Notes from a Field Worker/Tourist in Las Vegas
Ph.D. Candidate, University of South Carolina
The American Sociological Association’s 2011 annual meeting to Las Vegas, Nevada stirred a tremendous amount of conversation about several issues among those in attendance. It caused some sociologists to declare they “hate Las Vegas.” Meanwhile, others spent much of the conference tweeting about the unique things our conference brought to the city, like women wearing “sensible” shoes and students preparing for presentations on the floor between slot machines, or noting the unique sights of Las Vegas, like drunken partiers puking at 7am in front of the conference hotel. Such conversation about the city inspired sociologist Todd Krohn to remind us on his blog that “It is indeed ‘privilege’ to sit in judgment of the ‘riff raff’ that both visits Vegas and lives there, but it ain't sociology.”
While many sociologists felt uneasy about the assumed or perceived moral judgments that may be implied by the decision to move the meeting to Las Vegas (it was originally supposed to be in Chicago), I believe holding the meeting in Sin City reawakened the sociological imaginations in many of us. Every stroll through a casino or down a sidewalk with a colleague resulted in a conversation connecting what we were seeing back to sociological concepts. I had several conversations about gender performance, conspicuous consumption, and inequality. Sociologists seemed to tweet as much about what they saw on the streets and in the casinos as they did about what they heard during sessions.
When I travel to a city I try to experience it the way a local does. I work to learn about the city from locals themselves in a sort of mini-field research project, asking for recommendations for unique experiences that they favor over the typical tourist attractions. I try to ensure that each experience I have is one I could only have in that city. Las Vegas, though, seemed to work against my efforts. The first few days, it seemed impossible to find a local resident willing to talk with me on the sidewalk, and those who were working were too busy to offer recommendations about where the locals go. By the end of my six days in Las Vegas, though, I had two sociologically interesting experiences that were unique to Las Vegas and underscored much of what I had come to know about the city during my time there.
The first experience occurred when I met with an old friend of mine, a woman that I knew back in middle school, who happens to live in Las Vegas. She is a dancer, and moved to the city after she graduated from high school and got her first dancing job. I had not seen her in more than five years, and as she shared her stories from the last few years, I realized I was hearing a story that must be all too common in Las Vegas.
She purchased a house with a pool a couple of years ago, just like she always wanted. She had a great job as the lead dancer in a sizable show. But, in 2009 the show closed, something she attributed directly to the recession. And now she is underwater on her house. Waiting for another good dancing opportunity, she is now working as a cocktail waitress and taking occasional substitute dancing gigs.
She lamented that these kinds of gigs often feel demeaning to her. They pay well, but her dancing skills are well beyond what is required for this kind of work. In her limited free time she takes yoga and other exercise classes, working hard to stay in shape so she is ready when another dance opportunity becomes available. She recognizes that forces beyond her control have limited her opportunities, and she is reconsidering her career path, contemplating taking a job with a cruise or even moving to a different city that might offer better opportunities. For her, like too many other people, the hope associated with Las Vegas has become little more than a mirage in the desert.
My second experience occurred on my last night in Las Vegas, as I wandered around the city aimlessly looking for a souvenir or some unique experience to take home with me. While I typically try to experience a city in way that parallels the city’s culture, as a graduate student I did not have the funds to eat at one of the famous buffets, buy a ticket for a show or gamble while feeling like I was staying within my means.
Still searching for a souvenir, the crowded sidewalks were frustrating to walk through, but I was also feeling guilty for continually saying “no” to the men clicking and handing out the infamous photo cards about women. Then it occurred to me – the perfect souvenir would be one of their T-shirts, advertising in big bold letters “SEXY GIRLS DIRECT TO YOU IN 20 MINS.” The shirt is unique to the city. It is ironic enough to entertain my hipster friends, while also demonstrating my sociological interest in Las Vegas. Rather than taking home a shot glass or magnet, I would be taking home the work uniform of some of Las Vegas’s more ubiquitous workers.
So, my inner field researcher overcame me. I began a conversation with one of the gentlemen wearing a shirt and passing out cards. I asked him about his work, and then when I felt I had established some rapport, I asked him if it would be possible to purchase a shirt like his. He smiled, sat down his cards, reached into a bag, and pulled out a t-shirt that just like the one he was wearing.
Some of my peers have admonished me or this action. They have underscored the point that I could not have done anything to appear more like a privileged white male than to ask a man working on a street corner for the shirt off of his back. I have also realized that by buying the shirt from him I was in some small way endorsing the industry in which he works, thereby furthering in the exploitation of workers like him and the women advertised on the shirt. I even worried about admitting I had purchased the shirt, afraid that such an action would be perceived as unprofessional.
I reconcile these contradictions by reminding myself that I had exercised my sociological curiosity and had a unique and authentic experience in the city. In this same post mentioned above, Dr. Krohn encourages sociologists who wish to understand “the recession, mortgage fraud, foreclosure and macroeconomics” to go to Vegas and talk to the folks who are participating in the city, even encouraging his readers to interview “call girls, or porn-slappers.”
While my conversation with the man on the street corner was brief, I am glad I got to know him and the city of Las Vegas that much more. I have since learned that these shirts can be found at some local gift shops and through online outlets. Mine, however, comes with a story that makes the experience much more real.