Doubling Down on Goffman: A Commentary on Dmitri Shalin's 'Erving Goffman, Fateful Action, and the Las Vegas Gambling Scene'

By Cosgrave, James F. | UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal, April 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Doubling Down on Goffman: A Commentary on Dmitri Shalin's 'Erving Goffman, Fateful Action, and the Las Vegas Gambling Scene'


Cosgrave, James F., UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal


Goffman: A Gambling Sociologist

Erving Goffman "was not a sociologist of any particular area" (Scheff2006: 20). He was, in fact, a sociologist of many areas: the interaction order, stigma, "total institutions," gender, "forms of talk," public behaviour - and gambling certainly belongs to the list. He may be better known for these other topics, but his contributions to the sociological analysis of gambling are canonical. Thus, another sociological hat can be worn. A unique, inventive social scientist, Goffman could pull offthe donning of many such hats. Bucking the standard presentation of social scientific research in journal articles, Goffman was the "master of the long essay," a format "ungainly in the social sciences" (Handler 2012: 180; Smith and Jacobsen 2010). "Where the Action Is" (Goffman 1967) is a rich, long essay, manifesting the originality and insight found across his oeuvre. With this essay, Goffman proclaims himself a gambling romantic - situated among those sociologists and social theorists who positively valued gambling activities in the face of the levelling tendencies and utilitarian values of modern society (Walter Benjamin, George Bataille, and Roger Caillois come to mind as well). The positive valuing of gambling is clearly expressed in "Where the Action Is," prompting Downes et al (1976: 17) to remark on the social scientific significance of the piece that it "lifts gambling out of the moral abyss into which successive generations of commentators and reformers have consigned it and renders possible a consideration of its meaning which is freed from a priori association of a negative kind."

Dmitri Shalin's (2016) essay, "Erving Goffman, Fateful Action, and the Las Vegas Gambling Scene" goes a long way in clarifying the reasons why gambling informed Goffman's sociological outlook. It does this by shedding light on Goffman's "footprint in Las Vegas"-bringing it "front stage" one might say, and informing the reader also about Goffman's planned casino manuscript, the status of which is unknown. The extent of the role that gambling played in Goffman's personal and professional life, as well as the mysterious manuscript, appear to provide insight into Goffman's oeuvre, beyond the explicit discussion of gambling, risk-taking, and action in "Where the Action Is." As Shalin discusses, Goffman was exposed to card playing and gambling from a young age, a pastime which, combined with the immigrant experience of his family, likely informed his sociological interest in outsider groups, those who have been stigmatized, and the "underlife" of institutions (Goffman 1961b).

Readers of Shalin's essay will no doubt find their own points of interest. A couple of biographical points must be mentioned here, particularly as they are telling of Goffman the person, as well as of his sociology. Friends who played poker with Goffman knew him to be a poor player. But he was a shrewd blackjack player, successful at card-counting, earning him banishment from Vegas casinos. These facts about Goffman are not widely known among the many readers of his books. Shalin (2016: 7) notes the irony of his poor poker play; the facts are telling because they provide insight into the sociologist who, for the many who have read at least some of his work (including countless undergraduate sociology students), is known as the creator of the dramaturgical perspective, articulated in the well-known The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), with its concepts of "impression management" and "front" and "backstage." Goffman begins the book laying out the informational and semiological aspects of interaction as actors seek to "define the situation" so they "know how best to act" (1).

It is hard to imagine a game with more dramaturgical significance than poker, as players attempt to manage the intentional dimension of communication through talk or gesture -the expressions they "give," while opponents try to read the unintended messages - the tells, or what they "give off" (Goffman 1959: 2). …

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