Academic journal article Oceania

Horse Race Gambling and the Economy of 'Bad Money' in Contemporary Fiji

Academic journal article Oceania

Horse Race Gambling and the Economy of 'Bad Money' in Contemporary Fiji

Article excerpt

Ward H. Goodenough (1970:104) has pointed out that the key pursuits of most anthropologists --to describe peoples culture and the way they think about their everyday lives--is in itself much like describing a very complicated game. By the same token, if we accept that most games are 'nothing but a miniature and formalized culture' (Goodenough 1970:105), there is reason to suggest that gambling practices are particularly useful in understanding social dynamics in specific cultural contexts. It is thus surprising that gaming has received relatively little attention from anthropologists (notable exceptions include Cassidy 2002; Geertz 1973; Pickles 2012; Sallaz 2008; Zimmer 1986).

Gambling is no different from other social behaviours in that it derives its meaning from the contexts in which it occurs, with the obvious implication that gambling behaviours, experiences, motivations, and meanings vary significantly from one place to another. Most societies maintain a differentiation between gambling (often together with investment) and other, less speculative economic activities based on the notion that gambling involves wagering a stake on an event of uncertain outcome in order to gain a material prize (Brenner 1990). However, attitudes to gambling as well as preferences for particular types of gambling have been found to differ significantly between cultural groups (Gamecs Project 1999; Hallebone 1999; Walker 1992). This reinforces the need to focus on how gamblers invest cultural meaning into their various gambling pursuits in particular ethnographic contexts. Such an investigation of gambling, through 'the meanings purported by players upon play' (Istrate 2011:50) rather than through the medicalizing or moralizing discourses that dominate academic inquiries into betting, enables its theorization as a culturally specific set of practices embedded in social life. Similarly, broadening the analysis to include local political discourses about gambling proves not only that gambling, as a practice as well as an industry, intersects with a number of other social factors but also that competing understandings of gambling can frame political debates on a series of levels. It follows that gambling practices must be studied in the larger socio-cultural context of the specific societies in which they emerge, and that any analysis of local relationships to gambling ought to include a clear focus on people's everyday gambling practices as well as an analysis of the various ideological discourses that frame them.

This research gap appears particularly true for those commercial gambling types that are relatively recent introductions in many non-Western localities, such as casino gambling, sports betting, and national lotteries. These social phenomena are easily recognized as exogenous and thus frequently condemned in local as well as imported moral discourses. In various settings they have often been considered morally reprehensible, incompatible with traditional lifestyles and detrimental to local socio-economic structures. In turn, these local animosities have frequently been adopted by anthropologists who have too often dismissed gambling practices as examples of irrelevant or trivial modern pursuits, in favour of traditionally condoned practices. For instance, while card games have been described and analyzed compellingly by ethnographers in Australia (Goodale 1987: McMillen and Donnelly 2008) and Melanesia (Brandewie 1967; Laycock 1966; Maclean 1984; Mosko 2012) the anthropological literature on the wider Pacific Island region is by and large quiet on commercial gambling, with the exception of Pickles's (2012, 2013) recent research in Papua New Guinea.

The general indifference to commercial gambling comes despite its ubiquity throughout many of the contemporary societies we study, and its interesting position as simultaneously game, social practice, and economic activity. By focusing on urban Fijian men's gambling on international thoroughbred races, I argue that this type of betting gives an important insight into local engagements with global capitalism. …

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