Home > 19 (3), 13

'Mass Gambling' from 1947 to 2011: Controversies and Pathologies

by Emma Casey
Kingston University

Sociological Research Online, 19 (3), 13
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3454

Received: 10 Oct 2013 | Accepted: 4 Jun 2014 | Published: 15 Aug 2014


This paper explores the relationship between Mass Observation and sociological method. It will demonstrate that often this relationship has been an uneasy one with the detailed, deeply qualitative and broadly 'unstructured' data elicited by Mass Observation frequently positioned as posing problems for sociologists particularly in terms of data analysis and interpretation. The paper will explore these debates by focusing on two case studies drawn from Mass Observation directives. The first will draw on the 1947 gambling study which was commissioned by the social reformer Seebohm Rowntree and his collaborator Commander G.R. Lavers and the second will draw on the 2011 'Gambling and Households' directive. These case studies have been chosen because they help to illuminate the complexities of the concerns surrounding the sociological uses of Mass Observation. The paper will draw on correspondence between Rowntree, Lavers and co-founder of Mass Observation Tom Harrisson in 1947 which uncovers fascinating detail about Harrisson and Rowntree's shared commitment to revealing information about the everyday experiences and practices of working class life, but also some interesting disparities about what 'sociological data' might look like and what its purpose ought to be. The second case study draws on findings from the 2011 Gambling and Households directive. This directive offers an interesting historical comparison with the 1947 data. It flags up similarities particularly in terms of the moral framing of gambling, social attitudes to gambling pathologies and addictions and discourses about spending and winning money but also some notable differences particularly with regards to class identification and gambling. Each of these similarities and differences will be explored with the intention of demonstrating the particular uses of Mass Observation in uncovering the frequently overlooked and subjective patterns of intimacy.

Keywords: Mass Observation, Gambling, Rowntree, Class


1.1 This paper will examine some of the remarkable similarities and striking differences that exist between the 1947 and 2011 Mass Observation studies on gambling. These similarities and differences will be explored firstly in terms of the moral framing of gambling, secondly how social attitudes to gambling in terms of pathologies and addictions are represented in gambling narratives over time and thirdly, in terms of the shifting discourses surrounding class narratives and how these are reflected in Mass Observers' accounts of gambling practices.

1.2 The paper will demonstrate that Mass Observation is ideally placed to offer novel insights into gambling, particularly those listed above. It argues that despite this, there remains a methodological tendency to focus on quantitative accounts of compulsive gambling. Mass Observation offers a shift of emphasis from problem to ordinary and everyday gambling routines. The paper will argue that these methodological uses of Mass Observation were perceived as controversial and were hotly debated in 1947 and it will show that despite recent calls for more research into the intimate and subjective experiences of gambling (see, Casey 2008, 2012) there remains a dominant scepticism of this type of gambling research.

1.3 The uneasy relationship between sociology, method and Mass Observation is exemplified in the two case studies. The case studies help to illustrate the multitude of opportunities for social researchers keen to examine intimate and intricate routines of everyday life and particularly for the critical reflection of taboo and morally situated aspects of everyday life such as gambling. This paper will explore some of the reasons behind the frequent hostility towards Mass Observation as a research method by revealing previously uncovered correspondence and debate between Seebohm Rowntree, G.R. Lavers and Tom Harrisson at Mass Observation. It will do this by providing an account of how neo-Marxist philosophical perspectives on mass culture, of huge influence in the 1930s and 1940s are reflected in the founding objectives of the Mass Observation Project. However, the paper will also demonstrate how the methods associated with this were often in conflict with the particular methodological innovations offered by Mass Observation. As we shall see, the 1947 gambling project provides a fascinating illustration of this conflict. The latter part of the paper will contrast this with a second much later Mass Observation directive on gambling, commissioned in 2011 and sharing a number of objectives with the 1947 data. The second case study will also help to illuminate how the relationships between Mass Observation and sociological method might have changed. The overarching theme of gambling will be used to unpick some of the possibilities and challenges faced by sociologists utilizing Mass Observation in their research.

Mass Observation and Sociology

2.1 Gambling has long been cited as an example of mass exploitation; as a popular pastime of working class people which distracts from the real causes of the tough realities of poverty and which feeds on hopelessness (for example Orwell 1984). The launch of the Mass Observation Project in 1937 coincides with the neo-Marxist discourses and the philosophical tradition of the highly influential Frankfurt School founded in 1923 as the Institute für Sozialforschung and consolidated under the directorship of the German sociologist Max Horkheimer in 1930. Horkheimer was especially keen to address the limitations of conventional critical analysis perspectives which he argued are unsuited to fully revealing the hidden thoughts and dreams of working class people, and to release their revolutionary potential. He proposed a new 'critical theory' approach that would provide a critical account of bourgeois society and ideology by unpicking all social practices. Alongside Adorno (see 1991), Horkheimer believed that new technologies and forms of consumption which are packaged as the ultimate in freedom and choice, in fact represent an irresistible 'growing apparatus of mass manipulation' (cited in Schmidt 1993: 37) which have the power to reduce imagination, creativity and independent judgement (Ibid.). The notion of gambling as one notable example of mass manipulation masked as freedom and choice was immortalized in George Orwell's famous depiction of the fictitious state lottery in Nineteen Eighty Four as:

'(. . . ) the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principle if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant.' (1984, 77)

2.2 Orwell shared with the Frankfurt School a fascination with working class 'mass' life and a commitment to bringing everyday detail of this into political commentary, social research and fiction. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer postulated that since language and linguistic conventions themselves have become commodified and serve simply to promote and reflect dominant modes of thought, it is the role of social science to replace these 'untruths' with 'truths' and to address the contradiction inherent in the culture industry that consumers 'feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them' (1997: 11). Mass Observation shared this commitment to recording hitherto hidden thoughts and dreams of the masses and believed that doing so, might help to unlock their revolutionary potential. Mass Observation and the Frankfurt School were united in their interest in 'the masses' and in recording the behavior of working class people and both were keen to make connections between mass behavior and class positioning. Hubble argues that Mass Observation offered an alternative discourse surrounding social life to previous, deductive statistical accounts that had tended to dominate social science research (2006:7)

2.3 Mass Observation was founded in 1937 by Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson, an anthropologist who had spent time working in a mill in Bolton, with the aim of providing social facts and detail of social life that 'could not simply be reduced to statistics' (Hubble 2006:7). Early Mass Observation was unique at the time for producing accounts which had been produced privately about private, everyday life which at the same time were intended for public knowledge and availability. Initially the aims of the project were political rather than sociological. Mass Observation is thus credited with bringing everyday life into the public, political domain, and for attempting to bridge the gap, philosophically at least, between elites (both political and intellectual) and the masses. A good example of this is cited by Hubble when Mass Observation researchers gave Clement Attlee his first ever sighting of a Football Pools coupon (Hubble 2006: 141). Initially, Mass Observation also conducted a social theory analysis of the data which attempted to examine the impact of society on the individual. In the case of the Football Pools, Mass Observation argued that it is precisely this type of mainstream, popular and above all everyday activity that is dismissed as meaningless and without merit, but as a normative practice and routine of everyday life needs to be understood and instilled with meaning. Thus:

'The gigantic system of Football Pools with its forty million turnover, is now something that cannot just be attacked . . . legislators and leaders have no knowledge of how these things work, and what they mean in terms of the people whose letters never get into the press, who often do not even vote for anyone. They are nevertheless human and necessary to be understood. We venture to think that towards that understanding this sort of research . . . has something to contribute.'
(cited in Hubble 2006: 140-141)

2.4 I shall now turn to an example of the uses of Mass Observation for exploring gambling as a form of 'mass', popular behavior. I will demonstrate the connections between the 1947 study of gambling and the key sociological perspectives of the time that tended to reflect a general disgust for this type of mass behavior which it was believed, perpetuated the myth of 'freedom-via-mass-culture'. I will introduce the social and poverty reformer Seebhom Rowntree as pivotal to these debates.

1947 - Mass Observers and Gambling

3.1 In 1947 Mass Observation was commissioned by the National Anti Gambling League (NAGL) to conduct a survey of gambling habits in the UK. NAGL was founded in York in 1890 with the renowned social reformer and pioneering social researcher of poverty, Seebhom Rowntree as its president. He had previously made his feelings about gambling clear in 1905 when he wrote a particularly scathing account of it in his introduction to Betting and Gambling: A National Evil. Rowntree was clear that gambling at best was a dangerous leisure activity that exploited the plight and desperation of the British poor, and at worst, a direct cause of secondary poverty. He wrote:

'Like a cancer, the evil thing [gambling] has spread its poisonous roots throughout the length and breadth of the land, carrying with them where they strike, misery, poverty, weakened character and crime.'
(Rowntree 1905: p.vii)

3.2 Rowntree's general moral attitude to gambling and his particular assertion that gambling might be responsible for intensifying the poverty of the British working classes, is reflected in his correspondence with Mass Observation. The choice of Mass Observation to carry out the research is an interesting one. Rowntree's letter to Tom Harrission on 6 Januray 1947 reveals that Rowntree was keen to elicit the research expertise of an organization which would uncover some of the complexities and detail of gambling in everyday working class life and that statistical evidence should only be used to complement and support the qualitative data. It is likely that Rowntree was familiar with Tom Harrisson's sociological work. Indeed, the Rowntree Society hold a copy of Rowntree's book Poverty signed by and belonging to Harrisson. As described in the above section, Mass Observation was never intended to be a specifically sociological project, although Mass Observation had begun to consider itself and its methods 'sociological'. It is clear that Rowntree recognized the potential of Mass Observation to elicit data that might be of use to social scientists. In a letter to Tom Harrisson, dated 6 January 1947, NAGL set out the details and scope of the gambling survey including the cost; £1100. The letter is particularly fascinating because it confirms details of a meeting between Tom Harrisson and Rowntree, again supporting the idea that Mass Observation was involved and active in frontline, high profile sociological debate.

'Dear Tom Harrisson . . . To confirm your meeting with B. Seebhom Rowntree and myself, I enclose a cheque for £500 as a first payment towards the cost of a survey on gambling which you have agreed to undertake on our behalf. The total cost being £1,100 [. . .] The scope of the survey should cover the total complex of gambling and the relative problems in England, principally from an analytical, documentary, qualitative and penetrative point of view: to get at motives and basic drives, with sufficient statistical background to put the whole picture in qualitative setting.'

3.3 Like Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge at Mass Observation, Rowntree shared an interest in uncovering and accessing subjective data and detail about everyday life and particularly in understanding 'mass' behavior. Gambling in this sense is a perfect example of the sort of common behavior not only interesting because of its mass popularity among working class people but also because of the association with money and poverty. Indeed in their pioneering study of poverty in York, Rowntree and Lavers dedicated their first chapter to a study entitled 'Mass Gambling' (1951). The particular interest in the mass appeal of gambling reflected the continuing popularity of gambling in the UK during the war. Doubtless Rowntree and Lavers's fears about the dangers of gambling especially for deepening poverty were intensified by the high profile and widespread promotion of gambling during the 1930s and 1940s.

3.4 Mass Observation had already registered their interest in eliciting information about gambling behaviours before they were approached by Rowntree and Lavers in 1947. In 1938, they posted the following call for information on participation in football pools which appeared in the Bolton Evening News:

'Why do you go in for the football pools? Or, if you don't go in for them, why don't you? Prizes £2 / £1 for most sincere answers, any length. No entrance fee. Punctuation, grammar or fancy style doesn't matter. Just write your views on the subject.'

3.5 It is interesting to see the quite deliberate attempt to gain responses that are open-ended and unstructured but are also from a wide cross section of social classes including the less educated. This would certainly have been an unusual approach to social research. The call for information appeared during a time when football pools had a very high profile and visibility particularly in the printed press. A single copy of The People newspaper in 1938 included illustrated advertisements for at least seven separate Football Pools companies, including Copes, Littlewoods, Murphy's, Sherman's, Bonds, and Strang's. An overarching emphasis of the adverts was on making betting on Football Pools appear more straightforward and less time consuming. This was further exemplified with Screen Pools' introduction of a 'Ladies Pool' intended to offer an especially straightforward opportunity for women players to bet on Football Pools. This reflects attempts made during the war years to ensure that Football Pools gambling was recognized as a 'respectable' pastime; an 'investment' and an attempt at upward mobility rather than simply as a squandering waste of money. This was especially important for Pools companies operating during the war, who needed to maintain custom from people where disposable income was scarce and for whom powerful messages of thrift, prudence and frugality were commonplace. It is interesting though that despite this dominant ethos underpinning the war effort, and also the continued dominance of the Church and other organisations opposing gambling on moral and religious grounds, gambling remained a popular pastime during the war. In November 1941 the Churches Committee on Gambling wrote to Tom Harrisson at Mass Observation in response to the 1941 call for information on gambling practices. The letter is a great example of the anti-gambling rhetoric of the 1940s to which Rowntree contributed and in particular the idea that both gambling and the provision of gambling products are not only immoral but also unpatriotic. The letter reads:

'No, it's not all quiet on the Gambling Front! "Gambling as usual" is the moto of many, and this committee is compelled to continue its work [. . .] Bookmakers and promoters are neither too patriotic nor too occupied with war-work to neglect their profitable business. They persuade themselves that they are providing a much needed relaxation for the over-worked masses, and a short-sighted government complancently acquiesces [. . .] "Britain shall not burn!" Neither should her soul be destroyed by vice and greed.'

3.6 It is clear that during the 1930s and 1940s, Football Pools companies were attempting to disassociate themselves from negative connotations of the greedy, unpatriotic gambler perpetuated by organisations like the Churches Committee on Gambling and also the National Anti-Gambling League. There is no doubt that the Football Pools were actively attempting to construct alternative discourses of gambling to those perpetuated by dominant anti-gambling discourses. In particular, Football Pools companies sought to counteract criticisms of gambling as exploitative, mindless and unproductive and instead to compete for a more 'respectable' image. This was achieved in a variety of ways including the introduction of Pools games designed to appeal specifically to women and also via descriptions of Football Pools betting as a 'skill' and a route to fortune that directly contradicted the widespread moral criticisms of gambling. For example 'Screen Pools' chairman Tom Walls on taking up the chair poses in the advert next to a statement which reads 'I realize now that millions, weekly have a new excitement added to their lives - an interesting, enjoyable contest of skill which brings fortunes to the winners'.

3.7 Notions of gambling as creating wealth and mobility were frequently utilized by Football Pools companies, as with Tom Walls above, as a positive factor which helps to reposition gambling as an enjoyable form of household spending that offers financial investment to the extent that there is at least a chance of becoming wealthy. It is possible that gambling continued to thrive during the war despite it conflicting with the usual ethic of thrift and hard work of the war effort precisely because it offered the possibility of an alternative future of wealth, upward mobility and exuberance which must have seemed particularly alluring at the time. Susan E. Reid has similarly pointed out the various ways in which Russian women in the 1930s and 1940s sought respectability via thrifty consumption practices which became entwined with the presentation of a respectable feminine identity (2007). Football Pools companies in the 1930s and 1940s appeared to recognize (and exploit) the particular appeal that gambling might have particularly for low income people faced with uncertain futures. The 'fortune to the winners' described by Tom Walls would have appealed to those for whom money was scarce but this appeal would have been heightened during the war where investing in a particularly uncertain future must have seemed especially important.

3.8 However, it is precisely this appeal that fuelled much of the criticism of the gambling industry and particularly the Football Pools companies from anti-poverty campaigners such as Rowntree. Indeed, Rowntree's criticism of gambling was less of a moral judgement on the impact of gambling in creating a greedy and vice-ridden working class and more of a call to protect the poor from the inevitable lure of gambling.

3.9 Underpinning these criticisms is one of the soul-destroying impacts of gambling and the cruel false hopes perpetuated by it. As discussed earlier in this paper, Horkheimer's critical theory helped to popularise a philosophical tradition that appears to be reflected in much historical and contemporary criticism of mass culture and specifically of gambling. Horkheimer's neo-Marxist account of mass culture is reflected in later studies exploring the extent to which contemporary capitalist societies create false needs which strengthen oppression by perpetuating a dominant ideology that ultimately suppresses one's ability for critical thought. In 1964, for example, Marcuse pointed to the rootless and shallow cultures that offer nothing more than a pointless and desperate attempt to address rigid class positioning and a mundane and gloomy existence (2002). Similarly, Richard Hoggart's (1957) attack on popular culture as the ultimate distraction from the mobility and untapped potential of working class people to take control of their lives, to embrace education and the arts as a route towards enlightenment, realization, actualization and upward mobility, has echoes of both Horkheimer's critical theory and Adorno's repositioning of the supposed freedoms promised by mass culture as 'unfreedoms' (see Adorno 1991).

3.10 The neo-Marxist debates highlighted above impacted on the development of method and parallel a sociological tradition which sought causal linkages and measures of poverty. The early sociologists and social reformers were predominantly interested in investigating social problems and pinpointing the causes of poverty. Furthermore, the search for social facts and norms of behavior, influenced a sociological method popularized in the 1930s and 1940s which tended to dichotomise 'ordinary', 'average' and 'abnormal', 'pathological' behavior. Sometimes, as with Rowntree's work, this dichotomy occurred along class lines, with working class practices and cultures such as gambling on Football Pools the particular target of pathologising.

3.11 Skeggs argues that such pathologising ultimately impacted on accounts of the working classes as deviant, dangerous and mob-like; in effect, stripped of selfhood (2004). It is possible that the sociological methods of the time contributed to this pathologising of working class people and that Mass Observation as a means of accessing detailed subjective data about everyday life and action was proposing a mode of inquiry into everyday working class life and behavior that did more than simply record this practice as evidence of the exploitation of a duped working class responding to their poverty in ways which only deepened it. Rowntree and Lavers shared with Tom Harrisson a belief that broad structural inequalities are reflected in everyday practices, but disagreed over the best methods to reveal these. In English Life and Leisure, for example, Rowntree and Lavers are careful to point out that working class participation in the Football Pools is a consequence of poverty - in particular poverty of opportunity for mobility - and not of immorality:

'It would be pharisaical for any who are not themselves living and bringing up a family on a small income to condemn too strongly on moral grounds those who, frustrated by lack of money and realizing the utter impossibility of getting it through hard work, seek it through the pools.'

3.12 Let us not forget that in 1941 Rowntree and Lavers had commissioned Mass Observation to conduct a major 'survey' of gambling in the UK. In 1951, the year of publication of English Life and Leisure which dedicated a whole chapter to 'Mass Gambling', there is no mention whatsoever of the Mass Observation survey. It might well be the case that the authors wanted to collate new data focusing specifically on poverty in York, but the correspondence between Lavers and Tom Harrisson during 1948 reveal Lavers to be unhappy with the final report of the 1941 study and in particular, in an undated letter Lavers is especially scathing of the methods used and ways in which the data was analysed. He wrote:

' "Mass Gambling" is far too long. The book[1] presents some interesting facts and figures, and is obviously the result of research over an immensely wide field. But I think it is just because of this reason one comes across a good deal of repetition concerning facts and similarity in the reports. I much doubt if the general public would have patience or time to assimilate so much data when all they require is a broad outline and a general conclusion. The book is far the most interesting where it is critical and constructive; and where the information collected by Mass Observation is used to forward some objective argument. For instance the section . . . concerned with the effect of gambling games on children. If this is to become a useful and informative book serving a useful purpose for the general reader it requires (a) drastic cutting; (b) selection; (c) critical and objective construction.'
I have quoted the above at some length because the detail of debate specifically about methods between Lavers and Harrisson is so fascinating particularly because it illustrates the extent to which Mass Observation was actively involved in methodological and sociological debate and were not entirely disconnected as it is sometimes assumed.

3.13 Interestingly, Laver's frustration with the sheer volume of rich, 'thick' data is one which is shared by Mass Observation researchers today. Many are reluctant to categorize and classify for fear of sucking away the detail, variety and life out of the data (see for example, Smart 2011). Lavers's feedback to Harrisson will likely strike a chord with those who have sought to analyse and make sense of intensely rich, 'thick' Mass Observation data. Perhaps this goes some way in illuminating the complex and often difficult relationship between Mass Observation and mainstream sociology. Indeed, the criticism of Mass Observation as a 'soft' sociological method offering neither statistically significant or representative data remains influential today (see Sheridan 1996).

3.14 In the next section, I want to draw on both the 1947 case study on gambling and also the 2011 Gambling and Households directive in order to demonstrate the importance of research into gambling as mode of sociological inquiry and Mass Observation as the tool with which to examine this. In particular, I will demonstrate the uses of Mass Observation for revealing detail about intimacies and for uncovering subjective practices of class and gender.

Key Findings 1947 and 2011

4.1 Here I present some of the findings from both 1947 and 2011. I explore some of the similarities in the data and will attempt to demonstrate the uses of Mass Observation for uncovering and contrasting intimate practices in contemporary everyday life. The data will demonstrate that gambling offers a valuable tool for examining the relationships between some of the politics and subjectivities underpinning everyday life and especially for revealing some of the ways in which gambling behavior is structured around broader narratives of class and moral frameworks. In particular, I will reflect on some of the subtle, subjective calculations and articulations of decision making and explore how these are connected to broader social, cultural and political narratives of gambling such as those popularized by Rowntree and Lavers. I consider how gambling is seen as an articulation of and a response to poverty.

4.2 To begin with, accessing detailed data about gambling and in particular, attempting to elicit complex information about gambling spending is often challenging. The challenge is compounded by the fact that frequently gambling is framed within moral discourses which often pathologise gambling and gamblers in a number of ways. Indeed, recently, social and political commentators have continued to popularize the belief that gambling is a soul-destroying and exploitative activity which preys on a desperate, dissatisfied and needy mass. For example, the 2005 Gambling Act sought to relax gambling regulations including restrictions on betting shops and casinos. This resulted in the approval of the UK's first 'super casino', a decision which was later reversed by the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The perceived liberalizing effects of the Act particularly the lifting of advertising and trading restrictions, were seized upon by political and social commentators as evidence of both moral decay, laziness and ignorance and also of a brutal exploitation of the hope of masses trapped by the impossibility of social mobility (see also Reith 1999). In 1947 Observers wrote extensively about the impact that gambling regulation had on their everyday experiences of gambling. Despite Football Pools gambling being legal and prolific, the sentiment that it was a disrespectable and dangerous pastime predominated and frequently gambling restrictions and regulations were enforced at a local level, for example by employers. The following is a quote from a civil servant writing in 1947 who describes a colleague at the Civil Service who won £50 on the Football Pools and had to 'keep it very dark' (a secret). He writes:

'Actually I am in the Civil Service and we are not allowed to win any money in pools and that, if we do, and they find out we have to give up our job. A girl in the office has just won £50 and she is having to keep it very dark.' (FC26 - man, clerk in the civil service)

4.3 It is interesting that in the quote above, the prohibition of gambling in the workplace reveals hidden and secretive gambling practice rather than abstinence. Carole Smart has written profoundly about the uses of Mass Observation as a tool for revealing the complex detail of intimate and private life, to the extent that some observers are even willing to divulge long standing family secrets. Smart argues that Mass Observation's unique combination of anonymity and opportunity for writers to produce in-depth narratives about personal life, makes it ideally placed to elicit information on delicate, sensitive and taboo topics that often remain hidden using conventional research methods (2011). Other authors have noted the particular difficulties in gaining accurate data about gambling practices owing to its status as taboo and 'problematic' (Casey 2008, 2010). Mass Observation offers a space for the production of gambling narratives that connect with family histories and intimacies in a way that other research methods do not. There may be something about the emotional connection that Observers have to Mass Observation that makes this seem easier, or perhaps Mass Observers have made to their own judgements about what sort of information is 'useful' to researchers. Certainly Mass Observers often perceive their role in terms of contributing to social history narratives.

4.4 The detailed accounts provided by observers are rich in detail about intimacies of family life and narratives are constantly positioned within broader political, cultural and moral contexts. In 1947 many observers described gambling as the inevitable and rational choice made by those for whom making ends meet is a particular challenge. Florence Bell first observed this in her study of everyday life for families working in the early twentieth century in the manufacturing town of Middlesbrough , and described the particular appeal that door-to-door gambling salesmen inevitably had to women who tended to hold responsibility for managing an at best inflexible and at worst woefully inadequate household budget. She writes:

'Systematic betting of the women ... is in many cases ... a quite deliberate effort to add to the income. A man comes to the door of a woman, who ... is hard pressed for money, and presents her with a chance of spending a shilling and winning £5. How should she not listen to him?' (1911:354)

4.5 As DeVault has remarked, in working class households throughout the twentieth century, women have taken primary responsibility for the household budget; for ensuring that the family is clothed and fed (1991). DeVault argues that constant assessments of women's caring capabilities are made according to effective household budgeting. The full impact of these assessments is revealed when things go wrong and it is women who are blamed in the first instance. Mass Observers writing in 1947 recognised and were keen to record the particular pressure faced by women in managing an often incredibly tight and sometimes drastically insufficient household budget. The following observer responding to the 1947 survey describes how for many low income women, gambling offers a chance to alleviate some of the pressures and anxieties faced by working class women in the 1940s:

'I think you will find that the working class woman goes in for it more, because it makes all the difference to them to get just that little extra which they have got no opportunity of gaining otherwise. They are more anxious than men to get that little extra really, because usually their husbands only allow them the low amount for housekeeping and there is none left for themselves.' (FB54)

4.6 Another observer writing in 1947 is especially critical of 'working men' who spend scarce household budgets at dogtracks:

'I don't know whether you have been up North at all but I come from near Newcastle and a lot of greyhound tracks have sprung up there lately . . . since the war ended . . . and it seems to have got an absolute hold on the men. Instead of going to the pubs they now go to the dogs every night of the week, and the families suffer in consequence. I mean the working man doesn't get much and it's not right for him to squander what he has at his family's expense.'

4.7 As the above quotes demonstrate, for observers writing in 1947 central to notions of working class respectability is the sanctity and security of the family. Gambling is presented as problematic precisely because it puts that at risk and the 'problem' of poverty is associated with a lack of control over finances. In 2011, poverty and being working class remain problematized positions, but the 'problem' shifts to one of presentation, cultural worth and 'value'.

4.8 Bev Skeggs argues that particular practices of selfhood emerge during the twentieth century as cultural representation comes to dominate the formation of class identity practices (1997). She argues that in contemporary capitalist societies, an ability to present the classed and gendered self as 'respectable' in particular, via appropriate displays of cultural goods both at home and on bodies is crucial to experiencing value and worth. Much has been made of Skeggs's pioneering work, for example, Lawler (2005) and Tyler (2013) who draw attention to the ways in which assessments of capital and status are awarded according to an often crude and ruthless assessment of the working classes. I have argued elsewhere that the consumer choices of working class people are routinely used to make assessments about value and worth (Casey 2008, 2010). Here though, it is the act of acquiring money itself and not how it is spent that is the subject of critique. Examining Mass Observers' accounts of gambling in two separate periods of history reveals fascinating shifts and changes in narratives and articulations of class. In particular, there are some notable transformations in the ways in which observers describe the gambling patterns of working class others. What is especially notable is that by 2011 accounts of the cultural have become integrated into narratives both of class and of poverty. This is nicely exemplified in the following quote from a 2011 observer:

'I don't talk to others [about dreams of winning money]. I think it would be almost indecent. It's weird. Sometimes I wish we had more money but I think that we have to continue to work hard to get it. Get promotion etc. I think that winning would be cheating almost!'

4.9 Here it is interesting that it is less the act of gambling itself that is considered 'indecent' and more the case that talking about money and using money to achieve personal transformation are 'indecent'. In 2011 personal class identifications are increasingly structured around cultural interpretations of self and others. Furthermore, class is played out in the 2011 observations via discourses of wealth acquisition. By 2011 many of the observers describe the culturally transformative potential and also limitations of wealth and money. In 1947, observers barely mentioned the cultural implications of gambling and the implications of gambling on class identities. Instead, as we have seen, the observers focused on the relationships between gambling and household spending; as means of addressing immediate financial concerns and often one which deepened the problem of poverty especially familial poverty. In 2011, observers still remark on the 'irresponsible' gambler who might squander the household budget on gambling, but there is a big emphasis which was absent in 1947, on cultural narratives of class and in particular, criticism of 'chavvy' National Lottery winners popularized in the British press. The following quote illustrates this disgust at the perceived tasteless display of wealth which is compounded by the acquisition of that wealth through gambling. This might be seen as an expression of moral authority and the reconfiguration of an 'acceptable' middle class identity:

'My husband's niece is currently in a relationship with a young man whose family made their money from gambling: in an amusement arcade in a seaside resort. This family have branched out into a fish bar and a restaurant since then, but it's perfectly clear where the money has come from. Their arcade is stuffed with fruit machines and other tacky paraphernalia, all pre-programmed to separate punters from their cash, for not very much in return. Talk about getting your money for nothing.'

4.10 Interestingly, the rhetoric of gambling as a route to inappropriate and disrespectable and vulgar capital, status and value was a common one in 2011 but not one that was apparent in 1947. In a recent article, Mike Savage pointed out that in their articulations of class identity, Mass Observers reveal much about historical shifts in how people define their class positions (2007). Class was frequently discussed - although often implicitly - throughout the two gambling case studies and was often cited as a key factor motivating decision making. As Savage argues, in late modern capitalist societies, cultural assessments of self and of others form an integral part of the articulation of class narratives. Wealth alone loses its value when it is accumulated and exchanged in particular ways. This is especially the case for those who have become wealthy through gambling; an avenue to wealth deemed worthless. This argument resonates with much recent debate about the lack of genuine opportunities for working class people to become mobile through conventional routes of hard work (eg. Jones 2012) which has explored the ensuing contemporary appeal of, for example reality TV as an opportunity of sorts for those who have very little opportunity. Skeggs and Woods claim that reality television offers working class young people opportunities for success but a form of success that is not valued by the dominant order (Skeggs and Wood 2008). The appeal of reality television as a route to wealth, value and status might mirror the appeal of gambling for working class people for whom the chances of upward mobility are so slim.


5.1 In this paper I have argued that gambling is a good example of the sort of institutionalized 'mass', working class leisure activity that has long been scrutinized by social researchers. As a morally framed pursuit which historically has come under intense criticism from religious and anti-poverty campaigners, gambling has also frequently been seen as a marker of exploitation and as evidence of class division. Mass Observation's early commitment to revealing the hidden thoughts and behaviours of the masses and ultimately to transforming social inequalities was one which was shared by radical social commentators such as Seebohm Rowntree. However, as I have demonstrated in this article, the 1947 Mass Observation study of gambling commissioned by Rowntree in his capacity as president of the National Anti-Gambling League and the written correspondence between Rowntree, Lavers and Tom Harrisson, reveals strong disagreement in the methodological tools used to elicit data on mass gambling. The dissatisfaction with the uses of Mass Observation as sociological method remains prevalent today with many social researchers uncomfortable with the ungeneralisable and unrepresentative nature of the data. However, as this paper has demonstrated, Mass Observation offers a unique insight into the complexities and intimacies of everyday, mass behavior. Using the example of gambling in two separate historical contexts, I have shown how Mass Observation facilitates a unique opportunity for historical comparison of in-depth qualitative data. Finally, the paper has displayed how mass observations about gambling mirror wider shifts in narratives about wealth and the cultural underpinnings of class.


This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council [RES-000-22-4314]. Thanks also to The Rowntree Society and The Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York for fruitful discussions prior to writing.


1Lavers refers to the final report of the 1947 Mass Observation survey as a 'book'. However, there is no evidence that this was ever published. It is possible that Rowntree and Lavers postponed publishing on the theme of gambling intending instead to incorporate it into their study of poverty in York.


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