Inside Higher Ed’s “Sociologists in Sin City” raises some interesting issues

Earlier this week, I offered some thoughts about the American Sociological Association meetings in Las Vegas and Inside Higher Ed also offered an overview of the conference:

There is something both jarring and perfectly apropos about bringing thousands of sociologists to Sin City. As the ASA press release delicately observed, “Las Vegas [is] vibrant and fascinating from a sociological perspective” – but it’s not difficult to conjecture why the conference had never been held here before. The very aspects of Las Vegas that might make it fascinating to a sociologist — the emphasis on consumerism and decadence; the unapologetic obsession with (and exploitation of) female flesh; and the city’s most celebrated pastime gambling, whose appeal is particularly mystifying to some with a background in statistics — are also the sorts of things that tend to be off-putting to academics, especially (or at least) in the presence of their colleagues. Little wonder that ol’ Lost Wages is one of the least-educated cities in the country. (As David Dickens, professor of sociology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, likes to say: “Thank god for Fresno.”) And little wonder, too, that even those who have dedicated their careers to studying human society weren’t wholly enthused about being thrust into the heart of this particular society, however fascinating it might be…

Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, emphatically agreed. “I found it hard to believe we sociologists would come to a place that clearly thrives on the exploitation of people’s financial and emotional insecurities,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The grotesque treatment of young women was visible and jarring.”…

Perhaps not incidentally, this faculty member was male – as was the graduate student from a highly respected private institution who suggested that any dislike of or discomfort with Las Vegas was limited to the conference’s female attendees. Also male: the grad student from a California public who smilingly boasted of having slipped a small bribe to the man at the check-in desk in exchange for a room with a good view of the pools (and the bikini-clad women therein) – which view, he said, he found rather distracting as he sat in his room preparing his presentation.

The article suggests several possible fault lines of opinion: between men and women (some of this is quoted above), those who like to gamble and those who do not, and those who work in Las Vegas (UNLV) versus elsewhere. But there was one particularly interesting thought from one of the UNLV sociologists:

Wade said it might not be a bad thing if the city made its visitors uncomfortable. Academics, she noted, tend to lead “pretty cushy” lives, and spending a few days in a difficult and even disturbing environment could prompt them to think about the “real people” who call the city home — and about the fact that, in many ways, Las Vegas is just a distilled and amplified representation of the world we all live in. “There’s a little bit of Vegas in all of us.”

I wonder how many sociologists would like to admit that as a possibility. But there is a point here: it is not as if exploitation, extreme gaps between the rich and poor, the objectification of women, and other issues are not present in other cities. Las Vegas, in its own unique way, seems to shove these issues in your face that doesn’t fit the typical academic experience.

Does this story suggest that sociologists are moralists, generally turned off by places like Las Vegas?

Reading that some people were unhappy to attend ASA in Las Vegas, it made me wonder whether ASA ever sends out surveys after the meetings to see how attendees liked the experience and what might be changed. If so, I don’t recall seeing one. Seeing that my car repair place always sends a survey afterwards, wouldn’t it make sense for ASA to do the same thing or do they not have to because they have a captive audience?

Another question: how exactly did Inside Higher Ed go about interviewing sociologists for this story?

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