A Socio-Cultural View of Gambling


Gambling is an activity where a person wagers something of value on an outcome that is determined by chance. It is a popular recreational activity in many countries, with the gambling industry worth billions of dollars. It is a complex behaviour that is shaped by a variety of environmental and cultural factors. For example, a person may gamble as a way to self-soothe unpleasant emotions or to socialise. It can also be used as a way to relieve boredom or stress. There are healthier and more effective ways to relieve unpleasant feelings and boredom than gambling, such as exercise, spending time with friends who don’t gamble or taking up new hobbies.

Whether in the casino or at home, gambling can take many forms. A common form is a card game like poker or spades, where participants wager money or chips and the primary aim is enjoyment and social interaction. Other examples include games of chance, such as dice or roulette, and sports betting (e.g. horse races or football accumulators). The practice of gambling can also involve speculating, where people make bets on things that have not yet happened, such as the outcome of an election or a business deal.

There is growing consensus that gambling can cause harm to individuals, families and society. Personal harms include health problems, financial difficulties and family breakdown. There are also societal harms, such as reduced productivity at work and study and increased crime and anti-social behaviour.

Current approaches to the reduction of gambling harm are primarily framed through psychological and economic models of individual behaviour, addiction and rational choice. However, a growing corpus of research is beginning to adopt a socio-cultural approach to understanding gambling. This is based on the idea that gambling practices are not simply the product of a person’s attitudes and beliefs, but are shaped by and embedded in the practices themselves. This approach, called practice theory, offers a more holistic view of gambling.

Practice theorists have developed a framework for understanding how various forces can suffuse a nexus of practices. These five forces are: bodies, materials, language and discourses, norms, and social structures. They can shape a nexus of practices through a process of iteration and reinforcement, or through the generation of habitual and routinised behaviours.

This approach to gambling can help us understand why people gamble and how they come to develop their particular patterns of behaviour. It can also inform future research into how to reduce the harmful effects of gambling, by considering how different elements of gambling practices interact and shape outcomes. For example, the nexus of gambling with other social practices like alcohol consumption and socialising with friends can shape both gambling behaviours and their consequences. Research could also consider how these nexus of practices are changing rapidly in an environment of globalisation, liberalisation and markets. This will be critical for a holistic approach to gambling harm reduction.