'Erving Goffman, Fateful Action, and the Las Vegas Gambling Scene' (38 pages), Dmitri N. Shalin, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2016
“Gambling,” Goffman makes clear, “is a prototype of action” but its incarnations are ubiquitous in society at large. Everyday life is full of chanciness and opportunities for action – practical ventures undertaken by someone willing to take a chance in search of authentic existence, material gain, or moral payoff. To buy into the action is to gamble on a consequential outcome: “This is the gamble’s consequentiality, namely, the capacity of a payoff to flow beyond the bounds of the occasion in which it is delivered and to influence objectively the later life of the bettor” (159-60). It is not enough for a gamble to be consequential – it must be problematic as well. A gamble that is problematic but inconsequential or consequential but unproblematic does not meet the definition. A winning bet that doesn’t expose you to the possibility of failure is no action, nor is a losing proposition whose outcome is entirely predictable. A venture that is “problematic and consequential,” explains Goffman, “I call fateful, although the term eventful would do as well… By the term action I mean activities that are consequential, problematic, and undertaken for what is felt to be their own sake” (164, 185),
Goffman draws a line between “the recreational chance-taking and real-life gambles,” the former deliver mild chanciness and modest thrills, the latter sport momentous uncertainty and potentially life-altering outcomes. “Two boys together find a nickel in their path and decide that one will toss and the other call to see who keeps it… [They] are not engaged in quite the same type of chance-taking as is unenjoyed by two survivors who have mutually agreed that there is no other way than to toss to see who will lighten the raft” (149, 161). Fatefulness is endemic to the human condition. We know how to spot it and assess it; more often than not we evade it, but not when it is woven into our professional lives or impinges on our principles, in which case we may choose to face the challenge head-on. “Instead of awaiting fate, you meet it at the door. Danger is recast into taken risk; favorable possibilities, into grasped opportunity. Fateful situations become chancy undertakings, and exposure to uncertainty is construed as willfully taking a practical gamble” (171).
Goffman surveys a range of occupations where fatefulness is pervasive and often eagerly sought (172-74). Individuals employed in the financial sector – stock market investors, real estate speculators, money managers – hold jobs that “are financially dangerous or at least unsteady, subjecting the individual to relatively large surges of success and failure over the short run.” Fatefulness is routine in the work of “test pilots,” “well cappers,” “miners,” and certain type construction workers facing
elevated fatality rates. There are “‘hustling’ jobs in business enterprise where salesmen and promoters work on a commission or contract-to-contract basis under conditions of close competition. Here income and prestige can be quickly gained and lost due to treacherous minor contingencies.” Politicians, stage actors, and live entertainers strutting their stuff in public “must work to win and hold an audience under conditions where many contingencies can spoil the show and endanger the showman’s reputation [and where] any let-up in effort and any minor mishap can easily have serious consequences.” The jobs held by soldiers, police officers, and undercover agents “make the incumbent officially responsible for undergoing physical danger at the hands of persons who intend it.” Then, there are spectator sports “whose performers place money, reputation, and physical safety in jeopardy all at the same time: football, boxing, and bullfighting are examples, [and] recreational non-spectator sports that are full of risk: mountain climbing, big game hunting, skin diving, parachuting, surfing, bob-sledding, spelunking.” In a characteristic move, Goffman adds to his list of people in fateful occupations scofflaws whose life “yields considerable opportunity but continuously and freshly subjects the individual to gross contingencies – to physical danger, the risk of losing civil status, and wide fluctuations regarding each day’s take. ‘Making it’ on the street requires constant orientation to unpredictable opportunities and a readiness to make quick decisions concerning the expected value of proposed schemes – all of which subject the individual to great uncertainties.”
People in fateful occupations develop personality traits that set them apart (182- 83). Soldiers, test pilots, undercover agents know their own value and regard low-risk work as inferior. “They have a more or less secret contempt for those with safe and sure jobs who need never face real tests of themselves. They claim they are not only willing to remain in jobs full of opportunity and risk, but have deliberately sought out this environment, declining to accept safe alternatives, being able, willing, and even inclined to live in challenge” (182). Street hustlers and thieves embrace a similar ethos: “Talented burglars and pickpockets, whose skill must be exercised under pressure, look down, it is said, on the petty sneak thief, since the only art he need have for his calling is a certain-low cunning. Criminals may similarly disesteem fences as being ‘thieves without nerve.’” Casino workers, pro gamblers, card counters exhibit some of the same traits. “Nevada casino dealers may come on shift knowing that it is they who must face the hard intent of players to win, and coolly stand in its way, consistently blocking skill, luck, and cheating, or lose the precarious reputation they have with management. Having to face these contingencies every day, they feel set apart from the casino employees who are not on the firing line. (In some casinos there are special dealers who are brought into a game to help nature correct the costly runs of good luck occasionally experienced by players, or to remove the uncertainty a pit boss can feel when a big bettor begins to play seriously… Skilled card and dice ‘mechanics’ understandably develop contempt not only for non-dealers but also for mere dealers).”
On June 8, 2008, Tom Goffman wrote to me, “For about 8 years I’ve wanted to finish EG’s vegas [sic] study, but his kind second wife, Gillian will not hand over his notes. Alice, my half-sister has gone into Sociology. Maybe someday the two of us can do it.” Tom’s intent, perhaps not altogether serious, will remain untested, as he died two years after this exchange. The present paper is an attempt to honor his father, one of the most important social scientists of the last century.
Throughout this study, I highlighted the historical, intellectual, and biographical sources of Goffman’s imagination. His cultural roots, religious skepticism, family interests in gambling, personal fascination with card playing, and voracious appetite for intellectual inquiry led him to take up a job as casino dealer and explore the Las Vegas gambling scene. “Where the Action Is,” Goffman’s seminal paper, continues to inspire researchers striving to understand the role of risk and the commercialization of chance in society. Among his insights is the realization that fatefulness is endemic to human conditions and that our pathway in society depends in large measure on the opportunities we are handed over and make our own. How we manage these opportunities, the chances we take and forego, and the manner we account for ourselves in the process reveal to the world our character. There is a philosophical dimension to Goffman’s musings on fatefulness that shines through in this vignette with which I close this essay:
[I]f the individual compares the very considerable time he is slated to spend dead with the relatively brief time allowed him to strut and fret in this world, he might well find reason for viewing all of his life as a very fateful play of very short span, every second of which should fill him with anxiety about what is being used up. And in truth, our rather brief time is ticking away, but we seem only to hold our breath for seconds and minutes of it (WAI:261).