Erving Goffman, Fateful Action, and the Las Vegas Gambling Scene

By Shalin, Dmitri N. | UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal, April 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Erving Goffman, Fateful Action, and the Las Vegas Gambling Scene


Shalin, Dmitri N., UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal


Let me show character once, and I will change my fate over night. Character is what matters the most.

Dostoyevsky

When you lose your money, you lose nothing.

When you lose your health, you lose something.

When you lose your character, you lose everything.

Meyer Lansky

And these are the occasions and places that show respect for moral character. Not only in the mountain ranges that invite the climber, but also in casinos, pool halls, and racetracks do we find places of worship; it may be in churches, where the guarantee is high that nothing fateful will occur, that moral sensibility is weak.

Erving Goffman

All life is a gamble and most of us are natural gamblers because we have within us the quality which makes us willing to risk our comfort, security and present happiness for a result that seems more worthwhile... And it is how the fate is faced that counts [since] those who confront their "Moments of Truth" with grace and dignity are the heroes to most of us.

Hank Greenspun

Introduction

The 1960s proved to be the most productive period in Erving Goffman's scholarly career. After Anchor Books issued his instant classic The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman published in quick succession Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (1961), Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction (1961), Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (1963), Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963), Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-face Behavior (1967), and Strategic Interaction (1969). With his national reputation on the upswing and tenure decision behind him, Goffman was casting about for a new project to mount during his first sabbatical. The results of the study he conducted during his leave from Berkeley were published in 1967 under the heading "Where the Action Is," a lengthy essay collected with a few other papers in a slender volume Interaction Ritual.

Every indication we have points out that the published results were preliminary, that Goffman was hatching a book-length study on institutionalized gambling which promised to be a milestone in his intellectual career. In 1969, Time printed an unsigned article based on an interview with Goffman where a staff writer noted that the prominent sociologist "is also at work on another book that will apply his own experience as a Twenty-one dealer in Las Vegas to the social milieu of a gambling casino" (Exploring a Shadow World, 1969). In Strategic Interaction published two years after Goffman's seminal essay he put his readers on notice that "Comments on casino gambling are based on a Nevada field study in preparation" (1969:122n). Seven years later Goffman applied to the Guggenheim Foundation, which awarded him a fellowship for what the Foundation's Vice President described as "A Study of Casino Gambling," yet this highpowered and well funded project never produced a requisite publication (André Bernard, personal communication, April 22, 2015). Meanwhile, rumors continued to swirl about Goffman's exploits as a casino dealer, his knotty career as a card counter, his ban from the Nevada gambling halls, and his much anticipated monograph. Alas, Goffman died in 1982 without bringing out the heralded book, the fate of the final manuscript unknown.

Until recently, Goffman's footprint in Nevada remained shrouded in mystery. What little information entered the public domain was of uncertain provenance and questionable veracity. In 2007, the UNLV Center for Democratic Culture started an online project - Erving Goffman Archives (EGA), which helped correct several misconceptions and fill important gaps in this riveting story. The present study owes much to this collaborative venture. Drawing on the newly discovered documents and interviews with his relatives, colleagues, and friends, I examine the traces of Goffman in the Silver State and the study of casino gambling he undertook in the 1960s. …

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