The power of collective organizing

One of the enduring myths of American society is “rugged individualism” which suggests that through sheer effort, any individual can surmount any challenge. Hard work is necessary, but it often isn’t enough, especially when years of emphasizing short-term corporate profitability and “small” government have eroded good jobs and decent health and retirement benefits for many people. Decades ago, sociologist Katherine Newman documented the effects of lay-offs on professionals and their families in Falling from Grace: Downward Mobility in the Age of Affluence. People suffered alone. When people believe that their circumstance are unique to them rather than widely shared with others, they may make few or no demands for larger societal change.

As Occupy Wall Street and its affiliates demonstrate, some are beginning to realize the power of collective organizing. Like Burning Man participants, some OWS participants are learning decision-making by consensus and other skills; others are applying skills, knowledge, and experiences learned elsewhere to build a collective that more thoroughly reflects their interests.

For the corporate media, the government, and individuals, OWS is difficult to comprehend because it encompasses people whose circumstances such as joblessness are seen as individual failings, rather than the result of larger societal processes. Moreover, OWS does not conform to how organizations or social movements are expected to act. People expect collectives to have one leader who make decisions topdown through a hierarchy; furthermore, people expect collectives to state just a few easily articulated goals (i.e., make a profit) and set ways of pursuing these goals. In contrast, OWS has no single spokesperson or leader and instead relies upon collective input, and it advocates multiple goals, including an emphasis on individual and collective expression. These characteristics are unnervingly different for those who are used to conventional bureaucratic rationality.

In reality, many organizations and indeed, our society, operate more like OWS than most would like to think. We have many interests and goals; it’s often hard work to reconcile how to best pursue these goals, including how to organize. Sometimes, we have to try different things before realizing our preferences. Organizing is messy, hard work – organizations do not run by themselves like machine clockwork, they require the constant cooperation of people to regularly carry out organizing activities. However, organizing offers rewards to those who enjoy working collectively and want to coordinate efforts towards complex goals.

Revitalizing cities through arts and cultural organizations

During the past several decades, the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector have sapped the vitality of US cities. While a few cities such as New York City and San Francisco have been able to rebound, others have not. One revitalization approach calls for building amenities that will attract tourists and consumers; this approach supposedly creates jobs, initially in construction and then in the service sector, and is believed to bring in a revenue stream based on consumption. Sociologists John Logan and Harvey Molotch point out how a focus on increasing real estate values underpin this approach; political and corporate interests drive this urban growth machine. In practice, investments in venues such as sporting stadiums can be high-risk for residents, particularly when large projects worsen rather than improve a city’s fortunes, as this July 12th “A Stadium’s Costly Legacy Throws Taxpayers for a Loss” WSJ article outlines.

In his Rise of the Creative Class book, sociologist Richard Florida argues for another approach – that attracting creative professionals, such as artists and software programmers, is crucial to revitalizing cities. However, according to other researchers like geographer Julian Brash, this approach pits cities in a zero-sum game in which cities compete against each other for resources.

Others have since researched the roles that existing arts and cultural organizations and other collectivities play in revitalizing cities. For example, a new book by University of Michigan sociologist Frederick Wherry‘s The Philadelphia Barrio: The Arts, Branding, and Neighborhood Transformation (2011, UChicago Press) examines how local arts organizations and small businesses can take collective action to reinvigorate neighborhoods.

Similarly, in a forthcoming article, I explore how the Burning Man organization and off-shoots, such as the Burning Man regionals, local art projects, and Burners without Borders, establish a context that could stoke the creativity of a wider range of persons (i.e., not just trained professionals) at Black Rock City and other localities. “Lessons for Creative Cities from Burning Man: How organizations can sustain and disseminate a creative context” is in press at the peer-reviewed journal City, Culture and Society.

The societal consequences of felony convictions

Yesterday, I attended a talk by New York University Prof. Diedre Royster. The author of Race and the Invisible Hand, Royster mentioned her surprise that Americans are not aware of (1) what kinds of acts can result in felony charges, and (2) the consequences that can accompany a felony conviction.

One can receive a felony conviction for a variety of acts. Most readers will think that felony convictions are for interpersonal crimes that involve violence, such as rape and murder. However, a prior history of small criminal acts, such as a series of petty thefts, can result in a felony charge. Under the PATRIOT act, exercising the Constitutional right to assembly or even planning a protest can be redefined as terrorist acts subject to felony charges. Seemingly innocent acts can lead to charges for a felony crime, such as using a digital camera to videorecord a few minutes of a relative’s birthday get-together in a movie theater. Acts that are misdemeanors in one state, such as possession of a small amount of marijuana, are felonies in another state.

Depending upon the state, a felony conviction is associated with numerous penalties, including the temporary or even permanent loss of voting rights during incarceration and parole. In Locked Out, Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen discuss the consequences of this loss of the right to vote, which affects 1 in every 40 Americans. Moreover, a felony conviction can lead to the loss of the professional license necessary to practice a variety of occupations, from psychologists to CPAs.

Research indicates that convictions and incarceration can disproportionately impact the employment chances of certain groups. For instance, sociologists Devah Pager and Lincoln Quillian’s experimental study revealed that although employers self-report a willingness to consider such applicants, they are less likely to call back job applicants who have served time in practice. More disturbingly, employers are also less likely to call back black applicants, preferring white applicants, even those with a criminal record, over black applicants without a criminal record. Read the results of this empirical study here: “Walking the Talk? What Employers Say Versus What They Do.”

What can be done? At minimum, individuals should learn their rights, be aware of attempts to alter these rights, and make sure that other individuals are not deprived of their rights. The Burning Man organization, for instance, educates participants of their rights and responsibilities. Groups such as the ACLU help keep track of legislation and policies that affect rights.

The challenges of growing participatory groups and organizations

One of yesterday’s WSJ front page articles (“Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages“) examined the increasing turn-over among volunteers for the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia. The article discusses the difficulties of monitoring the content contributed by users. Both the comments and article suggest that size, age, increasing rules, and a lack of accountability among anonymous users make Wikipedia a less attractive venue to potential contributors and discourage the continued participation of current contributors.

After mulling over this news article and other research on participatory groups, I would also suggest other possible reasons for a decline in Wikipedia’s participation, as well as a different perspective on the usefulness of Wikipedia:
(1) Most people don’t have experience with participatory practices and need to learn to flex those muscles, which results in inevitable bumps and attrition among those who privilege efficiency over collective discussion.
(2) More problematically, outside of the academy,* people don’t agree on what constitutes a fact versus an opinion, much less understand the research process. I would speculate that a heavily politicized education (i.e., creationism/intelligent design taught alongside evolution as a theory) or an insufficient education make it more difficult for people to make distinctions between facts and opinions.
(3) Since Wikipedia began 8 years ago, it’s possible that declining participation among old-timers may be inevitable due to changing interests and competing responsibilities, such as raising a family. In addition, the intensification of work as employers demand longer hours and/or downsize staff reduce the amount of free time that both new and longtime volunteers can offer.

So, what might Wikipedia really tell us? Rather than thinking of Wikipedia as only a factual, consensus-based encyclopedia, Wikipedia might offer us insight into phenomena over which consensus has not yet been established, as well as the different stakeholders who get involved in the construction and dissemination of knowledge.

* Of course, academics have their own disagreements about what constitutes proper research.

Dealing with heightened expectations

Recently, the Electronic Frontier Foundation criticized Burning Man’s policy on rights to images taken at the Burning Man event. This criticism led to a heated discussion on boingboing. Burning Man representative Andie Grace, aka Actiongrl, has responded on the Burning Man blog here, which has been linked to a follow-up post on boingboing here.

While I can’t comment on the legal aspects of this matter since I’m not a legal expert, I can point out what I find fascinating about such controversies. People have opinions about what they think an organization should or shouldn’t do, including what legal form and practices an organization should adopt. And, people state their opinions, irrespective of whether or not they have any experiences with a particular organization, as demonstrated by comments on the boingboing discussion threads.

Expectations for “appropriate” activities are heightened for organizations like Burning Man, which depend on volunteer labor, pursue distinctive missions such as social change, and have high visibility because of media coverage. When confronting such expectations, organizations have to make a decision – do they address, much less acknowledge, such expectations? If they don’t respond to criticisms, they may lose their legitimacy from their constituents or the general public.

In responding to criticisms, the Burning Man organization has made a number of changes, including publishing their finances and making activities more transparent. On the other hand, they have also defended policies that they believe are needed to protect the Burning Man event from co-optation by other interests.

What would life be like if people demanded similar accountability of all organizations, and organizations responded? Northwestern B-school Prof. Brayden King discusses how this process works (and doesn’t work) here.

What to do about dying or failing organizations?

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.

Who is the “average” Burning Man attendee?

Thanks to Prof. Caroline Lee, a sociologist whose expertise includes the professionalization of participatory practices, I recently gave an invited lecture at Lafayette College in Easton, PA. Among other questions, students asked what kinds of people attend the Burning Man event. In particular, they were curious about participants’ finances.

Answering these kinds of questions is only possible because of survey research.* One of the first surveys administered at Burning Man was run by a theme camp called the Ministry of Statistics. Passers-by to the theme camp, which was located in the Central Camp area, were invited to complete the survey, and the Ministry of Statistics posted statistics on the collected data  during the event. The media reproduced several of these statistics, including one about drug consumption, in print, much to the dismay of Burning Man organizers who were concerned about the event’s legitimacy.

Since then, the Burning Man organization has gathered demographic information via a convenience survey administered during the event.  The collected information is available in the AfterBurn report on the Burning Man website.  For example, information on salary, home ownership, etc. of surveyed 2007 Burning Man respondents is available here.

Here’s of a photo of 2008 participants diligently completing the survey in the Center Camp Cafe:

2008 Burning Man participants complete survey at the Center Camp Cafe

In other years, the Burning Man organization has also gathered self-reported data on how much participants spent on local businesses; such information was intended to show that the event benefited local Nevada communities.

*Also, the idea that one can quantify the “average” person is a relatively recent phenomena.  See historian Sarah E. Igo’s The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public.

Congress, the Media, and Legitimacy

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?