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

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.

Burning Man entry now available in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology

Have a student or colleague who needs a quick summary of scholarly research and references across the disciplines on Burning Man, as well as possible avenues for future research? The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology has just published my entry on Burning Man.

The Blackwell Encyclopedia was edited by sociologist George Ritzer and his graduate students, including J. Michael Ryan, at the Dept. of Sociology, University of Maryland. Ritzer is best known for the concept McDonaldization, which describes the relentless spread of “efficiency, predictability, calculability and increased control through the replacement of human with non-human technology” across society. Those of you who are interested in understanding consumption might also like his newest writings on prosumption, in which consumers both produce and consume products or experiences.

The Great Metropolis face-off! Burning Man vs. the Big Apple, round 1: Costco

In honor of Burning Man’s 2010 theme of Metropolis, I’ve decided to run a series of comparisons, some light-hearted and some serious, between Black Rock City, aka Burning Man, and New York City, aka the Big Apple. The former has been a temporary home since 1998 for me; the latter is currently my permanent home.

Costco in East Harlem, NYC, 2009
This past Sat., as late afternoon turned into early evening, I walked through East Harlem toward the new Costco, passing by community gardens sponsored by various big box retailers and a dog alertly sitting beneath a “beware of dog” sign. From a distance, the new building blazed with blinding lights, drawing in the curious, some of whom gripped special postcards that waived the store’s membership requirement for the day. Costco occupies the ground floor of a new multistory complex that will soon have a Marshall’s, Target, and Home Depot stacked on top of each other. When transplanted to space-starved Manhattan, a sprawling mall strip of big box stores is vertically upended, a literal totem to consumerism.

As I navigated the aisles, I became reacquainted with what Americans find desirable – wide aisles stocked with large quantities of frozen food, bulk items encased in excessive packaging, and a sea of clothing stacked on tables. Unlike other chain stores in NYC, which often have shortages that bring to mind Soviet era austerity, this store’s shelves were well-stocked. After checking out the aisles and going through the cashier’s line, I finally remembered one of Costco’s quirks. The store does not provide shopping bags, presumably because customers will dump their bulk items directly into a car trunk, rather than walking home with their purchases in hand. So I packed my own bags, not realizing that the staff by the exit wanted to first compare customers’ receipts against the items in shopping carts. A moment’s thought about this guard against “shrink,” a not uncommon practice at other big box stores in NYC, suggested that stores may not only distrust their shoppers, but also their own cashiers.

Costo Soulmate Trading Outlet in Black Rock City, 1998
Black Rock City’s version of Costco is, well, more interesting. Rather than entering a big box to shop for bulk goods, you duck into a large tent. Under the shade and seated in a chair (much appreciated amenities in the middle of a desert), you complete a survey that enables you to make a connection with your playa soulmate. I patronized this service during this theme camp‘s first year. Guided by an earnest “employee,” I filled in answers to questions, had my photo taken for the Costco card, which was then printed and handed over to me, and I went on my way to other adventures. This camp’s quirk was that a member would only get the name of a soulmate and his/her camp location, but it was up to the intrepid to locate the soulmate at Burning Man. While working with fellow volunteer RonJon to erect the dome structure for Media Mecca, I had my first Burning Man experience – my soulmate Moondog, adorned in Elvis-style sunglasses, a Hawaiian print shirt, and a necklace of shark teeth (or something similarly pointy), came running up, with gift in hand. 10 years later, RonJon still chuckles about this unlikely meeting in the desert.

What’s preferable: pushing an over-sized shopping cart around, or making a memorable connection? Thanks for the memories, Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet. Big Apple: 0, Burning Man: 1

Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet, San Francisco Decompression, 2009
Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet, San Francisco Decompression, 2009

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.