Sociology of gambling laboratory in Las Vegas

While Chicago might still be the urban laboratory of choice for some sociologists, a sociologist at UNLV talks about Las Vegas as a fantastic laboratory for studying human motivations and gambling:

We live in the largest gambling laboratory in the world. A sociologist who studies gambling in Las Vegas is probably like being a physicist and living in a vacuum. I tell all my students to sit on a bench and watch all the humanity. That’s why market research firms like to come to Las Vegas. In an hour and a half, they can meet 40 people from 40 countries and states. Humanity comes here…

You’re struck by the similarities and differences in various markets. Las Vegas is a sea of slot machines with a smattering of table games. Macau is a sea of table games with a smattering of slot machines. As a social scientist, you watch the different behaviors. In Macau, no one is consuming alcohol. There is always a calculus going on, where gamblers are demonstrating math skills while hoping to be smiled upon by the gods of chance. What’s fascinating is to contrast the Chinese gambler against the American or European gambler.Question: You recently authored a report that said Las Vegas could learn much from Houston. How?

Answer: Houston suffered a downturn when its main economy, oil production, moved overseas and became a global industry. The slump ended when Houston began exporting its intellectual capital.

Las Vegas could do the same thing as gaming becomes more international. In some ways, our companies are already doing that. Las Vegas can become the global command center of the international gaming industry. One way you do that is education. Of course, I’m completely biased but the gaming institute can play a leading role in this transformation.

I bet you could use gambling research in a lot of examples within a research methods class.

I’m intrigued by a couple of ideas mentioned above:

1. There are different cultural approaches to gambling. I should have known this but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it before. It would be interesting to hear if Americans live up to typical stereotypes (confident, brash, etc.).

2. I wonder if social scientists would be allowed by casinos to conduct academic studies with gamblers/customers. I’m guessing this is likely off-limits unless the work could be beneficial to the casinos. If there are a lot of people already in Las Vegas who want to engage in gambling, why not let them do it in the context of monitored academic research?

3. What holds Las Vegas back from becoming a finance center? Gaming requires large flows of capital from both companies and visitors. To truly become a world-class city, this would seem to be a way the city could go by working with the money in innovative ways.

This reminds me of comments from sociologists after the American Sociological Association meetings were held there last August. Do most sociologists think the city is simply an oddity or are there real things that could be learned from the city (Sun Belt city, center of the gaming industry, ecological concerns, many foreclosures) and applied elsewhere?

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