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.

How to virtually connect with other Burning Nerds

Originally, I compiled this info sheet for the 5th annual Burning Man Leadership Summit; others might find the below instructions useful for connecting with others interested in research on Burning Man.

I. Website (currently under construction – please note that listings are not comprehensive, nor are all listings peer-reviewed)
See what scholars and researchers have discovered about Burning Man:

Know of peer-reviewed publications related to Burning Man that should be listed or linked on this webpage? Email suggestions to academics [at] burningman [dot] com

II. Discussion list
Burning Nerds has a google group for those interested in reading, conducting, or writing research about Burning Man and its related worldwide culture. Stay updated on recent, relevant and ongoing research about our collective experience on the playa, plan meetups, events, and collaborations. Currently, message traffic ranges from zero to several messages a day.

Visit this group’s homepage:
Email this group: burning-nerds [at] googlegroups [period] com
Subscribe to this group:

How to subscribe to a google group (note: you do not need a google gmail account)
“You can subscribe to a group through our web interface or via email. To subscribe to a group through our web interface, simply log in to your Google Account and visit the group of your choice. Then click the “Join this group” link on the right-hand side of the page under “About this group.” To subscribe to a group via email, send an email to [Groupname] For example, if you wanted to join a group called google-friends, you’d send an email to”

How to manage messages or unsubscribe:
Rather than receiving individual emails, you can elect to have daily summaries/digest sent to you. Or, you can just read the conversations on the web. If you are already subscribed to the list, you can change your settings by logging into your google account and clicking on “Edit my membership.”
Here are your options:
“How do you want to read this group?
• No Email: I will read this group on the web
• Abridged Email (Once per day or for every 100 messages): Get a summary of new activity each day
• Digest Email (Approximately 1 email per day): Get up to 25 full new messages bundled into a single email
• Email: Send each message to me as it arrives”
After selecting the option you want, click “Save these settings.”
If you wish to unsubscribe, click the “unsubscribe.”

Full disclosure: At the Burning Man organization’s request, I am co-moderating the Burning Nerds google group along with Burning Man staff Rosalie Fay Barnes and Andie Grace.

Burning Nerds meet-up at Burning Man, 2:30-5pm Fri., Sept. 2, 2011

Those of you who are interested in meeting other Burning Nerds, please take note:

Burning Nerds Meet Up on the Playa!

Media Mecca is hosting a meet up for Burning Nerds on the playa in the 2011. We did it last year and we’re doing it again! You are invited! Please join us!

When: Friday, September 2, 2011

Where: Ashram Galactica (8:00 and Engagement)

Time: 2:30pm-5:00pm

Enjoy cocktails and an afternoon mixer with the academics and scholars
of Black Rock City.

Do you teach, conduct or write or work with research? Do you wish you could?
Then you are a Burning Nerd!

Come join us for libations, entertainment and presentations:

The 2011 Environmental Assessment process-Learning how to research BRC.
Updates on the Census-new questions in 2011-Where they are from and why!
The 2011 Non-Profit of Burning Man. How might academics collaborate?

OPEN MIC-for Burning Nerds to share their research!

PLEASE join us and RSVP to academics [at] burningman [dot] com

Academics URL:

See you there!

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.

Today is a great day for learning something new: Burning Man regionals working on CORE (Circle of Regional Effigies)

One of the aspects that I enjoy about Burning Man is the opportunity to learn something new, such as a new skill, experience, or practice. Burning Man’s constant experimentation makes such learning opportunities possible. One such experiment this year is the “Circle of Regional Effigies,” otherwise known as CORE, in which regionals from across the US and around the world will build a representative effigy to burn around the Man. Some regionals, like Las Vegas, have even made websites where you can learn more about their projects’ efforts and progress. These projects are channeling local communities’ efforts into producing more collaborative, participatory art to be shared both locally and at Burning Man.

Yesterday, my partner and I spent several hours working with other volunteers sandpapering, gluing, and nailing cut wood for the “Tree of Heaven,” which is the NYC regional effigy. Jesse Green and “Kat” Fitzgerald designed this installation of a wooden tree surrounded by benches representing different boroughs’ bridges. In a scene reminiscent of the Hawthorne studies’ wiring experiments, as a group, we also cut and connected wiring to LED lights for the base of the installation, which reproduces a public transportation map of subway lines. Under the guidance of other volunteers, I learned how to cut wires down, which other volunteers then connected to LED strips representing the different MTA subway lines and the NJ PATH trains. As the designated “quality control” person, I also learned how to determine whether wires were properly connected to the LED strips by testing the leads on a power supply. While such hands-on work came as second nature to my partner, who earned a PhD working in a lab and had eagerly brought his own tools for this occasion, for me, this new experience demystified some of the nuts and bolts of putting together an art project.

Later on, at dinner, my fortune cookie summarized my experiences for the day: “Today is a great day for learning something new.” My partner got the fortune “Really great people make you feel that you too can become great,” which was also an appropriate testament to collaborative projects such as CORE.

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.

Burning Man Artist PR Web Seminar tonight 6pm PDT, Wed., July 13

You’ve worked long and hard on an art project or theme camp. How do you make sure that others learn about your work? Academics and artists alike eventually realize that toiling quietly in obscurity rarely results in public knowledge or recognition of hard work. On occasion, someone might literally trip over your work and be thrilled. But if others haven’t heard about your work, it’s likely that your work will languish like a gift that’s forgotten in the back of a closet – a great discovery, waiting to happen. You have the additional task of letting others know what you’re doing so that they can share your gift.

Tonight, Burning Man and the Los Angeles & Chicago communities are co-hosting a seminar on how to do public relations (PR). People can participate in a webinar or in person. Here’s the original announcement:

“Burning Man Artist PR Web Seminar

Dear Burning Man/BRAF Artist:

For several months, we have been helping Burning Man honorarium recipient and BRAF grant recipient with public relations strategy and tasks. Now that we are in July, we want to invite you to the first ever Burning Man Artist PR Web Seminar.

It’s important to provide for good public relations when your art becomes real in the desert (or in your home town). Yet, many artists are so busy solving problems and managing their builds they lose the chance to shine the light of good PR on their work and teams.

Please join us on line next Wednesday, July 13, at 6pm (Pacific time; 9pm Eastern time) for a special web cast to help you keep your date with fame.

Live from Los Angeles, Athena Demos will moderate a panel of experts who know public relations and know the playa.

We will also have conversations with Burning Man mangers and experts who can help you think through your strategy for pre-burn PR, on-Playa efforts, and post-burn communications to your team, your support base and the world.

Tune in by going to on Wednesday at the appointed time.

Or join us LIVE in LA at The Red Loft. Doors open at 5:30pm. Bring snacks to share. 440 Seaton St., Los Angeles, CA

You may want to be sure you have a team member also watching, because you may want someone watching out for your PR opportunities while you lead your team.

This is a production of the Burning Man Media Team, the LA Burning Man community and the Chicago Burning Man Community.

This is a gift from all of us to you.

Thank you for all you are doing right now.

See you Wednesday.”

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.

What to do with the “bad” team/group member?, part II

This past weekend, I joined over 50 other researchers and practitioners at a conference held at the Harvard Business School in J. Richard Hackman‘s honor. To celebrate several decades’ worth of research on group and teamwork, we divided into groups to collectively discuss and identify directions for future research in particular areas. We then presented our findings or recommendations to the larger group.

Here’s a sample of our preparations for our topic on “Performing in real time: What is special (or especially interesting) about artistic performances and athletic competitions, with special attention to the dynamics of real-time improvisation”:

Groupfest, 6/10/11

Our claim: we can benefit from understanding a major variation among artistic and athletic groups: level of practice – some might say preparation – leading up to performance – such as a game or concert. Some groups don’t practice together at all, like improvised jazz or pick up basketball; others practice in moderation, like community orchestras or athletic groups; a few practice intensively, like professional athletic teams and orchestras. This variation in level of practice can help us also understand other groups that practice/prepare for conventional or unusual situations, such as disaster preparedness.

To illustrate our points, we co-presented the material while accompanied by improvised jazz by Daniel Wilson on the drums and Colin Fisher on the trumpet.

Another group discussed the topic “dealing in real time with “bad actors,” team members who are slowing team progress or undermining the team. Here’s their definition of a bad actor:
Groupfest, 6/11/11

They used two clips from the tv show The Office to illustrate their points. They then showed a 2 by 2 typology based on an actor’s position in the authority (low vs. high) and amount of power (too little vs. too much) to identify 4 categories of bad behaviors.

Interestingly, unlike the sessions at the 5th annual Burning Man Regional Leadership Summit, the presentation was too short to offer tools for how to deal with actors who engage in these behaviors. I spoke with one of the group members afterwards, and she reported that although some of the group advocated moving the bad actor around to other groups in the hopes of a “better” fit, others worried that this would contaminate other groups with bad behavior. This suggestion of moving a person around to different groups sounds a little like what Burning Man organizers call “repurposing.” However, in the Burning Man organization, repurposing may be more about making sure that volunteers’ interests fit the task/group. For more on this, see chapter 4 “Radical inclusion”: Attracting and Placing Members of my book Enabling Creative Chaos.