12-03-2015

We normally think of anthropologists studying ‘exotic’ cultures – ancient tribes that live in faraway places. But how about cultures that are closer to home? Professor Rebecca Cassidy has devoted herself to anthropological studies of European cultures of gambling. In the ‘Gambling in Europe’ (GAMSOC) project – funded by the ERC – Prof. Cassidy and her team have taken this a step further, and conducted an anthropological study of the gambling research community itself.

The gambling industry in Europe, which is already worth an estimated EUR 89 billion, is undergoing rapid growth and change. Having resisted the economic downturn, gambling is expected to be worth EUR 351 billion globally by 2015.

The nature of gambling is also changing: the impact of online gambling, cross-border gambling companies and other new phenomena enabled by technology are a source of concern to legislators and consumers, and are still poorly understood. That is why the GAMSOC project – having applied anthropological research methods to the relationships between gambling and religion, gender, age, social class and regulation – then set out to apply them to the world of gambling research.

It is more important than ever to look at how knowledge on gambling is produced,” explains Prof. Cassidy. “As anthropologists, we participate in the same culture as the people we are investigating. And we feel this gives us a unique perspective to ask ‘Why do we not understand gambling better?’”

Broadening the field

The project’s report, entitled ‘Fair Game: producing gambling research’, concludes that gambling research currently is too heavily dependent on industry support. It also finds that the industry is often reluctant to share data with researchers – and there is a lack of transparency around relationships and influence between industry and researchers.

Our report shows the need to separate fund-raising from research,” says the professor. “We want to open up the debate: What is evidence? How does this shape the debate?

The project concludes that research is often limited in its aims, tending to focus only on individuals whose gambling has become pathological. Funding is often only available for research into people for whom gambling has become a ‘problem’ or addiction, rather than the wider social and cultural implications for a society where gambling is ever more prevalent.

Research funding is often limited to looking at ‘problem gambling’,” says Prof. Cassidy, “with an implicit assumption that gambling is OK for others. But this closes down questions about the broader community and gambling’s impact.

The question is: how robust are the mechanisms for the protection of the public now?” she says. “There tends to be resistance to regulations until the research community can produce ‘causal evidence of harm’. But in many cases it might not be possible.

The report includes detailed recommendations which the researchers hope will influence future support for research in the field. They suggest, for instance, setting up a professional code of ethics, funding research into a wider range of topics using a wider variety of research methodologies, and levying the gambling industry in order to provide public funds for such research.

Hands-on research

The four researchers in the GAMSOC team had previously carried out in-depth case studies of different gambling cultures – Chinese casinos, croupiers in Slovenia, mobile gambling in emerging economies, and Cyprus blackjack tables – published in 2013.

For my previous research into horse racing, for example, I lived and worked in Newmarket,” Prof. Cassidy explains. “But for this project, the research community is very widely distributed, so we spoke at conferences, attended events and organised interviews with stakeholders.

In all, the project approached 143 people, with 109 being interviewed. The primary focus was in the UK – with 67 subjects interviewed there – but also covered Hong Kong, Macau and Slovenia, which are in strong contrast to the mature UK market.

There was no homogeneous industry line,” Prof. Cassidy emphasises. “We found very diverse industry opinion – producing information that the field has not considered before, including very candid responses to the question: ‘why is research limited?’

Thanks to funding by the ERC, we have enjoyed a privileged position that allowed us to really examine how gambling research is carried out – in a way that would be impossible without that independent support,” says Prof. Cassidy. “It encouraged us to take risks, asking difficult and less-obvious questions. It’s a feature of ERC Starting Grants that we are encouraged to go outside the field and ask new questions.

More information:

Prof. Rebecca Cassidy’s website: http://www.gold.ac.uk/gamblingineurope/

GAMSOC project blog: http://gamblingacrossborders.wordpress.com/

To download the ‘Fair Game: producing gambling research’ report: http://www.gold.ac.uk/gamblingineurope/report/ 

Watch Prof. Cassidy speaking at Falling Walls conference 2011: http://falling-walls.com/videos/Rebecca-Cassidy-1116

Video trailer for the ‘Fair Game’ report: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFi4tvfFbJU&feature=youtu.be

Watch “The Bela game”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRfEW22_FfQ