FOR DEMOCRATIC ENDS:
Reflections on studying the Burning
Man Organization and a Democratic School
Katherine K. Chen - The City College and Graduate School (CUNY)
While I knew I wanted to study organizations, I did not start out with the intention of researching democratic practices. I felt frustrated that much of organizational research, both classic and contemporary, slavishly detailed the myriad dysfunctions of organizations; yet, these studies provided few clues on how to rectify these ills. Like many sociologists, I believe that our discipline excels in documenting and questioning the taken-for-granted. However, most research examines conventional institutions, and we don’t offer practitioners – including ourselves – equivalent insight into alternatives. This omission partly reflects selection bias, as it’s easier to find well-established survivors that persist because they replicate conventional structures. To understand other possibilities, we should follow Burawoy’s (2013) and Graeber’s (2004) recommendations to undertake more studies of how groups, particularly nascent ones, resist reproducing the status quo.
After gaining permission to study the organization, I conducted qualitative research, including several rounds of observations and participant-observations during a period when the organization was solidifying its practices. From this research, I learned that the Burning Man organization not only produced an unusual output, but also had distinctive organizing practices that were novel for its members. For instance, meetings operated by “modified consensus,” where people had to come to an agreement about discussed issues, and members could develop their roles around their interests, rather than being placed into responsibilities by their skills or experiences. Moreover, a shared mission and connection to the larger collective motivated members. During interviews, some juxtaposed their Burning Man experiences as engaging interests and talents overlooked by their workplaces and other voluntary associations.
While I was muddling through analyzing this organization’s practices, Peter Marsden handed me a book, The Cooperative Workplace: Potentials and Dilemmas of Organizational Democracy and Participation by Joyce Rothschild and J. Allen Whitt. This moment initiated a major turning point for my research, demonstrating how researchers integrate theoretical and empirical work. Using qualitative studies of worker cooperatives, alternative schools, and other organizations, Rothschild and Whitt (1986) expanded upon value-rational authority, a form of authority that Weber had typologized but not fully specified. Rothschild and Whitt outlined conditions under which they expected collectivist-democratic organizations to survive, which included recruiting homogeneous membership and staying small.
Grappling with empirically informed theory provided a crucible for understanding how to break out of the iron cage. As I puzzled over the seeming particularities of the Burning Man organization and its event, I eventually realized that its issues – how to recruit members, how to retain members, how to manage relations with other entities, etc. - applied to many organizations, not just ones that have unusual practices or outputs. I found that the Burning Man organization combined bureaucratic practices so that these supported collectivist-democratic practices, and they used collectivist-democratic practices to check coercive authority and bureaucratic pressures.
Most importantly, the collectivist-democratic practices allowed people to experiment. These practices encouraged organizers and members to respond to members’ changing interests and reshape other actors’ demands and claims, including those posed by media, law enforcement, governmental agencies, and individuals and organizations seeking to appropriate Burning Man imagery or names for commercial purposes. Instead of stifling efforts with coercive authority and bureaucratic practices, people used bureaucratic practices to support and enhance democratic-collectivist practices (Chen 2009). My research also revealed that contrary to Rothschild and Whitt’s (1986) contention, limiting growth is not the only survival option for an atypical organizational form (Chen 2016).
In addition, I found that the Burning Man organization facilitated a shift in how people viewed their volunteer work. Burning Man excels at what I call communification:
Rather than devaluing labor as a commodity exchange, Burning Man encouraged what I call communification by infusing actions with meaning and values that emphasized individual persons’ connection with the larger collective. At Burning Man, communification involved the following three checks against commodification and alienation: (1) revaluing of work, (2) building relationships among community members, and (3) supporting and integrating members’ perspectives and interests (Chen 2016: 88).
The organization and its event also have provided a platform for discussing issues that threaten to undercut democracy in larger society, like growing socioeconomic inequality (Chen 2015).
Since I first started studying Burning Man in 1998, Burning Man has continued to grow and now regularly sells out of tickets. Larry Harvey, one of Burning Man’s co-founders and visionary, and other Burning Man devotees whom I interviewed and observed have passed, reminders that human lives are finite but that their influence endures through embodied values and connections practiced among the living. Even with these changes, Burning Man’s reach extends beyond its nine days in the Nevada Black Rock Desert. Inspired by their Burning Man experiences and organizing practices, people have set up their own projects and organizations in local communities across the US and worldwide. These efforts include FIGMENT, a collection of family-friendly festivals of interactive art that started at Governors Island, a short ferry ride away from Manhattan, New York, and has spread to other cities (Chen 2011).
For my newest project, I am studying another “extreme case,” in a different organizational field serving a wider, mixed-age population. Now that I am a parent as well as a professor, I wanted to study how collectives can use democratic practices to foster learning. Currently, I am observing how a small school explains its unconventional practices to stakeholders through trainings, tours, and meetings and how its members contribute to a growing, worldwide network of like-minded groups and organizations. This collective has innovated democratic practices so they can expedite meetings but still address individual concerns – curbing the “freedom is an endless meeting” criticism of democratic deliberation – and testing of possible practices governing their community.
When entering this network, some – particularly the adults who have been educated in traditional systems – must unlearn a singular reliance upon bureaucratic practices, such as hierarchical authority and unyielding rules. Even for someone like myself, with expertise and experience with collectivist-democratic organizations, the grooves of the iron cage run deep. Nonetheless, the synergies of bureaucratic and democratic practices offer an invigorating catalyst for exploring otherwise taken-for-granted beliefs about the ideal-types of organization.
How different stakeholders understand and wield practices of democratically fostered learning (and organizing) become visible only through repeated, reflexive observations and participant-observations that test assumptions. Right now, my field notes detail the experiences of a newcomer (myself) stumbling – including an unanticipated faceplant on the playground – through unfamiliar practices and situations, including meetings, interactions, and activities, with different parties. After inadvertently violating a practice or a norm, the ensuing conversation has helped me to adjust my understanding of organizing practices and their underlying rationales. Through such “missteps,” researchers can constantly clarify “what’s happening?”, accelerating abductive analysis that can generate or refine theory (cf. Stuart 2016; Tavory and Timmermans 2014).
When I started studying Burning Man, I did not realize I would be able to continue researching organizations and democratic practices in other venues and join a growing community of scholars interested in these issues. I have found it particularly invigorating to discuss research with both well-established experts like Joyce Rothschild and meet up-and-coming researchers at various conferences. At the moment, I’m co-organizing SASE’s “Alternatives to Capitalism” network; we’ll be meeting in Kyoto for 2018 and will meeting in NYC for 2019. I’m excited about this chance to explore the emancipatory potential of democratic practices in organizations and hope that others will make similar journeys with theory and data.
- Burawoy, Michael. 2013. “Ethnographic Fallacies: Reflections on Labour Studies in the Era of Market Fundamentalism.” Work, Employment and Society 27(3): 526–536.
- Chen, Katherine K. 2009. Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Chen, Katherine K. 2011. “Lessons for Creative Cities from Burning Man: How Organizations Can Sustain and Disseminate a Creative Context.” City, Culture and Society 2(2): 93-100.
- Chen, Katherine K. 2015. “Prosumption: From Parasitic to Prefigurative.” The Sociological Quarterly 56(3): 446-459.
- Chen, Katherine K. 2016. ““Plan Your Burn, Burn Your Plan”: How Decentralization, Storytelling, and Communification Can Support Participatory Practices.” The Sociological Quarterly 57(1): 71-97.
- Graeber, David. 2004. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press.
- Rothschild, Joyce and J. Allen Whitt. 1986. The Cooperative Workplace: Potentials and Dilemmas of Organizational Democracy and Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Stuart, Forrest. 2017. “Introspection, Positionality, and the Self as Research Instrument: Toward a Model of Abductive Reflexivity.” Approaches to Ethnography: Analysis and Representation in Participant Observation, edited by Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Rahman Khan. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Tavory, Iddo and Stefan Timmermans. 2014. Abductive Analysis Theorizing Qualitative Research. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.