separate post; the text reads:

The following article about Erving Goffman is a good read:

Erving Goffman, fateful action, and the Las Vegas gambling scene

Citation metadata
Author: Dmitri N. Shalin
Date: Spring 2016
From: UNLV [University of Nevada, Las Vegas] Gaming Research & Review Journal (Vol. 20, Issue 1)
Publisher: UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal
Document Type: Article
Length: 22,369 words

Click here to access Erving Goffman Archives >

Click here for previous posts about Erving Goffman >


This paper explores Erving Goffman’s research on gambling, the historical context within which he articulated his views on risk taking, and the contribution he made to our understanding of gambling as a stigmatized social activity. Drawing on the large database assembled in the Erving Goffman Archives, the article traces Goffman’s footprint in Las Vegas and shows the personal as well as scholarly dimensions of his interest in betting practices in entertainment venues and risk taking in society at large. The argument is made that the theory of fateful action presented in the seminal study “Where the Action Is” remains a potent if underutilized theoretical, methodological, and political resource. The paper concludes with reflections on the commodification of risk and the role of chance in distribution of rewards in our society.


An excerpt reads:

In 1967, Goffman published his ground-breaking essay “Where the Action Is” (WAI) in which he theorized “gambling [a]s a prototype of action” – a willful rendezvous with destiny for which modern society provides a shrinking number of outlets but which remains central to the functioning of a dynamic, morally astute society (Goffman 1967:186). To understand the origins of his theory, we need to examine its historical roots, contemporary sources on which Goffman built his analysis, and the creative way in which he transformed the current ideas into a conceptual system of his own.

Goffman’s investigation is also notable for its methodology, for its imaginative use of participant observation. While ethnographic studies are common in gambling research (Hayano 1982; Browne 1989; Sallaz 2009; Li 2008; Parke and Griffiths 2008; Marksbury 2010), projects where a trained social scientist assumes the role of a dealer are rare. Two inquiries stand out in this respect: Erving Goffman’s “Where the Action Is” (1967) and Jeffrey Sallaz’s The Labor of Luck (2009). Scholars assuming the role of a croupier face methodological challenges and ethical conundrums that invite scrutiny.

The article refers to a Time article, Sociology: Exploring a Shadow World, Jan. 10, 1969.

I was interested to learn that Goffman was born in Mannville, Alberta east of Edmonton. Another academic who comes to mind is Alberta Bandura, born in Mundane, Alberta.

Las Vagas

As the above-noted article underlines, Goffman was indeed a man of his time and place with all that entails. Some things have changed since he made his observations, some have not. At all times, it’s good to relate history to the present moment, which is the only portal that we have to access the past. A July 9, 2021 Guardian article is entitled: “‘We live in a desert. We have to act like it’: Las Vegas faces reality of drought.”

An excerpt reads:

But global heating’s impact upon the west’s snowpack and rivers is unrelenting and the city’s water savings will only go so far. Las Vegas only has a supporting role in its own fate. Three-quarters of allocated Colorado River water is used to irrigate thirsty agriculture, and the overall water supply is more dependent upon the amount of snow melting hundreds of miles away in the Rocky Mountains than some extra marginal savings made in the suburbs.

Charity casinos in Ontario

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Stuttering Association of Toronto (SAT) and other nonprofit organizations raised substantial funds by supplying volunteer labour at late-night charity casinos in the Greater Toronto Area in exchange for a share, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot (as determined by the event organizers) of the proceeds. The funds that we raised in those years helped us tremendously during a key stage of community self-organizing on behalf of people who stutter in Canada.

As a volunteer, I learned about how money flows on occasion in ways that are not clear (in ways mysterious), in connection with such events. In time, the Ontario Trillium Foundation was set up by the Ontario government in order, perhaps, to sidestep some of the issues that participants could readily observe in operation of charity casinos. I view my volunteer work in these kinds of settings as among my key formative experiences in those years. I learned many things as a participant observer. As well, the money we raised helped us tremendously in our work.

As Erving Goffman has noted – in Goffman’s case with exceedingly close view of the action – what goes on in gambling establishments and risk-taking situations in general is worth close study, in the event a person wants to learn a few things about how situations where risk taking is at play get resolved, one way or another.

Things one learns as a participant observer

Goffman in his writings observes (and draws conclusions from the fact) that there’s a foreground and a background – a frontstage and a backstage – where events in everyday life occur. He also observes that how things are framed determines what you see.

From my perspective as a participant observer in my work as a volunteer, I can say that what occurs in charity casinos as described above serves as a metaphor for what occurs in the wider society.

One observation is that what accounts for news and newsworthiness its a matter of how news is constructed.

A second observation is that sometimes power speaks its own language whereby up is down, in is out, and now you see it, now you don’t.

A third observation is that frame analysis can apply to many things including the study of stage magic, public relations, blurbs, history, and historiography.

I note these things as a general observer. I also note I’m not an investigative journalist given in particular that a range of resources is required, in order to sustain work in such a realm of reporting. That said, I see tremendous value in this and other forms of journalism.

1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    It’s a matter of chance that humanity ever came to exist. I was interested to come across a Dec. 18, 2020 CBC article entitled: “Do you feel lucky? A biologist explains we exist because of ‘A Series of Fortunate Events’: Understanding the randomness of life can be perspective-changing.”

    An excerpt reads:

    We live in a really unusual time for the planet. We’ve been in an ice age for more than a couple million years and ice ages are rare — the last one was about 300 million years ago.

    So 50 million years ago, if you visited the planet, it was largely ice free from pole to pole, but it’s cooled over time. And one of the events that really accelerated that cooling was the movement of a small plate. It’s the Indian subcontinent which, as you may know, that the continents move around as part of tectonic plates.

    That Indian subcontinent was down by Madagascar about 65 million years ago, and it moved rapidly north until it slammed into Asia. And that collision is what built the Himalaya and the building of the Himalaya — by drawing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — accelerated the cooling of the planet and eventually the freezing over, for example, of Antarctica and of the northern hemisphere, which sets up the ice ages.

    Well, you might say, how is this all connected to us? Well, in Africa, it’s not so much about hot and cold as it is about warm and dry. And those very rapid cycles, geologically speaking, of warm and dry, are really challenging to the persistence of plants and animals over longer periods of time.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *