Social Science blog

20 December 2012

Commoditising risk in a global age: spread betting and digital gambling

In this post Toby Austin Locke, currently working in The British Library's Social Sciences team writes about commoditising risk in the new global, digital era of gambling and the individual and reglatory impacts it may have.

With the Coalition Agreement giving a commitment to tackle the culture of risk in financial institutions and June’s whitepaper on banking reform, risk is certainly one of the contemporary hot topics. But exactly how risk is packaged in order that it may be bought and sold as commodity is a complex issue, made all the more so by globalisation and the digital boom.

Of course what we define as risk is itself a contentious area but it is hard to disagree that the activities of gambling and spread betting involve the commoditisation of certain forms of risk. What is also interesting to note is that both gambling and spread betting have seen increases in popularity over recent years (Wardle et al 2011; Read 2011). With the latter increasingly extending from the domain of financial institutions to consumer markets the FSA is increasing commitment to ensuring good practice and ensuring consumers are aware of the associated risks. And likewise, gambling practices are being brought under scrutiny as an increasing number of social games such as Zynga, on networks such as Facebook, mirror the services offered by online gambling, and even begin to move toward real-money gaming.

There is a growing amount of research being undertaken into gambling, particularly since the advent of remote gambling has thrown many regulatory and legislative paradigms into murky waters. However, the links between gambling and other means of buying and selling risk remain unclear. What really separates the acts of gambling and spread betting for example, asides from their institutional and regulatory settings, in terms of the buying and selling of risk is an area of study that promises to yield fascinating results. But how to go about engaging in such research is by no means a simple question.



Image by Jamie Adams from Hull, United Kingdom (Poker chips) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Last year I worked with an ERSC funded research team at Goldsmiths College, University of London and London Metropolitan University. The research team, comprised of Prof. Rebecca Cassidy, Dr Claire Loussouarn, Dr Andrea Pisac and Dr Julie Scott, are currently examining how gambling is emerging in the contemporary technological and regulatory climate. Their projects explore remote gambling in the UK, The British spread betting industry, the impact of geographic borders on tourism and gambling between Slovenia and Italy and land based casinos in Cyprus. Their work is diverse, and approaches gambling not simply as an easily defined market, but as a ‘global assemblage’ (Ong & Collier 2005). These ‘global assemblages’ are understood as are “the actual configurations through which global forms of techno-science, economic rationalism, and other expert systems gain significance” (Collier 2006: 400). What such an approach highlights is the need for new methodological approaches in attempting to come to terms with the changing face of global markets, the need for social researchers to begin widening their studies beyond traditional field-sites and the disaggregation of statistics, the need to broaden rather than narrow the scope of studies.

With the explosion of remote gambling bringing questions not just about regulatory frameworks, but also questions regarding national and individual identity, the limits of the nation state, and areas of convergence between ‘gaming’ and ‘gambling’ on various social network sites (Griffiths & Light 2008; Wardle 2012), and the increased confusion as to how to regulate these new faces of commoditised risk, such new approaches are of all the more significance. One of the aims of the project in which I was involved was to develop a methodological blueprint ‘to explore the value of a systematic qualitative approach to gambling’ and I for one will be waiting with bated breath to see what the research team turns out.


Collier, Stephen J (2006) ‘Global Assemblages’ in Theory Culture and Society, 23 (2-3), pp. 399-401

Griffiths, Marie & Light, Ben (2008) ‘Social Networking and Digital Gaming Media Convergence: classification and its consequences for appropriation’ in Information System Frontiers, 10 (4) pp. 447-459, 

Ong, Aihwa & Collier, Stephen J (2005) Global Assemblages: technology, politics and ethics as anthropological problems, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Read, Simon (2011) ‘Spread betting: time to jump on a global bandwagon’ in The Independent, 

Wardle, Heather (2012) ‘The Challenges of Convergence: a case study of gambling, gaming and the digital world’, The British Library, The Social Research Association annual conference, 10 Oct

Wardle, Heather et al. (2011) British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010, London: TSO


Toby Austin Locke is currently working in the British Library social sciences team on the Social Welfare Portal and is due to start working towards his doctorate on ‘The Commoditisation of Creative Industry’ in October 2013 at Goldsmiths College, University of London.You can contact him on twitter @tobyalocke and



Spread betting and gambling and the relationship between the two:

If spread betting is gambling so is trading. In which case does it make sense for so called investors to put in bigger amounts in stocks because it is considered an investing activity?

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