Upcoming talks scheduled for fall 2009 and spring 2010: UPDATED

Fri., Oct 9, 2009, noon PST (the same weekend as Decompression!). Talk and discussion at Hubble Conference room at The Hub coworking space
The Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA 94704. More info here.

Fri., Oct 9, 2009, 7:30pm PST. Talk and discussion at PariSoMa Coworking space, 1436 Howard St., San Francisco, CA 94105. Doors open at 7:30pm. RSVP at http://burningbookbash.eventbrite.com/.

I will also be at Decompression on Sun., Oct 11, 2009 in San Francisco.

Thur., Nov. 11, 2009, 4pm EST. “Sustainable Communities: Enabling Creative Chaos at Burning Man” talk at the Wang Center, SUNY-Stony Brook in Long Island, New York.

Thur., Nov. 19, 2009, 3pm EST. Short presentation of “Laboring for the Man: Augmenting Authority in a Voluntary Association” on the “Values, Culture, and Voice” panel at Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) conference in Cleveland, Ohio.

Sometime during March 18-21, 2010, Author Meets Critics session at Eastern Sociological Society annual meeting at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel and Towers in Boston, MA.

Sometime during April 8-11, 2010, Author Meets Critics session at Pacific Sociological Association annual meeting in Oakland, CA.

Other talks TBA. You can also keep track of talks via the Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event facebook group page .

American Sociological Association conference presentation, Aug. 2009
American Sociological Association conference presentation, Aug. 2009

Where to learn more about sociology and anthropology

One reader emailed me the following question: “What foundation texts would you recommend for a burner with very little knowledge of sociology and anthropology?” I’ve polled my colleagues, and here are several suggestions for where to start your journey to understanding society. In a future post, I’ll make additional suggestions for readings on organizations.

In sociology, the three foundational theorists are Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. Much of subsequent research has built on these three theorists’ perspectives.

If you’re reading on your own, my colleagues suggested starting with the following works:
C. Wright Mills. 2000. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press. Mills helps readers make links between seemingly “individual” experiences to larger societal issues.

Erving Goffman. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books. Ever wonder why everyone pretends to not notice when someone farts or commits a similar faux pas? Goffman shows us how we work together to smooth over such interactions. If you like this book, you’ll probably also enjoy Goffman’s other works, including Stigma and Asylums.

W.E. Dubois. 1978. On Sociology and the Black Community. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. One of the founders of studies on inequality and race and ethnicity, with the aims of rectifying inequality.

Emile Durkheim. 1915. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: Free Press. See why the “Man” may be a totem for a community!

Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor Books. Learn how concepts, ideas, categories, common sense, etc. become taken-for-granted and unquestioned.

Post-modern theorists
Michel Foucault. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Jean Baudrillard. Books such as The System of Objects critique the place of consumption.

Communities and nations
Benedict Anderson. 2006. Imagined Communities. London: Verso. How do people conceive of themselves as a connected community, especially as a nation?

Anthropology (citations provided via a colleague and fellow Burner and religious studies scholar Lee Gilmore – since I’m not in an expert in these areas, I’ll present most without comment)
Mary Douglas’s books include Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Some organizations scholars like her 1986 How Institutions Think.

Anything by Edward E. Evans-Pritchard.

Anything by Clifford Geertz. In particular, his 1977 “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books) is a good place to start.

Anything by Claude Levi-Strauss.

Anything by Bronsilaw Malinowski. For example, his 1989 A Diary in the Strictest Sense of the Term. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. This anthropologist’s diary reveals the ambivalent feelings and physical distress that a researcher might experience while in the field.

Marcel Mauss. 2000. The Gift. W.W. Norton. Understand how gift-giving reinforces ties among persons.

Anything by Alfred Radcliffe-Brown.

Anything by Victor Turner, including The Ritual Process.

Good luck on your journey!

Conducting qualitative research

Ever wonder why a researcher is madly typing or scribbling down notes? Why she asks questions in a particular way?

For those of you who are interested in learning more about the conduct of qualitative research, including observations and interviews, please see my latest guest blog post at orgtheory.net. In this post, I suggest books and articles.

Shame and Virtue at Burning Man

In an earlier post, I shared a link to Craig Duff’s piece, “5 Things Cities Can Learn From Burning Man.”

One reader wanted to know more about the fourth lesson, when Larry Harvey talks about “shame [being] more efficacious than virtue.” Rather than speculating, I emailed Craig Duff to ask him to elaborate on that point. Duff emailed back to explain that Harvey was referring to how Burners practice “Leave No Trace,” in which they pack out their own trash. In the past, Burning Man organizers would publish a “list of shame” identifying theme camps by name that had left behind debris. Fellow Burners would then chastise those camps. As many active Burners know, reputation matters. The “stick” of (potential) public humiliation is enough to compel some people to comply.

On the other hand, what’s even more compelling is Burning Man’s innovative use of “carrots.” That is, people think of creative ways to make otherwise dreary activities – like recycling or picking up trash – fun and even enjoyable. In my book, I talk about the origins and intent of Recycle Camp, which collects and crushes aluminum cans. Co-founder Simon Hagger wanted to make the activity of recycling fun for people, so he built a special pedal-powered contraption to crush cans, and he also gave mallets for people to hand-crush cans. He said that some people seemed to imagine their least favorite person, such as their boss, as the target while whacking the cans. (Managers, take note: maybe you can kill two birds with one stone: sublimate your underlings’ unhappy feelings into recycling.)

Recycle Camp still continues that tradition today. Check out this photo of Recycle Camp from this past event, 2009:

Volunteers bicycle around the city to collect cans, and people also bring their cans to Recycle Camp. The fellow at the left is transferring collected cans into a container, which he will then dump onto the sorting table. At the sorting table, people push recyclable cans towards the middle, where a person (in this photo, the guy wearing the white vest) pedals two large wheels that crush the cans for recycling.

So there you have it: Burning Man’s version of the carrot and the stick. To close, Duff’s take-away point for cities is to “foster…virtue, even if you have to shame people into it.”

Consumption: Rethinking how we express our relationships

In my freshman-level sociology class, one concept that I teach concerns the unintended consequences of capitalism, in which people must exchange their labor for wages. According to Karl Marx, owners attempt to drive the cost of labor down as low as possible to increase their profit (profit = value of commodity produced minus the cost of labor). My students are often shocked to find out that luxury handbags, designer sneakers, and diamonds – all of which have been portrayed as valuable and exclusive – have a huge mark-up but cost relatively little to make, as workers are paid subsistence-level wages; these allow for a sizable profit margin for the firm’s owners. My students also usually express their surprise and horror that workers are often children and young adults who must forgo education to labor in debilitating and dangerous conditions. In general, consumers often don’t know that goods and services have a “back story.” Increasingly, some consumers are deciding to patronize local producers or places that rely upon fair labor practices, or they have altered their consumption patterns to decrease waste.

Rev. Billy’s What Would Jesus Buy? documentary follows the Church of Stop Shopping’s attempts to get consumers to consider where their low-priced goods come from and why they are spending money on consumer goods. In one scene, Rev. Billy and his crew mention that they are trying to get people to think of alternative ways to express their love or affection besides buying goods as gifts. Burning Man has had a similar message in its prohibition of corporate advertising and sponsorship and its promotion of the gift economy.

To rethink how we engage in consumption, we first need to understand why we engage in it. Several ethnographers have both observed and interviewed people, including children, about why and how they consume. For Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture (2009, University of California Press), Allison J. Pugh conducted a study of affluent and poor children living in Oakland, California. She found that children used possessions to make connections with others, and that parents didn’t want their children to be excluded by their peers for not having the “right” things.

Elizabeth Chin gave children living in New Haven, Connecticut $20 each to spend as they saw fit and followed them on their shopping excursions. Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture (2001, University of Minnesota) shows how these children, all of whom came from families living in poverty, bought gifts to share with others, reinforcing relations with family members, their teachers, and even their tag-along researcher.

In The Purchase of Intimacy (2007, Princeton University Press), Viviana A. Zelizer shows how intimate relations, such as sexual relations or the provision of care by family members, are intertwined with economic activities.

Consumption is not an inherently bad activity. However, we should think about other, creative ways to make connections with people that do not have such dire implications for others’ quality of life.

5 Things Cities Can Learn from Burning Man

While volunteering at Media Mecca, I met fellow New Yorker Craig Duff, who is the Director of Multimedia for Time. He produced this thoughtful clip, “5 Things Cities Can Learn from Burning Man.”

One additional unmentioned lesson from Burning Man is the capacity for individuals to forge new connections or sustain old connections, whether it’s through attending an art performance, a celebratory bonfire, volunteering, or casual conversation. I find this a striking contrast with conventional cities, where most exchanges are funneled through monetary exchanges. I’m not saying that monetary exchanges are bad, but these provide limited opportunities for individuals to interact. The chance to sit down and have an extended, enjoyable conversation with someone is priceless.

Routines and serendipity at Burning Man

Like previous years, while at Burning Man this year, I volunteered at Media Mecca, where the press check-in to sign paperwork outlining their responsibilities, get their cameras tagged, and socialize. Each year that I volunteer, I learn a new routine, new policies, and make new acquaintances. I find these changes refreshing and reinvigorating – the ability to forget old routines or rules that no longer apply and learn new ones tailored to current circumstances is easier to do at the Burning Man event since it only meets once a year. In other words, the temptation to ritualistically follow outdated routines is diminished for a yearly event, as people don’t practice these routines everyday.

Moreover, chance meetings with people often lead to wonderful discoveries. For example, while volunteering at Media Mecca, I finally met Sunny Minedew, the filmmaker whose documentary I referenced on p. 139 in the paperback version of Enabling Creative Chaos. In addition, I got the chance to chat with Bill Talen, the performance artist more popularly known as Reverend Billy. I was especially tickled to meet Rev. Billy, as I’ve used Starbucks’ memo about how their employees should act when visited by Rev. Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping as an exam question about routinization for my sociology of organizations class. Rev. Billy was gracious enough to gift me with his documentary and music. I look forward to finding out what happens when Rev. Billy and his group descend upon the Disney amusement park.