Posts Tagged ‘legitimacy’

Two peer-reviewed articles on (1) artistic prosumption and (2) the development of several departments within the Burning Man organization now available

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Two of my peer-reviewed journal articles about (1) the Burning Man organization and the arts and (2) the development of several Burning Man departments – the Black Rock Rangers, DPW, and the Tech Team – are now available in print and on-line.

You can also download some of my other academic and general publications and view links here. Please email me with a request if you or your institution does not have access to a particular article that is in print.

1. Chen, Katherine K. 2012. “Artistic Prosumption: Cocreative Destruction at Burning Man.” American Behavioral Scientist 56(4): 570-595.

Researchers have called for more studies of how organizations institutionalize the unfamiliar as taken for granted. This study answers this call by examining how an organization has advocated an unfamiliar activity, the prosumption of art. To show how particular means and ends become taken for granted, this research analyzes how the Burning Man organization has promoted a logic advocating the prosumption of art. Using an in-depth ethnographic study of the organization behind Burning Man, a weeklong gathering of 50,000 persons around a ceremonial bonfire of a 40-foot-tall sculpture in the Nevada Black Rock Desert, the author shows how the Burning Man organization codified and advocated what she identifies as an inclusive community logic, a set of beliefs and practices that promote artistic prosumption. Members sought to expand who may produce art by recasting producers and consumers as prosumers, what kind of art is produced by encouraging interactions via prosumption, and how art is consumed by imbuing prosumption with specific meaning via connection. However, conflicts about whether particular actions support or undercut the inclusive community logic have not only challenged the Burning Man organization’s authority to shape prosumption but also forced organizers to clarify the ambiguous contours between appropriate and inappropriate activities. This research makes three contributions: (a) It reveals how an organization can facilitate new conceptions of activities by promulgating a logic that highlights contrasts between not-yet-familiar and conventional means; (b) it delves into how an organization adjudicates among competing conceptions of appropriate activities, illuminating the promotion of prosumption specifically and the emergence of a logic generally; and (c) it synthesizes three separate literatures on the sociology of organizations, prosumption, and art.

2. Chen, Katherine K. 2012. “Laboring for the Man: Augmenting Authority in a Voluntary Association.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations 34:135-164.

Abstract: Drawing on Bourdieu’s field, habitus, and capital, I show how disparate experiences and “dispositions” shaped several departments’ development in the organization behind the annual Burning Man event. Observations and interviews with organizers and members indicated that in departments with hierarchical professional norms or total institution-like conditions, members privileged their capital over others’ capital to enhance their authority and departmental solidarity. For another department, the availability of multiple practices in their field fostered disagreement, forcing members to articulate stances. These comparisons uncover conditions that exacerbate conflicts over authority and show how members use different types of capital to augment their authority.

What to do about dying or failing organizations?

Monday, June 1st, 2009

The past year has been a particularly eventful, if not unnerving, year for understanding the “life cycle” of organizations. Researchers argue that new organizations suffer from the “liability of newness” problem.* They lack sufficient infrastructure, legitimacy, and resources, and they are thus vulnerable to threats from regulators, competitors, and suppliers that can lead to organizational closure. The Burning Man organization has, at various points, faced such threats. With a combination of luck and support, it has survived its early years.

However, even well-established organizations may be unable to surmount problems. Some organizations die “quickly.” The collapse of a key banking and investment organization Bear Stearns over one weekend, and the subsequent frenzy of survival-oriented activity in other similar firms in the ensuing weeks as confidence weakened, took most people by surprise. Other organizations fail “slowly.” State intervention (i.e., the on-going General Motors bail-out) may prolong these organizations’ survival. Without such state activity, various large airline firms, railroad companies, and car manufacturers would have died years ago.

Competition from other organizations may accelerate decline. Such a selection process is evident in the disappearance of local independent bookstores.** In my old neighborhood, several independent bookstores folded over the course of a decade, leaving only one, my favorite (the Harvard Bookstore) standing. In my current neighborhood, with the recent closure of an independent bookstore, only two independents, Book Culture and Bank Street Books, remain. Large online firms don’t bear the high cost of storefront rent, and they have more muscle to negotiate with publishers. With these advantages, online firms have usurped independents. Independents that have managed to hang on (so far, at least) often rely upon a unique identity and appeal to attract supporters. Given Burning Man’s “unique” output of a week-long arts community, it’s difficult to imagine how competitors can edge Burning Man out.

More commonly, organizations that do survive their early and mid years face a succession and growth challenge. As original founders retire or are forced out, remaining members and new members may falter. As the organization grows in size, remaining members may miss the intimacy of the original organization, and newcomers may wonder what is so attractive or distinctive about their organization. One of the ways in which Burning Man organizers has addressed these challenges of succession and growth is to encourage members to set up their own local organizations and events. Through regionals and local events, supporters can find a more intimate, year-round community, rather than waiting for Labor Day weekend. Although the Burning Man event and organization may someday end, it’s likely that other events and communities will continue to embody the Burning Man ethos.

* Arthur L. Stinchcombe. 1965. “Social Structure and Organizations.” Pp. 142-193 in Handbook of Organizations, editted by James g. March. Chicago: Rand McNally.

** For more on independent bookstores, see Laura J. Miller’s (2006) Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Congress, the Media, and Legitimacy

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

The recent brouhaha over AIG’s bonus compensation illustrates two issues pertinent to all organizations:

(1) If you accept (or are forced to accept) funds from the government, be prepared to kowtow to conflicting demands and face intensive grillings by ill-prepared politicians.

(2) If you want to maintain your legitimacy as an organization, be prepared to deal with the media. The media plays a crucial role in framing issues and making issues more or less salient. For instance, why has recent media coverage focused on the $165 million in bonuses that AIG paid out, as opposed to other alternative stories about how our taxes are allocated, such as the $515 BILLION used for military spending?  Or how an estimated $1  BILLION  in governmental subsidies help ensure that Wal-Mart earns $12.8 BILLION in profit while its workers do not have a living wage or health care?