“Organizing creativity” now available in Sociology Compass journal

Looking for an overview of social science research on conditions that enhance or constrain creativity in organizations? See my just published Sociology Compass article “Organizing Creativity: Enabling Creative Output, Process, and Organizing Practices.” This article pulls together findings from organizational sociology (including my own research on the organization behind Burning Man), cultural sociology, psychology, and organizational studies.

Here is the abstract:

How individuals can exercise creativity in collectivities is unclear. We thus need to more thoroughly investigate the ‘black box’ of organizational creativity. Future research should consider creativity in a variety of organizations, rather than just those that are known for creative outputs or practices. In addition, we need to examine what I call everyday, relational, and proto-institutional forms of organizational creativity. Intra- and inter-organizational aspects can enhance or depress such organizational creativity: (1) within the organization’s boundary: internal interactions among organizational members and (2) outside the organization’s boundary: the surrounding organizational environment or field, which include competing or supporting organizations, other organizational actors, and the state. These two aspects pose dilemmas about how to organize that can constrain or enhance organizational creativity. In addressing these dilemmas, organizations must mediate between under- and over-organizing extremes. Organizations can enable creativity by incorporating changing interests and conditions. Organizations can eschew convention, increase rank-and-file involvement with corresponding authority, tolerate ambiguity and deviance, encourage improvisation, and support members’ diverse experiences and perspectives.”

“Charismatizing the Routine: Storytelling for Meaning and Agency in the Burning Man Organization” now available online at Qualitative Sociology

One of my papers on storytelling and Burning Man is now available online at the peer-reviewed journal Qualitative Sociology. The print version of this article is forthcoming, and hopefully my photo of activities at Burning Man will be on the cover of that issue!

Charismatizing the Routine: Storytelling for Meaning and Agency in the Burning Man Organization

Katherine K. Chen

Qualitative Sociology, Online First™, 6 June 2012

Expanding organizations face the routinization of charisma dilemma in which rationalization, or everyday organizing activities, drains meaning and depresses agency. Using an ethnographic study of the organization behind the annual Burning Man event, I show how storytelling can combat disenchantment by promoting consideration of agency and meaning-making. This research demonstrates how storytelling infuses organizational rationality with meaning and agency, thereby “charismatizing the routine.” Through storytelling, people can derive meaning from even the most mundane routines and inspire listeners to imagine possibilities not covered by rules or conventions. Stories also stave off bureaucratic ritualism by clarifying the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate activities, encouraging a range of actions over coercive restrictions.

Keywords Charisma – Charismatizing the routine – Meaning – Organization – Storytelling

You can also download some of my other academic and general publications and view links here.

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.

Next talk stop: University of Toronto on Thursday, November 17, 2011 and ARNOVA annual meeting

My next talk stop is at the University of Toronto in Canada at 4pm on Thursday, November 17, 2011. The talk is scheduled for Room 240 of the Sociology Department, 725 Spadin at the University of Toronto, downtown St. George campus in Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 2J4. Please contact Professor Erik Schneiderhan (e.schneiderhan@utoronto.ca) to confirm the location.

I am presenting: “Commiserating and Celebrating Authenticity at Burning Man: The Bases for Interaction Ritual Chains.” I will also be meeting with students and colleagues before and after the talk.

I will also be in Toronto for the annual meeting for the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) Nov. 17-19, where I will be presenting for the first time on my newest research project on organizations that provide education, social services, or advocacy for older adults. On Fri., Nov. 18, I will also be accepting the ARNOVA 2011 “Outstanding Book” award in Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research for Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event.

I am looking forward to catching up with colleagues in Canada!

Organizational ethnography on the rise?

While at the Academy of Management annual meeting in Aug., I stopped by a professional development workshop on “producing ethnographies.” As an organizational ethnographer, I was curious to see what fellow ethnographers had to say about the process of conducting observations and participant observations in a context – an organization – that many take-for-granted and comparatively few study in-depth. Most contemporary collective action is channeled via formal organizations, which have become extremely powerful actors – for example, in the US, corporations have more rights and fewer responsibilities than human individuals. These suggest that understanding how organizations work should be a priority both for researchers and for individuals wishing to survive and thrive in organizations (indeed, colleagues constantly confer with me to make sense of the latest puzzling dysfunction of their organizations). However, when colorful or complex activities draw most people’s attention, it’s easy to overlook the organizational underpinnings that enable such activities.

Here, I’ll briefly comment one speaker’s presentation. Anthropologist Karen Ho, who conducted a participant observation study of Wall Street firms, made an impassioned argument for studying the elites and their organizations. As an organizational sociologist, I would not require such convincing – in fact, most people in my field would view studying firms such as an investment bank as legitimate or even more legitimate than studying other kinds of organizations. Based on the various special panels proposed to conferences, it seems that more sociologists are becoming interested in understanding how/why particular groups are rich and/or powerful. In addition, part of the general public is beginning to understand that organizations play crucial roles in shaping individuals’ life chances through the control of resources (for example, mortgages and student loans) and influence in the political process. Hopefully, this signals a trend that supports in-depth, empirical research of organizations.

Are you considering graduate school? Currently in graduate school? Finishing graduate school?

Increasingly, I get more inquiries from students who are interested in completing a masters or doctoral degree. Some believe that these degrees will help them land their dream jobs in an increasingly tight job market. Others aspire to be professors or researchers. Both groups often have erroneous assumptions about what training in the academy involves. For example, would-be PhD students typically don’t understand what a PhD is for – usually, it’s intended as preparation for a career as a professor or a researcher. Or, would-be graduate students underestimate the length of time it may take to complete a doctoral degree (hint: it doesn’t take 1 year – add a zero behind that 1 for some disciplines or departments), misunderstand what the graduate school process is like (hint: it doesn’t just involve reading and taking classes; students have to be self-directed enough to undertake a research project from conceptualization through write-up), and overestimate the availability of tenure-track appointments (hint: in my field, a tenure-track position may get at least 300 applications; I’ve seen figures that estimate as few as 5% of those completing a PhD overall will get a tenure-track position).

Orgtheorist Fabio Rojas has published an ebook Grad Skool Rulz which expands upon a popular series of blog posts. I’ve read an earlier draft of the ebook; it presents no-holds-barred advice on reasons as to why one should or shouldn’t go to graduate school, how to apply for graduate school, how to select a program, and how to thrive in a program. If you are considering getting a masters or doctoral degree, spend the bargain-priced $2 (yes, just two bucks) to think through whether the opportunity cost of spending between 2 to 10 years out (or partially out) of the job market is worth your while.

Next stops: San Antonio and Vegas

August 2011 is the month for hot climates. I’m currently in San Antonio for the Academy of Management annual meeting and will soon be in Las Vegas for the American Sociological Association annual meeting.

Today, Thur., Aug. 12, 2011, 3-5pm CDT. I’ll be co-presenting with Prof. Tor Hernes, Copenhagen Business School, on using organizational ethnography to teach organizational design for the OMT Teaching Roundtables at the Academy of Management (AOM) annual meeting, San Antonio Convention Center: Room 216 A & B, San Antonio, TX. This is a description provided by Prof. Hernes:
“In this roundtable, I will describe an elective course for MS students at the Copenhagen Business School. The course typically enrolls ~80 students from 5-10 different countries (mostly Scandinavia). We use the book Enabling Creative Chaos, Katherine Chen’s ethnographic account of the development of the Burning Man event (2009). Using the book provides a common “empirical” basis for discussion in class, which is a way to compensate for the lack of organizational experience among the students who are typically age 23-27. The idea, rather than work from OD as the balancing of structure, culture, systems and technology (which is typically assumed), is to view OD as the ongoing attempts at framing the sense-making of organizational members. We work from OD as the combined use of various types of material, social and cognitive mechanisms that organizers employ as they are confronted with dilemmas of organizational growth and change.”

Sun., Aug. 21, 2011, 11:30-12:10am PDT. For my book Enabling Creative Chaos, I will be accepting Honorable Mention for the 2011 Max Weber Award of the Organizations, Occupations, and Work (OOW) Section of the American Sociological Association, OOW business meeting, at the American Sociological Association annual meeting, Caesers Palace in Las Vegas, NV.

Fun facts: Fellow Harvard grad student turned Northwestern professor Celeste Watkins-Hayes is also an Honorable Mention recipient, and Martin Ruef, who was a teaching assistant for my first organizations class at Stanford and now is a Princeton professor, is the winner for his book on entrepreneurship.

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.

Collaborative Intelligence Seminar- 10am EDT Thur., July 7, 2011 at SUNY Stony Brook

Prof. Todd Pittinsky at SUNY Stony Brook sent me the following info for those of you who are in the New York City/Long Island area and are interested in learning how to set up effective teams.

“The LI Infragard Alliance, the Metropolitan Area College & University
Security Consortium, and the Department of Technology and Society,
Stony Brook College of Engineering and Applied Sciences
will be
cosponsoring a talk by Professor J. Richard Hackman, Department of
Psychology, Harvard University. The talk will be held at the Wang
Center at Stony Brook University
on Thursday, July 7th.

This event will begin at 10:00 AM with coffee and networking. The
program will start at approximately 10:30 AM with introductory remarks
by Suffolk County Police Department’s Deputy Chief Mark White,
Homeland Security and Anti- Terrorism. The program is expected to
conclude by 12:30. Register via the link provided below.

Wang Center Lecture Hall 2:
10:00 am: Light breakfast sponsored by The Security Consortium
10:30 am: Introductory remarks: Suffolk County Police Department
Deputy Chief Mark White and Todd Pittinsky, SBU
10:45-11:45: J. Richard Hackman and open Q&A

About the Speaker:
Professor J. Richard Hackman serves on the Intelligence Science Board
of the Director of National Intelligence. He is the Edgar Pierce
Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard
University and a leading expert on group dynamics, team performance,
leadership effectiveness, and the design of self-managing teams and

Professor Hackman will speak to the subject of his most recent book
Collaborative Intelligence, Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems,
Lessons from and for the Intelligence Community
. Intelligence
professionals are commonly viewed as solo operators, but these days
intelligence work is mostly about collaboration. Interdisciplinary
and inter-organizational teams are necessary to solve the really hard
problems intelligence professionals face. This book and talk draws on
recent research findings as well as Professor Hackman’s own experience
as an intelligence community researcher and advisor, to show how
leaders can create an environment where teamwork flourishes.

Who Should Attend:
Although crafted for intelligence, defense, crisis management, and law
enforcement professionals, the talk will also be valuable for
improving team success in all kinds of leadership, management,
service, and production teams in business, government, and nonprofit

To register for this free event, please click this link.