Using anthropology to reform gambling policy

During two decades of rapid expansion for the commercial gambling sector, Rebecca Cassidy’s research has led to the introduction of an ethical code for stakeholders and changes to how parliamentarians think about gambling.

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The research originated in Cassidy’s PhD - an investigation of the horseracing industry in Newmarket, working with bookmakers, professional gamblers and punters - and expanded into the US through a British Academy postdoc. Major fieldwork in betting shops between 2006-2009 led to the categorical identification of ‘problem gambling’ and ‘problem gamblers’.

This ethnographic approach is an alternative to long-established psychological framings, which emphasise the individual as the source of problems with gambling and the solution (through self-discipline or therapy).

The project widened, with a team led by Cassidy conducting fieldwork with the online gambling industry, spread-betting firms and gamblers in Europe. In 2016, Cassidy co-authored the first research on gambling advertising during UK sports broadcasts, finding that the volume, duration and frequency were higher than in Australia before the Australian government introduced a ban. In 2018 she developed this work to investigate children’s awareness and recall of gambling brands, prompting debate in public, the media, and the House of Lords.

Cassidy’s work has underpinned calls for changes to government policies and promoted changes to industry practice. The broadcaster Sky began limiting gambling adverts in commercial breaks and introduced blocking technology. Simultaneously, some football clubs responded by making replica shirts for children without the logo of gambling sponsors.

When the head of a gambling awareness charity funded by the industry itself tried to prevent her from speaking publicly, Cassidy began a closer investigation into global gambling research's ethics and politics, including how it is funded. The report, Fair Game, found that much was poor quality and lacked independence, prompting the journal International Gambling Studies to introduce a disclosure policy.

By informing government policies, industry practices and public debates nationally and worldwide, Cassidy’s anthropological fieldwork has benefitted policymakers, regulators, and the public, including those harmed by disordered gambling and their families.

This research was submitted for REF 2021.