Inside Higher Ed: Sociologists in Sin City

By Serena Golden, for Inside Higher Ed

August 30, 2011

LAS VEGAS – If you’ve never been to Caesars Palace, the luxury hotel and casino located on the (in)famous Las Vegas Strip, the first thing to know is that it’s more or less exactly what you would expect. Its sprawling complex encompasses six swimming pools, two vast casinos and a shopping mall the size of a small city. Women in minuscule costumes roam the floors of the casino selling cigarettes and drinks; another bar lies waiting around every corner. Many guests sport attire – to say nothing of tans and figures – of dubious provenance, reminiscent of MTV’s Jersey Shore. The reek of tobacco smoke and body spray is pervasive.

So it’s pretty much your standard academic conference venue. OK, maybe not quite. But when a labour dispute left the American Sociological Association’s plans for a 2011 conference in Chicago looking dicey, the ASA had just eight months of lead time to relocate the whole shebang – a tall order for a meeting that typically draws some 5,000 scholars. According to the ASA’s website, “[m]eeting sites are usually selected at least four to five years in advance”.

Las Vegas, conference-friendly and recession-battered, was more than happy to take in a few thousand stray sociologists at a relative moment’s notice. And Caesars offered space enough to host housing, exhibit hall and conference rooms under a single, apparently infinite, roof; it also holds the advantage (as the ASA’s press release on the location change noted) of union contracts that do not expire until next year.

There is something both jarring and perfectly apropos about bringing thousands of sociologists to Sin City. As the ASA press release delicately observed, “Las Vegas [is] vibrant and fascinating from a sociological perspective” – but it’s not difficult to conjecture why the conference had never been held here before. The very aspects of Las Vegas that might make it fascinating to a sociologist – the emphasis on consumerism and decadence, the unapologetic obsession with (and exploitation of) female flesh, and the city’s most celebrated pastime – gambling, whose appeal is particularly mystifying to some with a background in statistics – are also the sorts of things that tend to be off-putting to academics, especially (or at least) in the presence of their colleagues. Little wonder that ol’ Lost Wages is one of the least-educated cities in the country. (As David Dickens, professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, likes to say: “Thank God for Fresno.”) And little wonder, too, that even those who have dedicated their careers to studying human society weren’t wholly enthused about being thrust into the heart of this particular society, however fascinating it might be.

In a video for Norton Sociology’s Sociology of Las Vegas project (see more here), conference attendee Sharon Zukin of Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, author of the recent book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (2010), explained her dislike of Las Vegas.

“Las Vegas is a wonderland for a sociologist,” remarked one grizzled attendee to a trailing cluster of grad students, as they trekked through the dim and smoky casino toward the conference rooms on the meeting’s first morning. “If only I wasn’t judgmental.”

‘Exploitation’ v ‘eye candy’

“Oh God, I hate this city,” said Kathleen Lowney, professor of sociology at Valdosta State University. “For me, it’s a constant barrage of noise that’s just overwhelming.”

And many aspects of it are “creepy”, she said – such as the throngs of aggressive young men along the Strip wearing T-shirts and distributing photographically informative flyers that advertise “girls in your room in 20 minutes”.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, emphatically agreed. “I found it hard to believe we sociologists would come to a place that clearly thrives on the exploitation of people’s financial and emotional insecurities,” she wrote in an email. “The grotesque treatment of young women was visible and jarring.” But some of those in attendance weren’t complaining. “Who are you kidding?” said one young faculty member from a university outside the US, of those who said they were not enjoying the Vegas experience. “Go out, have fun, check out all the eye candy.” Perhaps not incidentally, this faculty member was male – as was the graduate student from a highly respected private institution who suggested that any dislike of or discomfort with Las Vegas was limited to the conference’s female attendees. Also male: the grad student from a California public university who smilingly boasted of having slipped a small bribe to the man at the check-in desk in exchange for a room with a good view of the pools (and the bikini-clad women therein) – a view that he said he found rather distracting as he sat in his room preparing his presentation. Not all the sociologists having fun in Las Vegas were young men, however. “I love gambling!” said a female faculty member from a prestigious Massachusetts institution. “I love Vegas. It’s sort of a horrible, wonderful, magical place.”

Indeed, many ASA members of both genders conceded that they had enjoyed trying their hand at the tables and slots – at least, until their luck ran out. But all of those who admitted to appreciating the city’s signal pursuits asked not to be identified.

Practising what they teach

For the sizeable contingent of attendees from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the ASA conference represented a welcome spotlight on a university and a city that have been through “a rough few years”, as University of Nevada, Las Vegas president Neal Smatresk put it, in his remarks at a Sunday night reception for those affiliated with the university. (“We really appreciate the ASA coming here,” Smatresk added. “Spend a lot of money! Lose at the tables!”) And the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ sociology department, its members say, is both academically excellent and ideally located – something they hoped sociologists from around the country (and beyond) could appreciate.

But some University of Nevada, Las Vegas faculty members found themselves disappointed by what looked to them like knee-jerk reactions from their visiting colleagues. Las Vegas, they said, is a complex and multifaceted city too quickly written off by those who don’t really understand it at all – and many of the conference attendees, they said, hadn’t even tried.

“[I]t seemed counterintuitive to me,” wrote Shannon Monnat, assistant professor of sociology at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in an email after the conference, “that so many sociologists, whose job it is to study social relationships, social structures and social interactions, were so resistant to leaving the Strip and venturing to other parts of Las Vegas.” “I’m so sick of hearing people bash Vegas,” said Barbara Brents, associate professor of sociology at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She described her city as “the best spot in the world to do sociology” – a sentiment echoed by nearly every University of Nevada, Las Vegas faculty member interviewed, as well as a number of grad students and alumni.

And a few of the visiting sociologists agreed. “Vegas is a study in sociological contrasts,” said the faculty member from outside the US. “If anybody told you they weren’t interested, they aren’t a real sociologist.”

But being a “real sociologist” doesn’t mean that one can simply show up and start theorising about Las Vegas. “I think some [conference attendees] are in a bit of a state of culture shock,” said Jill B. Jones, associate professor of social work, emerita, at the University of Nevada at Reno, and co-author of the new book Casino Women: Courage in Unexpected Places (2011). “I don’t think you really understand what Las Vegas is like until you actually witness it.” Lisa Dawn Wade, assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College, said the conference was her first trip to Vegas, and she described the experience in terms that corresponded with Jones’ assessment. “There’s so much here,” Wade said, “and I feel like I don’t have the tools to process it…There are stories here about consumption and about leisure and about social class that are really interesting, and I just feel kind of at a loss to say anything really smart about it.”

Wade is the founder and one of the editors of Sociological Images, a popular blog that features a variety of pictures and videos drawn from pop culture and media in order to analyse their messages or question their assumptions. Wade’s research, according to her website, “involves the relationship between social inequality and the body, especially as sexuality becomes a marker of difference and an arena of social control” – and Sociological Images frequently focuses on issues of sexuality, gender and sexism. But in Las Vegas, Wade said, “I look around for a photograph I might take and it’s almost like it’s so ubiquitous that I can’t find an example of it; it’s just so pervasive.

“What am I going to do – write a post saying that there’s sexual objectification in Vegas? It’s news to absolutely no one.”

Wade said it might not be a bad thing if the city made its visitors uncomfortable. Academics, she noted, tend to lead “pretty cushy” lives, and spending a few days in a difficult and even disturbing environment could prompt them to think about the “real people” who call the city home – and about the fact that, in many ways, Las Vegas is just a distilled and amplified representation of the world we all live in. “There’s a little bit of Vegas in all of us.”

(And there was a little of the sociologists in Vegas, too – at least at Caesars Palace. The hotel, like most of the Strip, seems more than comfortable with traditional gender roles, even charging men more than women for the use of its pools. But the ASA made its own adjustment, posting a large sign on a pair of lavatories in the conference area that declared them both to be unisex – a move intended to provide support for transgender sociologists.)

Monnat agreed with Wade’s perspective. The array of complaints expressed by those at the conference, she said, “should have given us all an opportunity to reflect on our privilege as academics”.

But some felt that an academic meeting was not the time or place to have to engage in such reflection. “It may be interesting,” Lowney said, but it’s “still creepy”.

“I just hope we never come back.”

Dan Hirschman, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan (and blogger on sociological topics), noted that while he was not personally bothered by Las Vegas on an emotional or ethical level, he did find it both inconvenient and shockingly, painfully expensive. That being the case, he said, he’d just as soon go somewhere a bit less vibrant and fascinating, and a bit more like a run-of-the-mill (and only moderately overpriced) academic conference location.

“It’s super interesting, and it’s fun to be here in some sense,” Hirschman acknowledged. “But we don’t need to be somewhere interesting to have our conversations.”

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